On the eve of the biggest non-conference game in college football this season, we sought out SB Nation's Michigan State blog, The Only Colors, where Pete Rossman was kind enough to answer some questions for us. You can also view my answers to his questions at TOC.
ATQ: Michigan State was an historically good defense a season ago, but returns only five starters. Among the losses are the top two defensive tackles, four rotation linebackers, and All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard. MSU looked good against Jacksonville State, but can they overcome those losses to become close to what they were last year defensively?
TOC: I definitely believe they can get close to where they need to be. While MSU looked good against Jacksonville State, while the starters were in there were significant gaps in the secondary that a better quarterback could have exploited. Jacksonville State also tested Dennard's replacement, Darian Hicks, early and often. While Hicks did come away with an interception, he was also burned for a long gain as well.
As for the rotation linebackers and defensive tackles, I'm less worried about them. Most of the linebackers saw significant playing time last season, and while the defensive tackles are new, there are a couple standout talents such as true freshman Malik McDowell. Of course, I could easily be eating the words in this paragraph by 10 PM Eastern time Saturday.
ATQ: Of teams that did have some offensive success against MSU last year (really only Indiana and Nebraska), what did they do that caused the Spartans trouble? How do you think MSU matches up against Oregon's zone running attack?
TOC:The main thing Indiana did was get good field position: two of their touchdowns came off of Spartan turnovers on the MSU side of the field. On their two touchdown drives of 50+ yards, they had a 50+ yard play in each drive that allowed them to score quickly. Other than those two big plays or getting excellent field position, the Hoosiers had trouble sustaining drives.
In the Nebraska game, Cornhusker running back Ameer Abdullah pummeled MSU to the tune of 123 yards on 22 carries. Unlike Indiana, Nebraska had a couple of 10+ play drives for scores in the 4th quarter, and could've beat the Spartans if they didn't have five turnovers in that game. As for matching up against Oregon's zone running attack, I think/hope they'll be ready, despite the numerous new starters on the front seven. This Grantland piece is an excellent primer on MSU's defense. If the Ducks can confuse the reads the linebackers need to make, it could be a long day for the Green and White.
ATQ: Many people are comparing Michigan State's style to that of Stanford, and are declaring the game a bellwether for Oregon's game with the Cardinal. Stanford has beaten Oregon both of the last two years. Having seen them up close recently, what do you think of this comparison?
TOC: At first glance, there are significant similarities. The Spartans and the Cardinal were #2 and #3 respectively in rushing defense (yards/game) last season. Both teams had trouble with efficiency at QB last season. Both Stanford (Tyler Gaffney) and Michigan State (Jeremy Langford) had a defined #1 running back.
While they're statistically similar, the biggest difference comes in the defensive scheme the teams prefer. As I'm sure many of your readers know, Stanford runs a 3-4 defensive front. Michigan State almost never deviates from a 4-3 front; they even converted a cornerback to linebacker to help counter 3+ WR sets. I think the philosophies of both Michigan State and Stanford are similar. They just have different methods for achieving their goals.
ATQ: Last year, Michigan State relied heavily on its running game to grind out contests and run the clock. However, Connor Cook has continued to get better. Will this team air it out more than last year?
TOC: Yes, if only because at the start of last season MSU wasn't sure which of three quarterbacks to start because they all looked equally ineffective in early September. While a lot of Spartan fans fancy Michigan State as a grind-it-out team, the dirty little secret is that MSU will heavily ride whatever offensive attack is working. In 2012, this meant Le'Veon Bell averaging almost 30 carries a game. In a 31-13 loss to Notre Dame in 2011, MSU attempted 54 passes when it appeared the ground game wouldn't work.
So I fully expect Cook to air it out more this year to give the offense more balance. He made several terrific throws against Jacksonville State last week (12 of 13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns), and I wouldn't be surprised to see his good play continue against Oregon.
ATQ: Tell me about MSU's special teams. What unit is the Spartans' biggest weapon, and what special team is a potential vulnerability?
TOC: MSU's punter, Mike Sadler, is by far the Spartans' biggest weapon. Sadler gives MSU excellent field position on defense -- no punter in the FBS placed more punts inside the opponent's 20 than he did last season. Sadler can also execute fakes well, he has the necessary speed to get to the outside when the opponent overcommits.
As for potential vulnerability, if there is one, it's at punt returner. Macgarrett Kings, the Spartans' current punt returner, was injured in last week's game. Even though he should play on Saturday, it's debatable how healthy he is currently. If Kings doesn't see punt return duty, it'll fall to wide receiver Andre Sims Jr. Sims has held the punt return job before, but he has fumbled a couple returns in the past. That can't happen in this game --- the Ducks are way too good to give excellent field position.