Teams & Conferences

2015 College Football Preview: Michigan State Spartans

It’s been a phenomenal last few years for the Spartans.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

Michigan State is coming very, very close to superpower status – at least in the modern view – but it needs to take that one last step forward. It’s been close, but it’s not there yet.

With 11 wins or more in four of the last five seasons, at the very least, Mark Dantonio is putting together one of the most successful runs in schools history. And there’s room to do a little more.

The back-to-back 1965-1966 campaigns might have been the a great quick burst – going 19-1-1 – but it lost the 1966 Rose Bowl, tied Notre Dame at the end of ’66, and beat a whole slew of awful teams.

The program was a powerhouse from 1950 to 1954, going 35-2 and with a Rose Bowl victory to cap off the ’53 season, but what’s going on now is larger and on a bigger scale. One more season like the last two, and yeah, this really will be the Golden Age of Spartan football.

Granted, MSU is helped by Michigan being down, and the Big Ten doesn’t have the depth like the SEC or even the Pac-12, but it’s coming through with its share of strong wins in key moments – this isn’t a cheap run.

The Spartans would’ve made a four-team College Football Playoff in 2013, and its two losses last year were to the two teams in the national championship – Oregon and Ohio State. They’re right there in the discussion to being national title good, but first they have to get through the Big Ten East.

Built to handle the more physical teams and with the talent to keep up with anyone, the Spartans are on a brilliant run of bowl wins beating Georgia, TCU, Stanford and Baylor, but it’s been their play in the Big Ten that’s taken the team to another level.

The flakiness is gone from past Spartan squads that always seemed to come out flat after a big game – mostly after playing Michigan – and the swagger is building considering it somehow got past a loaded Baylor team in last season’s Cotton Bowl and pulled out a thrilling Rose Bowl win the year before. The expectations for greatness are justified, but that means nothing else but a Big Ten championship will do.

Dantonio might just have the team that can do it for a second time in three years.

The return of Connor Cook gives the offense a franchise quarterback to make everyone better, but the receivers are ready to be terrific and there are plenty of good running backs to work behind another outstanding line. For a team known for its defense, the O should more than carry its weight after finishing 11th in the nation in yards and seventh in scoring.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi might be off to Pitt as the head man, but it’ll still be the Michigan State D after leading the nation against the run and eighth overall. The line is going to be phenomenal, the linebackers are prototype, and the secondary is shockingly loaded after losing a few excellent NFL prospects.

Dantonio has created a machine that’s breaking out of the shadow of Michigan’s other school, and it’s hanging around the VIP lounge.

But it’s not past the bouncer quite yet.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offensive coordinator combination of Jim Bollman and Dave Warner have a lot of fun pieces to play with. The balanced attack of last year should keep on doing a little of everything right, starting with QB Connor Cook who’s back even though he’d have likely been a first round draft pick this year. The receiving corps might have to undergo an overhaul, but it could be fantastic with DeAnthony Arnett rising up to go along with several decent veterans and safety-valve TE Josiah Price – Cook will make this group better. With Jack Allen at center and Jack Conklin at tackle, the line will be a positive again. The rotation at running back will make up for the loss of Jeremy Langford without a problem.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: Longtime star coordinator Pat Narduzzi is gone, but things aren’t going to change under Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. The line is phenomenal with budding superstar Malik McDowell inside and Shilique Calhoun back at one end. The linebackers are big, athletic, and more than look the part, while the secondary has reloaded anchored by Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson forming one of the Big Ten’s best safety tandems.

What to watch for on offense: How much can the running game really help out Connor Cook? Jeremy Langford never got any credit in a league with Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb and Tevin Coleman, but he helped lead a balanced attack for a ground game that averaged 235 yards per game. Langford and Nick Hill combined for over 2,100 yards and 31 touchdowns, but there are replacements. Michigan State has become a factory for running backs now, and it has a good rotation in 6-1, 220-pound redshirt freshman Madre London, 6-0, 218-pound sophomore Gerald Holmes, and the 6-1, 217-pound true freshman L.J. Scott to pound, pound, and pound some more. Behind a great line, this is going to be a very physical, very Big Ten running game. And, by the way, there’s an NFL quarterback under center.

What to watch for on defense: This might be the best MSU defensive line yet under Mark Dantonio. As tremendous as the defense has been since 2007, and considering all the college stars who cranked out big performances, it’s not like there’s been a slew of NFL-caliber performers up front. Jerel Worthy was an anchor at tackle, and William Gholston turned into a fourth-rounder, but the program has been defensive back-heavy, not heavy-heavy with the beef. It’s not a stretch to call the combination of Malik McDowell inside and Shilque Calhoun outside the best 1-2 D lineman punch Dantonio has ever had, and fifth-year seniors Joel Heath at tackle and Lawrence Thomas on the end are very big, very sturdy performers. So yes, it might be possible for the nation’s No. 1 run defense to be better.

The team will be far better if … the pass defense is always a brick wall. For all the no-fly zone stuff and all the big plays over the years, there were big problems when the secondary broke down. Marcus Mariota got hot and threw for 318 yards and three scores in Oregon’s win. J.T. Barrett rolled for 300 yards and three scores in Ohio State’s win. Bryce Petty went ballistic throwing for 603 yards and four scores as the Spartans needed a miracle to beat Baylor. Those were the only three games anyone threw for over 300 yards, and they were the only three when anyone averaged more than eight yards per try – all three averaged over 11. Over the last seven years, MSU is 1-9 when giving up over ten yards per attempt.

The schedule: Going down the road to Kalamazoo to open the season against Western Michigan will be an interesting start, and getting it on a Friday should help the team rest up a little bit more for the Oregon showdown.
– The run defense will be put to the test in back-to-back weeks, dealing with the Air Force attack a week after the Oregon game. Hosting Central Michigan will be a bit of a fight, too.
– While the Michigan game is on the road, starting out the season with Purdue, at Rutgers and – after playing Michigan – Indiana is nice and easy before getting a week off.
– Playing Purdue from the West is good. Having to play Nebraska in Lincoln is bad. In division play, having to face Ohio State on the road is worse.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Maryland. It’s a huge sandwich game with a trip to Nebraska before and the showdown at Ohio State after.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Connor Cook. He was a nice recruit, but he certainly wasn’t an elite of elite prospect. The Spartans recruit to a type when it comes to quarterback, and Cook fits the mold with 6-4, 220-pound size and a strong arm. However, he’s expected to be better than Kirk Cousins, Andrew Maxwell, Brian Hoyer, Drew Stanton, and the other recent Spartan bombers. He’s been through the wars putting up 300 yards or more in big game after big game, and now he has Three-Time Bowl Winning Quarterback on the resume. If he comes up with a special year, he could put First Round Draft Pick on there, too.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Shilique Calhoun. While the jury is out on whether or not he’s a top first round NFL prospect, at the very least he has the size and has the consistency as a dangerous producer who knows exactly what he’s doing to make big plays. While he has to get functionally stronger, he projects more as a top 50 pick than a top 15 guy, he has double-digit sack potential in his fourth year in the system. He’s active, experience, and very, very dangerous.

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt Freshman P Jake Hartbarger. The Spartans were spoiled by terrific punting over the last few seasons with Aaron Bates and then Mike Sadler bombing away for well over 40 yards per kick on a regular basis. However, the coverage team didn’t do enough to help last year allowing over ten yards per return. Hartbarger is a very big, strong kicker who hangs the ball up in the air for an hour, but he has to be consistent. More than anything else, he has to work well with others. You give this Spartan defense good field position, and there’s no worrying about giving up long drives.

The season will be a success if … the Spartans go to the playoff. With two BCS-level bowl wins over the last two seasons, they’re not going to settle for anything less than a trip into the show. Outside of a total brain-cramp there shouldn’t be too much of a problem getting to at least ten wins again – but that’s not enough. There’s too much talent and too many stars to not think big. Get into the show, and then with the way this team has performed in the post-season, you take your chances. But first, they have to beat …

Key game: Nov. 21 at Ohio State. With only some due respect to anything coming out of the West, for the third year in a row this will likely be for the Big Ten championship. Michigan will come at the Spartans with both barrels, going to Nebraska will be difficult, and the Oregon game is huge on a national scale, but the trip to Columbus is the really, really big one – for both teams.

2014 Fun Stats:
– First Quarter: Michigan State 166 – Opponents 42
– Time of Possession: Michigan State 35:21 – Opponents 24:39
– Sacks: Michigan State 42 for 308 yards – Opponents 11 for 53 yards

Players You Need To Know

1. QB Connor Cook, Sr.
It took a little while to grow into the starting gig, but he showed at the end of 2012 that he was going to make the offense his. No he has an all-timer of a resume with three bowl wins, a Rose Bowl victory, a Big Ten championship, and guiding the way to big win after big win. He could’ve gone pro early and likely would’ve been the third quarterback taken off the board, and now he’s pushing to possibly be one of the top picks next year if all goes well. At 6-4 and 220 pounds he has the NFL size to go along with the right arm strength and the gunslinger ability to keep on bombing no matter what. He can move a little, too – he’s not a stick in the mud pro-style passer.

While he threw eight picks, two of them came in the loss to Oregon and two more in the bowl win over Baylor – he was stingy with the mistakes the rest of the way. He can push the ball all over the field, but he has to step up his accuracy hitting just 58% of his throws last year for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns. However, with 300-yard days against Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor last season, and in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl win, he’s as big-time as it gets. This year, Michigan State is hoping he can making it two league titles in three years.

2. DE Shilique Calhoun, Sr.
Everything the team has needed and more as a top pass rusher in place of William Gholston, Calhoun has turned out to be better. From the start, the 6-5, 250-pound disruptive force showed he was ready to become special with monster play after monster play right away, saving a rocky offense. An All-America factor in the backfield in his first two seasons with 16 sacks, he continued producing at a high level with 39 tackles, eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss despite always being keyed on. He could’ve taken off early for the NFL in either of the last two seasons with the right combination of size, quickness off the snap, and closing ability, but he’s back to be the star of another good-looking defensive front. Extremely athletic, the former superstar recruit is showing why he was worth all of the hype.

3. C Jack Allen, Sr.
The line needed to undergo a bit of an overhaul, and it all came together fast with yet another strong season. Allen was the all-star rock, getting his third year starting on the line and serving as the anchor with 6-2, 295-pound size and the raw toughness to battle in the middle. Able to play guard or center, he turned out to be better in the middle where he has the Academic All-Big Ten smarts and the body type to handle himself against every sort of interior defender. Fine after a shoulder problem early in his career, this is his line to run.

4. LB Ed Davis, Sr.
A big, imposing 6-3, 233-pound hitter on the strongside, he waited his turn after serving as a good backup in the rotation, and he made the job his. The team’s fourth-leading tackler came up with 58 stops, but was at his best – at least early on – getting behind the line coming up with seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He looks and plays the part, and he’s going to be a tone-setter in a variety of ways. A coach’s type of player, he doesn’t make mistakes.

5. OT Jack Conklin, Jr.
At 6-6 and 317 pounds, the All-Big Ten performer has the size and the responsibility of keeping the NFL franchise quarterback upright. With a long frame that’s tough to get around, and just enough athleticism to hang with the quick pass rushers. The two-year starter is a try-hard type – he’s a former walk-on – with basketball player feet and the hardcore mentality to be a steady factor up front. He might not be the anchor, but for what he does, he’s one of the team’s most important players.

6. FS RJ Williamson, Sr.
The team’s third-leading tackler, Williamson can play either safety spot with the pop to come up with plenty of big plays. All over the field against Ohio State with 11 tackles, and against Baylor making ten stops – nine of them in the open field – he has great range and hitting ability with his 6-0, 214-pound size. More of a corner coming out of high school, he makes things happen when the ball is in the air taking interceptions back for scores against both Michigan and Maryland. No, he’s not Kurtis Drummond, but he’ll come up with the same sort of production.

7. NT Malik McDowell, Soph.
Yes, he really did play for the Spartans. His mother finally said it was okay after a Signing Day soap opera, and Michigan State got its main man and the superstar for the defensive front for the next few years. The 6-6, 285-pound interior presence was the top prospect in Michigan with the quickness to become a devastating interior pass rusher and the bulk to be an anchor against the run. Too good to keep off the field, he’s an ultra-quick nose tackle with the fight to hold up against the run, making just 15 tackles but coming up with 1.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Just scratching the surface, he’ll live up to all of the hype after getting a few more at-bats.

8. SS Montae Nicholson, Soph.
Ridiculously athletic – as in Big Ten long jumper athletic – he has the tools to go along with 6-2, 216-pound size to turn into Michigan State’s next great defensive back. Thrown out there as a true freshman, he got in a little bit of starting work and spent his time on special teams making 31 tackles with most of them coming on kicks. The sky is the limit considering he’s smooth enough to be worked in on offense this spring, he’s a dream of a strong safety who should put up massive numbers once he figures out what he’s doing.

9. TE Josiah Price, Jr.
The all-star in the passing game has the right 6-4, 250-pound size and good enough route-running skills to be a solid target for Connor Cook. He’s a big, strong veteran who knows how to get open for scores, coming up with just 26 catches on the year but with six for touchdowns highlighted by a five-catch, 72-yard, one score day against Ohio State. He turned into a reliable target in the red zone as a freshman, and he’s keeping it going – expect him to be more of a chain-mover this year.

10. LB Darien Harris, Sr.
A special teamer throughout the first part of his career, the 6-0, 220-pound Harris turned in a nice junior year coming up with 48 tackles with a pick six coming against Purdue. He might not be all that big, but he’s physical and quick. He’s a true outside linebacker working well on either side, but better for the Star position doing a little of everything. He could be more of a pass rusher if needed.