Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Iowa

Well, I never thought I'd feel so dissatisfied after an 8-1 start. Although I guess our sluggish starts were due to come back and get us at some point.

1.) Ferentz was playing like a dick at the end of the first half. I know, no one will play me in NCAA football for this very reason. But acting like a jerk aside, I do believe there was a legitimate method to the madness. We had outscored our opponents 23-0 and 28-10 in the second half of games in the last two weeks. Ferentz may have been up 30-0, but he was right to play it safe I think.

2.) You're down 17-0 at the end of the first quarter and this did not have the feel of the Northwestern game to me. Why play Chris L. Rucker at all? If you're not going to win or even come close, I don't see what that does for the team or your relationship with the media.

3.) Why in the hell was Antonio Jeremiah playing DT in the fourth quarter? For that matter why was anyone who won't be here next year playing in the fourth quarter? Or anyone necessary for the big ten title run?

4.) I want to slap anyone who is upset with Kirk Cousins for yesterday. He had a bad day in a tough place to play against a very good team. The guy singlehandedly won us the Northwestern game and was instrumental in winning the ND, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois game. Are we 8-1 with a lesser mortal at the helm, I think not.

5.) Not a whole lot of bright spots from yesterday outside of this: We lost the only game on our schedule that I thought was unwinnable in the preseason. The last 3 are quite winnable and two of them are practically gimme games. There's a great chance we're going to be sharing the Big Ten Title this year. There's a great chance we're going to be sharing the Big Ten Title this year. Coming into the year I thought we had a chance to be 3rd or 4th in the Big Ten, but we have a great chance to share the conference title.

Still, 37-6. Ouch. I'm glad we're getting the O-fers this week.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Devil's Advocate - Iowa

Ty: We got this.

Jim: I'd like to think so, but what's got you so sure?

Ty: It's obvious that at least the players were looking past Northwestern--what were they looking past them to? This game. This game is the season, now, and they know it.

Jim: I couldn't agree with you more that this game is the season. A scant four weeks ago I was preaching the gospel of how a Boise State team that hasn't lost since 2008 does deserve a shot at the national title game, now those poseurs are in our way to the national title game. Them, Iowa, PSU, Minnesota and Purdue. This was a season where my wildest dreams meant 10-2 and now that would be a bit disappointing.

However, we got this is a bit more simplistic than the truth. Our big ten season has been mired in sluggish first quarter starts. We've been outscored 13 -3 in the first quarter of big ten play. But more importantly the offense has looked anemic during the first quarter. I realize this is in part to set up the run, but if Iowa gets up 14 in the first half, I don't like our odds of a comeback in this one.

Ty: It’s true that the offense has struggled to get going in first quarters, but against Wisconsin and Michigan, I think that was more emblematic of the Spartans’ commitment to establishing the run, than of a failure to execute. Again, though, with Illinois and Northwestern, I don’t think we saw the Spartans’ best effort. Everyone on Michigan State’s bench and sideline is going to be bringing everything they’ve got to bear. Besides, the Transitive Property of College Football applies. We handily beat Wisconsin at home, Wisconsin beat Iowa at Iowa, we’ll beat Iowa at Iowa. We got this.

Jim: We also played some of our best football of the year against Wisconsin. I think we can win, but we’re basically a slightly better and more adolescent version of Iowa. We’re Iowa from last year, but Iowa is better than Michigan State was last year. We’re going to need to play four quarters tomorrow like we’ve been playing the last 2.5 quarters lately. The alternative is that Iowa comes out to establish the run and even if we start slow they’re only up 7-0 at the end of the first.

Iowa however has shown that we can throw on them. Could we come out tomorrow throwing to set up the run? It would be a game if any to do it.

Ty: Agreed. With the way the offensive line struggled to block in the second level against Northwestern, going out there and trying to out-Iowa Iowa is probably not the wisest idea. The Spartans have a much better chance to win a Cousins-Stanzi duel. Perhaps Dantonio should go with an early trick play from scrimmage? A Keyshawn Martin reverse pass to put them on their heels early?

Jim: Wouldn’t be a bad idea, but we don’t know if he’s playing or not. My guess is yes, but not a lot. I think we also have seen Nichol lineup at QB a few times in the last 4 weeks. If we’re looking to throw Iowa off balance look for Nichol to take significant snaps, although that seems unlikely. I think our best bet is to stick to what we’re good at.

Ty: On the other side of the ball, I think we should attack Stanzi early, to try and force a turnover. Everyone is expecting a run-and-stop-the-run slugfest, but I’d rather pass and rush the passer. I’d like to see Gholston deployed in unconventional fashion—again, if we surrender the run early, that’s something we can recover from. All told, if we come out attacking through the air and attacking the passer, I like us to win a shootout, 38-27.

Jim: I still like our odds, but this shouldn’t be a cakewalk, between Rucker, the sluggish 1st quarter starts and the pink locker room. I like more of a 38-35 MSU win, with apologies to 21-17 Iowa.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Curious Case of Chris L Rucker

After hearing the issue of Chris L Rucker discussed ad nauseum the past few days, I've decided I must speak my piece on this. I cannot deal with the knee-jerk any more. Mitch Albom penned a column that I won't link because I refuse to even modestly contribute to it's traffic.

Drunk Driving is not something to be taken lightly. Most people know someone who has been hurt or killed by a drunk driver. Drunk driving has evolved from something that was treated as a joke 25 years ago to something that is both treated very seriously and is a moneymaker for police departments in 2010. But corner someone over the age of 50 and ask them their favorite story about getting out of a ticket. I'll bet you one dollar they had something to drink that night. There's a hypocrisy here by all the people who have had a little too much to drink, driven anyway and didn't get caught and arrested.

Further complicating the issue is that this is not Chris L Rucker's first time in front of a judge this year. A specific condition of his probation was to stay away from the boozeahol and avoid negative contact with an officer of the law for the next two years. He failed. He's committed a mistake, served time in jail and has completed his punishment in the eyes of the law. He has not however, completed his punishment from the fanbase and depending on what happens Saturday, he might never finish that sentence.

The stakes for the decision to play Chris L Rucker Saturday could not be higher. Dantonio stated after the Rather Hall incident that there is a zero tolerance policy for the players involved. Dantonio probably did not realize that he would be going to Iowa 10 short months later to hurdle the last major opponent between him and an undefeated season and potentially a national title game. It's an easy thing to say when your players screwed up and there's no game next Saturday, and the game on Saturday is not the biggest of your career. This Saturday is the biggest game of Mark Dantonio's career.

Conversely, this is the first repeat offender since Glenn Winston. How he handles this situation matters. What Mark Dantonio cannot do is allow the perception that second offenses are okay. He would certainly have the moral high ground should he get up in front of a room of reporters and say: "Hear ye, hear ye. Chris L Rucker has committed a second offense and as a result will be bludgeoned to death by an angry pack of neglected five year old children." However, would Dantonio have helped Rucker, the program or himself? It's hard to say.

Dantonio to date, has not let Mr. Rucker play since he backed into another car at 7-11. Not in a game, not in practice. This week Mark Dantonio plays the biggest game of his career and it is my belief that he has elected not to inform the media of Rucker's suspension from this game to prevent Iowa from gaining an offensive advantage.

As a fan enjoying the best MSU season of my lifetime, I'd like to see us sit Rucker, go out and destroy Ricky Stanzi and make Adrian Clayborn sad in his heart. If Rucker plays and we win, I'll be a little sad that we can't win and have our integrity too. If Rucker plays and we lose, then well we lost both battles.

Should Rucker sit the rest of the season? I don't know and I honestly don't care. The damage will be done after this weekend. Either we've maintained our integrity or we haven't. Either we're still undefeated or we aren't. We won't need Rucker for Minnesota, Purdue or PSU, by the bowl game his backup Dennard should be good enough to avoid being a complete liability. If we drop any more of our regular season games after Iowa it's not because of Chris L Rucker, it's because JoePa is retiring or we didn't show up to a home game against Purdue or Minny.

I know this. I'll be watching at 3:30 on Saturday to see how Dantonio chooses to use his second chance.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Devil's Advocate: Northwestern

Ty: My wife spent her entire life never having seen the Spartans lose in person—until Northwestern took us out 37-17 in 2000. They’ve seemed to have our number ever since. Now we go to Chicagoland with a 7-0 record, and everyone rejoicing that State has finally overcome its Same Old Spartans trap-game mentality. This foretells certain doom—right?

Jim: Since MSU has compiled a 4-3 record against the Wildcats, and a 2-1 record in the Dantonio vs Fitzgerald era. Pat Fitzgerald is 1-3 vs the Spartans, which is only noteworthy because it includes the largest comeback in NCAA history in 2006.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Quick Thoughts On Illinois

Hello Readers,

I'm back at work after my wife had our second child, and with a new routine comes hopefully a bit more standardized time to do a write-up of the games.

For this week though it'll be quick thoughts.

1.) How has our secondary gone from being a weak spot on our team to a strong spot? We're currently 3rd in the NCAA in interceptions. Further, we put young Darqueeze out there and the drop off from Chris L Rucker to him is not as steep as expected.

2.) The improvement in play by Will Gholston has been fun to watch. I suspect that on opening day 2011 he will be our best pass rusher. He has all of the physical tools to dominate, just need to learn the playbook now. It's been a treat watching him come along.

3.) The Illini are currently 3-3. Their season ends with: Indy and Purdue at home, at Michigan, Minny at home, at Northwestern and at Fresno State. I think they could finish this season 5-1 and should finish this season 4-2.

4.) This team is legit. I didn't believe it until this weekend, but Illinois did exactly what I had been waiting for a team to do all year. They came in and shut down the run, then they started to run on us. The second half came around and we started playing some quick drops and getting lots of quick throws.

In short, they came in and took our lunch. Halftime came, there was some screaming, some yelling, some adjustments and we adapted our game plan to beat them a different way. I don't remember this being a characteristic of any MSU team as long as I've been watching them.

Enjoy the ride folks.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Armor of Expectations

The Day of Judgment arrived on Saturday—and in the white-hot fires of holy war, a new Spartan team was forged.

After taking care of business against the lesser foes, winning miraculously against Notre Dame, and handling Wisconsin, the Spartans were burdened with the heavy weight of expectations.  At 5-0, they had reached a tipping point: beat Michigan, and they would ascend to the ranks of the legitimately undefeated.  Beat Michigan, and they could start down the gilded, downhill slope that is the Spartans’ back half of the schedule.  Beat Michigan, and they would write Chapter Six of what might be the most epic tale of Spartan football ever told.

The armor of expectations is a telling test of strength: if the body is too weak to wear it, it’s a burden, an anchor that clunks and slows and drags.  Many times I have seen the team win early, be girded with the breastplate and gauntlets, and collapse.  But Saturday, the Spartans wore the expectations like the armor they are.  The Spartans were protected by the knowledge they were good enough to win, and strengthened by the confidence that knowledge gave them.  They did not panic when the opponent made early advances, but held firm and took over the game.  They did not stumble and trip like a teenager—they strode calmly and confidently, like men, into Michigan Stadium.  They walked out having defeated “The Victors.”

Let me be clear about this: Michigan is a very good team.  Their offense is legitimately potent; they definitely had chances to score more points than they did.  Further, their defense bottled up the Spartans’ running game for far longer than I thought they would.  Before the season, I thought Michigan was a seven-win team; today I expect them to win eight, or possibly nine games.  They are a very good football team, and it is a fine feather in MSU’s helmet to have beaten them in Ann Arbor.

Second: Denard Robinson is a very good player.  I don’t believe that he’s a great quarterback, nor that he is the most outstanding player in the nation.  But he is very good—and despite myself, I’m geniunely rooting for the kid.  He seems to be humble, classy, a great teammate—and he is undeniably very talented.  If what you, Dear Reader, are trying to take away from this game is that “Denard sucks,” or “Denard choked,” you’re wrong.  Against Michigan State, Denard was exactly what he is and has been: extremely fast, extraordinarily difficult to contain, lethal on a zone read, always a danger to break one long, an inconsistent decision-maker and an inaccurate downfield thrower.

Against Indiana, that gets you 10 of 16 for 277, 3 TDs, no INTs, and 217 yards rushing.  Against Michigan State, that gets you 17 of 29 for 215, 1 TD and 3 INTs, and 86 yards rushing.

The missed wide-open touchdown pass to Stonum is exactly what I’m talking about.  Forget Sammy Baugh’s legendary “swinging tire” he threw through for practice, Robinson had a stationary side-of-a-barn he needed to throw that ball through to score a significant early touchdown, and he couldn’t do it.  Another example?  In the third quarter, the Wolverines were down by two scores, and had 2nd-and-9 from the Spartan 13-yard-line.  Denard rolled to his right, no rush, and saw his outside receiver squat in a hole in the zone, just past the sticks.  With a ten-yard pitch-and-catch, the Wolverines convert, and possibly score.  Instead, Denard fires it into the turf, several feet shy of his target—he one-hopped a critical ten-yard pass.  The next attempt was intercepted in the end zone; instead of bringing it to within one score, the game slipped away.

This is what drives me crazy about Denard, Culpepper, Vick, Tebow, or any of the quarterbacks who’ve worked fans and media up into a blithering lather with athletic highlights.  In order to beat good defenses, quarterbacks have to consistently make good reads, good decisions, and good throws at great speed.  Denard Robinson isn’t currently capable of that—and the jury’s still out on whether he ever will be.

However, he won’t need to beat good defenses very often!  There simply aren’t many of them around—and the schedule is gerry-rigged so that he’ll face as few of them as possible.  Ergo, even if Denard’s never any more than what he is, the Wolverines will win eight or so games every year he’s under center.  That was why I decried the hype surrounding Denard—not because I thought he was a bad player, but that I thought he was a good one.  Denard deserves to be celebrated as a good player—not propped up as a great one, then denigrated when he falls short!  His frame can’t bear the weight of championship expectations just yet. 

No, that weight—and that armor—rests on Sparty’s broad shoulders now.  The battle-hardened, flame-forged Spartans march on to meet their destiny, knowing their mettle is a match for anyone’s.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Introduction to MSU Football

Hello everyone, my name is Jim and I am addicted to Spartan Sports.

It all started back in Fall of 1998 in my first semester at MSU. I had moved onto campus a few weeks earlier and was going through the slog of the freshmen required courses. I remember the day my addiction began, it was September 12th, 1998. We played the Fightin' Irish and it was the first weekend I was staying on campus.

Now the thing you should know about Bailey Hall in 1998 is that it was full of geeks. The hall had a science and engineering focus to it at the time, the collective knowledge of Star Wars Trivia far outweighed what existed in the fictional Star Wars Universe. I had hardly watched football at all prior to this, and so I turned on the game because I could hear the stadium off in the distance.

This was the day we beat Notre Dame, and we didn't just beat them, we crushed them. The halftime score was 42-3. But even more importantly yet, I started out watching the game in my room and gravitated down the hall to meet my fellow floormates for what eventually turned into a college career of good times with friends featuring oat sodas.

My enjoyment of MSU sports is tied deeply to many experiences that highlight my time in college and a few that are highlights in my life. In 1999, my friends and I camped outside of Spartan Stadium for the front few rows of the U of M game. In 2000, I was pulled over for 48 in a 25 and not issued a ticket because we had just won this game. In 2004, we pummeled Wisconsin in a game we had no business winning. In 2005, I propsed to my wife at the MSU-Hawaii rematch. In 2008, my two week old daughter was present for the stop against Shonn Greene and the Hawkeyes. In a week from tomorrow my second daughter will be present for what should be a snoozer against Illinois.

As Ty said, this is my first blog. Bear with me and I will try to make my contributions part of what you enjoy about Spartan Sports.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Unbearable Hypeness of Denard

Something I’ve always struggled with as a fan of football is when a player’s hype doesn’t match what I see to be his essential ability.  I’ve ranted over at The Lions in Winter about how Daunte Culpepper’s “MVP Caliber” reputation followed him around for years, even when that “MVP Candidate” season led a remarkably talented team to an 8-8 record.  I’ve ranted on The Fireside Chat that Michael Vick’s legendary elusiveness wouldn’t be needed if he could actually execute the offense well.  I’ve gotten in endless quarrels about Kurt Warner’s Hall of Fame viability; to me a player who spent half of his career on the bench (or belonging there) has no business in the Hall.  Believe you me, I’ve moaned and groaned on Twitter and elsewhere about Tim Tebow—the false quarterback prophet, whose role in the NFL will be primarily to sell jerseys.

Likewise, I still say that Barry Sanders never got his due—even as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, people are largely ignorant about just how remarkable he really is.  I am completely mystified by Brett Favre being lucky to crack most people’s top ten all-time quarterback lists—when his name is at the top of the heap in every statistical category—and legendarily, he played with more heart and grit and gusto than any of them.

All of this is bad enough, but with today’s twenty-four hour sports media cycle, and the prevalence of blogs, podcasts, forums, Twitter, etc., once a thought takes root (i.e., “Vick barely beating the Lions means he’s a lock for the Pro Bowl”) it’s repeated over and over and over and expounded upon and analyzed and broken down and debated and parroted and #TT’d and #FF’d and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.

Such it is with “Shoelace,” the Denard Robinson phenomenon.  It’s not that Denard is not talented; he unquestionably is.  He’s extremely fast, has good vision, and runs in very well in open field.  Unlike last season, he has excellent running lanes thanks to a mightily improved offensive line.  Also, he’s gotten much better at throwing the ball.  In fact, he’d have to have done so, if for no other reason than he couldn’t have gotten any worse: in 34 dropbacks last season, Denard was sacked three times, threw four interceptions, and completed 14 passes for only 188 yards.

Clearly, though, he’s taken a big step forward—and so have his teammates, and so have his coaches.  Denard’s statistical production has been simply incredible: he’s decimated several U of M single-game records, and Denard is on pace to demolish several NCAA FBS records, as well.  However, he’s done this against UConn, Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana—and wasn’t uniformly incredible, as many currently believe.  Even with Indiana’s doormat conference status, cracks in the Shoelace facade began to grow.  In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the Wolverines had to punt three consecutive times—thanks to a Denard run that came up short, and two poorly-thrown incompletions.

Yes, the drive after that was the game-winning drive, and Denard scored the game winning touchdown.  But this was Indiana; it didn’t need to be nearly as close as it was—and if Denard were truly a Dilithium-based lifeform, he wouldn’t need four bites at Indiana’s apple to get the one touchdown he needed.  It’s exactly that kind of Culpepperian first-quarter awesome, fourth-quarter not-so-awesome that makes people who don’t look past the box score repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.

Part of the problem here is the bed that the NCAA, its conferences, and its member institutions have made—the one that we are forced to lie in.  The college rankings (and postseason) have always been awarded based on number of losses: Undefeated = “National Champion”, 1 loss = “Great Bowl”, 2 losses = “Good Bowl”, etc.  The pressure to reduce the number of losses has forced every team into a race for the scheduling bottom.  Teams schedule tomato cans they have absolutely no intention of losing to for three, and sometimes four, nonconference games out of four—and conferences have created unbalanced schedules, bye weeks, and division splits to make sure nobody even kind-of decent faces a strong test more than two or three times a year.

The upshot of this?  Nothing that happens in September really matters.  The whole first month of college football is completely immaterial.  Except for a preseason national title favorite losing to an FCS school (e.g., “The Horror”), there is no single loss that can’t be overcome, and likely no single win that will mean as much as people think it does (e.g., “Boise State beat VT, they are now the prohibitive favorite to win the BCS Championship, unless they lose to Oregon State”).  Let me underscore that: the college football season, as it currently exists, is designed to make sure everybody looks good, especially in September.  If your team doesn’t look great in September, your team is horrible—and even if your team does look great in September, that doesn’t mean it is not horrible.

In the intervening three games between Denard’s coming-out party against Notre Dame and tomorrow’s Big Chill, Michigan has done nothing other than beat teams they were nearly assured of beating—and Denard has done nothing other than continue to break long runs, be really fast and get people to repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.

Unfortunately, while this schedule has given Denard—and Michigan—a great platform for success and exposure, it’s also robbed them of the ability to really legitimately crow about it.  Until Denard looks amazing against multiple better-than-average BCS-conference teams, doubts will continue to be cast upon his achievements.  The NCAA’s schedule dilution ensures that everybody looks at least pretty good for most of the year, and it keeps fans keep buying tickets and coaches employed—but in the process, true greatness is obfuscated.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Introducing: A Beautiful Day For Football

My name is Ty.  I’ve been writing a Detroit Lions blog, “The Lions in Winter,” for the last two years.  Besides being a hopelessly devoted Lions fan, I’m also a third-generation Michigan State Spartan.  I’m a much more passionate follower of the NFL than I am of college football—but lately, Spartan thoughts have been creeping into the margins of my Lions writing, and I believe they deserve their own home.

To that end, I’m thrilled to introduce “A Beautiful Day For Football,” a Michigan State football blog that will serve as the home for all of my Spartan writing.  For regular TLiW readers, this won’t just mean flipping the color codes from Honolulu Blue to MSU Green.  For starters, I work as hard as I can to update TLiW daily, plus record a weekly Lions podcast, write guest articles on other Lions sites, constantly Tweet about the Lions, etc.  A Beautiful Day for Football will be much more tranquil; I will post only occasionally—every week or two, as the muse demands.  I’m hopeful that this relaxed pace will let me be more creative and more careful; each post should be something a little bit special.

From the beginning, I created The Lions in Winter to be my voice, solo.  One of its raisons d’ĂȘtre was to find out if I could do it; could I write well enough to compel people to read?  Could I maintain a steady posting pace?  Could I finally scratch the creative itch that I’d been fruitlessly rubbing up against forums and message boards for my entire online existence?  Could I channel all of that wasted football Internetting time into crafting something worthwhile, tangible, lasting—real?

As it turns out, the answers to those questions have been all been “yes,” to one degree or another.  But, I cannot build this new thing up from the ground as I crafted the first.  I have the tools, but not the raw material: no extra time to spare, no extra love to give—and frankly, not enough expertise.  I love my Spartans, but my knowledge of the college game is the tiniest fraction of what my NFL understanding is; even if I had the time and the passion to post daily it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time to read.

To that end, I’ve enlisted the help of Jim, my brother-in-law and Spartan brother-in-arms.  As TLiW was for me, it will be his first blog.  He is now as I was then: a battle-scarred veteran of message boards and forums, heavily decorated from fighting The Good Fight—eager for his own platform from which he can wage the greater war.  Only,  instead of Lions boards, he’s been in the heart of the Spartan forums—and instead of spilling Honolulu Blue blood on the battlefields of the Internet, when he is battered by the troll’s club he bleeds MSU Green.

Together, marching side by side, Jim and I hope to serve as the Spartan fan’s thoughtful voice of reason, providing spiritual shelter from the outside storm.  Whatever the outcome, we’ll be here cheering.  Whatever the weather, we’ll be out there cheering.  Whether we’re sweltering in August’s heat, drenched by September’s dark rain, feeling the whip of October’s crisp winds, or wearing the bleak white blanket of winter’s snow, at Spartan Stadium it’s always . . . a beautiful day for football.

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