SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Finally a new dateline. A road game.
In a football-driven sports culture, we wait all year for this season. In Michigan State’s case, this is really the beginning of it.
In two weeks, at Iowa, the results will have greater oomph. But, as I wrote in today’s LSJ column, today is telling about the Spartans. On all fronts.
There is growing confidence in MSU — made clear by a moving Vegas line in the Spartans’ direction, from 7 1/2 point-underdogs Sunday night to 4 1/2 by Friday.
Here are five elements of the game I’ll be watching (I plan to watch the whole game, actually; but you know what I mean.):
1. Connor Cook.
At least this has been been narrowed to one quarterback. It’s Cook’s show, for now. Days like today are an opportunity to begin to entrench himself as MSU’s quarterback, in the minds of his teammates, coaches and fans.
Cook was good against Youngstown State. He missed on a few throws, but hit more often than not and, importantly, his receivers made plays for him. He’ll have to be on target today and, critically, continue to be himself. He’s MSU’s QB because the safest play wasn’t enough to move the football. Cook is more a gunslinger, a gambler. He can improvise with his feet, be utilized to move the ball with his legs and sizable frame. Cook has to stay smart, but he won this job, to an extent, because of these traits. MSU will need them this afternoon.
2. Can MSU run? And who’s the running back?
To this point, there has been no real separation between Jeremy Langford, Nick Hill and Riley Bullough. Separation doesn’t happen easily against lesser foes. It comes when running backs have to break tackles and make defenders miss, find the small crease and pick up tough yards. Today, I think, we’ll see the differences between Lanford, Hill and Bullough, and get a sense who will be featured more often this season.
The other question is, can MSU move the ball on the ground, regardless of who’s carrying it? Notre Dame’s 700-pound interior line of Louis Nix III and Stephon Truitt is by far the most difficult test for MSU’s offensive line early this season. If the Spartans can get a push and create some sort of consistent attack on the ground today, it bodes very well for this season. That’s a big “if”.
3. Macgarrett Kings Jr., Aaron Burbridge and Co.
Kings and Burbridge sounded like a couple of confident cats on Tuesday. There is a part of me that thinks MSU’s two sophomore wideouts are headed for at least one more humbling Saturday. But the advantage of having these two play as freshmen is they’ve been humbled before. Maybe they’re further along in this stage than I realize.
MSU needs these two to keep making plays, to keep moving toward being go-to guys. If it can get more out of Bennie Fowler again, that would really help, too. But Kings and Burbridge need to keep advancing for this offense to keep moving.
4. How dominant is this defense?
I don’t think even the defense knows. They’re intrigued by themselves. They know they’re good, but as Denicos Allen said this week, “How good?” This unit can overwhelm underwhelming competition. That much we know. And more so than a year ago. But can they truly be a No. 1-type defense and disrupt good Big Ten-caliber teams from having any real offensive success? Like with the Spartan offense, we’ll know more today.
5. How MSU handles a fight and the threat of defeat.
MSU has been in two semi-close games. In other words, if you look at the scores alone from 26-13 over Western Michigan and 21-6 over South Florida, they look competitive. But the games were never in doubt. MSU’s defense was too dominant for the games to ever be in question.
Today is likely to be different. MSU, if it wins, will be doing so in the fourth quarter, needing a critical stop or a big drive, or simply not to be beaten by the moment. This is the Spartans first road game and worthy foe, all in one (thanks to South Florida’s program dip). That’s a mental challenge as much as it is physical.
Enjoy the game (3:30 p.m., NBC television)
Talk to you at halftime.