It’s Michigan State week and the Dawgs have a tough task ahead of them, as they travel to East Lansing for a tilt with a Spartan team that is going to be led by an interim coach because of Mel Tucker’s suspension, but still at 2-0 on the year. Brandon Blackburn Dwyer joins me to talk about the Spartans and what fans can expect from them Saturday:
1. One thing that’s been a hallmark of this Michigan State team for a long time is their defense. Who are some of the players that UW should look out for? What do you like about Scottie Hazelton’s scheme?
BBD: Michigan State’s defense still has a lot to prove. Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton has at times been the hero and the problem. In the Mel Tucker era (and technically we are still in that even if the head coach is suspended), the offense has largely driven the bus for this team, with the defense finding ways to contribute (or not). The biggest hole historically has been the secondary with the strength being the defensive line and middle linebackers. The key players this year start with middle linebacker Cal Halady, a throwback tackling machine. Keeping in the linebacking core, Jacoby Windmon has settled in at more of a flex or outside linebacker with some edge rushing, after initially looking like a stud pass rusher against weaker opponents. The young guys in the secondary could emerge as the story of the year, particularly Dillon Tatum and Zion Young, both sophomores. Unfortunately, they simply have not yet been tested by an accurate throwing QB so far this year. Facing much weaker opponents the first two weeks the only real sign for concern on the defense was the ability to contain running quarterbacks – which shouldn’t be a problem against Washington….oh, wait.
2. Last season, the Husky defense had to face Payton Thorne at quarterback. Now the situation is different, Thorne is now at Auburn and the Spartans are going with Noah Kim as their starter. He’s been efficient this season, posting 571 yards and 5 touchdowns through 2 games. What do you like most about Kim, and what does the Husky defense need to do to keep him in check?
BBD: Noah Kim has been the surprise of the year so far. While his performances have had a bit of Jekyll and Hyde to them – the starts to both games were not pretty, particularly the opener – he is also flashing some valuable characteristics. After his first five passes against Richmond in week 2 he connected on every pass he threw. His ability to stay calm amidst early game struggles as well as fast release and accurate passes with zip could make him a problem for opposing defenses. Where he has not been challenged yet is getting hit a lot. The concern coming into the year is Noah Kim’s relatively slight frame. While he has shown some speed and the ability to scramble, the still suspect offensive line could mean Kim needs to be able to survive a beating. It was injuries from early hits more than anything else that short circuited Payton Thorne’s season last year. Kim needs to avoid the same fate.
3. Nate Carter has proved to be an incredible running back for Michigan State over the first two games, with over 100 yards in the first half against Richmond, and 3 TDs in the third quarter. What can the Huskies do to stop him, if anything?
BBD: Carter so far looks like a complete running back. He has power when he needs, hits holes with good timing, and has the “wiggle” that allows him to evade tacklers and find open space. The problem has come when he gets bottled up at the line of scrimmage. To put it another way, the problem is the offensive line. If Washington dominates the line of scrimmage, Carter may not have the time nor space to get rolling. On top of that if he starts taking hits and needs a breather, injuries have decimated the running back room making his backup essentially the fourth guy on the depth chart. The concern for Michigan State is that while Carter has performed exceptionally in the first two weeks, it was against smaller teams and the overall rushing yards were not that much higher than last year’s anemic average. Carter will need to get past the line of scrimmage to really go to work against Washington.
4. What can Dawg fans expect from Jay Johnson’s offensive scheme? What do you, as a fan, like the most about it?
BBD: What do we like best….well I can tell you what fans hate MOST: Short yardage. While it didn’t factor into week 2, Johnson’s approach to short yardage situations, namely using deep set shotguns, is infuriating. But I digress… In reality, despite multiple seasons Johnson is by many assessments still an unproven product. His offense has shifted and morphed each year. In the 2021 season dominated by Kenneth Walker, III, Johnson had a weapon that opened up the entire field. For example, his love of flea flickers looked insightful with Walker. Now they look desperate and repetitive. Worse they rarely work as defenses know they are coming.
Post Walker it’s been tougher to find the true groove of Johnson’s system. Last year, the offense was banged up consistently starting with Thorne at QB to his top receiver (and now NFL player) Jaden Reed to the emerging Keon Coleman (who now plays for Florida State). Which limited them extensively. Combine that with poor line play last year and it was hard to determine if it was personnel or coaching that was the issue. This year, Johnson has effectively a blank slate. Many of the skill players are new (example: Nathan Carter) or young (example: potential breakouts like red shirt freshman Jaron Glover) this year. It’s been hard to predict. Early in games it looks like Johnson is still figuring out how best to use QB Noah Kim. If he can settle in and call plays like he did quickly in week 2, this offense could be potent.