It's final exam season on campuses around the Big Ten, and we here at the Big Ten blog have some grades to hand out, too. Brian and I will be grading each Big Ten team -- offense, defense and special teams -- before the bowl season kicks off.
First up, the Michigan State Spartans.
Michigan State had to reinvent itself on offense in 2011 as a revamped offensive line made it tough to consistently rush the football. Thanks to senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and his array of weapons, the Spartans still ranked among the league's top five in both scoring (30.8 ppg) and total yards (390.4 ypg). Michigan State was a pass-first unit for much of the season and had success, and the run game emerged late behind Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and a line that gained confidence and built chemistry. While it's amazing that the Spartans won a division title with the league's worst rushing offense, they really seemed to put the pieces together after a poor performance against Nebraska on Oct. 30. Coordinator Dan Roushar had a great scheme in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.
It became clear early on that Michigan State had great potential on defense, and the unit was among the nation's elite for much of the season. Despite losing two four-year starters at linebacker (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), the Spartans actually improved in the front seven. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy anchored the crew, and dynamic young players like William Ghoslton, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Marcus Rush contributed. Johnny Adams was arguably the Big Ten's top cornerback and safeties Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis combined for eight interceptions. Michigan State displayed excellent depth for much of the season. If not for a few struggles against Wisconsin, the unit would have received an A.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
The Spartans weren't bad in the kicking game and had some strong points, particularly on returns with dynamic senior Keshawn Martin. Kicker Dan Conroy was solid and punter Mike Sadler performed decently in his first season. But Michigan State ranked in the middle of the pack in both net punting and kickoff coverage, and special teams played a role in two of the team's three losses. MSU allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown against Notre Dame, and Lewis was flagged for running into the punter in the Big Ten championship, effectively ending the game.
Michigan State had another strong season and took a step closer to becoming a Big Ten power. If not for a few plays against Wisconsin, the Spartans would be heading to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years. It was a very good season that nearly became great.