Non-Conference Preview - Part 2

This is the second in a five part preseason tour of the non-conference opponents. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the non-conference schedule with a look at the regrouping Michigan State Spartans. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


Former Michigan State Head Coach Bobby Williams saw his team implode last season.  Picked to finish third in the always-tough Big 10, the Spartans stumbled badly in September and never recovered.  Heretofore awful California, under new Head Coach Jeff Tedford, blitzed Michigan State in East Lansing.  Notre Dame, under new Head Coach Tyrone Willingham, broke a five-game losing streak to the Spartans with a 60-yard TD pass in the last minute.  Following a win over Northwestern, Michigan State lost four in a row.  During the streak, starting QB Jeff Smoker was suspended for substance abuse.  Michigan closed the streak with a 49-3 pasting of the Spartans in Ann Arbor.  After the Michigan game, Williams reportedly admitted that he was unsure whether he had control of this team.  A few days later, Athletic Director Ron Mason fired Williams.  Michigan State staggered to a 4-8 (2-6 Big 10) record.  In mid-December, Michigan State hired former Louisville Head Coach John L. Smith to take the reigns of a Spartan football program in disarray. 

Smith has paid his dues the old fashioned way.  Michigan State is the fourth program he has led.  Smith has a proven track record, having won two conference championships at each of his three prior stops – Conference USA (Louisville in 2000 and 2001), Big West (Utah State in 1996 and 1997), and Big Sky (Idaho in 1989 and 1992).  Smith has now reached the big leagues.  And he has inherited a mess.  Former Head Coach Lou Saban had restored the program after the desultory final seasons under former Head Coach George Perles.  However, Saban left for greener pastures at Louisiana State.  Williams, Saban's defensive coordinator, successfully auditioned for the job head coaching with a 37-34 Florida Citrus Bowl win over Florida.  While Williams reported had a good rapport with his players, his teams notoriously underachieved.  The Spartans were only 7-17 under Williams in the Big 10.  The Spartans are a young team made younger still by Williams reluctance to redshirt his freshman.  Nine of 14 seniors on the depth chart are fifth year players, the remnants of the Saban era.  Only 7 of 18 sophomores on the depth chart were redshirted and many of those were medical redshirts.  Williams drove a healthy program into the ground in three seasons.  Now, Smith must pick up the pieces of a young, fragile team.  New systems on both sides of the football will complicate the process.  Smith returns 14 players – plus two kickers – from an underachieving team.  Here's a look at the regrouping Spartans of Michigan State. 


Michigan State returns 6 starters from a balanced but mediocre offense.  Last season, the Spartans featured a multiple offense that deployed the pro set, 3WR, and 2TE formations.    Smith is an advocate of the spread offense.  The Spartans will use three and four WRs to stretch the defense and attack both vertically as well as horizontally.  Michigan State will use the passing game to set up the running game.  The schemes and plays may look very similar to those run at Rutgers under former Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit. However, Smith will have better athletes at his disposal than Cubit had at his, especially on the OLine.  Michigan State's 2002 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 26 points per game (#68 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 371 yards per game (#65 in Division 1A)
  • 142 rushing yards per game (#66 in Division 1A)
  • 229 passing yards per game (#51 in Division 1A)

Smith is fortunate to inherit two experienced players at the most important position in the spread offense – QB.  Three-year starter Sr QB Jeff Smoker (114 of 203 for 1,593 yards, 13 TDs, and 10 INTs) rejoined the Spartan team in spring camp after he was suspended in mid-season for substance abuse.  Smoker likely will start and will provide the experienced leadership so essential to the spread offense.  RS Jr QB Damon Dowdell (92 of 165 for 1,097 yards, 10 TDs, and 4 INTs) will return to a backup role after starting the final five games in Smoker's absence last season.  Smoker must reduce his INTs if he is going to effectively run Smith's offense.  If Smoker struggles, Smith won't hesitate to replace Smoker with Dowdell or RS Fr Drew Stanton. 

Michigan State lost two starters off an otherwise very young OLine – three-year starter C Brian Ottney, whose injured knees forced him to relinquish football, and two-year starter LT Ulish Booker.  Two-year starter RS Sr RT Steve Stewart, RS Sr LG Joe Tate, and RS Sr RG Paul Harker form the nucleus of the Spartan OLine.  Former backups LT RS So Stefon Wheeler and RS So C Chris Cook will replace Booker and Ottney, respectively.  Former two-year starter RS Jr RG Willaim Whitticker (whom Harker displaced last year), RS Jr RT Sean Poole, and RS Sr LG Joe Brooks are experienced backups.  RS So LT Gordon Niebylski and RS Fr C Kyle Cook complete the second unit.  The Spartan OLine is experienced but the effect of that veteran constitution will possibly be compromised with the installation of a new offensive system that may include new blocking schemes. 

The Spartan backfield will have a substantially different appearance this season.  First, the FB position will be effectively scrapped in the spread offense.  Former starting FB Mark Goebel has been moved to LB.  Smith is more likely to employ a second TE rather than a FB in obvious running situations (e.g., short yardage or clock management).  Second, both starting TB Dawan Moss (125 carries for 592 yards and 4 TDs) and backup TB David Richard (133 carries for 654 yards and 5 TDs plus 14 receptions for 88 yards) departed.  RS Jr RB Tyrell Dortch, converted to CB in 2001 where he suffered a compound leg fracture that cost him the 2002 season as a medical redshirt, is the leading candidate for the starting job.  So RB Jaren Hayes (61 carries for 340 yards and 4 TDs), the third TB last year, will compete with Dortch for the starting job.  Although the TBs have been downsized from last season, Smith would prefer bigger backs who can better protect the QB against blitzes.  Fr RB Jehuu Caulcrick could get an opportunity because he has the size that other Spartan RBs lack. 

Michigan State suffered a debilitating loss to its receiving corps as Smith increased the emphasis of the passing game.  Biletnikoff Award winner, First Team All-Big 10, and two year starter Charles Rogers (68 receptions for 1,351 yards and 13 TDs) declared early for the NFL draft and was the #2 selection.  Starting WR BJ Lovett (33 for 383 yards and 4 TDs) also departed.  Former backup WR RS Sr Ziehl Kavanaght (11 receptions for 123 yards) and So WR Agim Shabaj (6 receptions for 45 yards) are the only experienced WRs.  So Kyle Brown will likely emerge as the 3WR.   The backups' inexperience will nicely complement their green uniforms.  So WR Matt Trannon – academically ineligible last season, So WR Aaron Alexander, and Fr WR Jamar Jones will jockey for position on a depth chart in which no job is secure.  The silver lining is at TE, where backup TE Jr Eric Knott (35 receptions for 349 yards and 4 TDs) will likely displace incumbent starter Jr TE Jason Russell (20 receptions for 255 yards and 3 TDs)  The lack of proven depth at WR, barring the emergence of several young WRs likely will dictate a gradual transition to the spread offense.  Smith likely will rely less heavily upon 3WR formations (and rarely upon 4WR sets) and more heavily upon 2TE schemes. 


Michigan State returns 8 starters from a very young defense that was surprisingly among the worst in Division IA.  The Spartans are still young, with only three seniors expected to start.  Smith will employ an aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme that will gamble to create turnovers.  Smith abhors the "bend but don't break" school of defense.  With a high-powered offense, the defense can afford to take risks. Expect to see a heavy dose of 8-man fronts as the Spartans force the opponent to throw.  Michigan State's 2002 defensive statistics are summarized below.  These stats should be put in perspective.  A bad Big 10 defense is very different from a bad MAC defense when one considers the caliber of opponents registering those statistics.

  • 33 points per game (#96 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 403 yards per game (#83 in Division 1A)
  • 214 rushing yards per game (110 in Division 1A)
  • 189 passing yards per game (#30 in Division 1A)

Michigan State returns its starting LBs and added some reinforcements, too.  Two-year starter and second leading tackler Jr MLB Ronald Stanley (99 tackles, 9 TFLs, and 2 sacks) was moved from WLB.  Former backup MLB RS So Seth Mitchell (29 tackles) will replace Stanley at MLB (and ILB).  Two-year starter RS Sr SLB Mike Labinjo (62 tackles and 5 TFLs), who played at MLB last year, will return to his original starting position.  Former starting SLB RS Sr Monquiz Wedlow (90 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 3 sacks) will replace Labinjo at SOLB when Michigan State deploys a 4-4 defensive scheme.  Backup LB Michael Bazemore (9 tackles and 2 TFLs) was moved to DE and backup SLB James Cooper departed prematurely.  Converted FBs Sr MLB Mark Goebel and RS Fr WILB David Herron will backup Stanley and Mitchell.  So WOLB Carlos Alexander and RS FR SOLB Steve Kielp complete a very inexperienced second unit.  The LBs will be the core of the defense but the depth is suspect. 

Michigan State returns nearly intact is two-deep at DLine but the lineup has been juggled. Jr DT Matthias Askew (46 tackles and 6 TFLs) displaced two-year starter RS Sr DT Kyle Rasmussen (49 tackles).  Jr DT Brandon McKinney (26 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks) took the starting job from Jr DT Kevin Vickerson (42 tackles and 6 TFLs).  RS Jr DT Greg Yeaster (13 tackles) also beat Vickerson for the backup job behind McKinney.  Sr DE Greg Taplin (38 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 2 sacks) and RS Jr DE Clifford Dukes (39 tackles, 8. 5 TFLs, and 4 sacks) retained their starting jobs.  Backup DE Darrell Hamilton  (13 tackles) also departed prematurely.  RS Fr DE Clifton Ryan and converted WLB RS So Michael Bazemore will likely be the backups. 

Michigan State suffered heavy losses in its secondary – three-year starter and leading tackler SS Thomas Wright (126 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 4 INTs), two-year starter CB Broderick Nelson (51 tackles), two-year starter CB DeMarco Suggs (55 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 FF, and 2 FR), backup CB Cedric Henry (30 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 INTs, and 2 sacks), and FS Robert Flagg (8 tackles).  RS Jr FS Jason Harmon (64 tackles and 3 INTs) will lead the rebuilt secondary.  Former backup SS RS So Eric Smith (38 tackles) will replace Wright.  Former backups So CB Ashton Watson (20 tackles) and RS Jr CB Roderick Maples (14 tackles) will replace Nelson and Suggs.  Sr CB Jeremiah McLaurin (15 tackles) will be the nickel back while JUCO transfer Jr CB DeAndre Cob b and So CB Darren Barnett vie for the other backup slot.  Michigan State will be inexperienced on the corners.  And they will also use the SS in an 8-man defensive front.  That will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the FS.


Michigan State returns all of its specialists from the best unit on the team.  Two-year starter Jr PK Dave Rayner (10 of 16 FGAs and 34 of 35 XPAs) and Sr P Jason Daily (40 yards per punt) will again handle the kicking chores.  RS Sr PR Ziehl Kavanaght (9 yards per return and one TD) and So KOR Jaren Hayes (19 yards per return) likely will resume those duties again.  Smith is a special teams advocate.  His 2002 Louisville Cardinals special teams scored 6 TDs (4 PR and 2 KOR) and blocked 11 kicks (9 punts). 


Michigan State has a full 12 game schedule with 7 home games.  The Spartans have only one bye week – in late October after playing for eight consecutive weeks – and the season ends early.  Michigan State will play 8 conference games in the Big 10.  The Spartans drew a tough hand for Big 10 games – playing the predicted top three (Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) but missing fellow bottom feeder Northwestern.  Michigan State plays the top three consecutively but at least gets two (Ohio State and Wisconsin) on the road, leaving more beatable opponents to visit East Lansing – rebuilding Iowa, tempered Penn State, and hapless Indiana.  Illinois and Minnesota pose formidable road trips.  The Big 10 media have picked Michigan State to finish ninth or tenth in the conference.  Notre Dame will be the Spartan's most formidable non-conference opponent.  Western Michigan, Rutgers, and Louisiana Tech present respectable opponents whom Michigan State will have to work to beat. 


August 30

Western Michigan

September 6


September 13

Louisiana Tech

September 20

@ Notre Dame

September 27


October 4


October 11

@ Illinois

October 18

@ Minnesota

November 1


November 8

@ Ohio State

November 15

@ Wisconsin

November 22

Penn State




I predict the Spartans will finish 4-8 (1-7).  Michigan State will sweep its early non-conference home schedule.  But Notre Dame will exploit the Spartan's inexperience with their new offensive and defensive systems for a comfortable victory.  Iowa, though depleted after a fantastic season, still has too much firepower and too much experience for Michigan State.  Doormat Indiana will be the Spartans' only conference win.   Michigan State isn't ready yet to win tough road games.  Losses at Illinois and at Minnesota will trigger a season-ending six game losing streak.  The top three in the Big 10 – Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin – are next.  These are hopeless.  Penn State won 61-7 last year.  That gap won't be closed in one year.  Smith has a long road ahead of him.  His young team lacks depth.  Depth that will require a few years to replenish. 

Coming Next:  Keys to the Michigan State Game.  I'll review the five keys to a huge road win in East Lansing.  I'll also identify five key players whose contributions will be essential to a win. 

Please send any comments to  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.

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