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Nebraska vs. Michigan State: How the Programs Rose to Prominence

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With conference play now in full swing, it did not take long for one of the most massive games to greet Big Ten fans. When Nebraska travels to Michigan State on Saturday night, the eyes of the nation will be back on the Big Ten to see which of these teams will remain in the discussion for a College Football Playoff appearance.

Both of these teams currently stand atop the power rankings and this is the only inter-division game between top contenders for Indianapolis this season. Thus, this early October game demands attention not just from Spartans and Cornhuskers fans.

This will be one of several previews Andy and I will bring you leading up to this momentous game, and this article will take a look at how Bo Pelini and Mark Dantonio have built these programs to be two of the most prominent in the Big Ten conference.

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When Bo Pelini took over for Bill Callahan in 2008, he inherited a messy situation thanks to Callahan not recruiting well (and recruiting for a different type of pass-oriented attack on offense). However, Pelini made the most of his situation and immediately led the Cornhuskers to a 9-4 record in 2008 followed by two Big 12 Championship Game appearances.

He did it with defense first and foremost. Callahan’s final team in 2007 was an offensive juggernaut, but defensively it was a train wreck. The Blackshirts defense gave up 477 yards per game and nearly 38 points per game, which led to many stumbles and losses, especially on the road. Even more embarrassing, the Cornhuskers were outscored and outgained by the competition that season, a rare occurrence in Lincoln.

Of course, it always helps to build a defense when a transcendent talent like Ndamukong Suh leads the defensive front, and Pelini was able to build around that centerpiece to make a dominant defense within just two seasons. Although Nebraska also stepped back on offense in 2009, the defense was good enough to win the Big 12 North Division in 2009 and 2010.

Of course, then Pelini was forced to adjust once again, as Nebraska jumped into the Big Ten for the 2011 season. Despite some learning curve and tough schedules the first two seasons, Nebraska has maintained roughly a similar level of success on offense and defense, while continuing to end seasons at 9-4 or 10-4.

On offense, Pelini has recruited strong athletes to fill the quarterback and especially the running back depth chart positions. Despite the strong efforts of Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah has emerged as the best running back this program has had in two decades. His talent and strength have proven even more true with Nebraska breaking in many new starters on the offensive line in 2014.

That’s exactly the foundation Pelini has striven to build over the past six years. His philosophy is one that many old school Big Ten and Nebraska fans will appreciate: a dominant running game complemented by a solid (and sometimes shutdown) defense. Abdullah is the piece that has been missing, and he could drive his team to finally move beyond the four-loss seasons that have defined the six-year tenure of Pelini so far (as well as drive himself to New York for the Heisman Ceremony).

Although Pelini has not found the same formula for completely dominating on defense as the team had in 2009 and 2010, his teams have held the opposition to about 25 points per game and about 360 yards per game in all three of his Big Ten seasons. That’s more than good enough when the offense is scoring about a touchdown more per game.

About the only thing that can be a long term problem to point to under Pelini is ball security. The Cornhuskers have finished with minus double-digit turnover margins in three of his six seasons, and this includes each of the last two seasons. These turnovers have come up at the worst times, such as the five turnovers that helped Michigan State escape Lincoln with a 41-28 win last November.

Bo Pelini has re-established the identity of Nebraska football that was present during the dominant run under Tom Osborne (and the respectable seasons under Frank Solich as well). Sometimes the most simple approach is the best for program building, and although Pelini gets some pressure to take Nebraska to the next level, it is difficult to argue with three conference championship game appearances in six seasons when those seasons have been split between two very different conferences.

And if it weren’t for Michigan State, Nebraska may have one or two more conference championship appearances (the Spartans won the Legends Division in 2011 and 2013, Nebraska in 2012).

Plus, Nebraska has a 17-7 record in the first three years of Big Ten play, which trails only Michigan State (18-6) and Ohio State (19-5) in the conference. With Wisconsin being the only other West Division team with a winning conference record over the same span, the door is open more than ever for Pelini to keep improving this football program.

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Meanwhile in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio walked into a much worse situation when he took over as coach in 2007. The Spartans had never recaptured the magic from the late 1990s when Nick Saban briefly walked the sidelines, and John L. Smith had turned this program into a perennial losing record.

In retrospect, the foundation of a program he built in Cincinnati proves Dantonio knows how to succeed, and he implemented the same plan that worked for him as a defensive assistant under Jim Tressel at OSU and under Nick Saban in the 1990s, as well as what worked while head coach in Cincinnati: an emphasis on defense above everything else.

The Spartans have recruited with this focus in mind for 8 years. The proof shows as Michigan State reloads on that side of the ball every season while putting up results similar to some of the best Jim Tressel teams that dominated the last decade of Big Ten conference play.

It took about four years to see the clear results, but Michigan State has held opponents to 18.4, 16.3, and 13.2 points per game the last three seasons (and 277, 274, and 252 total yards per game). These statistics put all other defenses in the conference to shame.

Thus, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Michigan State has not missed a beat in 2014 despite having to replace several big names on defense like Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Darqueze Dennard. Of course, the defense struggled in the second half against Oregon, but there are not many teams that can stick with the Ducks for four quarters without some lapses or loss of quality. This week will provide a great barometer as Nebraska and Ameer Abdullah provide the biggest test since the Spartans failed to contain Marcus Mariota.

With the exception of 2008 and 2012, Michigan State has also been relatively consistent on offense during Dantonio’s tenure. He has proven to be willing to take some risks in special teams and offensive play calling to get points on the board, and this creative and bold approach has paid off many times thanks to the strength of the defense.

Essentially, the only times Dantonio has struggled to put out a competent offense on the field is when he has to break in a new quarterback. Kirk Cousins developed into the career passing leader at the school, but his first season in 2008 was inefficient. Likewise, in 2012 and early 2013 Connor Cook developed behind Andrew Maxwell while watching Maxwell struggle, for the most part. Cook then took over and became one of the most efficient passers in the conference.

Thus, much like previous seasons, Michigan State has a strong attack led by a powerful running back (Jeremy Langford) and the passing prowess of a solid quarterback (Cook). That setup makes for many dominant wins when combined with the lock down defense, just like when Michigan State defeated all nine Big Ten opponents by 10 or more points last season.

Dantonio finally broke through with a conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance and win in 2013, but this team has been in the mix with three of the last four seasons having 11 wins or more. In each of those seasons, the Spartans have not lost at home (22-0 overall). All of which makes this year’s schedule so favorable for the Spartans, as Nebraska is followed by Michigan and Ohio State as teams that must travel to East Lansing.

Home dominance, a ridiculous defense, and solid development of running backs and quarterbacks to run a competent offense has been the formula for Mark Dantonio. The results speak for themselves, with two division titles during the Legends-Leaders era and the second-best conference record over those three seasons (18-6).

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Certainly both of these football programs have benefited from some good circumstances, including coaching turmoil and inconsistency at Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan as well as the end of the Jim Tressel era at OSU. But Pelini and Dantonio have stuck to similar principles that are tried and true, even in this era of most college football teams playing amazing offense and mediocre or weak defense.

Even though Pat Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz have longer tenures than these coaches, there is little doubt that these two men have built more consistent top contenders than anyone else in the conference (hence the long tenures of both). Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all Big Ten programs: be patient and let a coach build up over a full four-year recruiting cycle and then see if the results come in. Many times, they probably will, as long as the coach is good at the approach he chooses to take.

Strong defense, competent offense. The teams in red and green jerseys could switch sidelines and it likely would not make much of a difference, as Pelini and Dantonio find success by building on similar principles. That makes for a highly compelling mirror match of sorts, as we see whether Dantonio can continue to turn around a series that was all Nebraska (7-1 overall) before the Spartan win in 2013.

Saturday night, even if you aren’t a fan of one of these teams, tune in and appreciate two great coaches working at their craft. Regardless of the outcome this weekend, both programs are built for long term success. Which is exactly what the Big Ten needs more and more these days.

Let’s hope for a good game for the nation to enjoy, and for a playoff contender favorite to emerge from this game.

Welcome back, smash-mouth Big Ten football (thanks to Pelini and Dantonio).

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

Michigan State

Spartans to name Bill Beekman as new AD

MSU expected to remove interim tag from Bill Beekman in a press conference on Monday morning.

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Michigan State has undergone a huge leadership transformation following the sex abuse scandal that plagued the athletic department and led to the AD leaving and the university president resigning as well.

Bill Beekman was named interim AD following Mark Hollis’ resignation last January. Apparently he has impressed the Board of Trustees enough in his just about three-month tenure to earn the new job on a permanent basis. This will be his first official job in any capacity within an athletic department.

The Detroit Free Press first reported the Beekman would get the interim tag removed from him on Sunday night. On Monday morning, the Spartans held a press conference and announced that very thing.

Beekman is a name that many on the Board of Trustees would be familiar with, having served on the board himself starting in 2008 until his appointment as the interim athletic director. He also has served as the executive director for the MSU Alumni Association and is a 1989 graduate of Michigan State.

Clearly he has the Spartan blood running through him, but most importantly, he has apparently done a great job of getting the big names behind him in the process. According to sources, both Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo have been impressed by what Beekman has brought to the table in reshaping the department since his arrival.

Additionally, this move makes sense as the Board of Trustees isn’t likely to name a replacement to interim president John Engler until at least this time next year.

The university put out a media notice through the Big Ten of a press conference set for 11am ET for what it is calling “regarding an athletic-related personnel announcement.”

You can see the press conference on BTN or via BTN2Go.

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Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Reasons to be Optimistic

We continue our look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans with a look at reasons to be optimistic heading in to the season.

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Michigan State has been a surprising team as of late. First it surprised everyone by going from the College Football Playoff to a 3-9 team in a matter of one season. Then it surprised a lot of people from weathering that 33-9 season and a horrible offseason to return to a Big Ten East contender in 2017.

So, where does that leave the 2018 version of Mark Dantonio’s Spartans? Well, we’re here to break that down all week and today we’ll give you the reasons to be optimistic about MSU.

Holy Experience Batman

One reason why Michigan State has been so successful under Mark Dantonio is that he has a system and sticks to it. That consistency helps his players in a major way, but so does having experienced players executing that system.

So, it should be no coincidence that when the Spartans are at their best it’s with a very experienced team.

The 2018 version of the Spartans return 19 starters, including 10 on the offensive side of the ball. Spearheading that attack is second-year starting QB Brian Lewerke, whose ability to be a deadly passer as well as a deadly runner has added a different wrinkle to the MSU offense.

Defensively, this team is as strong as it may ever be under Dantonio. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are beasts at defensive tackle and Joe Bachie follows a long line of quality middle linebackers behind that group. In fact, another season like Bachie had in 2017 and he could be the best middle linebacker MSU has seen in the Dantonio era. Those are just three of 9 returning starters for a defense that was No. 2 in the country against the run last season.

That 2017 team was light on experience, but had plenty of potential. Fast forward a season and this is one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten, and that should help them contend in the rough and tumble Big Ten East division.

Skill Position Depth

This isn’t your brother or sister’s Michigan State Spartans squad anymore. No longer does MSU have to pound you in to submission on offense. Instead, it can be as dynamic an offense as any the Big Ten has to offer.

One huge reason for that is a deep group of skill position players at the ready. MSU has arguably its most versatile group of wide receivers it has had in the 2010’s. 6 foot, 4 inch tall Felton Davis is a matchup nightmare thanks to his size and speed, while Darrell Stewart is perfect in the slot and can kill you with deceptive speed. Both caught over 50 passes last season to prove they belong. Meanwhile up and coming Cody White is another big threat, catching 35 passes as a freshman last year.

Defensively, things look good on the edge with the combo of Justin Layne and Josiah Scott. Layne’s size (6-3) and Scott’s ability to use his hands well makes this combo difficult to pass against. Scott nabbed a pair of interceptions and led the team with 10 pass breakups as a freshman last season, while Layne had eight of his own pass break ups and a forced fumble to go with 40 total tackles as well.

There’s also depth behind them at cornerback and two safeties that are proving to grow in to their roles. Having the skill positions be a strength should only help an offensive line that returns a lot of starting experience but lacked quality run game production a season ago.

Mark Dantonio

Few coaches in the Big Ten get as much out of their talent as Dantonio does in East Lansing.

Any time you have Dantonio on your side, it’s a reason to be optimistic that things are going to be just fine. How Dantonio helped his guys weather an offseason storm and how he took the slings and arrows of the media over the past 18 months is a testament to why the team can be successful on the field.

In a conference that has upgraded its overall coaching talent, Dantonio still stands out as one of the best motivators and teachers in the Big Ten. Don’t underestimate that mattering when the games kick off this fall.

Overall Thoughts

There is certainly reason for renewed optimism around the Spartans program.

While it may be difficult to get all the way back to the College Football Playoff level, at least the Spartans aren’t going backwards as many seemed to think they were heading in to 2017.

Combining Dantonio’s steady system with experienced players who just so happen to be very productive while gaining that experience is a great reason to be bullish on this team. Don’t be surprised to see this formula equal a run towards the East division title and national recognition too.

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Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from 2017

What did the 2017 season teach us about the Michigan State Spartans program?

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There was little doubt that 2017 was going to be a defining season in the Mark Dantonio era. With a ton of pressure from the outside world and a crazy 3-9 season in the rearview mirror, either Dantonio would sink his own ship or right it.

It didn’t take long to see that a program in turmoil had banded together in an “us vs. them” mentality that worked well for the Spartans.

The result was a 10-3 season, wins over two of the biggest names in the Big Ten East division and a very different narrative heading in to the 2018 offseason.

But, with so much happening around the program last season, what lessons were learned that would apply to 2018?

Let’s take a look at what lessons we believe will matter going forward.

Adversity Wears Well on Spartans

No team in the Big Ten had a worse 2017 offseason than the Spartans did. There were awful off-field allegations, charges and convictions. There were players suspended, kicked off the team and transfers.

Yet, when the dust settled on the 2017 season, a team that seemingly was in disarray nearly won the East division. A team that won just three games in 2016 and suffered through a very public and ugly offseason managed to right the ship right away and went 7-2 in Big Ten play.

There were wins over rival Michigan and a red-hot Penn Stat program and a massive blowout of Washington State in the Holiday bowl for redemption of not being selected for a seemingly better positioned bowl game.

At every step of the way in 2017 there was major adversity. Instead of folding, Mark Dantonio’s crew rallied together and came away with a season few saw coming from the outside world.

It was certainly a positive lesson for everyone involved — from what not to do off the field to how to grow together in the face of major doubters. By the end of it all, MSU football felt like it was closer to being back in the Big Ten title picture than ever before. The lesson of the 2017 season won’t soon be forgotten.

1-QB System Works Best

If you would’ve told anyone back in the 2016 offseason that Brian Lewerke would be the answer to MSU’s quarterback hopes, few would’ve believed you. Yet, the pattern of quarterback-by-committee not working and then getting a leader to emerge and make the team dangerous the next continued on.

No position seems to hold the keys to success or failure at Michigan State more that quarterback. It’s no coincidence that settling on one quarterback has proven to be the defining factor in offensive success at MSU.

Lewerke looked like the better option in 2016, took hold of the position in 2017 and the Spartans offense was back off to the races. The sophomore signal caller threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just 7 interceptions. Compare that to the three-headed QB monster in 2016 that ended up with just 2,668 yards, completed just 57 percent of their passes and had just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

Coming up the ranks from a walk-on to starter in the face of supposed stiff competition from Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor and emerging as the steadying force showed that picking one quarterback and sticking with them is a recipe for better chances at success in East Lansing.

Lewerke established himself as the starter and has two more years to lead this team forward. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Lewerke is not to be underestimated, just like the Spartans as a whole.

This Offense has to be More Than Lewerke

As impressive as Brian Lewerke was last season, for large swaths of 2017 he was the only offense that mattered for Michigan State.

In fact, not only did Lewerke lead the way through the air, he was the Spartans leading rusher for much of the year too. Only a late-season surge from L.J. Scott, who only had three 100-yard games on the entire season, allowed him to overtake Lewerke on the ground.

Scott finished the season with 898 yards to Lewerke’s 559 yards, with Scott leading the TD category 8 to 5.

While it was nice to see the team back to winning against quality competition, the Spartans were torn apart by teams who could shut Lewerke down. Ohio State tore apart MSU and more importantly, held Lewerke completely in check. He rushed for just 2 total yards and passed for just 131 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 48-3 loss.

Can Scott become the star everyone thought he might have been last season, this season? If MSU wants to become a true East division and Big Ten title contender, it has to re-establish a tough run game that doesn’t rely on Lewerke to be the leading rusher for most of the season.

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Basketball

Is Michigan State’s March magic in danger of running out in 2018?

Michigan State has limped through the start of March, can it right the ship and pull off its usual March magic?

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Death, taxes and the Michigan State Spartans going deep in March under Tom Izzo.

Almost all three of these things are automatic in life.

Usually we’re talking about Michigan State and deep runs in the NCAA tournament. After all, this was a program that went to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen’s and then an Elite Eight and a Final Four in four straight seasons from 2012 to 2015.

But, the last few seasons have ended in much quicker fashion than normal, with a first round exit in 2016 and a second round exit last season.

All seemed right heading in to this March though, with the Spartans riding a 13-game win streak and a Big Ten regular season title.

But, March took on a different tone for this team and those deep runs MSU is famous for may not be worth betting on this time around.

One loss in 15 games may not be anything to worry about, but the devil is in the details as to why MSU may not be the solid bet everyone seems to think they are.

It actually started in late February, with Michigan State being taken to the wire by a lower-half Wisconsin Badgers team in the regular season finale. Five days later, that same Badgers team did it again, making the Spartans work for a 63-60 victory in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

A day later and MSU found itself out of the tournament at the hands of bitter in-state rival Michigan. The Wolverines played the type of game most expect from the Spartans and won 75-64.

That was the end to a 13-game win streak, but the cracks were clearly there prior to the loss.

Michigan State struggled to score in both games against the Badgers and over the past three games have only been shooting 41.6 percent from the field. Additionally, the Spartans have scored under their conference season average of 76.5 points per game in five of their final seven games.

Of course, one could also see it as a positive that MSU found ways to win six of those seven games despite not playing its best basketball.

But, come March all it takes is one day or night of off basketball and you are bounced from the tournament.

That fact isn’t lost on the team, as guard Cassius Winston pointed out that the upcoming break needs to be about MSU finding its rhythm once again.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get better as a team, just more consistent,” Winston said, via MLive.com. “We were winning games, but we weren’t winning games pretty, and as crisp as we should with as much talent as we have. We still have a lot of improvements left to make as a team.”

Maybe it is a good thing the loss came on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament, giving the Spartans a bit of an extended break ahead of the NCAA tournament. The team certainly sees the extra week of prep as helpful.

“We can sharpen up on a lot of things, understand ourselves as a team more and get better offensively, because we’re not as sharp as we have been,” Spartans guard Joshua Langford said, via MLive.com. “This break is going to be great for us.”

The Spartans have the Big Ten’s most talented starting five and certainly can go deep in to the NCAA tournament, but this isn’t a team that screams classic Tom Izzo tournament run. Something seems off about this team heading in to the tournament, let’s see if they can find the spark to dominate like they have most of the season.

If not, expect this NCAA tournament run to not last very long.

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