2009 Opponent Preview: Michigan State

The will be coming a little more quickly as I try to get them all done in short order. As always, let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed.

Michigan State Offense


The Spartans lose 2-year starter Brian Hoyer to graduation, so his backup, redshirt sophomore Kirk Cousins, will compete with fellow redshirt sophomore (and Oklahoma transfer) Keith Nichol. The loser of the QB battle will likely still see some playing time as there was no apparent separation in spring, and the Spartans also brought in Andrew Maxwell in the class of 2009.

Michigan State QBs Passing 2008
Name Comp Att % Yds TD Int Yds/Att
Brian Hoyer 180 353 50.99 2404 9 9 6.81
Kirk Cousins 32 43 74.42 310 2 1 7.21
Michigan State QBs Rushing 2008
Name Rush Yds TD Yds/Rush
Kirk Cousins 3 -12 0 -4.00
Brian Hoyer 43 -94 1 -2.19


If I were Adam Rittenberg, I’d be saying things like “Hoyer wasn’t even that good last year, so losing him means nothing.” I am not Adam Rittenberg, and therefore have a functioning brain. This leads me to posit that, if the Spartans had a better option than Hoyer (Nichol excluded, since he wasn’t eligible in his transfer year), that better option would have, like, played. Since Nichol wasn’t head-and-shoulders better than Cousins in spring, maybe the Spartans just don’t have anyone good at QB? I’m not saying they’ll be bad, but a step back from Hoyer is likely in the cards.


Javon Ringer, one of last year’s Doak Walker finalists, is off to the NFL, with a slew of younger players left to fill the void. Redshirt sophomore Andre Anderson is a little guy, senior AJ Jimmerson is bigger, and redshirt sophomore Ashton Leggett is bigger still for the Spartans. Incoming freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker are also expected to tote the rock some for MSU.

Michigan State RBs Rushing 2008
Name Rush Yds TD Yds/Rush
Javon Ringer 390 1637 22 4.20
Andre Anderson 26 97 0 3.73
AJ Jimmerson 8 14 0 1.75
Ashton Leggett 6 7 1 1.17
Glenn Winston 3 1 0 0.33
Michigan State RBs Receiving 2008
Name Rec Yds TD Yds/Rec
Javon Ringer 28 190 0 6.79
Andrew Hawken (FB) 11 81 1 7.36
Jeff McPherson (FB) 4 47 0 11.75
Josh Rouse (FB) 3 24 1 8.00
AJ Jimmerson 1 0 0 0.00


Ringer got a ton of work last year, which led to several notable events: 1) He was vastly overrated by the season-ending awards (he was one of 3 players in the top 100 rushers with lower than 4.21 ypc, and the other two were Juice Williams and a player at the offensive trainwreck called Auburn) 2) He wore down over the course of the year 3) Nobody else on the MSU depth chart got any serious work. The next-closest Spartan only got 7% of the carries that Ringer had(!). The coaching staff will likely go slightly towards a platoon-style workload this year, unless someone proves worthy of getting all those carries. There are possible thunder-and-lightning combos in there, but I suspect steadiness might be the preferred trait following Ringer’s exit.


The Spartans had a very young receiving corps last year, and they’ll be able to return everyone of note except Keshawn Martin. White Receiver Named White will be one of the starters in his senior year, with redshirt sophomore BJ Cunningham likely to be alongside him. Mark Dell was the breakout performer for State last year as a freshman, and he’ll probably get even more action in ’09.

Michigan State Receivers Receiving 2008
Name Rec Yds TD Yds/Rec
Blair White 43 659 1 15.33
BJ Cunningham 41 528 0 12.88
Mark Dell 36 679 3 18.86
Charlie Gantt (TE) 19 302 4 15.89
Keshawn Martin 11 132 0 12.00
Garrett Celek (TE) 6 50 1 8.33
Deon Curry 5 46 1 9.20
Fred Smith 1 7 0 7.00
David Duran (TE) 1 4 0 4.00
Michigan State Receivers Rushing 2008
Name Rec Yds TD Yds/Rec
Keshawn Martin 9 51 1 5.67
BJ Cunningham 4 56 0 14.00
Blair White 1 -2 0 -2.00


Michigan State will be very deep at receiver, which should help out one of their young QBs. Dell became a star during last year’s run for MSU, though he was overshadowed by the exceptional year Javon Ringer had rushing the ball. Michigan State may see less spreading of the ball with a younger quarterback, but Cousins and Nichol shouldn’t be short on options for throwing the ball.

Offensive Line


Seniors right guard Roland Martin and right tackle Jesse Miller depart, both of whom were multi-year starters. Backup left guard Mike Bacon also departs, after joining the program as a walkon. Senior Rocco Cironi will start at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Joel Foreman will play left guard, senior Joel Nitchman will play center, and the other two positions are very much up for grabs. Senior Brendan Moss will probably fill the hole at tackle, and senior John Stipek will try to hold off junior J’Michael Deane at guard.


A very odd thing I noticed about the Spartans’ offensive linemen is that fewer of them have redshirted than you’d expect at a BCS-level school. I’m not sure if that will be a factor of any sort, just an oddity. Losing two offensive linemen off a run-centric team isn’t great, but it isn’t crippling. Of course, considering that the top run threat and QB are gone as well, and it becomes a bit more troubling. Still, neither departed player got a serious sniff in the NFL draft, so the backups should be able to fill in, especially with their seniority.

Offensive Analysis

The Spartans are due for a down year offensively. It’s simply impossible to lose the two most important players, along with 2 of the best 3 offensive linemen, and not see a step back. There are plenty of players there, of course, they just need to prove they can get it done when they’re the focus in gametime. If the QB play is adequate, the Spartans should be able to get the ball to playmakers on the edges.

Michigan State Defense

Defensive Line

The Spartans lose two of their best defensive linemen in DE Brandon Long and DT Justin Kershaw. Redshirt senior Trevor Anderson, who followed Mark Dantonio to East Lansing from Cincinnati, will continue being a huge terror off the edge for opponents, and junior Oren Wilson will play a big role at defensive tackle for the third year in a row. The other two starting positions will likely be filled by Colin Neely, a slightly undersized junior at defensive end, and mondo junior Antonio Jeremiah at tackle.

Michigan State Defensive Line 2008
Name Tack TFL Sack
Brandon Long 39 7 5.5
Trevor Anderson 30 10.5 8
Justin Kershaw 28 8 3
Oren Wilson 15 1.5 0
Dwayne Holmes 14 4.5 0
Colin Neely 14 2 1
Antonio Jeremiah 8 0 0
Michael Jordan 6 0 0
Kevin Pickelman 5 0 0
Jonathan Strayhorn 4 0 0


The Spartans lose a couple important pieces up front, but return perhaps the best player in Trevor Anderson. Still, he’ll have to hope that the opposition’s offensive lines have to focus on his new linemates Neely and Jeremiah as much as they did the departed ones, or he’ll be facing plenty of double teams, and won’t be able to get into the opponents’ backfields as much as he’s accustomed to.


Junior Greg Jones is a freakin’ stud, and he’ll return to roam the middle for MSU. Fellow junior Eric Gordon and senior Adam Decker complete the trifecta of returning linebackers for a very strong squad in 2009. Brandon Denson will be a key backup as a senior.

Michigan State Linebackers 2008
Name Tack TFL Sack Int
Greg Jones 127 14 2 0
Eric Gordon 85 7.5 3 0
Adam Decker 56 6 0 0
Ryan Allison 50 2.5 0.5 0
Brandon Denson 31 1.5 1.5 0
David Rolf 9 0 0 0
Andrew Pendy 4 0 0 0


The Spartans return all three starters from a group that was pretty good to start with. This should probably be the strongest unit on the team (maybe behind receivers?), though the depth isn’t great. If more young players, including incoming freshman Chris Norman, can get involved, it should be a very good year. Will Jones have a good enough year to go early to the NFL? It’s a possibility.

Defensive Backs

Safety Otis Wiley departs, but the Spartans have a fairly strong secondary coming back. Senior Dan Fortener will return at the other safety position, junior Chris L. Rucker returns at corner, and senior Jeremy Ware returns as the other starting corner. Marcus Hyde will step into Wiley’s role as a starting safety. Ross Weaver will be the first corner off the bench.

Name Tack TFL Sack Int
Otis Wiley 78 2 0 4
Dan Fortener 69 1 0 2
Chris L. Rucker 45 4 1 2
Jeremy Ware 31 1 0 1
Marcus Hyde 31 0 0 1
Ross Weaver 28 2.5 1 1
Kendell Davis-Clark 27 0.5 0 1
Johnny Adams 21 2 0 1
Trenton Robinson 6 0 0 0
Ashton Henderson 5 0 0 0
Mike Bell 2 0 0 0
Jesse Johnson 1 0 0 0


Wiley was good enough to get some NFL looks, so losing him is definitely going to affect MSU, especially since he was a leader in the secondary. Other than that, MSU returns their most important players, so the secondary should be a strength. Of course, some of the players have been sketchy, so they had better hope for continued improvement in the offseason.

Defensive Analysis

Mark Dantonio is known as a defensively-focused coach, and he’ll have a lot to work with this season. The defensive line will be the biggest weakness, and if the Spartans can’t get to the QB, it will hurt them in the stronger areas of the defense. The linebacking corps should be excellent, so the Spartans will be able to stop teams from both running and passing.

Special Teams

The spartans return both kicking specialists. Brett Swenson will return for placekcking duties, and Aaron Bates will take care of punting.

Michigan State Kicking 2008
Name FGM FGA % Long XPM XPA %
Brett Swenson 22 28 78.57 50 34 34 100.00
Michigan State Punting 2008
Name Punts Yds Avg
Aaron Bates 71 2979 41.96


Both specialists for MSU were pretty good last year, so expect more of the same this year, if not a slight improvement. Bates might get a bit more work with the offensive production likely to decrease.

Overall Analysis

The Spartans will be very green (no pun intended) on offense this year, and very experienced on defense. Considering Mark Dantonio’s background, that probably means they’ll try to grind out wins this year. The problem, of course, is that they don’t have a Javon Ringer. If they don’t have someone step up, there could be trouble on offense. Trouble on offense could lead to trouble for defense, as the Wolverines learned last year. I don’t think the Spartan offense will be quite as bad as Michigan’s was last year, though (of course). Considering MSU was mostly outplayed for much of last year, even in some of their wins, and without Ringer to rely on, they’ll take a slight step back, unless the defense just dominates.

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13 Comments so far

  1. victor says...

    Wasn’t Keyshawn Martin a freshman last year?

  2. Tim says...

    Hmm, the NCAA stats page and the MSU roster have differing ideas on this. I’ll look into it.

  3. Forza says...

    “Wasn’t Keyshawn Martin a freshman last year?”


  4. Seer says...

    Spartan here, I think your analysis is mostly spot on.

    I saw Nichol and Cousins at the spring game, and based on the work of Cousins last year as well I think there won’t be much of a drop off in the passing game initially. The biggest factor in that department will be how the receiving corps improves on its catching abilities, as dropped passes made what could have been a good passing offense inert.

    A couple things you miss by looking at the 2008 stats is a couple of receivers who have looked great in the spring. One big thing is the transfer of TE Brian Linthicum from Clemson. Tight End should be a position of particular strength. And IIRC another young receiver, Myles (not Blair) White looked very good this spring.

    The only real concerns I have as a fan are whether the line will be strong enough to help the RB by committee manage to gain anything on the ground.

    Overall though, you’re spot on in saying the defense will be the strength of the team.

  5. witless chum says...

    Yeah, Keyshawn was a true freshman and Mark Dell was sophomore. Dell started in 2007 as a true freshman. In 2008, he torched Cal, but then had some injury and dropsy problems. “Whitey” (that’s actually his nickname, per Javon Ringer in interviews) kinda won the starting job by being the one
    guy Hoyer could count on to catch the ball.

    Deon Curry (son of Piston’s coach Michael Curry, as every human who announced an MSU game last year told me) is the one WR we lost. TE David Duran also transferred to Coastal Carolina after getting buried on the spring depth chart.

    At LB Brandon Denson is, per the spring, going to be the guy more than Adam Decker. Dantonio made a similar move for the bowl game, going with speedier Ryan Allison on the outside and moving Greg Jones to the middle. Decker did make one of the biggest plays of the year for MSU, but especially against spread teams, he didn’t play as much.

    You can scoff at the idea that Cousins/Nichol won’t be better than Hoyer, but the evidence for it would be that both looked better in the spring game than Hoyer did in his two spring game starts. (Cousins and Nichol were throwing against a depleted secondary, though) I think both guys are going to be better than Brian Hoyer at their peaks, but who knows if that’ll be this year.

  6. witless chum says...

    Should be “will be better than Hoyer”

  7. RedCedar says...

    I’m expecting big things from Martin this year; his freshman campaign was very promising. The WR position certainly looks good on paper, but they dropped way too many passes last year (see Wisconsin game).

    I’m expecting the offense to look much more like 2007 MSU than 2008 MSU. 2 RBs splitting carries and the emergence of a go-to receiver (though likely not Devin Thomas-good) is far more likely than a ton of carries to one RB. Cousins looked good in his limited time last year. Time will tell if the talent of Cousins/Nichol in this season will offset the lack of experience.

    Definitely too many questions to expect a big step forward, but I think most MSU fans would be pleased with some consistency and another solid bowl season under Dantonio.

  8. Love Thy Shadows says...

    I’m curious about your comment that MSU doesn’t red-shirt their o-linemen. Who are you talking about? Also, I believe, Kendell Davis-Clark (S) is returning this fall and rumor is that Rod Jenrette (S) is back as well.

  9. Cyclotron1 says...

    A pretty good analysis, but I take strong exception to your implying that there will be a big dropoff at QB. Many Spartan fans, myself included, were very unhappy that Dantonio stubbornly stuck with Hoyer as the starter when Cousins clearly showed more poise and is much better at throwing on the run.

    Cousins’ completion percentage is much better (although dropped passed admittedly lowered Hoyer’s percentage).

    Hoyer seemed to overthrow, underthrow and throw behind open receivers WAY too often. I, for one, won’t miss him.

    I believe the O-line will be all right; the D-line is what concerns me most.

    Thanks for the writeup.

  10. Tim says...

    Dude, if Cousins was better than Hoyer, he would have played last year. End of story.

  11. witless chum says...

    So, Mark Dantonio couldn’t make a mistake? That’s a curious position for a Michigan fan to take, but I appreciate the love for our coach. That said, I think Cyclotron is wrong about the advisability of throwing the redshirt frosh in there last year, when Hoyer was at least adequate to get us to 9-3.

    It’s possible for Cousins to have not been better than Hoyer last year, but to have improved to the point we get better QB play this year than we had last year. And Keith Nichol’s upside would be a faster, more accurate Drew Stanton who didn’t get hurt all the time. If he can take care of the ball as well as Cousins, or very close to it, I think he’ll be the starter and MSU will be in very good shape for the next three seasons.

  12. edmund says...

    Good job. TE is a position of strength, as a commentator said.

    O-line is going to be better than last year. The two guys gone aren’t even free agents with the NFL, despite having NFL size written all over them.

    That’s because Roland Martin (6’5″ 330) often just went through the motions, unlike the warrior at PSU Rich Orhrnberger; and, Jesse Miller has terrible, terrible footwork and was a big liability with speed rushers going around him.

    So the two best O-linemen are still on the team: Rocco Cironi and Joel Foreman.

    I think D-line is going to come along better than you indicate. But the RB platoon doesn’t look promising; so far no ones taken the horns of power.

  13. Tim says...

    If there were significantly better offensive linemen on the roster, they would have probably started over the players who weren’t even free-agent worthy. How often has MSU had NFL linemen at all? Not in significant quantities for quite some time. I wouldn’t presume that, just because the two lost players aren’t going to the NFL, that the guys behind them are.


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