Coming off a less than sharp season opener last Friday against Youngstown St., Spartan Football wanted to make a strong and clear statement on this late Summer Saturday, and they wanted to make it early.

After the opening kick and a brief “3 and out” from a younger Florida Atlantic than MSU faced last year, the Spartans drove down for their first 6 of the day rather swiftly.  In those 3 plays and 3:23 of possession, MSU saw B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) set an individual school record for receptions, and the Spartans set the tone for their firm thumping of the still fledgling Owls’ program.

It didn’t take Cunningham long to notch career catch 149, and he did it in signature style by cradling the ball in while laying his back.  Cunningham is now in the books as one of the all-time greats at “Wide Receiver U,” and some of his most famous catches have featured his basketball developed hands.  He is once again a terrific tribute to the value of a Red-Shirt season.

The Spartans weren’t quite perfect though, as evidenced by a brief rough stretch that included a False Start Penalty and subsequent burned Time Out.  Yet, featuring a good mix of The BBC (Running Back Firm of Le’Veon Bell (So.), Edwin Baker (Jr.), and Larry Caper (Jr.)) and little underneath crossing routes, the Spartans were up 14-0 after 15:00.  The outcome was predictable from there.

The solid start set up an opportunity for Andrew Maxwell (Rs.-So QB) to take the snaps as the 2nd Quarter began.  Maxwell opened up looking sharp in completing 3 straight confidence boosting passes, and barely missing a fourth to Cunningham that would’ve been another highlight making TD.  Maxwell looks to have all the tools the Spartans need to keep the program moving forward in 2012, though that’s still a pretty long way off.

The Midland (MI) signal caller showed off some speed, some zip, and good command.  He will have plenty to build on, of course, such as figuring out when to slide out of a scramble and when to head out of bounds to avoid heavy contact.  It was great to see Maxwell (5/7, 55 yards) finally get some time with the “1s”, and nice to see him get time later with guys he should be playing with in the years to come.

At the 10:44 mark of the 2nd, MSU was up 17-0 (> 2 scores), and the Owls failed to put up much of a competitive fight from there.  FAU couldn’t match-up up-front, feature youth at many key positions, and are still a real work in progress.  Worse, they found no spark needed early to hang around long with the more talented Spartans.  They were shut out on 3rd down for the 1st half (0-5), and only stopped the Spartans twice (2-8) on a drive’s extending down.

After the outstanding Spartan D stopped FAU late in the half and Mark Dantonio used his final Time Out to save some clock, Keshawn Martin turned about a 15 yard punt return into a 35 yard return, and set State up with a shot to extend their Half-Time lead beyond 3 scores (> 24 points).  Three plays, and two Dion Sims (Rs.-So. TE) catches later, MSU was up 27-0, and had completed the message they set out to deliver earlier today.  Sims TD catch looked to be a glimpse into the future, as the 6 “5, 275 pound beast lined up wide and pulled in a soft fade pass from Cousins for his first of the year.

The Defense contributed to that statement as well, in a huge way, by limiting FAU to 48 total yards for the day (26 in the 1st Half), one 1st down, and offering up MSU’s first Defensive shut out since 2008 (17-0 over FAU in a 2-inch rain storm).  FAU went zero for 3rd down on the day, and didn’t look threatening at all.  Though MSU didn’t turn the Owls over until mid-way through the 4th (Jeremy Langford’s (Rs.-Fr. DB) fumble recovery-TD), it was nearly a perfect game for the rapidly strengthening Spartan D.

As a bonus, Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi was able to work in a number of young Spartan Dawgs that need more in-game experience like Langford, the fumble causer Kurtis Drummond (Rs.-Dr. S), Tony Lippett (Rs.-Fr.), and Taiwan Jones (Fr. LB).  Defensive depth looks like it’s going to become a staple in East Lansing over the next couple of years.

The pass rush showed signs of progress too as Jerel Worthy (Rs-Jr. DT) notched his first sack of the year and others like Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr DE) and William Gholston (So. DE) did some Quarterback chasing of their own.  Coming off his 15 tackle week-one effort, Max Bullough (So. LB) again led the Defense and earned his share of credit for the MSU dominant defensive performance.

Before the opening kick of the 2nd Half, the outcome was already determined.  Along with the Defensive score, the 2nd Half featured more of Maxwell (though curiously not quite as much as you might have expected), more young players, and three more Spartan scores along the way to the 44-0 slaughtering.  The Spartans’ overall message for the day had come over very loud and clear.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The Spartans are stacked throughout the Offense, and especially again at the Tight End spot.  Spartan Nation criticized the Offense over the last couple of seasons for under utilizing the talent at that position.  Last year, however, most of the key catches of the season (ex. Little Giants) were grabbed by a Tight End, Charlie Gantt.  This year MSU again has NFL potential in Dion Sims (Rs.-So), Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr.), and Garrett Celek (Rs.-Sr.).  Look for this unit to sniff dominance at times, and be a successful part of arguably the highest octane Offense in the Big Ten.

MSU worked one of their primary initiatives today as they ground down FAU for 187 yards rushing.  Bell got going a bit early on, Baker showed his explosive burst and speed, and Caper and even Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB) got in the mix as well as the Spartan backs continued to develop going into their first big test next week in South Bend.

Though the BBC (plus its Junior Associate) must build up steam heading towards the meat of the schedule, other members of the Offense need to stay involved as well.  This Offense has many weapons, but only one ball to share.  Therefore, a directed effort is needed to keep all of those weapons warm and ready to go.  That’s a nice problem to have, and is not one that Spartan Nation should take for granted.  Today it was nice to see more guys get touches (Ex. Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR), Sims, etc.).

Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) had a strong bounce back effort today.  Martin caught 7 balls for 72 yards before coming up a bit limp, and showed off his incredible balance and feet when working in tight spaces.  Martin is as natural a playmaker as we’ve ever seen in Green, but every player needs confidence. It looked a smart move on Offensive Coordinator Dan Roushar’s part to get K-Mart going early (103 all-purpose yards in the 1st half).

When you have such a physical advantage over another team, there’s little reason to pull out any of the best of your playbook.  If you do, you end up giving the Iowa’s, Nebraska’s, and Notre Dame’s even more material to work with.  Next week may reveal some of that playbook, but MSU might also catch a wobbly bunch of Domer defenders on their heels and ripe for home field face plant.

Defense

It seems a Defense always looks better when they’re not playing against a “dink and dunk” team, but today was pretty special.  There are usually not as many completions, not as many yards gained, and often not as much of a time of possession imbalance when facing a more “standard” attack.  Today this unit was dominant all game long.  FAU had only 22 rushing, 26 passing, were stuffed on 3rd downs, and only had one 1st down  for the day.  One!  FAU had no shot to move the ball effectively, no matter who took their snaps.

The weekly competition for “The Bone” (essentially MSU’s hitter of the week award) will be fierce all season long.  The Spartans have explosive players up front, in the middle, and certainly on the back line.  Guys like Isiah Lewis (So. DB), Darqueze Dennard (So. CB), and Denicos Allen (So. LB) will be competing regularly to earn that defensive prize.  Keep an eye on who’s got “The Bone” from week-to-week.

But of course, the D needs to completely shy away from trying to make the big “Sports Center” type hit that has plagued them in the past.  Since the 2nd half of the YSU game, this unit has tackled solidly, but will be tested next week when they go on the road to face an erratic Notre Dame Offense that does feature some real skill and size.

Though it was tough to tell much today, the Spartan Secondary appears to be coming into form with each passing snap.  Look for this unit to get tighter and more difficult to score on as the season goes on.  As Spartan Nation expects a big jump in the pass rush from the front four, the down-in-down-out play of the back end of this Defense should also be expected to raise their game through 2011.

Special Teams

This unit needed a strong performance after last week’s rocky start.  Mitchell White (Jr. DB) got that off to a good start with a big hit on the game’s opening kickoff.  Dan Conroy (Jr. PK) and his battery (the Long Snapper and Holder) got back on track with a 50-yard Field Goal early in the 2nd Quarter, a 41-yarder a few minutes before the half, but then hit the post to miss on a 28-yarder early in the 3rd.  Though Conroy might not be counted on quite as much as he was in 2011, the stakes have been raised, and he will need to make clutch kicks if the Spartans are to make the December trip to Indy.

The entire Special Teams unit will remain a critical unit for the 2011 Spartans if they want to make their dreams of playing in Indy for a repeat Big Ten title into a reality.

Overall

MSU looked much better today, but next week the 2011 season really does begin.  No game is bigger on a national scale than Notre Dame.  Whether or not they’ve been a perennial power in the last 20 years, the ND label still has heavy clout for middle aged and older Americans.  It does not, however, carry near the weight with the Gen-X and Millenial crowd.

For Captain Kirk Cousins, this will be somewhat of a redemption trip.  One of Cousins’ roughest moments in Green and White came in South Bend as the Spartans drove towards a game-winning drive in the 2009 game.  Cousins was picked off deep in Irish territory, which put an end to a potentially heroic final drive, and helped send the ’09 season into more turbulent waters.

Cousins has been looking forward to his return to South Bend since probably late that Saturday night nearly two years ago.  Look for him to lead the Spartans with focus into the stadium occasionally referred to as “Spartan Stadium South,” and look for him to take care of business against the Irish next week in a pretty convincing fashion.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. The Spartan head looks great at mid-field, and each block “S” looks nice down by the 30s.  But the font of the “S” still doesn’t make sense to me.  Michigan State now has its own unique “Spartan” font, which is featured all over the football field.  It’s on the jerseys, it’s in the end zone, it’s on the painted yard markers, etc.  It would seem time to modernize the block “S” and put them in the “Spartan” font as well.  It otherwise looks quite out of place.
  2. It’s hard to find a better looking football game than Alabama-Penn St.  The uniforms of those two classics have hardly changed over the years, and as result, have become timeless.  So much of the identity of those Universities, not just football teams, is wrapped up in the look of those helmets and those uniforms.

 *Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum