Big Ten: Johnathan Strayhorn

Big shoes to fill: Michigan State

February, 27, 2012
With spring practice around the corner, Big Ten teams will start the process of replacing stars from the previous year. Some shoes are bigger to fill than others. We're taking a look at two key departed players from each team and who might take on their roles this season.

Today, we take a look at Michigan State. Though Kirk Cousins obviously left big shoes to fill, we know that Andrew Maxwell is his successor. So we'll focus on a couple of different spots on the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeJerel Worthy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State's Jerel Worthy (99) was a force on the defensive line for the Spartans.

Why: Worthy was an All-American who had such a good junior season that he decided to jump to the NFL. He registered 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, though that only tells part of the story about how disruptive he was in the middle of the defensive line. Worthy was also an emotional leader who provided the Spartans defense with some of its swagger. While Michigan State brings back most of its outstanding defense from last year, Worthy will be a difficult player to replace.

Replacement candidates: Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 316, Sr.), Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 320, Jr.), James Kittredge (6-4, 270, Soph.), Damon Knox (6-4, 275, RFr.), Brandon Clemons (6-3, 262, RFr.), Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 270 RFr.), Joel Heath (6-5, 270, RFr.), David Fennell (6-3, 275 incoming freshman).

The skinny: Michigan State lost not only Worthy but fellow starting defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman and top backup Johnathan Strayhorn to graduation. But Mark Dantonio was prepared for this development and has a lot of players in the pipeline ready to prove themselves. Though White played the other tackle spot last year next to Worthy, he has the size, talent and experience to replicate Worthy's production. This is a key spring for Reynolds, who has also spent time on the offensive line. Kittredge sat out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, and Michigan State was able to redshirt five other potential tackles in 2011. Fennell will likely take that route this year. This group is largely unproven, but at least there are plenty of candidates.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: B.J. Cunningham, WR

Why: Cunningham completed his career as the school's all-time leader in receptions and yards, which is saying something given the program's history at receiver. He emerged as a true star receiver in 2011 with career bests of 79 catches, 1,306 yards and 12 touchdowns. Whenever Cousins needed a big play, he usually looked Cunningham's way. Fellow seniors Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol also are gone, leaving a big void at the wideout position for the Spartans.

Replacement candidates: Bennie Fowler (6-1, 215, Jr.), Tony Lippett (6-2, 189, Soph.), DeAnthony Arnett (6-1, 175, Soph.), Keith Mumphrey (6-0, 202 Soph.), Andre Sims Jr. (5-8, 180, RFr.) Juwan Caesar (6-3, 197, RFr.), Monty Madaris (6-2, 190, incoming freshman), Aaron Burbridge (6-0, 180 incoming freshman), MacGarrett Kings (5-10, 175, incoming freshman), Kyle Kerrick (6-3, 190, incoming freshman).

The skinny: This is a situation much like the defensive tackle spot, in which Michigan State hopes a crowd of candidates means that one or two standouts will emerge. The difference here is that some true freshmen will likely get thrown into the mix right away. Fowler is the veteran who hobbled through an injury-plagued 2011, while Lippett moves back to offense after seeing time at defensive back last year. A lot could depend on whether Arnett, a Tennessee transfer, wins his case with the NCAA to become immediately eligible. If not, the Spartans may have to rely on at least one of the receivers they signed in this year's class or hope that a redshirt freshman takes a big step forward.

Badgers-Spartans retro diary: Vol. II

December, 2, 2011
To get you ready for Saturday's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Michigan State, I've gone back and watched the classic Oct. 22 game, won by the Spartans 37-31. This is my retro diary of that experience. If you missed Vol. I, which covers the first half of the game, click here. We'll pick up things now with the second half. (You can follow along through the magic of here; however, after repeated attempts I can tell you the replay does not match up in any way with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon.")

Third quarter

  • 14:45: Wisconsin defensive back Dezmen Southward leaves the game with an injury, pushing freshman Peniel Jean into the game for the second half. Not like the Badgers will need extra defensive backs at any point later on ...
  • 11:58: Michigan State is forced to punt after pressure from Mike Taylor pressures Kirk Cousins into an incompletion. Good start for the Badgers' defense.
  • 10:28: Russell Wilson completes his third straight pass, the last one to Montee Ball for 22 yards to the Michigan State 19. It's Ball's first touch since he went out in the second quarter with concussion signs. Wilson hit two straight big passes on play-action. There's not a more dangerous play-action team in the country than the Badgers, which sometimes makes you wonder why they don't use that on every passing down.
  • 9:56: Oh, here's why. The Spartans stuff the play-action for a 1-yard loss as Johnny Adams comes on a corner blitz. Does any team in America use the corner blitz more than Michigan State does with Adams?
  • [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson and Marcus Rush
    Andrew Weber/US PresswireMarcus Rush forces Russell Wilson out of the pocket, leading to a rare misfire by Wilson.

  • 8:40: Big miss here for the Badgers, as Wilson -- after being flushed out to his left by Marcus Rush -- misses a wide-open Jacob Pedersen for what would have been an easy touchdown. Wilson floated his pass over Pedersen in one of his rare bad throws. But pressure will make even the best quarterbacks to fall out of sync.
  • 8:31: Wisconsin settles for a 33-yard field goal to make it 23-17, Michigan State. Wisconsin scored touchdowns on 56 of 65 red-zone trips this year but had to try field goals on its past two forays inside the Spartans' 20.
  • 6:13: Wisconsin forces a Michigan State three-and-out, thanks in large part to a Chris Borland sack.
  • 4:58: Wilson hits Jared Abbrederis for a 20-yard gain off, of course, play-action. Michigan State's Jerel Worthy cramps up and has to leave for the rest of the series. Other than a first-half tackle for loss, Worthy has been quieted by Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz. But Konz is not expected to play this week.
  • 4:42: Another missed touchdown opportunity from the Spartans' 39. On yet another play-action, Wilson runs to his right, pivots and throws back across the field to Ball, who was well covered. He missed Pedersen, who was running wide open about 10 yards to Ball's right. How'd Pedersen get so open? He actually falls down near the line of scrimmage after sliding off his block, and everybody forgets about him -- maybe even Wilson. Credit Max Bullough for getting in Wilson's face and making him throw it more quickly than he wanted.
  • 3:54 On third-and-7, Wilson scrambles to his left, with Johnathan Strayhorn in hot pursuit. Wilson might have an angle to get to the first-down marker, but he drops the football and has to jump on it for a 1-yard loss. In one of my football pet peeves, Wisconsin punts from the 37 and it results in a touchback, a net gain of only 17 yards.
  • 0:55: Le'Veon Bell runs through hard-hitting linebacker Mike Taylor to pick up a first down. Bell really asserts himself in the second half of this game, and the sophomore would become the Spartans' main back for the rest of the season.
  • :00: Third quarter ends. Wisconsin has outplayed Michigan State most of the quarter but only has three points to show for it. And the Spartans are driving.
Fourth quarter

  • 11:05: Huge play here, as Michigan State faces third-and-11 from the Wisconsin 15. Cousins hits Keshawn Martin well in front of the sticks, but Martin uses his speed to race right past Borland. No other Badgers defender can cut him off, and Martin takes it to the end zone. Mark Dantonio wisely goes for two, and Cousins throws a fade to B.J. Cunningham, who makes a great adjustment and catch to beat Marcus Cromartie. It's now 31-17 Michigan State. After falling behind 14-0, the Spartans have outscored Wisconsin 31-3. This touchdown drive took 7:34 off the clock, and Cousins has been razor sharp on the night to this point, completing 16-of-19 passes for 202 yards.
  • 10:03: Another blown opportunity for the Badgers. They line up in the I-formation and get single coverage on the outside. Abbrederis shakes Darqueze Dennard at the line of scrimmage and has him beat deep. Wilson delivers the strike down the field -- but the normally sure-handed Abbrederis just plain drops it. How many touchdowns can Wisconsin give away?
  • 9:54: Wisconsin punts after Denicos Allen pressures Wilson into an incompletion.
  • 8:56: Michigan State goes three-and-out again, curiously choosing to pass twice instead of bleeding clock with the run game. The Spartans use only a minute on the clock, even though the best defense against Wisconsin's offense is to keep it off the field.
  • 8:40: Abbrederis, making up for his drop, returns the punt 33 yards to the Michigan State 43. Abbrederis leads the nation this season in punt return average, at 16.4 yards per attempt.
  • 8:10: Moments after Ball's first big run of the second half, Wilson scrambles for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 31-24 Michigan State. Isaiah Lewis had a bead on Wilson, but Wilson pump faked a pass and Lewis -- who made comments about hurting Wilson the week before -- jumped in the air. Ball missed two big blocks in the first half, but this time he picks up Allen on the blitz to spring the play. The Badgers could have easily scored touchdowns on each of their first four second-half drives; instead, they have managed 10 points.
  • 7:09: Michigan State goes three and out for the third time in four drives and again throws two incompletions, using up barely a minute on the clock. Momentum has shifted back toward Bucky Badger.
  • [+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
    Andrew Weber/US PresswirePerhaps the play of the year in college football: Keith Nichol scores the game-winning TD on a Hail Mary pass.

  • 6:54: The worst moment arrives for Russellmania. Wilson is pressured again, rolls to his right and then heaves a pass all the way back to the left sideline for Pedersen. But Bullough has decent coverage on Pedersen, and the ball sails. Lewis finally makes an impact, racing over to catch the ball and tiptoe the sideline for a big interception.
  • 5:13: But Michigan State can't capitalize as it goes three and out once again. On third down, the Spartans appear to call the same play that led to the first-half touchdown pass to Cunningham on a fourth down. Only this time, the Wisconsin linebackers spot Cunningham, and Ethan Hemer gets penetration to sack Cousins.
  • 3:57: After taking over at their own 13, the Badgers get back-to-back first-down runs from Ball. Most teams would panic and throw the ball down seven with under four minutes left, but Paul Chryst has enough confidence in his running game to call four straight runs to start this drive.
  • 2:39: On third-and-9, Wilson dances in the pocket to avoid the rush, keeps his eyes downfield and hits fullback Bradie Ewing for 15 yards to extend the drive.
  • 1:39: More brilliance from Wilson. Michigan State gets pressure again, but Wilson spins around and runs backward to create some room. Downfield, Nick Toon breaks off his route and sprints to the sideline, and Wilson finds him for a 42-yard gain. Toon, coming back from an injury, has only two catches in this game. I expect him to be a bigger factor in Round 2.
  • 1:26: Wilson, flushed out again, starts to run but then dumps it to Ball for a 2-yard touchdown to make it 31-31. Wilson was 4-for-4 on the drive, and if Wisconsin were to win in overtime, he just had his Heisman moment.
  • 1:06: On third-and-7 from the Michigan State 25, Cousins hits Bell across the middle for the first down. Large.
  • 0:42: Unsung hero alert! Cousins scrambles and fumbles on a hit by Brendan Kelly. Offensive lineman Joel Foreman falls on the ball, but the pigskin squirts away. In a huge heads-up play, tackle Dan France pounces on it. Both Borland and Taylor had a chance but can't come up with the ball. Had Wisconsin recovered, it would have taken over at the 24-yard line with all three timeouts. The Badgers almost surely win the game then. Still, it's second-and-21 now, and Bret Bielema calls timeout as he starts to think about getting the ball back. Worthy screams at the offense on the sidelines. I'd like to tell you what he said, but this is a family-friendly blog.
  • 0:30: Cunningham makes an 8-yard grab, and Bielema calls his second timeout. Michigan State was jogging back to the line of scrimmage, and it seemed clear that the Spartans were going to let the clock run down. I understand the first timeout, but I think this one was a bad idea, especially with the momentum Wisconsin would have taken into overtime. During the break, Brent Musberger says, "this could be the first of two" between these teams. Good call.
  • 0:24: The Spartans pick up the first down on an inside shovel pass to Martin. Wisconsin has to know where Martin is on that situation. Also, it sure looked like France jumped offside before the snap, but perhaps karma rewarded him for the fumble recovery. Michigan State did not get called for a single penalty in the game.
  • 0:09: Cousins finds Bell over the middle again to the Badgers' 44. The Spartans need about 10 more yards to get in field-goal range.
  • 0:04: Cousins rolls out and throws to tight end Brian Linthicum, but the pass is a little high and bounces off Linthicum's hands. Aaron Henry had good coverage. A completion there would have set up a field-goal try, but now Michigan State has no choice but to throw it to the end zone. Bielema calls his third timeout to set up the defense, and Dantonio changes the play he had called
  • 0:00: "Rocket" time. Here's an excellent breakdown of all that went wrong and yet right for Michigan State on the play of the year in college football. Keith Nichol is ruled down inside the 1 on the field. But after a replay takes 2:12 of real time, the officials overturn the call. Touchdown, 37-31 Spartans. What a game. Can't wait for the rematch.