Behind Enemy Lines: Michigan State ’12

leveon bell msu
Michigan State Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell (24) warms up prior to the game against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. (Photo - Andrew Weber / US Presswire)

Just like last week, we have exchanged scouting reports with an opponent blogger to get an inside look at this weekend’s foe – Michigan State.   This week, Jim from Shaw Lane Spartans brings us his scouting report of Michigan State.


Perhaps you’ve heard of Le’Veon Bell? According to most fans outside of the Big Ten, he is MSU’s entire offense. Bell opened his season by touching the ball an unbelievable 55 times against Boise State. In that game he rushed 44 times for 210 yards and caught the ball six times for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns. Against Central Michigan he rushed 18 times for a more pedestrian 80 yards and two touchdowns. Backing up Bell is Senior Larry Caper. Caper has struggled with injury on and off throughout his career but appears to be completely healthy for the first time since 2010.  His YPC has improved to 6.4 after averaging under 3.9 for his first three seasons, but will be used primarily in relief of Bell.

Interestingly, Caper and Bell have lined up in an I-Formation as the Fullback and Tailbackrespectively. Caper at 220 lbs is not the size of a traditional fullback. So the advantage is that both Caper and Bell are excellent third down backs with great hands and pass blocking ability. So far this formation has only been used for designed runs, but expect MSU to use this formation to do some run/pass pre-snap trickeration against Notre Dame.

At quarterback, Andrew Maxwell has assumed the reins from Captain Kirk Cousins. Cousins has gone on to an alternate universe in where he does not overthrow Larry Caper in ND’s endzone in the final minute of the 2009 MSU – ND game. Maxwell had a bumpy first half against Boise State in which he threw three picks. He rebounded nicely against BSU going 11 of 16 in the second half. Against Central he was 20 of 31 for 275 yards and 2 TDs and looked far more comfortable in the offense despite playing in his first road game. In both games it’s taken time to establish a rhythm in the passing game.

Much like Notre Dame, MSU has a potential All-American at Tight End. Dion Sims goes 6’5” and 285”(closer to 300 than 270) and he can run. MSU’s favorite trick with him so far this season has been to have him run a five yard curl on 3rd and 7 and muscle out the other two yards. Sims is Maxwell’s safety blanket and he’ll see plenty of targets this weekend.

At receiver, MSU will have an embarrassment of riches either later this year or in 2013.  In the meantime, the WR corps of 2011 will be greatly missed. Bennie Fowler is emerging as Maxwell’s favorite go to target, but after that you will see some combination of Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett, DeAnthony Arnett, MacGarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge and Andre Sims Jr. They’re most likely to play in the order they were just listed. Mumphery looks solid against CMU. Arnett is challenging Lippett for playing time.

Expect the MSU offense to come out and unleash a heavy dose of Bell to help Maxwell find his offensive rhythm. ND’s front seven will be among the toughest MSU will play this season, add to that a young ND secondary and you can see why MSU will have an interest in transitioning the offense from All-Bell-All-Day to a more balanced attack quickly. If ND is able to get the blitz home and prevent Maxwell from establishing a rhythm while holding Bell in check it could be a long day for MSU on Offense.


How good is the MSU defense? The answer is that even MSU fans don’t really know yet. We do know that of the 20 points allowed to the opposition this year, three can be attributed to the defense. The other 17 are comprised of two pick-sixes and an interception that gave Boise the ball on MSU’s 15.  The tea leaves read well, but this will be MSU’s first test against a BCS quality offense.

MSU plays almost exclusively out of a 4-3 with exception of 3rd and Long where they move into a 3-3-5 package that they call their Delta package.  If it’s not 3rd and long, MSU will be in a 4-3. If you run five wide, it’ll be a 4-3, if it’s triple option it’ll still be a 4-3. The principles of the MSU defense are simple alignments and crazy blitz packages.

The defensive line suffers the loss of Jerel Worthy, but returns three starters in William Gholston, Marcus Rush and Anthony Rashad White. Junior Micajah Reynolds has taken over Worthy’s spot and is playing as well as anyone else on the line. This line is huge, they outweigh the Detroit Lions starting four by twenty pounds. Yet, they have one sack on the season and didn’t get great push in the run game against CMU. We come back to it being difficult to know whether this is in part of because of the loss of Worthy or because MSU was playing extremely vanilla offense.

Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman all return at the Linebacker position. Denicos Allen finished fourth in sacks in the NCAA in 2011 and hasn’t yet had much chance to pin his ears back and go into quarterback kill mode. He’ll be fine when it’s time. Bullough is the quarterback of the defense, prior to every play you’ll see him moving guys into position and filling gaps. Norman excels in pass coverage and will be tasked with defending Tyler Eifert when he’s not split wide.

The secondary also returns three of four starters.  Johnny Adams is a preseason first round draft buzz type guy and Isaiah Lewis shows NFL flashes at the Safety position. Darqueze Dennard has played well and is a second year starter. The free safety position will be filled by one of Jairus Jones, Kurtis Drummond or RJ Williamson. Think of this as a position filled with three B- players. All are a bit above average, but none are significantly better than the others.

MSU has yet to deal with a rushing attack as varied as Notre Dame’s trio of running backs. Last year MSU had some success slowing down the Notre Dame rushing game, but it didn’t matter much since MSU kept shooting itself in the foot on offense. I expect MSU to hold Notre Dame in check running the ball, but not dominate like they did against a few teams last year.

In the passing game, MSU will do what it does against all of it’s opponents. It will try to defend short simple passes and leave their corners in one-on-one coverage in low percentage passing situations. If Golson tries to run, MSU will leave it’s DE’s in contain and force him to the middle of the field. Rees was very successful against MSU last year, so I’d almost rather see the freshman in his first “road” start play the whole game.

Special Teams

MSU’s special teams play this year has been solid but not spectacular. Punter Mike Sadler has managed to beef his yards per punt up to 44 from 40.7 last year, however, MSU sits 95th nationally in net punting average at 32.7. Kicker Dan Conroy is 3/5 on the season and regression to the mean for him will include an improvement(his season averages so far are 90 percent and 78 percent). He’s got the leg for anything inside of 50 and has made a 53 yarder previously. Nick Hill is the kick returner for MSU and is averaging 23.4 yards per return, good for 40th in the nation. He’s been looking ready to break one the past couple games, obviously I can’t predict whether or not ND will be the game, but don’t be surprised if it is.

Final Analysis

Michigan State will be a scary team later this year. Right now ND is coming in at a time where the Offense has not definitively gelled yet and the Defense hasn’t been challenged enough to verify their quality yet. This game will provide a great measuring stick for how far MSU has come in relation to BCS quality competition.

For MSU to win the game, on offense they must successfully move the ball in the first quarter while Maxwell finds a rhythm. Bell will need to continue to pound out quality yards on first down and put Maxwell into manageable down and distance. If the down and distance can stay manageable and control turnovers MSU will be able to score plenty.

On defense MSU must contain the run and force Golson to throw the ball long by taking away short and intermediate routes. Chris Norman will have to have an excellent game to contain Tyler Eifert. Expect MSU to have more success than last year in this department if for no other reason than it’s unlikely the defense won’t get hung out to dry as often as they did last year.

Going to the Game?

Our friend Pete assembled a great EL visitor’s guide over at The Only Colors. You should check it out for tips on where to get Burgers, Beer, you know, the essentials. We sit in the row across from one of the visiting sections at Spartan Stadium and have always really enjoyed when Notre Dame comes to town. Enjoy the game and we’ll see you on the other side.

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  1. Guys, keep manti te’o in your thoughts and prayers. The guy is going through a tough time. He has lost his grandmother and girlfriend this week. Have to admire his strength and courage to still be strapping the pads on this weekend. For all negativity and bad things that we hear about around college football, #5 represents all that is good about it. I wish we had him for another 4yrs.

    1. Hi guys,

      I wrote the above post. I didn’t read about Teo until this morning. I’m sorry for that young man and hope that getting back into a routine on the football field can help him deal with the pain of his losses.

      As long as he’s not routinely kicking MSU’s ass too badly. 🙂

      Enjoy the game, I’m really looking forward to this one.

  2. For some time now, ND hasn’t had much success with ranked teams.

    We will play 2 ranked teams in the next two weeks.

    The oppertunity to make some big moves in the rankings is here.

    The oppertunity to break out and stake a claim is now.

    Let’s take them one at a time, and let’s take care of business.

  3. I hope I am wrong, but I see MSU having an edge both in offense and defense. We’ll know if Purdue was any good when we see how well our run offense works on Saturday.

    I fear that if the offense doesn’t get rolling a bit, that the defense will wear out. And I am still concerned about our pass coverage.

    We’ll see but this may be a trip game. I hope not.

  4. Interesting photographic angle, #24 looks like the jolly green giant. If we stuff the run and bring the heat on the QB (WE WIN), Jack is going to owe me a beer. It tastes good already just thinking about it. Killian’s Irish Red, Thank you Jack!

    Here come the Irish!

  5. It seems to me that both of these teams are as close to evenly matched up as you’ll find. It’s all going to come down to who plays smarter, and doesn’t turn the ball over. I think the X-Factor here is Eifert. I don’t care what linebacker it is, you won’t be able to cover this guy one on one. And if MSU is going to rely on one on one on the outside all game, even with Eifert out there, MSU is in for a treat when jump ball after jump ball is thrown. All Golson has to do is get the ball to where he can make a play (keeping it in-bounds) and more times than not, he will come down with the ball.

    This should be one hell of a game.

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