Alamo Bowl Preview: Michigan State vs. Texas Tech

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS
VALERO ALAMO BOWL
THE ALAMODOME, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
9:00 PM (ET), ESPN
WEATHER: IRRELEVANT

So, following the suspensions and a firing that you might have heard about, how much do statistics and prior performance still matter?  This is clearly one of the most bizarre bowl matchups in recent memory, as events both embarrassing (us) and cataclysmic (them) have completely eclipsed the actual game to be played.

Ultimately, all of this might not be horrible for us.  We're clearly going to miss several of the suspended players--particularly at receiver--but as the weeks have passed, I've come to believe that the situation might be more tenable than it originally appeared.  The full list of the not-so-dearly-departed is here; the current depth chart is here.  Our coaches and players have now had a month to adjust to the situation, so excuses will not do.

Texas Tech, on the other hand: who knows what to expect?  Shortly after our opponent was announced, I was (understandably) not optimistic about our chances in this game; Texas Tech's aerial pyrotechnics present a nightmare matchup for our awful pass defense.  But Mike Leach's centrality to the Texas Tech program--both in-game and elsewhere--has become quite clear throughout the past few days.  He was not only the face of the program, but also intimately involved in the game itself as Tech's offensive playcaller.  Tech inside receivers coach Lincoln Riley, last seen bashing Adam James and then reversing course as quickly as possible, will do the playcalling:

"There'll be a few things different," Riley said. "You can't do a whole lot just because of timing, but there'll be a few new wrinkles. The way I call things may be a little different than Mike. How it is exactly, I can't tell you. One because I don't know, and two, because I don't want Michigan State to know."

Given Tech's enormous offensive success, you'd imagine that he'll try to track Leach's strategies as closely as possible.  But, given that this will be Riley's first game calling the plays, you'd have to believe (hope) that there will be some strategic miscues.

But the larger issue stands.  Leach's firing created a nearly unprecedented situation: the unexpected deposing of a nearly-iconic coach days before a bowl game.  Of course, there's a long history of teams playing well in bowl games under assistant coaches: most famously, West Virginia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, Nebraska in the 2003 Alamo Bowl (our last appearance in this game), and even MSU in the 2000 Citrus Bowl.  But in each of those instances, the teams had known for weeks that their coach would be gone.  Texas Tech has had at most six days' notice.  This is obviously the great unknowable: how will Texas Tech respond? 

Before this week's turmoil in Lubbock, I held virtually no hope of winning this game.  Now, at the very least the door has creaked open.  Inside the matchups, after the jump.

Michigan-state-vs-northwestern-1e81ac29ea59fb9e_large_medium

Three guys who aren't suspended.

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE: We'll be missing Roderick Jenrette and Chris L. Rucker.  Jenrette has been injured most of the year and Rucker's season consisted exclusively of two things: a huge interception in overtime against Michigan and, at all other times, and epic amount of fail.  So, you can look at this two ways: either we've lost valuable depth in a secondary which has struggled anyway, or, we're shedding two underperformers who have only hurt us anyway.  So, your secondary depth chart looks like this:

Depthchart_medium

Immediately following the suspensions, Graham from TRE offered this:
Rucker was an aggressive corner, which is obviously helpful if DC Narduzzi had decided to pull up his corners in bump coverage.
. . . and I think he's correct about the point, but it's not like he was the shining star of the secondary.  In losing him, we're basically exchanging a weak player for another weak player, which obviously isn't ideal but isn't a killer blow. We're left with the same problem as before: a weak secondary against the most last decade's most gonzo pass team.  Neither Ware nor KDC have been particularly effective this season, with Ware looking extremely poor against both Purdue and Penn State.

I guess that's the major problem here: there's no way to sugarcoat the absurd mismatch between our secondary (even if Rucker and Jenrette were playing) and their passing offense.  As Graham also said:

What will Leach try against MSU?

The same thing he always tries, of course. Quick passes to wide receivers in space, slants into open grass, dump offs to running backs. On film, Leach will see the same things that have driven TRE and Spartan fans everywhere crazy, namely  MSU's inability to keep their zone intact against crosses, no jamming wide receivers at the LOS, and a lack of pass rush from the front 4.

And, like every other year, it's been successful this season:

CATEGORY TEXAS TECH
Total Offense 461.75 yds/game
(6.14 yds/play)
Scoring Offense 36.67 pts/game
Passing Offense 380.67 yds/game
(7.43 yds/att)
Rushing Offense 81.08 yds/game
(3.38 yds/rush)
Pass Efficiency Rating 142.67

 

Leach isn't there anymore, obviously, but we'll assume that the points are still valid.  (No way to preview this thing otherwise!)  Our secondary is probably going to struggle no matter what; the key is going to be whether our front four can actually put some pressure on Taylor Potts.  Happily, Texas Tech appears to be somewhat vulnerable to pressure: they allow 2.5 sacks per game, only 92nd best in the country (though those stats may be skewed because they throw so much.)  As shown in the Penn State game, our defense is fairly effective when it's able to get ot the quarterback, and utterly awful when it cannot do so.  Ideally, we'll be able to get pressure without selling out with linebacker blitzes, but I fear that we'll need to send Greg Jones early and often.

As for who Taylor Potts will throw to: the Red Raiders have 9 (!) receivers with 20 or more receptions this season.  Alexander Torres (#86) appears to be the biggest threat, with 65 catches for 791 yards and 6 touchdowns, although Lyle Leong (#19) leads the team with 8 TDs on 42 catches.  Depressingly, Tech is at least competent at rushing the ball this season: Baron Batch (#25) averages 5.4 yards per carry, and, more impressively, has 12 touchdowns; his 784 yards rushing exceeds the combined output of Larry Caper and Edwin Baker.

Beyond that, what else is there to say, really?  There's not a whole lot from this season's result to hang your hat on here: our defense has been terrible all season, and Tech's offense is going to be good, Leach or no Leach.  We'll need a fantastic effort from a shorthanded squad.  One minor note of encouragement: Pat Narduzzi has said that of all the opponents we've played this season, Texas Tech's offense is most similar to Northwestern's.  The game against the Wildcats featured our best defensive performance of the season: an excellent bend-don't-break effort which included quarterback pressure and great tackling.  A similar performance will almost certainly be necessary.

 

Bilde_medium

WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE:  The suspensions hit harder here: 2 of the top 3 receivers are out.  The loss of B.J. Cunningham is particulary difficult, because he's impressed all season and has had something of a breakout year.  A quick look at the depth chart reveals the devastation: backing up Blair White is Brad Sonntag (bloody Sonntag), and backing up Keshawn Martin is Milton Colbert.  Both backups are freshmen, and neither has a single reception in their careers. 

Of course, you've heard the news that Keith Nichol may see some time at wideout.  The temporary move would make some sense, but my personal feeling is that this is more noise, less signal.  A modest suggestion: we continue to be extremely deep at TE, and I'd really like to see us play some two-TE sets, and perhaps occasionally split Gantt, Linthicum, Celek, and Sims out wide.  Each is more accomplished at passcatching than our WR backups.  As Howie Beardsley wrote:

The Spartans have had a month to prepare for Tech. That has been more than enough time to figure out how to replace the missing players, put all the turmoil behind them and put in a few wrinkles -- like very possibly inserting athletic backup quarterback Keith Nichol at wide receiver, going to the Wildcat formation more, and making more use of a talented corps of tight ends while, maybe, putting Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum, and even Garrett Celek, on the field at the same time.
Yes, yes, yes.  It's also crucial for Baker and Caper to become untracked; Texas Tech has allowed only 125 yards per game, but is 0-4 when allowing more than 130 yards rushing.  They'll carry the load virtually alone: what once was an unusually deep running back corps has been decimated by the impending transfers of Caulton Ray and Andre Anderson, the suspension of Ashton Leggett, and the injury to and permanent banishment of that other guy who we're not talking about here anymore EVAR.  Caper and Baker have improved as the season went along; they had decent performances in the first half against an excellent Penn State rush defense, before the team fell waaay behind and all-passing-all-the-time became necessary.

Kirk Cousins has said and done all the right things over the break, as you'd expect.  Hopefully his quasi-promotion to undisputed starter will spur him onto bigger and better things, and to end an excellent season with a strong performance.  It won't be automatic; Texas Tech's pass efficiency defense is 31st-best in the country, and this season has held Colt McCoy  and Zac Robinson to 205 and 99 yards passing, respectively.  (Case Keenum threw for 435 yards, but he did that against everyone.)  Double T Nation breaks down Tech's secondary thusly:

There were a ton of question marks regarding how the Texas Tech secondary would perform, especially after the loss of three-fourths of the defensive backfield. In stepped [SS Cody] Davis and FS Franklin Mitchem and although the numbers may not be too terribly impressive, 72nd in the nation in pass defense, but in comparison to the rest of the Big 12, the Red Raiders are better than average, good for fifth in the conference. Davis is tited for second, along with CB LaRon Moore and CB D.J. Johnson, with six passes broken up and is second on the team in tackles with 72. The general thought that when your safety is leading the team or near the top of tackles made, something is wrong with the defense, but I would guess that most Big 12 defenses suffer the same fate and the nice thing about Davis, and the entire secondary, is that he will hit. Davis was recently named to the second team All-Freshman Defense by CFN, an honor that is well deserved.
FWIW, Phil Steele named Davis to the All-Freshman first team.  Elsewhere, the Tech defense is led by Brandon Sharpe, an all-Big 12 first teamer, who had 15 sacks this season, and Brian Duncan, who leads the team with 80 tackles.  MSU will have a big advantage in that its offensive line appears to be healthy for the first time in ages; Tech shuffles its defense line around quite a bit, and both Rocco Cironi and D.J. Young will be tasked with keeping Sharpe in check.


Markdantonio_medium


FINAL THOUGHTS: This is an exceedingly important game for Mark Dantonio.  The past two seasons have brought good bowl efforts that have nonetheless fallen short.  It's now been 8 years since the last MSU bowl victory; a win tonight would go a long way toward building the program, and more importantly, creating some good news for a team that's been under siege for the past month.  The Leach fiasco makes a positive result much more possible, if not likely; the Texas Tech players have been saying the right things, but there's I don't think there's any way that the very-recent drama won't be a burden on their team.

Unfortunately, I doubt the new Tech playcallers will attempt to reinvent the wheel, and the systemic disadvantages which made this matchup so troublesome from the beginning mostly still remain.  I'd love to call for a Spartan victory, but memories of Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Penn State weigh heavily against doing so.  As Graham at TRE pointed out,

30

W

12-29-2006

44

Minnesota

41

Insight Bowl

31

W

01-01-2008

31

Virginia

28

Gator Bowl

32

L

01-02-2009

34

Mississippi

47

Cotton Bowl


No shortage of points [in the past three Texas Tech bowl appearances], but not exactly stingy defense either. Don't forget that the 2008 version featured Graham Harrell and Mike Crabtree, but Ole Miss put a lickin' on 'em anyway.  [ . . . ]

[F]or the last three years, medium-level programs from the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten have held their own against Texas Tech. So don't lose all hope yet Spartans.
The hope remains, but not enough to call for a victory.  37-24, Texas Tech.
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