(Editor's note -- writing this on Tuesday night. Feel free to correct anything that's changed in the comments. Thanks! - PR)
The 2011 campaign begins tonight against Youngstown State, the first weekday night game in Spartan Stadium since the Spartans beat Oregon 27-20 on September 2, 1999. If you're hoping to tailgate for this game, take heed -- the lots are not opening to tailgaters until 3:30, and you'll still have to hope students haven't parked in your spot. Here's a look at the Penguins, who went 3-8 last season, and are picked to finish 8th out of 9 teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference's (MVFC) preseason poll. For a Youngstown State perspective, Let's Go 'Guins has a good preview.
Youngstown State returns seven starters on offense. Three players on the offensive line and a wide receiver have graduated, nearly mirroring the positions the Spartans have lost on offense. The Penguins run what is described as a "Multiple" offense, same as MSU's. I assume that this is code for "stay in the I-formation the majority of the time, but we'll mix it up with a few three and four receiver sets".
The quarterback is redshirt sophomore Kurt Hess. Hess completed 179 of his 304 attempts (58.9% completion percentage) for 2,117 yards and 12 touchdowns against 8 interceptions, and for his efforts earned the MVFC's Freshman of the Year award. He loses his main target in wide receiver Dominique Barnes, and his two leading returning receivers caught 27 and 25 passes in 2010.
The running game for Youngstown State is well established, as junior tailback Jamaine Cook rushed for 1,273 yards on 241 carries (about 5.3 yards per carry). While 5.3 YPC is quite efficient, YSU did lose three players on the offensive line last season, both guards and a center (but Bobby Coates did play tackle as well). If I had to wager I'd guess Cook might find it tough to gain yards with new starters in for the majority of his offensive line. And the kicker? The Penguins have no seniors on the offensive line this season.
YSU DEFENSE AND SPECIAL TEAMS
The Youngstown State defense also returns seven starters from last season, losing a cornerback, a linebacker, and two defensive linemen. Hopefully this can only help the Penguin defense, as Youngstown State allowed on average more than 400 yards a game last season.
The weakness of this team last year was through the air -- Youngstown State allowed 26 touchdown passes in 11 games last season, most in their history by five, over 21 in 1999...over 15 games. Couple that with only seven interceptions collected by the secondary, and this looks like a back seven ripe to be picked apart by Kirk Cousins unless great improvements have taken place.
The punting will be handled by sophomore Nick Liste, who averaged over 39 yards a punt in nine of 11 YSU games last season. He will be sufficient. The place kicking duties will be handled by junior college transfer David Brown, who made 34 extra points and eight field goals on 16 attempts, with a long of 47 yards.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR OUT OF MICHIGAN STATE
Out of the offense, I'm looking to see how well the offensive line blocks. Almost all of the other players at the skill positions are proven quantities, but I want to see if the line can gel against their first challenge. If they can open holes for Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper great. If they can keep Kirk Cousins's jersey pristine, even better. If the offensive line can effect holes and protect Cousins, they'll have passed the first test.
On defense, I'm looking to see how often Worthy, White, Gholston and company are pressuring the quarterback. The defensive line last year pressured a similar opponent, Northern Colorado, incessantly leading to three interceptions (two by Greg Jones!). The Penguin line is inexperienced (there's five words I thought I'd never see in that order), especially the middle, and if Worthy and White can't impose their will, it may be time to worry a smidgen.
Discerning Isaiah Lewis's and Darqueze Dennard's roles in the secondary may be a bit trickier. If the defensive line causes the disruption I hope it will, judging the secondary's effectiveness may be a bit tricky. What I'll be looking for are no blown coverages; if that happens I will be one happy Spartan fan.
Sorry this preview is a little short, but I hope, hope, HOPE this game is only a formality. The one intangible factor I'd be worry about would be the Spartans coming out too excited, as this is the first weekday night game in more than a decade. I'd be worried if Youngstown State was predicted to do great things in the MVFC with 15 returning starters, but they've been voted to finish second to last in the preseason poll. Nitpickers will find flaws that can be improved upon, but Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham work their respective ways up the MSU Football career leader board.
PREDICTION: MICHIGAN STATE 38, YOUNGSTOWN STATE 10.