Maryland football awaits Michigan State on Saturday night, and it’s a really important game. The Terps are preparing hard, and we want you to be prepared too. So we brought in McLain Moberg of The Only Colors, SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, to talk about the Spartans, who were very good very recently but have entered a tailspin. It’s a perplexing team, so I had a few questions.
Check out our corresponding Q&A here.
Testudo Times: Michigan State was a Playoff team last year and a top-10 team earlier this year. What happened?
The Only Colors: Michigan State lost a lot from last year's team: Connor Cook (Quarterback), Shilique Calhoun (Defensive end), Aaron Burbridge (Wide Receiver), Jack Conklin (Offensive Tackle) and Donovan Clark (Offensive Guard). Those are all players who contributed quite a bit to last years football team that are now in the NFL. A few others who were undrafted NFL free agents would be Lawrence Thomas (Defensive end), Jack Allen (Center), Joel Heath (Defensive end) and Darien Harris (Linebacker). All of these guys were huge playmakers, most of them coming from the defense. Right now Michigan State is struggling at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, their offensive line is struggling to hold their blocks and their defensive line can not manage to get any pressure on the quarterback, through six games this defense is ranked #120 when it comes to total team sacks. They have 6 sacks through 6 games. The opposing team’s quarterback has had all day to throw the ball and we have seen teams like Wisconsin and most recently Northwestern attack through the air and have major success. Whereas their offensive line is ranked #88 when allowing sacks. Right now they have allowed 15 sacks through 6 games. Michigan State has some injuries this year that are hurting them, but the loss of key players may be playing more of a roll than we initially thought it would.
TT: What have you seen from Tyler O'Connor since he took over for Connor Cook? How is his skill set different?
TOC: Tyler O'Connor shows flashes of brilliance; those flashes mostly come when everything else about the team is clicking. When the run game is successful and the defense makes stops, Tyler is at his best and can lead this team to victory. That is the gap in skill set I see between him and Cook: when Cook was on the field you felt if the chips were down and nothing was working you could rely on his arm strength and accuracy to keep you within striking distance. Tyler is more of a game manager, a "Alex Smith" type Quarterback if you will, he is still learning how to use his skill set to win games, he certainly has the ability and the potential to be a great quarterback but that comes with experience and time, time that Cook took up and time that this team does not have the luxury of having at the moment. I know Dantonio had Brian Lewerke in for awhile in last Saturday's game and he has already been quoted as saying the quarterback situation is most likely "a game-time decision". One thing is certain: this team will follow Tyler or any other guy Dantonio see's fit to slot in there.
TT: L.J. Scott looks like he's becoming a feature back. What does he bring to the table, and what areas is he improving in as his career progresses?
TOC: The running back situation seems to change week to week with this team. Sometimes Gerald Holmes is used more, other times it is L.J. Scott while seeing some glimpses of Madre London. In my mind there is no doubt that going forward L.J. Scott needs to be the feature back on the field, although the team does not feel the same way as he has a total of 6 carries in the last two games. Even with Scott's carries being stunted it seems as though he may be able to get back that 699 yard season he had last year which impressed us all as a freshman, and let’s not forget that goal-line run against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game either. His touchdowns are way down but as I mentioned so are his touches. Even so, he is still managing 4.6 yards a carry. He is an every down back, he can run you over or he can make you miss. He has all the tools a feature back needs but right now he is not being utilized or given the right amount of opportunities at the moment. I see improvements in his running ability and play from last year but I am not getting enough of it during games. One aspect of his game I would say he needs to work on, which most college running backs do, is pass blocking. Where I feel the offensive line is right now in terms of letting people through, that means the running backs are that much more important to the pass game and an adjustment needs to be made.
TT: Who's one defensive player Maryland fans should keep an eye on?
TOC: My answer won’t come as much of a shock but that would be Malik McDowell. I know he is currently banged up but he has managed to play through all the injuries he has had thus far and I expect more of the same from him this weekend. The guy loves to play, he wants to be on the field and if he can go he will go. He is due for a big game and i expect he knows that. If he ends up playing i expect a big showing from him this weekend.
TT: How important is this game for Michigan State's season?
TOC: The Spartans are in serious doubt of not making a bowl game for the first time in a decade. This is the first time a Spartan football team has lost 4 straight games in the Mark Dantonio era. So to the players it is very important, they want to win, and that is all these kids want to do other than play the game they love. They know how this program has been built from the ground up by Dantonio and they want to live up to expectations. With back to back playoff appearances clearly out the window I think the team's focus is to consistently get better week to week and figure out a way to win football games. Every game from here on out is equally important to the coaching staff and every player in the locker room.
TT: Complete this sentence: ________ will win because ________.
TOC: Michigan State will win if the battle in the trenches is won, which this team has not been able to do this season. The Spartans have struggled to put pressure on the quarterback and make stops on third down. Through six games the Spartans have given up 43 third down conversions; their opponents are converting third downs 46.7 percent of the time. This defense needs to come up big on third downs this week if they want a fighting chance. On the other side of the ball, the offensive line needs better protection. If the line begins to give O'Connor more time and open up bigger holes for the running backs that fans are accustomed to seeing, then the Spartans are in good shape. The only thing standing in the Spartans’ way at the moment is themselves.