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December 7, 2009

Expert: Off-field matter a 'black eye' for MSU

To get the inside scoop on Texas Tech's opponent in the 2010 Valero Alamo Bowl, we went to an expert on Michigan State football -- Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal -- with five questions about the Spartans and January's matchup in San Antonio.

What were the expectations for this Michigan State team going into this year? Before the season, would Spartan fans have been happy if you told them that they were headed to the Alamo Bowl?
JR: "No, I think the expectations were a little bit out of whack. A lot of fans were thinking that this was a 10-win team. They went 9-3 last year which really was a case of that team overachieving. Got to a New Year's Day bowl, really hung with Georgia in that game. Even though they lost their star, Javon Ringer, and then a very good fifth-year senior quarterback in Brian Hoyer, who is Tom Brady's backup right now, the Big Ten media picked them to finish third in the Big Ten. I didn't, but a lot of people liked this team to really maybe contend (for the Big Ten), be a darkhorse contender. I thought probably that this was an 8-4 team, that's what I picked. I think, by any measure, this has been a disappointing season."

What's the latest news on the off-the-field incident a couple of weeks ago that resulted in eight Michigan State players being suspended?
JR: "What happened was that Michigan State got drilled by Penn State on senior day, a game that was tied at the half. They ended up losing 42-14, gave up 35 points in the third quarter. The next day, they had their end of year banquet -- a nice awards banquet, the parents are up, everybody's dressed up, it's a nice feel-good thing. Ninety minutes later, a group of players went to a dormitory across the street and some sort of fight erupted. There are varying reports. We're still waiting on on the police to release the report, we're still waiting for the prosecutor to come up with chargers. There have been reports that it was just chaos and punches flying, women being hit and players in ski masks, and then there's been reports that it was really just a couple of players and the rest of the guys were just there to back them up.

"It goes to an incident the night before involving Glenn Winston. Now, Glenn Winston is the focus of this controversy because he got in a fight last year, injured a hockey player pretty severely and ended up spending four months in jail over the summer. He's a backup running back. Mark Dantonio gave him a second chance, some people weren't happy about that, but now he's gone. He and Roderick Jenrette, who also was on a second chance, are gone. The eight guys who have been identified by police as definitely being there, who didn't tell the truth to Dantonio when they had a chance, are suspended.

"There are three key players in that group. Two starting receivers, B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell, and starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker who's really the team's best cover guy. And this is a secondary that already has had real issues this year. It's definitely going to hurt them in the bowl game.

"Right now, this story has legs as they say. It's really a black eye for Dantonio's program. It's really the first crisis that he's faced in three years at Michigan State."

Is Dantonio thought of as a disciplinarian-type head coach?
JR: "He has been, and that's why this has been really troubling for people who follow Michigan State. Dantonio, he's a tough guy. That's the whole thing. People are scared of him supposedly. When something like this happens, this is a slap in the face to him. Pre-planned attack right after this banquet, it brings into question his handle. It has to.

"He really spoke for the first time about this on Saturday. He had some strong words. I think the press conference was good for him and for Michigan State. He came out and said that they are not going to the bowl game. I'll take more action when we have charges, et cetera, et cetera. He had some strong words. He was very candid about how it hurt him and how he expects to ultimately get past this. Before this, that was the whole thing, he's bringing in good character kids and he's very tough with him, this is a disciplined football team. Now, things are in question a little bit."

For people who aren't familiar with quarterback Kirk Cousins, what kind of player is he for the Spartans? Is he a playmaker, or more of a game manager?
JR: "It was a real close quarterback battle here for the starting job. Keith Nichol, a transfer from Oklahoma -- he lost out to Sam Bradford a couple of years ago and ended up transferring back home, he's from Lola, Michigan, pretty close to Michigan State. He's very talented, a five-star prospect, great athlete. Kirk Cousins beat him out to the surprise of many because Cousins is an extremely accurate passer. He's also a sophomore captain, so he's a fiery leader kind of guy, but he's very talented. He is not as athletic as capable of making plays with his feet as Nichols, but he can still move around well in the pocket. I think he's a pro-caliber passer. He can really throw the ball. He has an extremely quick release. Very good accuracy.

"That's really been the strength of this team, is its passing game. The question is now, with Bell and Cunningham gone, they still have their top receiver Blair White and they still have some very good tight ends, those two guys were big parts of that passing game."

And then Michigan State has one of the best defensive players in the country in linebacker Greg Jones.
JR: "He's been outstanding, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, first-team All-American. If not for him, you shudder to think what would have happened to this defense. This team has been very good at stopping the run but, again, it's hard to factor that in against an offensive like this (Texas Tech).

"One thing Michigan State has struggled with more than anything is teams that can run and then hurt you with play-action. Wisconsin, Penn State did that to them, even Purdue ran on them. When they've been able to make one-dimensional, they've been a little bit better.

"Greg Jones, really, his primary function on this team, even though he's the middle linebacker, is as an edge rusher. He rushes off the edge constantly. He's a very good blitzer. They just don't have enough at the defensive end spot to get front four pass rush. You'll see Greg Jones coming after the quarterback a lot in this game."

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