The last time Michigan State played Florida Atlantic was in 2008, with the Spartans winning a messy 17-0 affair played in a downpour rivaling the 2006 Notre Dame game. The weather was beneficial on offense, as Javon Ringer ran the ball 43 times for 282 yards, and on defense as the 2007 Sun Belt player of the year, quarterback Rusty Smith, was neutralized by the wet conditions. This game was supposed to be played in Boca Raton, but with Florida Atlantic's stadium still under construction the game was moved to Ford Field. Before you ask, yes, plenty of good seats are still available.
Florida Atlantic is 1-0 on the season, having beat UAB 32-31 on the road in their opener by blocking a field goal on the final play of the game. The Owls had to overcome a 28-12 defecit in the second half, and did so on a trio of big plays: an interception return, a 43 yard pass, and a 38 yard run, all for touchdowns. Both Florida Atlantic and UAB were picked by Phil Steele as middle-of-the-road teams in their respective divisions (Sun Belt for the Owls, Conference USA for the Dragons). After the jump, a look at FAU's biggest threats on offense, and their not-quite-as-big threats on defense.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE...
They will be tested by the best skill players the Sun Belt has to offer. Just like MSU, FAU operates mainly out of the pro set. Senior quarterback Jeff Van Camp was the Sun Belt's most efficient returning passer, posting a 141.2 passer rating while splitting time with Rusty Smith due to Smith's injuries. Van Camp's high passer rating stemmed from a glowing TD-INT ratio (12-2) paired with a decent completion percentage (59.2%) and a good yards per attempt (7.5). He didn't miss a beat in the opener, going 14-24 with 254 and three touchdowns and one interception. The wide receivers are mostly new as five of the top six pass catchers are gone. Senior Lester Jean is the top returning receiver and Van Camp's familiarity with him showed last Saturday, as Jean had 9 of the team's 14 receptions for 164 yards and two scores.
Florida Atlantic has the Sun Belt's top returning running back as well. Alfred Morris led the Belt in rushing last season with 1392 yards and 11 touchdowns on 263 attempts for 5.3 yards per carry. Sophomore fullback Xavier Stinson is now the starter, taking over for second-leading rusher Willie Rose. As for the offensive line, they return...wait for it...ZERO career starts from 2009. Two juniors, a sophomore, and two freshmen (all redshirted) were listed as the starters in this week's depth chart, and their inexperience showed as the offense could only muster 3.3 yards per carry, yielded three sacks, and gave up eight tackles for a loss.
Michigan State's mission on defense main focus should be on one player -- Jean. I'm assuming the front seven will push back Florida Atlantic's newly minted offensive line; if they don't, you can officially be concerned about the defense. Jean had more than 50% of the Owls' receptions last week, and although two other receivers had receptions of more than 25 yards, those receptions were the only ones those two had all game. Morris can break the big play on the ground, but I'm assuming (hopefully) that Greg Jones and the linebacking corps will contain him adequately.
Ross Gornall, the Owls' kicker, made 8-of-12 field goals last season, with the four misses all being blocks. Even though his longest field goal make was 42 yards in 2009, he did make a 62 yard field goal in scrimmage in August.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE...
They'll be facing a base 4-3 defense that was one of the worst in all of the FBS last season. They were weak against the pass (233 yards per game, 67.4% opponent completion rate), and unforgivably weak against the run. On average, FAU gave up 221 yards rushing per game, ranking 112th in the FBS. About the only piece of bad news for MSU is that the Owls return nine of eleven starters and 11 of 13 of their top tacklers.
One ray of hope for the Owl defense is that they only allowed 79 yards passing to first-time starting quarterback David Isabelle. However, UAB shied away from passing not because Isabelle was inefficient, but because they were performing so well on the ground. The Dragons gained 343 yards on 47 rushes, which converts to 7.3 yards per carry. This propensity to yield rushing yardage may not directly translate to success on the ground for MSU -- UAB employs multiple spread sets and the quarterback Isabelle was the team's leading rusher (214 yards on the day) -- but it surely couldn't hurt.
Based on last week's game, Michigan State's offense will most likely revert back to its 2008 form and try and jam the ball right through the line of scrimmage. Larry Caper should see some carries this game along with LeVeon Bell and Edwin Baker, with two or three requisite Keshawn Martin end-arounds. Even though the Owl defense did a good job limiting UAB through the air last week, I expect Kirk Cousins to have no such troubles -- even in the swirling winds last week only two of his eight incompletions weren't drops, and once the run gets established, a few play action passes should work to perfection.
Punter Micky Groody (that is his name) averaged 40.6 yards per punt last season with three of those punts being blocked. That's all I have to say about that.
Facing the Owls, the Spartans will be playing an inferior version of itself -- an explosive offense through the air or on the ground, and a defense that often leaves much to be desired. To see how one of college football's legendary coaches, Howard Schnellenberger, prepares for this game will be a treat (and if you don't know why he's legendary, immediately find a copy of "The U" and watch the first 30-40 minutes. It's all fantastic, but the Schnelly related part is in the beginning). I think the Spartans will allow a few more points then they did against Western Michigan, but should be able to score a bit more as well and will win comfortably; however, they will fail to cover the spread. It says something that the most intriguing part of this game will be how many fans show up (approximately 25,000 tickets were sold as of Thursday afternoon), and for both teams' sake, let's hope a full house is present to see a Spartan victory. MSU 45, FAU 20.