Bowl Season

Big Ten vs. SEC Orlando, Fla.
Florida Citrus Bowl
Jan. 1
1 p.m.

 Eric Pender, of was nice enough to answer some questions about Michigan State.

BS: Michigan State was not even ranked at the beginning of the year, and they finished 11-1 as co-Big-10 Champions. How would you compare their season to preseason expectations and what were the keys to success?

Eric Pender: I thought it was interesting that going into the 2009 season, MSU was ranked #3, despite graduating QB Brian Hoyer and RB Javon Ringer. That year we went 7-6.

Now this year we returned a pretty solid tandem at running back in Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, the second most efficient quarterback in the conference in Kirk Cousins, and a pretty deep receiving corps. But a lot of media outlets had MSU in the middle of the pack for the 2010 preseason projections. The media seem to have a hard time looking past the results from the previous season when they compile their preseason rankings, but that's a conversation for another day. I think it was pretty clear that the pieces were in place to have around 9 wins in play. 

I think this was one of those seasons where three plays were the difference between going 11-1 and 8-4. When you look at "Little Giants" against Notre Dame, "Mousetrap" against Northwestern and the punt block against Purdue, if those plays go the other way MSU is looking at 8-4. So when you look just at the win-loss column, I think it's pretty clear MSU exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.

But the play on the field hasn't been dominant, and we've had some plays go our way to get us to where we are. That's not meant to be a knock against Coach Dantonio or the team, because this is a team that kept itself in every game (save for one), and executed when it mattered most. There's a lot to be said for execution in crunch time, and it's been perhaps the most significant aspect of improvement we've seen since Dantonio took over. Putting yourself in a position to win is part of building a championship program, and hopefully the next step will be to win some of these games in a more dominant fashion.

Aside from play execution, I think MSU has done a good job minimizing big plays from its opponents. The defense wasn't fantastic, but it embodied a bend-but-not-break mentality that helped maintain momentum at key points throughout the season. Even when opposing teams were driving down the field, by not giving up touchdowns on huge bombs downfield, it allowed the offense to regroup and rest.

And finally, the special teams play was very good. After graduating All-American kicker Brett Swenson, there was concern about the field goal kicking, but Dan Conroy was 14-for-15 on the year. Even if you take out the fake punts, Aaron Bates still had a great season, and the punt block by Darqueze Dennard against Purdue was huge.

BS: The balanced offense has been led by QB Kirk Cousins. Talk about his impact on the Spartan offense and who are the other weapons in this offense?

Eric Pender: I'm not sure there's a better leader or more of a class act in the Big Ten than Kirk Cousins. He works hard on the field and in the classroom, and is very well-spoken.

That being said, it was a rough year for Kirk.  He got hurt about midway through the season, although the coaching staff kept the injury under wraps and didn't let the media know about it until around the Minnesota game. He had some ankle and shoulder issues, and the ankle problem not only limited his mobility, but also caused him to throw off his back foot quite a bit. He wasn't quite as effective as he was last year, throwing some untimely interceptions and floating a number of throws that easily could have been picked off. Still, he's the emotional leader of this team (think Mateen Cleaves in cleats) and was the best option at quarterback despite his injuries. 

Unfortunately, wide receiver B.J.Cunningham suffered a broken foot in bowl practice and won't play against the Tide. However, if there's any position where MSU could afford an injury, it's receiver. Mark Dell, Keith Nichol and Keyshawn Martin are all more than capable, but the surprise of the year has been Bennie Fowler. His stat line hasn't been particularly impressive, but he's shown an explosiveness in his limited touches that makes him a threat both in the slot and for end-arounds. 

Running backs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker picked up where they left off in 2009. Caper was hurt early in the year, and that opened the door for true freshman Le'Veon Bell to get some carries. Bell has been supremely impressive, and I'm probably more excited for him than I have been for any young MSU player in the last 10 years. He's got both size and speed, but may see limited carries in the bowl game

BS: The defense gave up only 20 points a game. What will be the keys to stopping Alabama and who are the top players on the unit?

Eric Pender: More than anything, I think MSU must find a way to get to Greg McElroy. If we can get pressure up front, the DBs will be able to mitigate the damage through the air. But if McElroy is given time to play pitch-and-catch all day, MSU is going to be in trouble. A healthy combo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson is scary, although MSU had the third best run defense in the Big Ten this year (20th nationally). If MSU gets pressure, we'll have options to defend the run. But if we have to over-rely on the blitz, there may be too many defensive holes to plug in order to stop the Tide. 

Greg Jones is obviously the leader of the defense, but I would keep an eye on Chris L. Rucker. He had legal trouble in mid-season, and was reinstated soon after being released from a short stint in jail. This has been a contentious issue in East Lansing, but I think Rucker will have some motivation to prove that he has put his troubles behind him and have a big game. 

BS: If you could choose one player to have a breakout performance in the bowl game, who would it be?

Eric Pender: If there's been one constant this season, it's that when Edwin Baker establishes a dominant running game early, MSU has been able to control the game. I don't think MSU will be able to "control" Alabama, but establishing the run will give MSU more offensive options throughout the game. This concept is obvious, of course. But we saw the antithesis displayed in the Iowa game, when MSU inexplicably started the game pass-heavy, had difficulty, and then had no other option than to rely on a very predictable running game. We all know how that ended. So if Edwin can break a couple of big ones early, it's going to take a lot of pressure off of Captain Kirk. 

MSU is going to have to play its best and most complete game of the year in order to beat Nick Saban's squad, and may need to get a little bit lucky, to boot. But if MSU can stay competitive through the first half, the Spartans may have a chance. I keep replaying the Auburn - Alabama game in my head, and to me that game was more of a complete meltdown on Bama's part than it was an heroic performance by Auburn. Don't get me wrong, the Crimson Tide may be the most talented team in the country, but there's a self-destruct button in there somewhere, and MSU might just be able to find it. 

My prediction is Bama 34, MSU 24. Here's hoping I'm wrong. 


Thanks a lot to Eric Pender, of

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