The Frogs are in Tempe about to play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which, despite the stupid name, is the most prestigious non-BCS bowl the Frogs have been in the the Patterson era. What a difference a conference change makes, huh? As a result the Frogs are thrown in against not the WAC like last year, but the Michigan State Spartans of the mighty Big Ten. Happily MSU also has an SBNation blog, The Only Colors, who were kind enough to agree to an information exchange before the game. My answers to their questions can be found here, while their answer man Chris Vannini answered my questions below.
HawkeyedFrog: Michigan State was a popular pick to win the Big Ten this year, especially after kicking things off with a bludgeoning win over Boise State. Things didn't quite work out that way though, as the Spartans head into the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 6-6 instead of the Rose Bowl. What happened this season to have State fall so short of expectations?
Chris Vannini: The Boise State game turned out to be the best performance of the season. From that point on, pretty much every part of the passing game fell apart, and as good as the defense was, they couldn't get the stop at the end when it was needed most. MSU became the second team in FBS history to play seven straight games decided by four points or less, going 2-5 in that span. I guess you could call it payback for all the games the Spartans pulled out of their ass in the previous two years (Little Giants fake field goal vs. Notre Dame and Hail Mary vs. Wisconsin to name a few). It seems MSU gets all or none of the breaks in a given year, having gone 6-7 with a ton of close losses in 2009 and picking up almost all the close wins in 2010 and 2011.
Sure, the offense has been a trainwreck at times, but the Spartans were a missed field goal in the final seconds/overtime away from beating both Iowa and Michigan. They also had a home game against Nebraska wrapped up before a terrible penalty on an INT return wiped out a TD in the fourth quarter, and MSU went on to blow a 10-point lead (aided by another bad call before the winning play). MSU was by no means a great team, but they had quite a bit of bad luck, too.
HawkeyedFrog: The analysts seem to be thinking that this game will be a defensive slugfest (or a display of incompetent offenses). What will your offense be bringing to the table to try and keep an SEC game from breaking out?
Chris Vannini: Well, it's obviously going to start with Le'Veon Bell and the running game. The offense line was decimated by injuries early in the year, but came on in the final three weeks, as it did a year ago. Bell was one of the leading rushers in the nation, though that was partially due to the sheer number of carries. He doesn't have the breakaway speed, but follows blocks really well (when they're there) and does a great job of avoiding straight-on hits. Even in games where he was shut down, he rarely had carries for loss. He's powerful and shifty, but much better running off tackle or out of the shotgun where he can wait for a hole to develop.
As for the passing game, it's pretty ugly. Andrew Maxwell was supposed to be no dropoff from Kirk Cousins, but that clearly wasn't the case. He wasn't as bad as the numbers, though. He does a good job of holding onto the ball, but dealt with a shoulder injury for the final two games (which coincided with a few too many interceptions). He also isn't helped out by his receivers. MSU had to replace its three leading receivers and two tight ends from a year ago with receivers with little game experience. Freshman Aaron Burbridge came on in Big Ten play and is a budding star, but has to work on route-running. Tight end Dion Sims is the most talented of the bunch and is a matchup nightmare (and a 2013 NFL Draft pick if he leaves early). Elsewhere, Keith Mumphrey and Tony Lippett are young, talented and inconsistent receivers. Bennie Fowler is the most experienced.
MSU is going to try to run to set up the pass, although they've generally been better doing it the other way around. Fans are not happy with the offensive coordinator.
HawkeyedFrog: The Michigan State defense has been excellent this year, allowing a high of only 27 points (I'm not counting Nebraska, that PI call was absolute BS). What's the scheme and who are the dangermen that Frog fans need to know? How should TCU attack the MSU defense?
Chris Vannini: MSU is a very aggressive defense that loves to blitz from all angles. It returned nine starters from last year's Outback Bowl group that was one of the best in the country, and they again are near the top in most defensive categories. But with a defense this aggressive, the way to beat it is use the aggressiveness against them. Indiana threw nothing but screens and jumped out 17-0 in the blink of an eye before MSU adjusted. Screens, reverses, stuff like that has been successful at various times. If the pressure doesn't get there (and it has been inconsistent), the deep ball has victimized MSU quite a bit.
William Gholston gets a lot of the headlines, but the other defensive end, Marcus Rush has had a comparable year. Middle linebacker Max Bullough is the quarterback of the whole thing and one of the best MLBs in the country. Linebacker Denicos Allen is a frequent blitzer, as is cornerback Johnny Adams. Darqueze Dennard, a junior, has supplanted Adams as the best corner on the team in the eyes of many, but the duo certainly is one of the best in the country, as well. The DTs haven't been as good as a year ago, which is why the pressure has been inconsistent.
HawkeyedFrog: Mark Dantonio seems like a good fit for MSU and has done a lot to dispell the "Sparty No!" meme that seemed to work itself deep into MSU culture under John L. Smith. With a disappointing season this year though, how secure is Dantonio? If "Big brother" Michigan's resurgence is for real does that change things?
Chris Vannini: Barring some unforeseen JLS-esque collapses, Dantonio can coach at MSU until he retires, which is very probable. People have screamed for the heads of some coordinators during his six years, but he was absolutely the perfect hire for MSU. Anybody who thinks Dantonio is on any sort of hot seat is nuts. The one consistent thing in MSU's football history has been inconsistency. Dantonio has come in and made a school-record six straight bowls, won the school's first Big Ten championship since 1990, beat Michigan four straight years and brought respect back to the program. He has won at every Big Ten school except Nebraska (with just once chance) over six years. They were inches away from a Rose Bowl each of the last two years. They would have made it in 2010 under 2009 rules and in 2011 under 2010 rules. Plus, 2010 Ohio State turned out to be ineligible Really just unlucky from that aspect. But there finally is stability in East Lansing.
As for Michigan's resurgence, it was bound to happen, but it really isn't going to change the projection of MSU. Dantonio's program has been built on the backs of three-star recruits who didn't get offers from the bigger names. MSU had six guys drafted in the last NFL Draft, and five of them were given three stars or fewer out of high school. Dantonio and staff do a great job of developing players and putting them in situations to succeed, and that isn't going to change. Michigan and Ohio State were pulling in better classes even with both struggled, so the players MSU brings in aren't going to change much. Did they hit a ceiling with 11-win seasons the past two years? Maybe, but that a pretty high ceiling.
HawkeyedFrog: The Big Ten has a national perception of being obsessed with the Rose Bowl- As a fan of a team that's been there recently, it was pretty awesome but I'd have much preferred beating the stuffing out of Auburn and getting a Crystal football for our undefeated season. Are Spartan fans Rose Bowl mad, or are national championship shots and/or beating Michigan more important?
Chris Vannini: It's hard to say. The Big Ten is falling so far behind that the national championship some years isn't a realistic goal for any team. For MSU, they're not thinking national championship. Beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl last year was great for the program's perception, but the national championship is played at such a higher level that the Rose Bowl is goal No. 1 for most teams (MSU hasn't made it since the 1987 season). Ohio State could very well contend for national championships again, and maybe Michigan. The conference clings to the Rose Bowl claiming the tradition, but the real reason is because the national championship ain't happening. That said, I don't like saving the Rose Bowl by screwing up the playoff system that is coming. I would like MSU to get there before it turns into a playoff game, though.
HawkeyedFrog: Finally, prediction time. What's the score in this one and how do we get there?
Chris Vannini: Man, I really do see this one being ugly. Perhaps both teams score early, but this will settle into a slugfest. This is certainly harder to predict, given I haven't seen much of TCU. If there's one thing I know will happen, it's that this game will be close and come down to the end of the fourth quarter. Every MSU game does. I can't really give you a schematic or play-by-play prediction, but I think MSU finally comes through at the end and holds on for a 16-13 win. Outside of the bludgeoning by Alabama after the 2010 season, MSU has played pretty well in bowl games under Dantonio. Expect a trick play or two.
HawkeyedFrog: Seems like we'll have a chance to break the "Trick Plays that work embarrassingly well against us in Bowl Games" streak in this one frog fans, but if the specter of the trick play doesn't scare you, MSU's defense should. This game is going to be tight throughout, so let's hope the frogs can stay out in front. Our thanks to Chris Vannini for answering our questions, and good luck to the Spartans... next year.