July 3, 2014

Spartans are eager to defend Big Ten title

Michigan State enters the 2014 season as Rose Bowl champions, having made the trek to Pasadena for the first time since 1988. According to one close observer, you have to look even farther back to find MSU with a program this well grounded.

State of the Program

According to Jack Ebling, host of "The Drive" on AM 730 out of Lansing, it's been well over half a century since the Spartans were on such solid footing. It's more than a couple of Big Ten championships and last season's party in Pasadena behind head coach Mark Dantonio, Ebling insisted.

"It's probably as good as it's been since the early '50s," Ebling noted. "Now, the state of the team was better in the mid-'60s. But it was kind of built with fool's gold. It had a couple of major advantages. Michigan was in one of its more dormant periods, and Ohio State was struggling, not knowing if Woody [Hayes] was going to be around. There were some who wanted to string him up in effigy.

"Also, the full effects of integration hadn't been felt. Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa built their programs with help from segregated schools. Before that really kicked in, Michigan State was able to get a lot of players that were referred even by Bear Bryant and other southern coaches."

In other words, MSU enjoyed some advantages in the glory days of the 1960s that it does not now. Ebling cites some of the Spartans' great seasons - including 1967, the last time MSU shut out U-M - as coinciding with terrible Michigan campaigns. These days, with seven straight bowl appearances and three consecutive wins in those games, he sees a consistency under Dantonio.

"He has an infrastructure in place," Ebling said. "You have to go back to Biggie Munn [1947-53] for that."

That infrastructure includes plenty of particulars, most notably a trio of essentials, according to the long-time MSU observer.

"It's institutional commitment and common sense," Ebling noted. "The will to win, or get everybody onto the same page. Michigan State often ate its own. That's not the case now.

"Number two is staff leadership and cohesion. Nobody is looking at the pros. Nobody is in it for a turf war. These are coaches who have been together prior to Michigan State. They're pulling in the same direction.

"It's kind of a poor man's San Antonio Spurs. They're not going to win the [recruiting] hat game very often. But this staff has a special ability to identify and develop players."

For an example closer to home, Ebling pointed right to Crisler Center in the winter months.

"I look at what Michigan basketball has done with great admiration," he said. "I see a lot of the same things - some players that big-time programs would never look at. Michigan basketball and Michigan State football keep finding these guys, and they're really good players by the time they are done."

The Michigan Game

The Spartans will enter the 2014 match-up with Michigan not lacking any confidence. Not only did the win big in 2013, 29-6, they dominated the game physically. Further, via a scheduling quirk, they've got the Wolverines back in Spartan Stadium again in October.

MSU has never in its football history hosted the Wolverines in back-to-back games, and has ample reason to look forward to the rematch.

"I'm sure Michigan is going to come out spitting tacks," Ebling said. "But last year's game was probably the biggest beat-down Michigan State has had in this series, since the 34-0 game in '67. I've thought for a long time, Michigan State has wanted this game more than Michigan has.

"That can be good and bad. It can get you too hyped up. It can get you penalties. When you lose it, as Michigan State did many, many, many times, it gives the rest of your season a different flavor.

"But under this coaching staff, this game has been Dantonio's Ohio State, as Michigan would look at it. They've prepared for this game in every staff meeting. It's never far from their consciousness, and it won't be any different this year."

Whether the result will be similar remains to be seen. Michigan faces perhaps its greatest challenge of the season heading to East Lansing, but Ebling doesn't expect a chasm like the one in 2013 to reappear.

"I think Michigan is going to be better than last year," he said. "Don't ask me how, without the tackles. I cannot believe that this Michigan running game is going to look like it did last year. I can't believe it.

"With Devin Gardner having a full year, and a backup with some experience … I would think the performance difference - which was noticeable last year - won't be as great. This is a Michigan team that could, maybe should, win nine games.

"I have Michigan State projected at 10. So nine, 10, what's the difference? It's one game, one call, one bounce. Not that big a difference.

"It's a game Michigan State will probably win, or should win. But it's certainly a came Michigan could win. If Michigan won, I wouldn't fall off my chair."

Best- And Worst-Case Scenarios

Barring injuries, Ebling doesn't see a huge falloff for the Spartans. He also doesn't see them winning out west, early in the year.

"A best-case scenario would be 11-1," he said. "I just don't see any way they can beat Oregon. I think it's impossible. I've looked at match-ups. They have a Heisman Trophy favorite, they have world-class speed in every way. They have the best lines, and they're playing at home.

"The fact that Michigan State beat Stanford last year isn't going to help them against Oregon, because that got Oregon's full attention. Stanford is the only team that's beaten Oregon lately. I'm penciling that in, darkly, as a loss.

"The other games, Michigan State is favored in every one of them in Vegas. They're a one-point favorite over Ohio State, and 7.5 over Michigan. Something like 8.5 over Nebraska. I don't think they'll win all those games. Somewhere along the line, they'll lose one, and they could lose two.

"But other than Oregon, they have an incredible schedule - everything is at home.

"Worst case, if they get a bunch of injuries, like they didn't have last year, it could fall off. [Quarterback] Connor Cook was lucky last year. He threw a pick-six in the Rose Bowl and was MVP. He threw another pass at the end of the Rose Bowl that should have been picked off on the sideline.

"If those plays don't go Michigan State's way, if [running back] Jeremy Langford fumbles two more times …

"They could lose at Penn State. You know what a trap that can be - Senior Day, and the whiteout, weird weather. You can lose a game there easily. They could lose another game where they're not focused. They could lose to an Indiana at Indiana.

"Michigan knows that Indiana's offense is explosive. It's possible, if things went wrong, they could only win eight games."

Offensive Players To Watch

Quarterback Connor Cook: Cook enjoyed an outstanding season in 2013, throwing for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. His completion consistency (58.7) could improve, but he provided the Spartans with a very solid presence behind center.

"The best thing about Connor Cook is, he has no memory," Ebling said. "He's like the closer who gets hit one night and the next night, he's not thinking about anything but the moment.

"I remember one time talking to Jack Nicklaus about consistency. He said, 'I never let one bad shot become three.' Cook made some atrocious plays. But the next play, it's gone. He's not a basket case. He goes out and is as fearless as he was before.

"He probably needs to rein it in a little bit, but they don't want him to lose some of that swashbuckling style. That's the reason he played ahead of of Andrew Maxwell. It wasn't a throwing competition through a tire, or he would have never gotten onto the field.

"The players believe in him. After the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl, they think he's the guy."

Running back Jeremy Langford: Langford went for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He'll again be Michigan State's go-to back, with added confidence from the success of last season.

"He had that long string of 100-yard games, and he got better as games went on," Ebling said. "They had unusual depth …and they were better in the fourth quarter. It really helped Langford. He got an awful lot of yards in the last 10 minutes.

"He's better. He still has an occasional ball-security issue, but he's been a defensive back, a receiver. They didn't know if he was going to be on the team last year. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you have a championship year."

Defensive Players To Watch

Defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun: The Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2013, Calhoun posted 7.5 sacks among his 14 tackles-for-loss. He intercepted a pass, hurried the quarterback 18 times, forced two fumbles and recovered four as a hugely disruptive force for MSU.

"I think he's as good of a defensive lineman as I've seen at Michigan State," Ebling said. "I don't know if Jerel Worthy, William Gholston or Robaire Smith have anything on this guy. He has a good motor, he's very sound, quick, explosive. He's a big-play guy, a clutch guy. He'll be a load for everybody who tries to block him."

Cornerback Trae Waynes: MSU's secondary has plenty to live up to after its 2013 season, and Waynes will be a key component. He posted 50 tackles, three interceptions and five pass breakups for the Spartans a year ago.

"Trae Waynes was a fast guy out of Wisconsin who weighed about 165 pounds," Ebling said. "Now he's become a really good corner. He would have been an 'A' corner on any team in the country last year, except Michigan State.

"He's going to have to do a lot of work. Can he be like Darqueze Dennard? Maybe. But that's hard to do. You have to have two corners like that, to allow them to do what they do defensively. Without those corners, they can't play the way they play."

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