It’s that time of year again: the annual LSJ preview of the upcoming Michigan State football season. Plus, we caught up this afternoon with offensive coordinator Dan Roushar and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (more on that below).
With training camp over and the Spartans now less than 72 hours away from kickoff against Boise State, Brian Calloway and I break down the Spartans by position groupings – Calloway takes a look at the offense, Solari examines the defense and special teams.
As for projections for the upcoming season, Brian (9-3), the Detroit Free Press’ Joe Rexrode (10-2, Big Ten champs) and Solari (10-2) each give our breakdown of MSU’s schedule. And we have a glance around the Big Ten, where Michigan and MSU are expected to be strong title contenders.
And our main story is on the 25th anniversary of MSU’s last Rose Bowl appearance. The Spartans were close the past two years, and they are hoping this is the breakthrough year to end that drought. Along with that story, I did another compare and contrast breakout that didn’t quite fit in the print version, so here it is for you:
COMPARE & CONTRAST
There are some distinct similarities – and vast differences – between then and now in the Spartans’ quest for a berth in the Rose Bowl. Here’s a look at five of them.
1987 VS. 2012
Similar: Defense the strength for both teams. First-year starting quarterback. Solid kicking game. Night game on national TV vs. ranked opponent opens season. Two experienced returning running backs.
Different: MSU was 6-5 record in 1987; it’s coming off a second-straight 11-win season in 2012. In ’87, team played 11 regular-season games; in ’12, there are 12. Big Ten had 10 teams and one division in ’87; in ’12, there’s 12 and two divisions. The ’87 schedule was one of the nation’s toughest; the ’12 slate, while certainly not filled with creampuffs, doesn’t quite measure up in difficulty.
QB BOBBY McALLISTER VS. QB ANDREW MAXWELL
Similar: First-year full-time starters as juniors. Biggest question marks entering season. Both served as backups for record-setting QBs – McAllister under Dave Yarema, Maxwell behind Kirk Cousins. Both are 6-foot-3 and relatively the same size, with McAllister taking over then at 195 pounds and Maxwell at currently around 215.
Different: McAllister was a serviceable passer, but his biggest asset was his running ability. Maxwell is a classic drop-back quarterback, with a big arm and legs reliable enough to escape pressure. Maxwell’s from nearby Midland and has played in the elements; McAllister arrived from Florida having never played in a winter climate. McAllister started a few times as a freshman; Maxwell hasn’t started and has seen limited live-action reps.
RB LORENZO WHITE VS. RB LE’VEON BELL
Similar: Both run with a combination of brute power and unexpected shiftiness, both with head-and-shoulders and spin moves. Each reads their blockers well. Defenders fly backward from their stiff-arm. Both scored 21 rushing TDs between their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Different: While both are big backs, Bell (6-2, 244) is much taller and 40 pounds heavier than White (5-11, 204). White battered Indiana with 56 carries for 292 yards as a senior – both program records; Bell has only reached 20 carries in a game once. White twice topped 1,000 in a season and owns four 200-plus-yard games; Bell has yet to clear 1,000 yards and has topped 100 in a game just four times.
“GANG GREEN” VS. “SPARTAN DAWGS”
Similar: Biggest strengths are defensive front seven. Aggressive, attacking schemes by defensive coordinators Nick Saban in 1987 and Pat Narduzzi in 2012. Both are staunch and balanced against both the run and the pass. Current defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett was a cornerback in ’87.
Different: Safeties John Miller and Todd Krumm were the secondary stars in 1987; this year’s strength is with cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. DE Will Gholston is the player projected to have a fruitful NFL career on this year’s team; LB Percy Snow eventually won the Lombardi Trophy and went on to NFL greatness from the ’87 squad. This year’s depth eclipses that Rose Bowl squad.
GEORGE PERLES VS. MARK DANTONIO
Similar: Defense-minded. Championship rings. Excellent judges of talent. Both had previously coached at MSU – Perles under Duffy Daugherty, Dantonio under Nick Saban and Bobby Williams. Each has surrounded himself with top-rate assistant coaches. Running the ball is an offensive priority.
Different: Perles entered 1987 on the hot seat, with a 23-22-1 record in his first four seasons. Dantonio’s job is as secure as any MSU coach since Perles won the big game, owning a 44-22 record and the most wins by any coach in school history over their first five seasons. Perles’ public personality was often cantankerous and despotic, unapologetic and borderline boorish; Dantonio can be wry with a joke or caustic and subtle with an jab, less prone to yell and more likely to use a restrained, yet forceful voice – devoid of overbearing or condescending tones.
Also this afternoon, Roushar and his defensive counterpart Narduzzi took a few minutes for one final check-in before Friday night’s opener against Boise State. Both are in double top-secret probation lock-down mode for any big news or information, but here are some of the high points:
* Despite a ton of defensive personnel changes, BSU is a well-coached, fundamentally sound team. He’s familiar on film with linebackers Tommy Smith and J.C. Percy, tackles Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and Mike Atkinson, and cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins.
* He feels MSU’s offense is “not nearly as far along as I want to be, but we see progress.” Impressive to Roushar are the Spartans’ experienced offensive line and running backs, as well as new QB Maxwell’s grasp of the system. Execution, poise and confidence in making the plays they have in practice is something he feels will become more clear “when the lights go on.”
* Jack Allen looks ready to go at left guard, and he’s confident in his redshirt freshman moving into a starting role.
* The goal is to get Le’Veon Bell and the tailbacks “a lot” of carries, he said. “We have to remain balanced and we have to use our resources on the outside,” Roushar said. “I’d love to come out of the game and feel like we had a number of rushing attempts.”
* He hopes improvements in the running game can help ease the burden on Maxwell and the young receivers. “I suspect as time goes, we’ll get a better identity about who we are,” Roushar said. “But right now, we have the confidence in those guys (at WR) to go and do it.”
* A quick description of the Boise State offense: “Very multiple. We got a nine-game breakdown on them, almost like a bowl game. But they do more formations and different plays than I’ve ever played before.”
* The challenge for MSU’s defense is to get lined up in the proper spots while BSU moves and shifts its formations. That doesn’t mean the Spartans will alter their own defensive goals and calls. “We do what we do, nothing changes what we do,” he said. “We tweak things a little bit. Teams that go and tries to change it, you’ll play slow on defense. So our base philosophy is to do what we do. We got some new wrinkles here and there – but it’s not based on what they do, it’s just our new wrinkles.”
* He could “flip a coin” for who’ll start at both defensive tackle (between Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover) and at free safety (Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond). “It’s close,” Narduzzi said. “I think the great thing we have is we havea bunch of guys who can play for us. We’ve got guys who, if he’s not getting it done, this other guy he will.”
* The use of two offensive huddles running plays in and out during practice helps get the defense adjusted to BSU’s “fastballs” when the Broncos will take a quick snap here or there to accelerate the tempo. “The other thing,” Narduzzi said, “is we get more snaps. If we only have 8 minutes to get a (practice) period in, and if I got two huddles coming at me, I’m throwing more at our defense and plus we’re getting more reps.”
* He wants the defensive line to create “ball disruption” to tip and bat down passes when the Broncos use quick-drop passes. Lengthy linemen such as Will Gholston, Joel Heath and Hoover will need to use their hands to help cause that chaos for new BSU quarterback Joe Southwick.
* The coaching staff will play a vital role for the Spartans. In-game adustments – “series adjustments, not halftime adjustments,” Narduzzi said – will help MSU get used to what BSU is calling on offense. Some of that also falls on MLB Max Bullough to help make those alterations from the sideline. “I can tell a couple guys, do this this and this,” he added, “and they’re gonna look. And I’ll say, ‘Just tell Max to tell you what to do.’”