September 27, 2012

Q&A: Scouting the Spartans

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Ohio State football team will be heading up north this weekend to face what could potentially be its toughest opponent of the 2012 season. In order to get a better understanding of the Buckeyes' foe for their top-20 matchup this week- the No. 20 Michigan Spartans- I took the time to talk to Jim Comparoni of to get his take on this Saturday's game.

BG: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's referred to this week's game as a rivalry game. Obviously Michigan is a bigger for both schools, but do you get the sense up there that Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has the same attitude?

JC: It's a big game for Mark Dantonio every year. It's not a hate-based rivalry like MSU-Michigan, it's more of a respect rivalry. It's been different the last couple of years because his old friend and mentor Jim Tressel is no longer there. He said on Tuesday that it's easier in a way, now, because his friend is no longer the head coach.


There is a lot of respect up here in East Lansing for The Horseshoe, Carmen Ohio and all of it. Dantonio of course was part of the 2002 National Championship at OSU, and current offensive line coach Mark Staten was a G.A. for the Buckeyes back then, and I don't have to tell you about MSU linebackers coach Mike Tressel. Even the fans root like crazy for Ohio State to beat Michigan every year, so in that regard both programs and fanbases have a common enemy. 

Dantonio's connection to the OSU program of course is far different now, and there is maybe even some tension dating back to last year when Urban Meyer recruited a Michigan State commitment, Se'Von Pittman, and was able to get Pittman to renege and sign with Ohio State. Most things are fair in love, war and college football recruiting, but that signaled a clear change to Dantonio. In the past, when Dantonio had a commitment from an Ohio player he could usually count on OSU being hands-off from that point forward. To Ohio State's credit, it's not that way anymore. 

So the rivalry has sparked anew on the recruiting trail a bit.

Michigan State will always have a lot of Ohioans on the roster, trying to prove something to Ohio State. It's a rivalry for those players, and the rest of the roster rallies around them for their goals in this game. For instance, last year senior captain Trenton Robinson, who is from Bay City, Mich., stepped aside during his usual pre-game hype-up routine with the defensive backs and allowed Ohioan Johnny Adams to run the drill. That meant a lot to Adams and helped get the rest of the secondary fired up. They play for one another a little bit differently in this game. 

BG: Last year's battle between the two teams was one of the uglier in college football all season. The Buckeyes seem to have have a more competent offense this year and the Spartans have an All-American candidate in Le'Veon Bell. Do you expect a prettier game to be played this week?

JC: Ugly? That was beautiful, baby. Good defense, rain, cold, hard hits, bad punt snaps. What's not pretty about that?

I agree that OSU is better on offense this year. OSU was still trying to figure out the Joe Bauserman situation last year, and Braxton Miller was in his infancy. 

If it's going to be a prettier game this year, I think Miller is going to need to spread it around and get some help. Michigan State's fast, hard-hitting, zone-based defense usually matches up well with running quarterbacks.

As for Michigan State, the Spartan offense has been marred by dropped passes this year, in every single game. 

I'm not forecasting "pretty" for this year's game.

BG: One of the reasons last year's game was so ugly- at least from an Ohio State perspective- is that the Buckeyes gave up nine sacks to the Spartan's defense.Through four games, how has the MSU defensive line looked and do you expect similar pressure to be applied to Braxton Miller on Saturday?

JC: Michigan State's defense again looks like a Top 10 defense, but pass rush is one ares that has been lacking. Michigan State has only three sacks on the year. I believe that ranks something like No. 110 in the nation. 

MSU hasn't faced many pocket-pass situations this year. Opponents have specialized in getting rid of the ball quickly. MSU will likely approach Miller the same way they approach Michigan's Denard Robinson - keep him fenced in. MSU will bring their usual assortment of pressures, but they will look to be gap-sound in those five-man pressures, filling the escape lanes, putting up a fence around the QB, careful not to chase him into a play, and willing to let him throw from the pressed pocket. 

You might see some coverage sacks, but I wouldn't expect MSU edge rushers to be ransacking the situation with lightning-fast speed from the outside.

MSU does get creative with use of Ohio linebacker Denicos Allen and Detroit defensive end William Gholston, often operating on the same side of the field. They will run games with one another, sometimes with Allen being the featured get-free guy while Gholston absorbs blockers and attention. 

BG: Any time you have someone who meant as much to a program as Kirk Cousins did to MSU, there's bound to be lots of attention placed on his replacement. How has Andrew Maxwell looked in his first year as a starter for the Spartans?

JC: Maxwell has been good. His pass efficiency rating is not good, due to having a 3-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio, but one of those interceptions was due to a dropped pass by WR Tony Lippett. He has had three other TDs dropped. So the real Maxwell has thrown at a 6-to-2 ratio.

He hasn't been perfect. Coaches would like for him to survey the field a bit more, possibly more effectively at pre-snap, and find the open guy a little more readily. When he throws it, it's a quick release with zip and his usually accurate. He is a pocket passer. As for making reads, that's a part of the growing process for a first-year starter.

For instance, on the third play of the Notre Dame game, on third-and-medium, he chose to throw to Bennie Fowler on a slant. Flower was covered. Maxwell delivered a perfect pass right into the catching area, zipped, on time. An ND defender got a piece of the ball. Fowler should have caught it anyway. It was charted as a dropped pass. The problem with that play is that Tony Lippett was wide open on a shallow crossing route coming from the other side of the field. That would have been a shorter, easier throw to a wide-open receiver, who would have run for first down yardage (if he caught the wide-open pass). The point is that Maxwell has terrific arm talent, but making the right read and checkdown is a work in progress. He showed some development last week in making good pre-snap reads to get into the right running play at the line of scrimmage on a few occasions. That was a step.

I think he's going to be good, maybe pretty soon. I don't think Michigan State would trade him for any pocket passer in the Big Ten right now, and when including next year's potential I don't think MSU would trade him for any QB in the conference, period. 

BG: As someone who covers the Spartans on a daily basis, what's your prediction for this game and how do you see it playing out?

JC: I still have about 10 hours of tape to watch tonight. Prior to the MSU-ND game, after watching the OSU-Cal game, I thought MSU was a couple of TDs better than the Buckeyes. But that was before MSU's offense looked terrible against the Irish, and before OSU showed some improvement on defense against UAB.

So I still have some tape to watch. I would lean right now toward the team with home field advantage getting enough plays from a revved up defense to survive. But that's the same thing I said prior to the MSU-ND game. 


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