In this week’s edition of The B1G Picture we head to East Lansing and examine the Michigan State Spartans. Chris Vannini, managing editor of The Only Colors was gracious enough to answer some questions for us regarding a preview of upcoming season for the Spartans, what Pat Narduzzi’s career path may entail, conference realignment, and the image of Wisconsin in Michigan State country.
BuckAround (BA): 2012 was up and down for the Spartans. Was this simply a transition year or are there serious questions on offense? How confident are you in Andrew Maxwell? Do you expect to see significant development this year?
Chris Vannini (CV): The problems were for several reasons. The offensive line was decimated by injuries and couldn’t block, and this didn’t give the inexperienced quarterback much time to throw. Maxwell didn’t always have the best throws, but plenty of good ones resulted in drops by the inexperienced receivers. Le’Veon Bell had great individual numbers, but MSU wasn’t a good running team. Throw in questionable play-calling and design at times, and you’ve got a whole bunch of yack.
The good news is there’s nowhere to go but up. Maxwell is probably the No. 1 QB right now, but he didn’t look great in the spring game, and more fans are clamoring for backup Connor Cook, who isn’t as good a passer, but seems to make quicker decisions and is much more mobile. I’m of the belief that, with a good line and good receivers, Maxwell could be really, really good. But if the offense keeps breaking down, Cook’s better at making plays out of nothing. Maxwell might be the better quarterback, but Cook might be the better fit.
BA: Regarding the spring game, what did you take away from both sides of the ball? Any new players catch your eye?
CV: We only saw the spring game, but there were stats for the other two scrimmages. As expected, the defense appears to be very, very good, while the offense has plenty of questions that weren’t answered. Maxwell had good stats in the two scrimmages, but his yards-per-attempt remains low. One problem fans had with him last year was too many checkdowns and short passes, often on 3rd-and-long. All the quarterbacks were bad in the spring game, with Cook making more big plays. But that’s why I’m leaning toward him.
Defensively, the two open spots were quickly filled by sophomores Shilique Calhoun (DE) and Trae Waynes (CB). Both look really good on a defense stacked with playmakers.
(I’ll touch on the running backs below)
BA: The offensive scheme in 2012 seemed to have 3 plays: Le’Veon Left, Le’Veon Middle, Le’Veon Right. Is there someone who can fill the void left by his departure for the NFL?
CV: The returning running backs did so little in spring that redshirt freshman linebacker Riley Bullough moved to running back and put up decent numbers. He’s kinda like Mark Weisman at Iowa. There are some really good true freshmen coming in, and they’ll certainly get chances for carries. But I think this needs to be a pass-first offense.
BA: What is the feeling about Jim Bollman as the new Offensive Coordinator in East Lansing? He didn’t leave Ohio State on the best terms.
CV: Well, he’s not really the offensive coordinator. Ohio State fans couldn’t believe the hire, but he’s actually co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. He’s not calling the plays. That goes to co-offensive coordinator / running backs coach Dave Warner, who has been with Dantonio for a long time and was promoted from quarterbacks coach. Warner has promised to open things up. In the first half of the spring game, MSU showed a lot of new formations, which was nice. The second half was all vanilla stuff, so we’ll see how much is real. It seems like Bollman is more about helping design plays and the like. I’m not totally sure what his role is, and I don’t know how much he brings to recruiting.
BA: Michigan State is identified largely with its defense lately. How much of that is a product of Dantonio vs. Pat Narduzzi? Dantonio alluded to the idea of Narduzzi succeeding him one day as head coach; is Narduzzi at Michigan State for the long term?
CV: I think it’s both. Dantonio is a former defensive back and was the defensive coordinator on Ohio State’s national championship team, while Narduzzi has been with him for a long time. Narduzzi added the title of “associate head coach,” and I’m sure Dantonio wants him to succeed him. But that’s going to depend on what jobs Narduzzi is offered. He’s only going to leave MSU for a BCS conference head coaching job. If he’s not offered anything great, he’ll stay. If it’s a good job, it’d be hard to turn it down. I have no idea how much longer Dantonio wants to coach, but it’s still going to be for a while. A perfect scenario would be Narduzzi following, but I don’t know how likely that will be.
BA: Having to go through the gauntlet of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in order to compete for a conference championship seems like a daunting task. How do Spartans fans feel about the newly aligned divisions? Are they fair?
CV: I mean, they’re fair in the sense that they’re perfectly split, geographically. I think most MSU fans wanted to be in the West for obvious reasons, but that’s not what it is, and MSU has to face the new challenge head-on. It certainly will make for a tougher road, but it will make things more exciting with so many high-profile matchups. If you have to join ‘em, beat ‘em.
BA:What is the image of Wisconsin – both as a fan base and a football team – amongst Spartans fans? Does the arrival of Gary Andersen and his new staff change this at all?
CV: MSU loves Wisconsin, from a respect standpoint. It seemed we finally had a rival that took us seriously and created plenty of classic games. While Michigan and Ohio State grabbed the headlines, MSU and Wisconsin had quietly gone on winning, doing things the same way. Dantonio has said he modeled his program after Wisconsin and Iowa. I even tried to dub it a border battle, because MSU’s longest border is actually with Wisconsin in the Upper Peninsula. It seemed we really had a rivalry brewing, and putting MSU in the West would have kicked things up a notch.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like our teams will be meeting anytime soon (in the regular season, at least). So there goes all the rivalry momentum. As for Gary Andersen, I thought it was a great hire, given the tough situation Barry Alvarez was in. I think he’ll do a good job there, but he probably won’t get to measure up against MSU for some time.
BA: What is your take on Bret Bielema's surprise departure to Arkansas? Is this part of the larger SEC-as-the-dominant-conference narrative or something else? Who is the coaching villain now that Bielema is gone?
CV: It completely shocked me. From what I’ve gathered, it was a few things. Bielema was coaching with a bunch of new assistants last year because the school wouldn’t give him more money to keep them. Bielema’s salary at Arkansas isn’t much higher than it was in Madison, but his assistants pool is much bigger. He was even able to prevent a coach from leaving for Alabama. Reaching three straight Rose Bowls, he had basically reached the pinnacle at Wisconsin. There wasn’t a whole lot left to accomplish. But he didn’t feel safe they could stay there with the possibility of so much coaching turnover. Arkansas and the SEC certainly is a new challenge, and I think he welcomed that. We will miss his clock management skills.
As for the villain, I think just about everyone would have to say it’s Urban Meyer. He’s ruthless, and he wins big. Those are the keys for a villain.
Chris Vannini is the managing editor of The Only Colors and is the lead writer for CoachingSearch.com. He also writes a weekly guest column for the Detroit Free Press. He can be found on Twitter and WordPress.