What to make of the Spartans…
Michigan State starts six first- or second-year players on defense, and though they have run up some gaudy statistics, they are really unknown at this point. They have played two of the 10 worst offenses in the FBS, an overmatched FCS team and Notre Dame, who doesn’t exactly look like a juggernaut right now, either.
The Spartans are not afraid to challenge people with their 4-3 base defense that resembles Ohio State’s nickel (Not sure if this is a full-time move or something they used in response to their opponents’ personnel, but the depth chart lists two linebackers and a Star). They will let their corners match up on early downs and then try to get exotic in passing situations, when they (again like Ohio State) have a 30 front they will roll out. I am surprised at how much man coverage they showed in the games I watched. I was expecting more zone based on past incarnations of Mark Dantonio’s defense. Luke Fickell said today they expect to get some matchups on the outside.
The people there love Max Bullough, one of the new starters at linebacker and the team’s leading tackler. Denicos Allen has been the bigger playmaker so far with five tackles for loss.
Up front, tackle Jerel Worthy (a former high school teammate of Braxton Miller) is a real stud. He can get off blocks, pursues well and makes plays. He certainly gets the most attention with the rest of the line being somewhat untested. Many people are familiar with the name of William Gholston from recruiting, but the end on the opposite side, Marcus Rush, has been more noticeable in the games I have watched. Gholston still seems to be figuring out some stuff. He is very tall, so leverage is an issue for him. Rush is much smaller and kind of a Nathan Williams type.
The secondary was pretty bad for a couple of years at Michigan State, but it looks like it’s a strength this season. I have been impressed with both corners, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. They are physical and will get in guys’ faces. Both safeties – Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson – look solid as well.
Offensively, the skill players are established but the offensive line has really struggled. It was looked at as a potential weakness before the season and now is in worse shape thanks to multiple injuries.
Both guards, Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, stand out as good players but I haven’t been impressed with any of the tackles or center. They just don’t get a lot of push on the outside, nor do the tackles look particularly athletic. Dan France got abused at left tackle by Notre Dame and struggled early against Eastern Michigan and could find himself losing time to Micajah Reynolds.
The backfield is loaded with fast, tough runners. Le’Veon Bell is a load at 237 pounds and still manages to be shifty in the open field. He also runs with great balance. 210-pound Edwin Baker is more of the one-cut and go zone runner, and 223-pound Larry Caper is capable as well. I was not impressed with the fullback in the games I’ve seen, but there are a couple of options at tight end as well. Dion Sims is a great athlete who can be dangerous in the passing game, and Garrett Celek blocks well enough on the edge to help make up for some of the deficiencies at tackle.
The Spartans not only have a deep backfield but a diverse pro-style running game. They don’t mess around with any option stuff, so they have more time to implement some counters to go along with the usual zone and power runs we often see from Ohio State. That does make life a little easier for a weak offensive line, and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeye linebackers react to the different action in the backfield.
At receiver, B.J. Cunningham is a legit threat. He runs well but more than that is just a physical guy who really knows how to play the position. He’s good with body control, catches the ball with his hands and can set people up and get open in and out of his breaks. He got them started against CMU by skying for a deep post in front of two defenders. Keshawn Martin is a change-up as a little guy on the other side, and Keith Nicol is an interesting athletic third option.
It’s a good thing guys like Cunningham can go and get it because quarterback Kirk Cousins is somewhat surprisingly erratic. He has the ability to be a really good passer, but he still makes some real head-scratching decisions a couple of times a game. He has a good arm, though it’s not terribly strong. He can throw the deep ball and do the dink and dunk thing, but he throws into coverage too much.
I look at the offensive line and the quarterback as the keys. If Ohio State can dominate up front – and it should – life could be very difficult for the Spartans no matter what they want to do. If they can rattle Cousins, he will make mistakes. That’s how the Buckeyes can get a big win to start off a really challenging month in Big Ten play.