Opponent Preview: Michigan State Spartans

QB Andrew Maxwell

Ohio State has its first road test and begins Big Ten play this weekend at a ranked Michigan State team coming off consecutive outstanding seasons. BSB takes a look at the Spartans in this preview with notes, quotes, team facts and a scouting report.

No. 20 Michigan State (3-1)
Saturday, Sept. 29
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Spartan Stadium; East Lansing, Mich.

The Spartans
Head coach: Mark Dantonio, 47-23, sixth year (65-40 overall in nine seasons)
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten Legends Division, first place)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 27-13
School location: East Lansing, Mich.
Enrollment: 47,800
Colors: Green and White
Stadium: Spartan Field
Fight song: "Falcone Fight"
Game Notes, including depth chart on page 18

Just as he did a year ago, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has shut down all communication out of his team this week, choosing to serve as the only mouthpiece for his squad leading up to the Ohio State/MSU clash on Saturday afternoon.

"I felt like we needed to do that because we needed to come closer together as a football team," Dantonio said. "Has nothing to do with the press as much as it does with how we handle ourselves, our team, what we need to be dealing with and thinking about.

"I sometimes think that media talk and pressure sort of gets them thinking in different directions. I wanted to close our group and concentrate on us, much like we did last year (during the Ohio State week), concentrate on who we are, what we have to do to get done and close our ranks."

It's been a tough week for Michigan State's dealings with the media, in fact. Dantonio gave a postgame press conference of brusque answers after his team's underwhelming 23-7 win Saturday vs. Eastern Michigan that lasted only a few minutes before he left the stage.

Dantonio was upset both by his team's play and some occasional boo birds in Spartan Stadium.

"I think everybody got the gist of how I was feeling on Saturday evening," he said. "But I just really felt like the three staples, the three things that we really need to emphasize in our program – the toughness, effort, the knowledge of what to do – was inconsistent. It's frustrating. I think it's very important that we play with great confidence in whatever we do. I felt like that was lacking a little bit. We need to get back to be able to do that.

"Can't allow the crowd to take us out of who we are. Can't allow the crowd to affect you one way or the other, whether you're playing in an away stadium or in a stadium and you get a couple boos out there. That's going to happen in college football. That's all over America. But we cannot let that bother us. We have to be able to play through that and continue to remain confident. We have to do what we do and do our job. That's the main focus I think on our football team."

Dantonio does seem a little refreshed this week, though, heading into the game with Ohio State. Not only is he looking forward to facing the Buckeyes, he knows he has a team of star Ohioans – a group that includes stars Le'Veon Bell, Johnny Adams and Denicos Allen – that is looking forward to trying to make it two wins in a row vs. the Buckeyes. Dantonio is also excited to face the rivals without close friend Jim Tressel on the other side.

"The OSU game, a big opportunity again," said Dantonio, a native of Zanesville. "Big game. Another great environment here, great event. It will really be a great atmosphere. I guess I would say I can hardly contain myself."

In A Nutshell
Coming off a pair of 11-win seasons and Capital One Bowl appearances, Michigan State has become a regional power under Dantonio, but success in league play could be hard to find this year thanks to a sputtering offense.

Michigan State not only lost three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, it saw receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol graduate, and the flagging passing game – which doesn't have much of a downfield component at all – has limited the team through the nonconference slate.

The Spartans haven't had to worry at running back, though, as Bell is first in the Big Ten and third in the nation with 152.5 yards per game. The bruising 6-2, 244-pound junior, who rumbled for a career-high 253 yards vs. Eastern Michigan and has topped 200 yards twice already this year, prepped at Groveport (Ohio) Madison and has 117 rushes for 610 yards and five touchdowns through four games. Bell is also an adept pass catcher, one reason he's able to stay in the game despite the presence of backups Larry Caper and Nick Hill.

First-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell still has the support of the staff, but he has struggled. The junior is 12th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency so far, as he's completed 81 of 143 passes (56.6 percent) for 869 yards, three touchdowns and three picks, including one returned for a touchdown. His backup is redshirt freshman Connor Cook of Hinckley, Ohio.

Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said the wideouts practiced well before struggling vs. EMU, and he admitted the team is searching there. The team's top target is massive tight end Dion Sims, who has a team-high 22 catches and 277 yards and also had six grabs for 100-plus vs. EMU. Sophomore Keith Mumphery leads the wideouts with 15 catches, while Bennie Fowler has 14 and a touchdown. Tony Lippett has 10 more grabs, while MacGarrett Kings and DeAnthony Arnett provide depth.

The offensive line has been average on the year, and it is missing senior right tackle Fou Fonoti, who has a foot injury. Sunbury, Ohio, native Skyler Burkland starts in his spot next to standout guard Chris McDonald, while center Travis Jackson hails from Columbus. Left tackle Dan France has worked himself into a capable second-year starter, but the left guard spot is unsettled.

Michigan State's defense leads the league in every major category including rushing defense (69.3 yards allowed), passing efficiency defense (89.68 rating), total defense (233.5 yards) and scoring defense (11.8 points). Michigan State has allowed only three offensive touchdowns on the year, as two of the five TDs given up by the team came on interception returns.

Things start on the line, where the Spartans have some excellent ends in William Gholston and Marcus Rush. Gholston, a preseason All-American and the cousin of OSU single-season sacks record holder Vernon, has 14 tackles this year after making 70 with 16 tackles for loss last year. Rush hails from Cincinnati and has 12 tackles (three TFL) on the year. In the middle, MSU uses Anthony Rashad White, James Kittridge and Shilique Calhoun, all of whom can get in the backfield.

The linebackers are likely the best in the Big Ten, and the unit is led by all-league players Max Bullough and Allen. A third-generation Spartan, Bullough is a national awards contender with 26 tackles so far, while Allen – a Hamilton, Ohio, native who is coming off an 11-sack season – has 17 stops and a sack. Chris Norman plays the "star" position and has 27 career starts to go with 19 tackles.

The secondary is led by a pair of excellent corners in Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Adams, an Akron native, has nine career interceptions in 31 starts while Dennard already has 20 tackles and three pass breakups. Safety Isaiah Lewis made second-team All-Big Ten last year and has 22 tackles and a pick, while Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond are splitting time at the other spot.

Kicker Dan Conroy has struggled so far but has a career long of 50 and has as much ability as anyone in the league, while Mike Sadler is a dependable punter. The return teams have struggled both bringing the ball back and in coverage. Hill was one of the best return men in the league last year but has struggled with turnovers, giving Bell a chance to return punts.

Possible Ohio State edges: Ohio State has Miller, who is as capable as anyone in the nation at springing big plays in opponents, and could be able to run the ball with the return of Carlos Hyde form injury. The defense should be able to limit big plays.
Possible Michigan State edges: Given Ohio State's struggles finding a middle linebacker, Bell might be able to have a big day. The Buckeyes might struggle consistently moving the ball as well against MSU's dominating defense.

Results/Notes
Sept 1: vs. (24) Boise State, W 17-13. The Michigan State offense struggled but Bell punched in a score on a late drive to give the team the win.
Sept. 8: at Central Michigan, W 41-7. Maxwell threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns and the MSU defense held a second straight team without an offensive touchdown.
Sept. 15 vs. (20) Notre Dame, L 20-3. The Spartans offense sputtered, with MSU running only two plays in ND territory in the second half.
Sept. 22 vs. Eastern Michigan, W 23-7. Bell ran for a career-high 253 yards as the Spartans scored all 20 second-half points.

Five Questions
Each week, we'll endeavor to ask five questions of an opposing team expert to try to bring some unique insight into that squad. This week, Dave Berk of our own Spartan Digest joins us.

1. Andrew Maxwell struggled his first few starts, but are there any signs he's starting to get comfortable as the starting quarterback?
Maxwell's struggles since the season opener have been more from the lack of his receivers showing the ability to catch the football. Last weekend receivers dropped at least several passes that could have been caught resulting in drives being killed. If he can start to get production from his receivers the offense has the makings to be a hard one to stop. If things don't change the Spartans are a one dimensional offensive with Le'Veon Bell.

2. What makes Le'Veon Bell so special? How has he reached a different level this season?
Bell is one of the few complete backs with his ability to run the ball while also playing a major role in the passing game as a receiver and blocker in blitz pickup. At 245-pounds Bell causes problems for defenders who are not solid tacklers and rarely does one guy take him down. Add in great vision and the willingness to allow his offensive line to open the smallest of holes and Bell becomes a force. This season Bell knows he's the man in the Spartans offense and has accepted the challenge of Mark Dantonio issued during the spring.

3. William Gholston and Anthony Rashad White didn't start vs. Eastern Michigan. How are they doing and how has the MSU defensive line played?
Both Gholston and White both played against the Eagles with MSU coaches saying Gholston missed practice time. White is being pushed by transfer James Kittredge (Vanderbilt) who sat out last season. Expect both players to be back for Ohio State. Overall the Spartans defensive front four have been led by Gholston and Marcus Rush but are still suffering growing pains with the loss of All-American Jerel Worthy who opted to leave early for the NFL.

4. Do the Spartans a defense suited to shutting down Braxton Miller and the Ohio State attack?
Michigan State has done extremely well against dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Last season the Spartans held Denard Robinson in check with 42 net rushing yards while sacking him four times. The Spartans defensive strength has been their speed on the outside to go with pressure in the middle. However, with only three sacks on the season, pressure from the middle has been missing.

5. Do you get a sense the large number of Ohioans on the MSU team enjoyed last year's win and are looking forward to playing Ohio State again?
At last count there were 26 Ohioans on the 2012 Michigan State roster with each of them having a chip on their shoulder for not being recruited by the home state school. Those who played against the Buckeyes last season walked away feeling vindicated by the team's success in the game. However, each knows this is another season and last year is a faded memory. Each of those who will take the field Saturday are looking forward to another chance to show friends, family and fans they could have played for OSU.

Five Fast Facts
1. Michigan State has won 20 of its last 21 games played in the state of Michigan, and it had won 15 straight home games before the loss to Notre Dame. The Spartans have sold 63,831 season tickets this year, a program record.

2. On the other hand, Ohio State has had recent success in Spartan Stadium. The Buckeyes have won their last three trips to East Lansing, including consecutive blowouts in 2006 (38-7) and '08 (48-7). The Buckeyes are 10-2 at MSU since 1975.

3. Over the last three seasons, Michigan State is 10-1 in games decided by 10 points or less, including 4-1 in 2011 and 1-0 this year. The only loss came in a 42-39 defeat against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

4. Fans traveling to East Lansing will be in for a treat as Michigan State has installed three brand-new video boards this season. The south end zone board measures 5,300 square feet, fifth largest in college football, while the north end zone boards are each more than 4,000 square feet.

5. Mike Tressel, the son of former OSU assistant coach Dick "Doc" Tressel and the nephew of Jim Tressel, is in his sixth year as the team's linebackers/special teams coach.

Last Time Out
The sky was as gray as the concrete in Ohio Stadium and Ohio State's offensive performance was just as drab as the Buckeyes dropped a 10-7 decision to No. 25 Michigan State in the 2011 Big Ten opener for both teams last Oct. 1.

Until a touchdown drive in the final two minutes of the game, OSU was working on one of its poorest offensive outputs in many years. Before the team's final two possessions, the Buckeyes had totaled a mere 83 yards that included minus-4 in the second half. Their final two possessions netted 33 and 62 yards, respectively, and they finished with 178 yards of offense.

Meanwhile, Ohio State avoided being shut out for the first time since a 28-0 loss to Michigan in the 1993 regular-season finale. The team hasn't been blanked at home since a 6-0 defeat to Wisconsin in 1982.

"There's not a lot to say," OSU head coach Luke Fickell told reporters after the game. "Give Michigan State credit. They came in here and outplayed us. It was a physical football game and we just didn't get it done.

"I know we've got some things to shore up on both sides of the ball. … There are a lot of things we have to do."

There was plenty of blame to go around. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller was victimized by poor protection throughout much of the game and was sacked four times before being relieved in the fourth quarter by fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman.

Miller finished with only 5 completions in 10 attempts for 56 yards and an interception. He rushed nine times for minus-27 yards.

After he came on at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Bauserman's first three series were disastrous – a trio of negative three-and-outs totaling minus-32 yards – but the senior began to move the team after freshman cornerback Bradley Roby grabbed an interception at the OSU 24 with 4:24 remaining in the game.

Bauserman completed 3 of 4 passes to move the Buckeyes to the Michigan State 43, but the drive stalled there. But OSU got the ball back for one final possession and Bauserman put together a seven-play, 62-yard drive with the capper a 33-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Evan Spencer with 0:10 showing on the fourth-quarter clock.

Bauserman finished 7 of 14 for 87 yards despite being sacked five times. The MSU defense totaled nine sacks for the game distributed among seven different players. "Again, give Michigan State credit," Fickell said. "Sometimes they were bringing more guys than we could block. … You don't give your quarterback much a chance when you get sacked nine times."

All of the sacks skewed the Ohio State rushing totals, giving the Buckeyes a game average of less than a yard per attempt. They wound up with only 35 yards on 39 carries, junior tailback Jordan Hall leading the way with 18 carries for 45 yards.

Redshirt freshman Verlon Reed was the top receiver for Ohio State with four catches for 43 yards. Tailback Carlos Hyde had three receptions for 14 yards to go along with five rushes for 33 yards.

Michigan State wasn't much more effective on offense although the Spartans finished with 321 total yards. Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 20 of 32 passes for 250 yards, but he pitched a pair of interceptions that prevented his team from ever taking a stranglehold on the lead. MSU managed only 71 yards rushing on 31 carries.

Senior receiver B.J. Cunningham was the star of the game for the Spartans, gathering in nine receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown.

The Spartans drew first blood early when Cunningham got loose from OSU cornerbacks Travis Howard and Roby in the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown pass from Cousins. That gave Michigan State a 7-0 advantage at the 7:44 mark of the first quarter.

It remained that way until junior kicker Dan Conroy drilled a 50-yard field goal for the Spartans with 10:35 remaining in the game to give his team a 10-0 lead before Ohio State earned a modicum of self-respect with the 33-yard hookup from Bauserman to Spencer in the final seconds.

That set up an onside kick try in the final seconds, and the Buckeyes appeared to have a shot at a recovery until Michigan State senior safety Trenton Robinson emerged from a pile of players cradling the football.

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