This is the fourth in a series of previews of Michigan State football. To read a breakdown of the Spartan offense, click here.
Georgia Tech over No. 9 Florida State. USC over No. 3 Utah. Arkansas over No. 9 LSU. These are a few of the numerous upsets that happened last year, and there will be many more to come this upcoming season.
Regardless of how much talent and experience any team has, it is inevitable that they will run into roadblocks throughout the season. Even the invincible Alabama will crash into occasional obstacles, like they did against Ole Miss the past couple seasons. These types of games separate good teams from great teams because they serve as helpful indicators on how resilient the favorites are. The biggest takeaway from these unexpected trap games is to never underestimate your opponent.
There were a few moments last season where complacency almost got the best of the Michigan State Spartans. They should have called their homecoming game the “Go Home” game because the student section poured out of Spartan Stadium, confident that Michigan State would triumph handily as they led 21-0 at halftime. MSU was outscored 21-3 in the 2nd half by Purdue, but held off the furious rally and escaped with a slim 24-21 win.
One week later, the Green and White were dead even at 24 against upset-minded Rutgers in New Jersey, but once again pulled away late with the victory thanks to LJ Scott’s game-winning touchdown run. MSU grew accustomed to living on the edge and prevailing in the closing minutes in stunning fashion.
In Week 10, the Spartans found themselves in an unfamiliar position as they led Nebraska 38-26 in the fourth quarter. From that point on, their super-conservative play calling backfired as the Cornhuskers’ deep passing attack torched the vulnerable MSU secondary and scored the game’s final 13 points, giving the Spartans their first taste of defeat.
Those weren’t the only trap games that MSU encountered last year. In an article one year ago, I predicted the Spartans to have tight contests with Western Michigan, Michigan, and Penn State. They beat all three opponents, but not without getting a major scare from the Wolverines. For Spartan Nation, it seemed like it was only yesterday when UM punter Blake O’Neill’s botched punt turned into a miraculous game-winning touchdown for Spartan safety Jalen Watts-Jackson as time expired.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the unexpected and underrated squads that could rise up and shock the Spartans.
9/24: Wisconsin–Spartan Stadium
It really is a shame that Michigan State and Wisconsin do not play every year. The longtime series is starting to develop into a respected rivalry because it has featured several dramatic finishes in recent memory. The past three meetings have been decided by no more than six points. The last time UW visited East Lansing in 2011 was not a pleasant memory for the Badgers. MSU’s prayer was answered as Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary, or “Rocket,” throw was caught by Keith Nichol to break the tie and propel them to a thrilling 37-31 win. Badger coach Bret Bielema and quarterback Russell Wilson sought revenge a couple months later as they captured the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, 42-39. But Spartan coach Mark Dantonio got the last laugh when Andrew Maxwell connected with Bennie Fowler for the game winning touchdown in 2012, snapping Wisconsin’s record-breaking 21-game winning streak at home, and giving the Spartans their first win in Camp Randall Stadium since 2001.
After a three year intermission, these two squads are ready to continue the intensity. The Badgers will come into Spartan Stadium with a top-notch defense that should keep them in the game. They yielded a nation’s best 13.1 points per game and finished second nationally in total defense in 2015. The playmakers that the Badgers have at linebacker are the main reason for their success. TJ Edwards led the club with 84 tackles as a freshman last year, but has recently been ruled out indefinitely due to a foot injury. Senior Vince Biegel is a household name in Big Ten country, racking up eight sacks. The most impressive pass rusher has to be junior Jack Cichy at inside linebacker. He dropped former USC quarterback Cody Kessler in three consecutive plays behind the line of scrimmage in UW’s 23-21 bowl win. The Badgers’ stingy defense may give MSU all they can handle.
There’s a reason why UW is referred to as “O-line U,” as they seem to assemble the best offensive lines year in and year out. The four returning massive offensive tackles will greatly boost the downhill rushing attack. Expect to see an offensive slugfest with a heavy run-oriented approach from both sides. Similar to the 2015 B1G Championship game, this match could very well be a battle of field goals where special teams may play the ultimate factor of the outcome. Wisconsin has not won in East Lansing since 2002. Will they be able to break the 14-year-long cold streak?
10/8: BYU–Spartan Stadium
Out of the three opponents, I think BYU has the best chance to pull off the upset. And it all starts with the Cougars’ high-powered offense.
They have one of the best quarterback tandems in the nation in fifth year senior Taysom Hill and true sophomore Tanner Mangum. Mangum is on the money with his deep ball game, as he executed unbelievable back-to-back game-winning Hail Mary’s against Nebraska (33-28) and No. 20 Boise State (35-24). Hill is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback that can hurt defenses with his arm and his legs. He does a terrific job of making something out of nothing as he uses his mobility to create plays on the fly.
The Cougars have a solid defense that returns eight veterans from a year ago. The leader is ball-hawking senior safety Kai Nacua. He tallied a team-high six interceptions, including a career-high three picks in their epic come-from-behind win over Boise State. Nacua. along with sidekicks Micah Hannemann (46 tackles) and Michael Davis (ten pass break ups), may give the Spartan passing game fits. Senior Sae Tautu anchors the defensive line which gathered 38 sacks as a collective unit.
If Michigan State was wise, they would watch Michigan’s film of the 31-0 drubbing of the Cougars from last year. Be on the lookout for a shootout type of game in the 30’s to 40’s. How will the Spartans-Cougars series debut live up to the hype?
11/26: Penn State–Beaver Stadium
Yes, I know, I’m aware this is the team that Michigan State creamed 55-16 last year. The score, however, did not accurately portray how dominant the Spartans actually were. MSU narrowly edged out PSU in total yards (436-418) and first downs (24-20). But what really blew this game open was the turnover situation. Penn State was -3 in turnover margin for the game, with the last two turnovers being very fortuitous for the Spartans. Keep in mind that the Nittany Lions were only trailing 20-10 at halftime. At the end of the day, the final score was somewhat deceiving.
Despite the beatown last season, Penn State has a better chance of upsetting MSU this season compared to last season. Not only does PSU host MSU, but they return a fully loaded and talented offense that returns a whopping nine starters. The Nittany Lions’ biggest strength by far is at wide receiver. Expert Phil Steele heavily regarded the receiving corps as the finest that the Big Ten has to offer. Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton are on quite the hot streaks, finishing 2015 in style. In the final two games, Godwin marked back-to-back 100+ receiving yards (242 yards and two touchdowns combined). Hamilton had a sensational season, as he wrapped up the season nicely with 13 catches for 149 yards in the two contests. The junior pair possess great elusiveness, impressive ability to break press coverage, and both are strong route runners.
The Nittany Lions have a rising star in sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. He is the face of a stable running game that topped 1,000 rushing yards. Barkley is very versatile, as he contributes in both the passing game (161 receiving yards last season) and ground game. The physical runner has amazing footwork and vision, displaying his skill set last year as he crossed the century mark against Michigan State.
The linebacker trio of Garrett Sickles, Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell strike me as excellent tacklers. They do a solid job of penetrating the opposing backfield and forcing takeaways. These guys will need to rise to the occasion and play big if they want to slow down the Spartans’ raw and potentially threatening offense.
Michigan State has won three straight matches dating back to 2010. After dropping the first eight games at Happy Valley, the Spartans have won back-to-back road trips, including the most recent meeting in a decisive 34-10 showing. Will Penn State be able to stop the bleeding by defending their turf after losing five of the last six home finales?