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Know your opponent: Week 12 edition, Michigan State

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet. 

The basics
2012 record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning starters: Offense – 8; Defense – 7
Coach: Mark Dantonio, 7th season

2012 capsule

The biggest story from Michigan State’s season was close losses. The Spartans managed to lose five games by a combined 13 points, and with each passing defeat, MSU fans would rationalize their plight with an optimistic cup-half-full approach. “We’re close! We’re only losing games by a few points!” That may be true, but Michigan State also won its share of close games last season, including a four-point win in the season-opener over Boise State, a four-point win over Indiana and a three-point overtime win at Wisconsin.

The tight losses definitely outweigh the narrow victories, but when discussing MSU’s 2012 season, if you’re going to rehash the tired “close losses” narrative – which you will, because that’s basically everything anyone’s talked about this offseason in regards to the Spartans – make sure to include the other half of the story, too. None of which is to suggest MSU was a bad team in 2012, or that it will be a bad team this season. I happen to think Michigan State, with one of the easiest schedules in the Big Ten, can make a real run at a Legends Division title. 

Offensive overview

Offense was Michigan State’s biggest problem last season. When MSU’s offense was effective, it was almost always because Le’Veon Bell stacked up an insane amount of carries, tackled opposing defenders just as much as they (tried to) tackled him and basically compensated for the Spartans’ generally poor wide receiver play. The passing attack should be better this season – it sort of has to be, now that Bell has moved on. Andrew Maxwell is the frontrunner in a three-horse quarterback race (or four, I suppose, if you count true freshman Daimon Terry), and should be more comfortable as a passer in his second season, provided he wins the starting job.

Receivers Keith Mumphrey and Bennie Fowler, MSU’s two leading receivers from last season, should improve off last season’s lackluster effort, and Aaron Burbridge – a sophomore who caught 29 passes for 364 yards last season – was the Spartans’ breakout star at wideout this offseason. He should be a key piece in MSU’s passing attack. Running backs Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford, along with converted linebacker Riley Bullough, will attempt to replicate the reliability and production lost with Bell’s move to the NFL. Last but not least, the offensive line returns everyone from last year’s effective unit, including All-conference-level tackle Fou Fonoti.

Defensive overview 

Last season, Michigan State lost games in spite of its defense – not because of it. The Spartans entered the season with a lot of buzz surrounding that side of the ball, and they met that hype by finishing fourth in the country in total defense at 274 yards per game. There should be little dropoff in 2013. Denicos Allen and Max Bullough front a fearsome linebacking corps, while All-conference cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis will fortify one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten (look for sophomore Trae Waynes to step up at the corner spot opposite Dennard after filling in for the departed Johnny Adams the bowl win over TCU last season.)

There are some questions about the defensive line, particularly whether MSU will be able to rush the passer consistently. Those questions should be answered in relatively short order; junior Marcus Rush and sophomore Shilique Calhoun provide more than enough speed and finesse off the edge to get to opposing quarterbacks.

Three players to watch

Andrew Maxwell/Connor Cook/Tyler O’Connor, senior/sophomore/RS Freshman QB – Quarterback play is arguably the one missing piece MSU needs to erase the memories of last year’s mediocre 7-6 finish and make a return run to the conference championship game. Whoever steps up to win the job will need to be better than Maxwell was last season.

Max Bullough, senior LB – Any list of elite linebackers in the Big Ten must include Bullough; in fact, he could finish the season as the league’s best outright ‘backer. Bullough is a tackling machine with the versatility to make plays behind the line of scrimmage (he recorded 12.5 tackles for loss last season), patrol the middle of the field and drop into coverage.

Aaron Burbridge, sophomore WR – With Bell gone, Michigan State needs to establish a more balanced offense, and Burbridge – after drawing rave reviews in spring practice – could be the target Maxwell (or whoever wins the starting job) needs to propel the Spartans’ passing attack.

Behind enemy lines: Lead Writer and MSU SB Nation Blog “The Only Colors” managing editor Chris Vanini (@Chrisvannini), on what to expect from the Spartans this season:

“After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, MSU was dealt a dose of humility with a 7-6 season in 2012 that saw almost every game come down to the final minutes. As for 2013, the Big Ten’s best defense could be even better, led by some All-Big Ten seniors. On offense, the quarterback, receivers and offensive line return, but there are major questions in replacing running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims, who left early for the NFL. The schedule sets up that MSU should be, at worst, 6-2 heading into a tough November. I’ll go with a 9-3 record, 6-2 in the Big Ten.”

Final thoughts

I picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten before last season began, and continued to pick the Spartans in tough games even as they lost eminently winnable games against conference opponents. My thinking? Their defense is too good. They’re so close. They have to win some of these games. Well, but for the bowl victory, and the ugly win they pulled out at Wisconsin, MSU was never able to put everything together. This year, it will. Maxwell was shoved into a tough spot last season; in 2013, with a more experienced receiving corps, and a host of solid quarterbacks providing good, healthy, motivating competition behind him each week, Maxwell should be able to pilot a more reliable passing attack.

The defense will be tremendous, per coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s sterling pedigree in East Lansing, and while losing Bell hurts, MSU has a cadre of variously promising backs (including two true freshman R.J. Shelton that I failed to mention) ready to recreate the rushing attack into an potent mix of disparate styles. The Spartans are improved enough on offense and the defense remains elite. Something like a two-to-three-win jump from last season’s 7-6 campaign feels about right.