It's Christmas Eve, and we're doing our own version of a naughty/nice list by grading each Big Ten team's regular season. We're judging the offense, defense, special teams and overall performance.
Today's degree candidate: Michigan State.
(Programming note: Posting will be very light because of Christmas Eve. No lunchtime links and no Monday Big Ten chat today).
Kirk Cousins' recent NFL success is a good reminder of what Michigan State had at quarterback the previous three seasons. That's not easily replaced, as the Spartans found out this fall. First-year starter Andrew Maxwell and a group of all new starting receivers struggled to build consistent chemistry or come up with timely plays. Meanwhile, an offensive line that some thought would be the best of Mark Dantonio's tenure was hurt by injuries, especially season-enders to tackle Fou Fonoti and Travis Jackson, and had trouble gelling. The result was an offense that ranked 107th nationally in scoring (20.2 points per game) and 11th of 12 Big Ten teams in pass efficiency. The Spartans had particular problems finding the end zone, as they scored just 21 touchdowns in 42 red zone chances and attempted 31 field goals, or six more than any other Big Ten team (and 20 more than Ohio State). The bright spot for the offense was the play of junior running back Le'Veon Bell, who led the league and finished third nationally in rushing yards (1,648) while carrying the ball more than any player in the country (350). Unfortunately, the cavalry never came to help him out.
What more could you ask from a defense? The Spartans finished fourth in the FBS in total defense and pass defense, eighth in rush defense and 10th in points allowed. Well, you could ask for some key stops at the end of games, something the defense couldn't come up with against Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan. Or maybe some more forced turnovers and sacks. But that's nitpicking from a defense that was continually put on the field in tough situations by its underachieving offensive counterparts. The reason Michigan State had a chance to win every Big Ten game (five losses by a total of 13 points) is because of the defense. Players like linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard likely would have gotten more national attention had the team gone better than 6-6.
Special teams: C-minus
First, the good. Mike Sadler had an excellent year and was our choice for the first-team All Big Ten punter. Kickoff coverage and punt returns were decent. Now the bad. Dan Conroy made 22 field goals but missed nine of them, contributing at least partially to some of those close losses. Kickoff returns were lacking. A team with this many offensive problems couldn't afford special teams breakdowns.
Michigan State came into the season with serious Rose Bowl aspirations. The way the defense played all season and how close every single league game was showed that those were not unreasonable expectations. Instead, the Spartans needed to win their final game of the season at Minnesota simply to avoid a losing record. The schedule was difficult, especially with Notre Dame and Ohio State ascending higher than anyone anticipated. But there remains no excuse for going 2-5 at home, including an 0-4 league mark at Spartan Stadium. A few plays here and there would have changed the entire outlook of the Michigan State season, but those plays weren't made, week after week. Falling so far short of expectations leaves us no choice but to give the Spartans an ugly overall grade.
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