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A college sports blog from The Oakland Press, dedicated to covering Michigan and Michigan State athletics as well as former Oakland County athletes at other schools.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let's be real: No advantage for MSU

If you were one of the many Michigan State fans who saw the interminable coverage of the Mike Leach saga this week, culminating in the quirky Texas Tech coach getting canned just days before Saturday's Alamo Bowl match-up with the Spartans, and you thought "Hmmm, maybe that will help," don't worry. You weren't alone.

But you also aren't truly thinking it through. Yes, the glare of the spotlight has been squarely turned on the Red Raiders this week — and off the Spartans and their own off-the-field, suspension-filled fiasco. And yes, that can't be comfortable for Tech players and faithful, any more than it was for State fans a month ago.

Even throwing out the obvious assertion that teams in the midst of a coaching upheaval tend to rally around an interim coach — hello, Bobby Williams — there's still not a whole lot of logic to say that the Spartans now have a better chance to beat the pass-happy Red Raiders.

Leach's firing won't make the Spartans be able to tackle any better. It won't make MSU able to rush the passer any better. And, more than likely, it won't make MSU's defense able to create turnovers any better.

In short, Leach's firing really doesn't do anything to change all — or any — of the negatives that made MSU an underdog in this game in the first place.

Sophomore safety Trenton Robinson, who started all 12 games at safety for the Spartans, was asked Monday about the biggest challenge facing Texas Tech.

"Definitely the passing game. The defensive backs are going to have to step up this week because they throw the ball all the time," the sophomore said. "We haven't played a team that passes the ball this much. It will give us a chance to make plays on the ball. Every defensive back in the country loves to face a team that throws because you get a chance to make plays."

The Spartan DBs may relish the challenge, but they haven't answered the bell against spread offenses so far this year.

Through the regular season, MSU ranked dead last in the Big Ten in pass defense (251.6 yards per game), red zone efficiency defense and passing TDs allowed (29), and one spot removed from last in pass efficiency defense (139.2). The Spartans were last in the nation in interceptions (5), next-to-last in red zone defense, and 103rd out of 120 Division I teams in pass defense.

Kinda scary numbers when you're going against the nation's No. 2 pass offense, one that rips off 381 pass yards and 37 points per game, despite losing record-setting QB Graham Harrell and first-round pick Michael Crabtree at receiver. Junior Taylor Potts was fourth-best in the nation in yards per game, throwing for 3,068 yards in just 11 games. And lest you think it's just Potts, backup Steven Sheffield threw for 490 yards and seven TDs in a 66-14 demolition of Kansas State when Potts was injured.

And while the Spartans have faced some pretty good quarterbacks already this season, they haven't exactly had stellar games against them. Five players — Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour (328), Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen (300), Minnesota's Adam Weber (416), Purdue's Joey Elliott (373) and Penn State's Darryl Clark (310) all topped the 300-yard plateau against the Spartan secondary this season.

MSU was 1-4 in those games.

Granted, MSU held opposing QBs below 200 yards four times, as well, but two of those were against overmatched opponents — Montana State and Western Michigan (you could throw Illinois in there, as well, if you wanted). In another of those games, the Spartans held Iowa's Ricky Stanzi to 138 yards and a single score — but that lone score came as time expired in the heart-rending, 15-13 loss in prime time.

"We have to be able to control the football, but more importantly, we have to be able to score," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "We have to be able to control the tempo of the game somewhat and limit their opportunities. Texas Tech has a very explosive offense, averaging 380 yards passing per game. It's a team that will take some chances, including going for it on fourth down at times. So it's going to be important for us to keep the time of possession in our favor, but that's easier said than done."

While the Spartans are 5-0 this season when winning the time-of-possession battle (and 15-3 under Dantonio) those wins came against Montana State, Michigan, Illinois, Northwestern and Western Michigan.

Not exactly a who's-who of passing prowess.

Glass-half-full thinking says this could potentially be a shootout, like the 42-34 loss to Minnesota, where Gophers QB Weber went off for a Big Ten season-best 416 yards and 5 TDs. Glass-half-empty says it may be more like the disappointing 42-14 loss to Penn State at the end of the regular season, where Clark got three of his four TD passes in a six-minute span of the third quarter, allowing the Nittany Lions to put the Spartans away early.

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