In preparation for Saturday’s tilt in East Lansing, Spartan-Football.com‘s Eric Pender allowed me to pick his brain on the Spartans, their quarterback situation, Mark Dantonio, and more. Here’s what Eric had to say in response to my questions (he also had a few questions for me, which are now posted over on his site):
1. So far, Dantonio has yet to choose a permanent quarterback. Do you think the rotation should continue, or would you rather see Cousins or Nichol get to play the whole game? What does each quarterback bring to the table, and do you think one is better than the other? (Sorry, I realize that’s about 20 questions in one)
I’m really not sure what to make of this quarterback situation to be quite honest. If you had told me before the season that we would be going into the Michigan game without a clear number one guy, I would have said you were crazy. I understand Coach Dantonio wants to give each guy an opportunity, but I think we’re in this quarterback purgatory right now, where we aren’t playing one guy enough to get a good rhythm going, but we aren’t playing the second guy enough to really get a great look at him. The quarterback in a lot of ways serves as the identity of a team, and right now we feel like a team without a clear identity.
Cousins is really the pocket passer, has a good touch on the ball and showed he can be very accurate in the Notre Dame game. On the other hand, Nichol has the ability to make plays with his legs when the pocket starts to collapse, a la Drew Stanton. Nichol may be the more athletically gifted of the two quarterbacks, but Cousins has a leadership quality that I haven’t seen from Nichol.
Personally, I think it’s pretty clear that Kirk Cousins has won the job. Yes, he did not have a sharp game against Wisconsin, but he’s still a first-year starter. He kept us in the game against both Central Michigan and Notre Dame, and has been the driving force behind the number one passing offense in the conference. Plus, he is a class act. When he threw the pick to essentially end the game against Notre Dame, he took full responsibility, said he looked at the play the next day on film a couple of times, then moved on to WIsconsin. He’s the emotional leader of this football team, and the value in that cannot be underestimated.
I’ll admit though, there’s a part of me that wants to see Nichol stride out onto the field to open the game on Saturday, if for no other reason than because no one will expect it. Why the hell not, we’re 1-3, what do we have to lose?
2. What would you say is the strongest aspect of the 2009 Spartans? The weakest?
The weakest aspect is no doubt the defensive secondary. Before the season started, there was a lot of talk about how deep MSU was in the secondary, but I’m pretty sure there’s something in the water in East Lansing that prevents Michigan State from ever having a decent defensive backfield. The defensive line also has not been what you would call stellar, which has only served to expose the corners and the safeties even more.
So far, the passing game has been the brightest light for the Spartans, averaging 320 yards per game. We have some depth at wide receiver that, when they don’t drop the ball (which they are prone to do), can be pretty explosive. We’ve got a really solid stable of tight ends including Brian Linthicum (a Clemson transfer) and Dion Sims (a true freshman who is an absolute beast at 6-5, 268 and can move), who can serve as an outlet when the pressure comes.
3. Michigan has looked very susceptible on defense to both the run and the pass. How do you think Michigan State will try to take advantage?
Probably by giving everyone who walks through the gates a laser pointer, then have the quarterback throw the ball up and the fans will shine the lasers in the eyes of the defense. No? Okay, fine then. We will likely come out by trying to establish the run, which frankly hasn’t been established since the Purdue game last season. I’d love to see us come out and go a little more pass-heavy, but it’s doubtful that a guy who was an assistant under Jim Tressel (have you heard of him? Nerdy looking guy, wears sweater vests…) would deviate from a run-first, pass-second approach.
4. On the flip side, do you think Michigan State will be able to stop (or at least slow down) a Wolverine offense that has averaged 37.5 points per game this season? How do you think the Spartans will try to defend Michigan’s zone-read attack?
No, no no no nooo no. Nope. Slow down? Ha. You’re a funny guy, Ace. Shoot out the lights will be the motto of this game. First team to a hundred wins.
Seriously though, if the front seven of MSU cannot get pressure on Forcier, it will turn into a game of who can score the most, the fastest. And in that kind of a battle, I’m not too bullish on our chances. If we can get any pressure at all, it’s going to create situations where Forcier will have to move and get knocked down, which creates concern with his shoulder and should help our secondary. The wrinkle though, like you mention, is the zone-read. We held our own against the rush with the Irish, and things pretty much fell apart against Wisconsin.
The spread, however, is a completely different beast. We saw a spread with Central Michigan, played with a bend but don’t break mentality on defense, and had a lot of difficulty with containment. The corners gave the receivers a lot of cushion, then when the receivers caught the ball, the defenders would fail to execute the tackles. Turns a game of pitch-and-catch into a game of pitch-and-get-a-first-down.
MSU is essentially going to have to assign a man to spy the quarterback most of the game. This is where I really see Forcier’s injury coming into play. I just don’t see the Michigan coaching staff wanting their starting quarterback to get hammered to the turf by Greg Jones (just a hunch). So that lessens the zone read a little bit with Forcier, but obviously we have to stop Denard as well. That’s not an easy task.
5. What is the general attitude of MSU fans at this point? The season certainly hasn’t gone as expected, but they now have the opportunity to upend an undefeated Michigan squad. Do fans expect the Spartans to win?
Since MSU has been on the road the past two weeks, I’ve been able to live update the games on our Facebook fan page, and I’ve seen the whole spectrum. A lot of frustration, obviously, a lot of disappointment. A handful of people are doing the whole “they’re not going to win another game” type stuff. And then there’s another contingent that has basically said this team still needs our support, and that if a program is going to achieve consistency, it needs consistent support from the fans.
Think about last season, MSU was two plays away from being 7-5 in the regular season when you consider the Iowa and Wisconsin games. But instead we were 9-3. Then the preseason comes around, and the old media types say we’re going to be 3rd in the Big Ten. We lost our starting quarterback who, although much maligned, still took us to a January bowl game (and is backing up your boy Tom Brady), and Javon Ringer, who made up 96% of our rushing offense, but we’re going to be 3rd in the Big Ten. This isn’t rocket science. But people love hype, and I’ll admit I bought into it as much as anyone.
There was a lot of media attention around the quarterback and running back positions, but you know where the real story was? It was in the offensive and defensive lines. Everything is built around those units (hello, Detroit Lions drafted how many wide receivers and were still horrible?!). It doesn’t matter how good your quarterback is if he doesn’t have time to go through his reads, and it doesn’t matter how good your running back is if the line can’t open holes.
Do MSU fans expect to win? Some will and some won’t. But it doesn’t matter, not one bit. Because if we’ve learned anything this season, it’s that expectations don’t mean a damn thing.
6. Are the fans still fully behind Dantonio at this point, or are there any rumblings of discontent?
By and large, the faithful are still behind Coach D. This program is on the right track, recruiting has been better than it’s been in many years, and Dantonio is going to be around for the long term. Sure, there are people out there who want him gone, but the crazies are always going to find an outlet to talk. Seems like the “Same Old Sparty” moniker has been getting used like it’s going out of style, but it’s interesting, because S.O.S. has to do with winning the first five games or so, and then finishing the season 2-5. This is a different animal, having the losses early in the year. So we’ll see what happens.
7. What is your prediction for the game?
What a game to have your first road test of the season. If Forcier was 100%, the MSU defense would have more problems than Jay-Z could count. But his shoulder is still going to be sore, and I think that’s going to keep him in the pocket. The coaching staff is going to want to go with this kid, but I think he’s going to be limited in how much he can do. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this prediction is predicated on Denard Robinson seeing more playing time than he’s seen in the first four games so far. I’ll go MSU 34, Michigan 28.
Many thanks to Eric for his contribution — I’ll even forgive him for picking the Spartans in this one. For more on Michigan State and the upcoming game, make sure to check out Spartan-Football.com.