The Central Michigan Chippewas (1-2, 0-0 MAC) look to pull of a repeat of 2009 and upset the #2 Michigan State Spartans (3-0, 0-0 B1G) at Spartan Stadium. In the last game between the two sides, the Spartans dismantled the Chippewas at Kelly/Shorts Stadium 42-7. We asked SB Nation's Michigan State blog The Only Colors about what to expect from the next coming matchup.
Hustle Belt: What did you like about MSU's performance last week? What didn't you like?
The Only Colors: Last week's performance was a frustrating one for both MSU players and fans. It's hard to complain when you beat a 10-win team by two touchdowns despite not playing all that well, but MSU showed it is far from a finished product. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and defensive coordinator Steve Russ deserve a lot of credit for their defensive gameplan. They completely eliminated a Spartan ground game that had some major success against Western Michigan and Oregon. Russ called creative blitzes throughout the entire game rendering MSU unable to pull their guards on run plays which they love to do so much.
The downside of that kamikaze approach was the single coverage MSU's wideouts got to face all game. The Air Force defensive backs couldn't cover Aaron Burbridge, and Connor Cook connected with him to the tune of eight catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns. The Cook-Burbridge combo looks as good as any in the country through three games and will make defenses think twice before putting him on "[insert opponents best cornerback's name here] Island".
Air Force is a tough game to use as a measuring stick for a defense, as they run the most unique option attack in the country. MSU lost the yardage battle and was beat over the top for a few big passes (but when a team passes nine times, it's hard to blame the secondary for falling asleep). The defensive line was somewhat neutralized by AF's scheme, but the linebackers had another strong performance. MSU will be very happy to see more traditional attacks moving forward.
HB: What Spartan players (one for each side) should Chippewa fans be worried about?
TOC: Offensively, Burbridge is becoming a star. He came to East Lansing with a ton of hype and was productive right away as a true freshman. However, he slipped off a bit during his last two years, finding himself behind future NFL'ers like Bennie Fowler (Broncos), Tony Lippett (Dolphins - CB) and Keith Mumphery (Texans) on the depth chart. This year he is finally living up to the billing, looking unguardable at times. In just three games he has already set career best marks for yardage (374), TD's (four) and insane feats of athleticism (no number can do this catch justice). Cook loves to have a go-to wideout and this year Burbridge is that guy.
On defense, Malik McDowell is turning into a full grown man. He didn't have any eye-popping plays against Air Force, but against Oregon he was in full beast mode, getting into the backfield several times and leading a crucial goal line stand. Despite being only a true sophomore and having guys like Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas as linemates, McDowell is arguably MSU's most talented individual defender. CMU's offensive line has allowed quarterback Cooper Rush to get sacked eight times already this season and, trust me, they have not faced a player of McDowell's caliber (or line of MSU's caliber, for that matter). I'd expect a lot of pressure in the backfield on Saturday.
HB: Conversely, what Chippewa players will Spartan fans be keeping an eye on?
TOC: Mainly, it'll be Rush. I'm not telling Central fans anything they don't know here, but he has been a yardage machine since the Bahamas Bowl. MSU has some concerns in the secondary and facing an offense that has thrown the ball an average of 42 times a game will be a test. Rush loves to spread the ball around (five Chips have at least 11 catches) so it'll take a team effort on defense to slow him down. Outside of Rush, running back Devon Spalding is intriguing. He's leading the team in carries, but also has 13 grabs on the year. MSU will have to be aware of he is at all times and not let him slip out of the backfield. The expectations are high, we'll see if the defense can live up to them.
HB: What are the feelings around the team in regards to CMU potentially being a trap game? Did the OSU-NIU game instill a bit of fear?
TOC: Last week, I underestimated the "trap game" factor and had it not been for a couple of Air Force turnovers that could've looked like a serious case of hubris. Let's hope that doesn't happen twice in a row, because I feel the same way this week. I don't think CMU will enjoy the same MSU "hangover" that Air Force did. Offensive coordinator (and two-time MSU interim head coach) Morris Watts runs an offense the Spartans should be much more comfortable dealing with than the triple-option. Add in the fact players gave their position coaches a LOT of film room ammo and I think the MSU will be #FiredUp for the Chips. One concern is that MIKE linebacker Riley Bullough, arguably MSU's most important defensive starter, is suspended for first half of the game due to a targeting penalty late in last week's game. Reserve Shane Jones will take over and be in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly. He's a sophomore without a ton of game reps, so if CMU wants to stick around they'll have to try and take advantage of his inexperience early on.
HB: What position group has you most concerned heading into the game against Central and why? What position group looks the best and why?
TOC: I'll stick with the company line and say the secondary concerns me the most. I think a common misconception is that MSU's entire defensive backfield is in tatters, but that's not the case. RJ Williamson and Montae Nicholson have both made big plays at safety, while top corner Demetrious Cox has looked the part. The concerns are at the other corner spot, where Vayante Copeland was lost for the season to a neck injury just two weeks ago. For now, the starting job belongs to fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun, but his grasp is tenuous, at best, since he has not impressed thus far. Junior Darian Hicks, who was benched late last season in favor of the now-NFL corner Lippett, battled mono during training camp but looks to be near 100% again. He has played well so far this season and if the trends continue he could be starting very soon. MSU did bring in several true freshman corners in this year's recruiting class, including Josh Butler and David Dowell, both of whom may see time Saturday. CMU's passing offense has been fuego so far this season and if they can keep Rush upright he will probably hit a few big plays downfield. Development here will be key for any type of playoff run MSU has in its sights.
As for the best position group, I'll go with the linebackers. Yes, the lines are both fantastic (and probably better overall) but the backers deserve some love. After losing Ed Davis for the year, it looked like this group might not be as electric as they have been in previous seasons but Davis' replacements, Chris Frey and Jon Reschke, have filled in extremely well. Reschke has racked up 24 tackles as the starter while Frey has made a big play in the backfield in each of the last two games. On the other side, Senior Captain Darien Harris and his backup, True Freshman Andrew Dowell, have each had big moments. The real catalyst is the man in the middle, Bullough, who has a whopping 39 tackles on the year. Last season, Taiwan Jones was miscast as a MIKE and the switch to Bullough has proven to be huge. He flies to the ball knows the defense almost as well as his older brother, former Spartan Max Bullough. Yes, he is suspended for the first half this week, but you'll see his luscious flow flying all over the place plenty after halftime.
HB: For CMU to win, they need to _______.
TOC: Create turnovers, attack MSU's defensive weak spots and score on big plays. Defensively, the Chips need to find a way to get pressure on Cook like Air Force did a week ago. Given the strength of the MSU offensive line, that probably means being uber-aggressive stopping the run and hoping for the best from their defensive backs in single coverage when MSU goes to the air. Chip defenders will have to make plays on the ball and try to turn the Spartans over when Cook does throw. Offensively, Central will have a tough time running the ball against MSU. Instead of banging their heads against a big green wall, Central should attack the Spartan defense in the flats where their coverage is schematically the thinnest. Bubble screens and quick hits to the wideouts have killed MSU in the past and making those short throws your default "running" plays is one way to keep the offense on schedule and out of 3rd-and-long scenarios where MSU can unleash its deadly pass rush. Finally, MSU special teams have been, how do you say, not great, so far in 2015. Big plays in the return game would really help CMU's cause in this one.
HB: What is the outcome?
TOC: I painted a rosy picture in that last paragraph but it's a lot easier said than done, especially on the road against the #2 team in the land. After last week's slugfest I think CMU will have Mark Dantonio and co's full attention and we won't see a repeat of '07. I'll take MSU going away, 41-10.
Thanks so much to Austin C. Smith for taking the time out of his day to speak #footbawl with us. You can follow him on Twitter at @ACSmith06.