Monday, December 29

Stuck inside of O-Town with the Miami blues again: the Michigan State preview.

This! Is! SPARTYYYY!!!!

Hometown: East Lansing, Mich.

Last season: Not half bad, actually, considering they were coming off of four seasons of John L. Smith-induced suck; started with a 4-0 sweep of their out-of-conference opponents, then kind of hit a wall as they went 3-5 in Big Ten play, but ended up in the Champs Sports Bowl and came within a field goal of knocking off 10-3 Boston College.

The season thus far: After losing by a TD to California on the road in their season opener, reeled off six straight wins before getting blown off the field by Ohio State. Won another three straight, including their first victory in Ann Arbor since 1990, before getting whacked again in their regular-season finale at Penn State. Currently 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten), 19th in the Associated Press poll, 18th in the coaches', and 18th in the BCS.

Hate index, 1 being novelist Donna Tartt, 10 being Florida offensive lineman Jim Tartt: Erm . . . I'll say five? Honestly, I pay so little attention to the Big Ten on a day-to-day basis that it's hard to gin up a whole lot of hate for any of 'em. As a declared Michigan fan, I guess I should have nothing but contempt for Sparty, but they do appear to have gotten it together after a period of thorough dysfunction immediately following the Nick Saban era, so I guess I'm a little happy for 'em. But it's still imperative that we kick their asses.

Associated hottie: Model/actress Tracey McCall earned her bachelor's degree in communications from MSU and went on to appear on TV shows such as "Gilmore Girls" and "Dr. Vegas," as well as a pilot of a show called "Young MacGyver" (?). But it'd be hard to top her big-screen debut, which was in "Not Another Teen Movie" playing the part of "Locker Room Girl."

OK, a swimsuit's one thing, but a swimsuit and boots? That's seminudity we can believe in, my friends.

What excites me: Calling Michigan State's offense "one-dimensional" might be a bit much, but if the stats are any indication, they're one-and-a-half-dimensional at best. On the one hand, you've got Javon Ringer, the nation's third-leading rusher with 1,590 yards (132.5 per game) racked up at a 4.3-ypc clip and 21 touchdowns; on the other you've got quarterback Brian Hoyer, who's passed for 2,235 yards with a completion percentage of just over 50 percent and who has nine TDs against eight picks, for a passer-efficiency rating that's 88th in D-IA. That isn't Reggie Ball territory, but it's hardly the stuff of legends, and it greatly simplifies the challenge Willie Martinez faces as a defensive coordinator, particularly given Sparty's lack of any true game-breaking receivers (they have a grand total of five individual 80-yard receiving games this season, while Georgia, by comparison, has 10).

Here's something interesting I found out while looking into all this, though: At 59th in the nation, MSU's passing game is actually ranked higher than their running game, which is only 67th. That tells me two things: One, there isn't a lot of depth behind Ringer at tailback -- Michigan State is only getting an average of 10.5 rushing yards per game from rushers not named Ringer, whereas Georgia is getting about 44 per game from rushers other than Knowshon -- and two, Ringer can be contained by the right defense. Michigan State faced seven BCS-conference opponents this season who were good enough to earn bowl invites, and here's how he did against five of them:

vs. Penn State: 17 carries for 42 yards
vs. Ohio State: 16 carries for 67 yards
vs. Wisconsin: 21 carries for 54 yards
vs. Cal: 27 carries for 81 yards
vs. Iowa: 25 carries for 91 yards

In the other two games, Ringer put up 201 yards against Notre Dame (46th-ranked run defense in the nation) and 124 against Northwestern (34th). Otherwise, none of his hundred-yard rushing games came against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record. Even after the debacle against Georgia Tech, Georgia's run defense is holding at 39th in the nation (just a tick under 130 yards allowed per game), so on paper, at least, Ringer's not going to be able to go nuts the way he did against, say, Florida Atlantic.

On the defensive side of the ball, there's not a lot to get excited about if you're a Michigan State fan. At 71st in the nation, MSU's is statistically the worst run defense Knowshon Moreno will have faced all year, allowing 147.6 yards per game; their pass defense was only slightly better at 210.3 yards per game/62nd (on our schedule, only LSU's was worse). The Spartans aren't in the top 25 nationally in any major defensive category, and they only break the top 50 in pass-efficiency defense (26th), scoring defense (40th), and tackles for loss (40th with just over six per game). Obviously it would suck royally to lose either Stafford or Moreno to the pros after this season (to say nothing of both), but if they're looking for a game in which to roll up some impressive numbers and impress the NFL scouts, this isn't a bad opponent to face.


What worries me: All of the vulnerabilities I pointed out in Michigan State's power running attack basically hinge on one caveat: whether Georgia re-learns how to tackle sometime between now and New Year's Day. Y'all were watching the Bulldogs over the last half of the season just like I was, so it's not like this is shocking information to any of you, but our run defense completely imploded over the last month and a half of the season. After not allowing a single opponent to go over 150 yards rushing through the first seven games, we let four of our last five opponents do it; after allowing a mere 427 rushing yards total through those first seven games, at an average of only 2.4 yards per carry, we gave up 1,132 over the last five games at an even five yards per rush. (Take out the eye-gouging statistical outlier of the Georgia Tech game and it was still 4.2 yards per carry.) So even if the equation here is as simple as "If Georgia's defense shows up, we win," we still have no idea if the Dawgs are going to actually, you know, show up. Mark Richt has made the right noises over the past few weeks about recognizing where the defense went off the rails and making some needed adjustments in practice, but you'll have to pardon me if I take a decidedly "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude toward such things; watching Georgia Tech reel off 400 rushing yards against you will do that to a guy.

Because the letdown opportunity here is big enough as it is. I mean, here's a team frontloaded with an entire NFL draft round's worth of talent and sporting the preseason #1 ranking; no offense, Orlando, but you think any of these guys were giddy with anticipation over the Capital One Bowl at the start of this season? I've probably invoked the specter of "Kansas State Syndrome" on this blog (and others) more times than anyone ever cared to read, but sorry, folks, sometimes it just bears repeating: When a team goes into a low- or even mid-tier bowl thinking it deserved better, their chances of losing increase dramatically. We've seen it happen time and time again, and we've got to be on upset alert this time around whether we want to be or not.

Player who needs to step up: For the first time this season, I'm going to pick someone who's a) not actually a player and b) not actually a single individual at all: the people who most need to step up on Thursday are the entire coaching staff. Everybody from Richt on down has been catching hell for nearly a solid month about how the team looked so unprepared in its big games this season, they've been stung by the way de-emphasizing full contact in weekday practices backfired on the team down the stretch, so now's their time to show they can still gin up the ol' Erk Russell-style intensity and get the players back to Getting After That Ass once again. Only problem is, they'll have to do it at a time when some of their guys are at risk of focusing more on the bowl they're not playing in (i.e. the BCS National Championship) than the one that they are. There will be no black jerseys this time around, Mark, there will be no end-zone celebrations or championships to shoot for -- y'all are gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way.

What I think will happen: Am I worried about this game? Yes. Throw out Georgia's statistical superiority in just about every category, throw out even our talent edge, which at first glance, at least, is pronounced. We had both of those in spades against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Auburn, just to name three right off the top of my head, yet we still ended up sweating blood (or bullets? bullets of blood?) right down to the very final seconds against each of those opponents. So I'll have none of this "Oh, whatever, it's the Big Ten" talk that I've been hearing from a number (though by no means the majority) of Georgia fans. If you thought losing to Georgia Tech and coughing one up to the ACC was embarrassing, imagine following that up by coughing one up to the Big 10 after two straight years of "Will the Big 10 ever stop embarrassing itself against the SEC?" talk.

I'd much rather have a scoreboard that looks like this (without the Gators, of course).

But here's one reason why I'm cautiously optimistic about this particular bowl: Georgia teams under Mark Richt have done a remarkably good job of avoiding the K-State Syndrome I referenced earlier. In 2003, we got bumped down to the Capital One Bowl after getting housed in the SEC title game by LSU, and still managed to roll up a 24-0 lead before, er, losing focus a bit and having to win the thing in overtime. Last year, of course, we were miffed at losing out on a spot in the national-title game, but still managed to rip an admittedly inferior Hawaii team every bit as many new assholes as people said we should've on paper. In fact, the bowl we probably should've been most grateful for -- the '06 Sugar, following our out-of-nowhere SEC-title run -- we came out pancake-flat and got embarrassed by West Virginia. So I'm going to go ahead and have a little faith in Richt's ability to keep the team motivated here.

Motivation, though, is one thing; tackling is a little more concrete. And I don't need to remind anyone that we haven't been real good at that lately. Going back to highly edifying transcript from a post-GT edition of the "Bulldog Hotline" show, Richt appears to have recognized that he and the rest of the coaching staff backed off full-contact tackling drills too much in practice this season in the name of tiptoeing around injuries. So hopefully the team will be a little bit toughened up in that area this week, but there's no way to be sure until the game actually begins.

Just a quick visual aid as to what an effective tackle looks like.

I think there's great potential for Georgia to get off to a fast start -- whatever the Michigan State players try to tell themselves, Georgia is both way more balanced and a step faster on offense than the majority of the teams they've faced so far this season. If Ohio State's offense, slumming it at 78th in the nation (tied with Tulane), can unload 45 points on the Spartans, then I should think Georgia would be capable of at least that much damage. The problem is that over the last few games, Georgia has let a fast (or at least solid) start go by the wayside. They were down only 7-3 to Florida midway through the second quarter, then let the Gators score the next 42 points; they needed less than eight minutes to put up a 14-0 lead on Kentucky, but found themselves having to claw their way back from three separate deficits in the second half; and I'm sure we all remember vividly how Georgia's 28-12 halftime lead over Tech was vaporized by a fusillade of outside pitches and crappy arm-tackles. Whatever Richt and the coaching staff do to get the Dawgs pumped up for this game, it'll be all for naught if they fail to remember that that motivation job has to last the full 60 minutes.

So if Georgia plays the full 60 minutes and gives their best effort, I think Westerdawg's right: We put up a bunch of points and roll by a multiple-TD margin. There is, however, precedent for the Dawgs to only play one half, and if that happens then I think we're more likely to come out strong but tail off in the second half. MSU's best scoring quarter this season, on average, was the fourth, while they allowed their fewest points in the third quarter. So it'd take a pretty substantial halftime lead (assuming we're fortunate enough to have one at all) to make me feel like the game is well in hand.

I can see Georgia shooting out to another fast start, but getting slowed down a bit as Ringer gets into a rhythm and starts wearing down our defense with some long, pound-it-between-the-tackles scoring drives. As much as I'd like to think the defense is going to come up with a bravura performance to atone for its November embarrassments, I just can't force myself to get too hopeful about any defense that's averaged 36 points allowed over its last five games. I think we've got more than enough firepower to stay ahead of the Spartans on the scoreboard, but not enough in the tank defensively to pull away decisively, and if we do have a lead in the final minutes of the game it's not likely to be more than a TD -- but I envision Knowshon taking the reins on a late drive and grinding enough time off the clock that the Spartans are unable to come up with a response.

At Georgia, we don't just grind the clock, we do it in style.

Whether it's by one score or five, though, a win is a win, and it'd give us double-digit wins for the sixth time in Mark Richt's eight seasons. It'd be an inspiring way to end an often frustrating season -- and, God willing, a positive momentum-builder for what could be (if we catch a couple lucky breaks personnel-wise, please oh please oh please) an excellent 2009.

If you're trash-talking: Mark Dantonio appears to have ably pulled the Michigan State conestoga wagon out of the ditch John L. Smith steered it into from 2003 to 2006, for which he deserves his props, but God bless him, the man makes Tom Coughlin look relaxed and free-spirited. Here's the true, horse's-mouth-fresh story of the benching of starting offensive guard Joel Foreman back in November:

EAST LANSING -- The question posed to Mark Dantonio created a moment of awkward silence Sunday night inside Michigan State's Skandalaris Football Center.

Why did left guard Mike Bacon start Saturday over Joel Foreman against Wisconsin?

"Well, do you really want to know or do you want me to give you some fabricated, made-up story?" Dantonio asked. "(Foreman) didn't have a tie on, OK? He didn't have a tie on."

Ties are required accessories for every player on Saturdays to complement suits worn during the team's traditional pregame walk from its on-campus hotel to Spartan Stadium.

"That speaks to the discipline of the program," Dantonio said. "He didn't have a tie on so he didn't start. That hurts our football team, but that's the way it's going to be."

Yup, he benched a guy for not wearing a tie whilst walking from the hotel to the stadium. This before a game in which MSU ended up trailing a 4-5 team at halftime (at home) and had to kick a last-minute field goal to win by one point. I love a coach whose priorities are in order.

Now THAT'S what Mark Dantonio calls a football player, son!

Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Well, because first of all, I think we should all be loath to root for any team whose coach puts neckwear before actual, demonstrated on-the-field talent. But for you SEC partisans out there, this is another vital opportunity for the conference to defend its honor against the lumbering dinosaurs of the Big 10. And if you don't even care about the conferences, then . . . cheer for us because our colors are better and our mascot's cuter. Or something. I don't know.

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia scores at least 40 points and holds MSU under 20. That'd be, by definition, at least a three-TD victory, and I need something like that after a disappointing season in which I've only gotten to do the flag run once (after the LSU game). But if we pull something like a 42-17 curb-stomping on Sparty, then I will head straight outside with my Georgia flag and do the deed, even though says it'll probably only be in the low 50s by that point. And there will be pictures. Whether that prompts you to root against a Georgia blowout is up to you, but that's the deal.


Reed said...

I would assume that the small margin between Ringer's yardage and the rest of the team was largely attributable to sacks? Hows the Georgia pass rush?

I don't know who the hell Tracey McCall is, but daaaaamn. Maybe I would watch Young MacGyver.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

How's the Georgia pass rush?

Sigh. I don't know. I'll let you know when we get one.

Those stats are a wee bit misleading, because MSU's numbers are dragged down by the fact that Hoyer has -97 rushing yards on the season, while Matt Stafford has +31 net. I think that speaks to Stafford's (highly underrated) mobility, which is at least part of the reason while we've only given up 15 sacks all year long despite all the injuries and shuffling on the offensive line.

Perhaps the more salient statistic is the fact that MSU's second-leading rusher, Andre Anderson, has only 26 rushes for 97 yards on the season, while Georgia's #2 guy, Caleb King, has 61 for 247. Even accounting for Sparty's lost yardage due to sacks, I think we've got a lot more usable depth in our backfield.

Anonymous said...

Should be an interesting game: both teams soiled themselves badly against the two best teams they played (the Bama score is misleading, in that the Tide were in full-on "don't give a fuck" mode for the entire second half), had one respectable loss (at Cal in the opener, vs. GT in the finale), and beat everyone else despite making it far closer than it should have been a few times.

If Hoyer avoids the bout of acute colorblindness that struck him last year against BC (seriously, if he can remember which color jersey we're wearing, we would have won that game by 20), and if we manage to contain Knowshon (I'm considerably less optimistic about this, but who knows), then we can win this. But I think the more likely result is a shootout, one or two killer mistakes, and a Georgia win in the 7-10 point range.

caliban said...

Damn boy. What do you have against Donna Tartt? She may be a one-hit media creation, but The Secret History is excellent. Is it because of the Latin and Greek? You should have gone to Jesuit school.