Football is a game of inches. While the optimistic Spartan fans may see a perfect 8-0 start up to this point, we know that some games are determined by one play. Many others come down to the the final possession or are decided in overtime.
Let’s think back to some of Mark Dantonio’s earlier seasons as the head coach for Michigan State thus far. In 2007, Dantonio’s first season, all six losses (two in overtime) were by seven points or less.
In 2009, Dantonio’s only losing season (6-7) since becoming the head coach, the Spartans lost by two to Central Michigan, three to Notre Dame, and then by eight to Wisconsin to start the season off 1-3. After three straight wins, the Spartans lost on a last-second pass to Iowa before losing to Minnesota by eight on Halloween.
In 2010, the tides turned for the Spartans. They beat Notre Dame in overtime, they escaped with a 10-point home victory against Wisconsin, they came from behind at Northwestern to win after being down by 17, and they beat Purdue by four and Penn State by six.
From last season, Spartan fans all remember the 3-point win at the Horseshoe over the Buckeyes, the Hail Mary pass versus Wisconsin, the gut wrenching loss in the Big Ten title, and the triple overtime victory in the Outback Bowl over Georgia.
I’ve stated that the Spartans have a great chance of winning each of their first eight games. But, like I said, some of these games may come down to the last minute, or the last play.
Where will the Spartans be at this point in the season? Answer this poll question before we dive into the last part of Michigan State’s 2012 football schedule.
9. Michigan State @ Wisconsin, Oct. 27, 3:30 p.m.
This is a match-up that is starting to become a notable rivalry based on the last six meetings, especially the last two, between the Spartans and the Badgers. Since 2007, besides the Spartans’ 10-point victory in 2010, each contest has been decided by eight points or less. Last year, the Spartans needed a Hail Mary pass to win in the regular season, while the Big Ten Championship game came down to a roughing-the-punter penalty in the last minute of the game. This year, the Badgers return 11 starters (5 offense, 6 defense) from last year’s Big Ten championship team. With Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible for postseason play, Badger fans will probably have hotel rooms booked and their tickets secured for the 2012 Big Ten Championship game before the season even starts.
The 2011 Big Ten Player of the Year and first-team All American Montee Ball turned down the NFL to return for his senior season after racking up 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground as a junior. Ball is backed up by junior tailback James White, who led the team in 2010 with 1,052 rushing yards and added 713 yards in 2011. This year, although returning just two offensive linemen, the Badgers will average 6’5″ and 321 pounds up front. The Badgers also return junior Jacob Pedersen, one of the better tight ends in the Big Ten if not in the country. Will the Spartans be able to stop this brutal rushing attack? The Badgers were able to gain 346 (126 in title game) total rushing yards in both meetings last season.
I haven’t even mentioned Wisconsin’s new quarterback, junior Danny O’Brien, who threw for over 4,000 yards in two years at Maryland. While he is no Russell Wilson, any quarterback with two years of starting experience cannot be taken lightly. O’Brien’s main weapon this year will be junior wide-out Jared Abbrederis, who caught 933 yards in 14 starts last season.
Defensively, led by two first-team All-Big Ten linebackers in junior Chris Borland and senior Mike Taylor, the Badgers return six starters from a solid defense that gave up 19 points per game last year. Will Andrew Maxwell be gelling with his receivers at this time of the year? Will Michigan State’s offense be able to put points on the board in Madison?
10. Nebraska @ Michigan State, Nov. 3, TBA
This game was just downright ugly last year, with the Spartans putting up a total of 187 yards (101 rushing, 86 passing) in their 24-3 loss in Lincoln. It was by far Michigan State’s worst performance of the season and it looked as though the Legends Division title would slip away from the Spartans.
Nebraska returns 14 starters (7 offense, 7 defense) from last year’s 9-4 team and holds a 6-0 all-time record against Michigan State. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, with 24 career starts, is known more for his feet than his arm, rushing for 965 and 874 yards as a freshman and sophomore, respectively. He was held to 23 yards on the ground during last year’s contest, compared to his season average of 67 yards per game. Martinez completed just 7 of 13 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown as well.
But it was running back Rex Burkhead who pounded the Spartans, rushing for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries. The Cornhuskers return Burkhead and four offensive linemen that averaged a ground attack of 217 yards per game. They also have one of the best tight end tandems in the nation in seniors Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton.
Nebraska has valuable experience at every defensive unit as well. Michigan State’s wide receivers were blanketed on what seemed like every passing attempt in last year’s match-up. Kirk Cousins was held to 86 yards in the air on 11 of 27 completions and also threw an interception.
Again, it is vital that Maxwell is in rhythm at this point of the season and it’s very important that Michigan State establishes the running game and keeps Nebraska’s offense off the field.
Bye Week, Nov. 10
11. Northwestern @ Michigan State, Nov. 17, TBA
The Spartans secured their outright Legends Division title after beating Northwestern 31-17 in last year’s season finale. The Wildcats, who return only 10 starters (5 offense, 5 defense) from that 6-7 team, will be led by junior quarterback Kain Colter, who threw for 673 yards, rushed for 654 yards, and had 466 receiving yards. On defense, sophomore Ibraheim Campbell, who recorded 100 tackles in 12 starts as a Freshman All-American, will lead a defense that gave up 27.7 points per game last season. Although Michigan State will be expected to win on their senior day, Northwestern seems to find a way to beat a ranked team every year. Last year it was #9 Nebraska, in 2010 it was #13 Penn State, in 2009 it was #8 Iowa and #17 Wisconsin, and in 2008 it was #20 Minnesota. In all four of those seasons, it must be noted that the Wildcats started and finished the season unranked.
12. Michigan State @ Minnesota, Nov. 24, TBA
Michigan State finishes off their 2012 season at Minnesota, a team that led the Spartans 24-21 in the fourth quarter last year before failing to hold on. The Golden Gophers return 12 starters (6 offense, 6 defense) from last season’s 3-9 team that lost to teams like New Mexico State and and North Dakota State. Minnesota’s most dangerous weapon is dual-threat senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who threw for 1,495 yards and ran for 966 yards last year. Besides the quarterback position, the Spartans overpower the Golden Gophers in every aspect and will be expected to win this football game.
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