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Column: MSU, U-M have a lot of questions going forward

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:44 AM

Due to blatant weaknesses on both teams, who knows what’s in store for the Wolverines and Spartans through the next nine weeks.

I could see both getting to 9-10 wins or just as easily both belly-flopping and falling to 7-5. Vegas’ bookies have to be smiling with those types of questionable odds.

Maybe it’s too soon to jump overboard with the Spartans, considering they just lost to a rejuvenated Notre Dame program that’s benefited from young talent on the defensive line growing up in a hurry. The front seven of the Fighting Irish completely dominated the Spartans’ offensive line, as it bottled up workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell early and made Spartans’ quarterback Andrew Maxwell eat the turf four times with sacks and forced him into 22 incompletions.

I didn’t see any insulting tweets fired off about Maxwell’s ineptness at the position, but maybe social media smack talk just happens in East Lansing.

Of course, seven of Maxwell’s misfires were the result of drops by an MSU receiving unit that has largely showed its inexperience through three games. It’s bad enough that fans are clamoring for young receivers such as DeAnthony Arnett and Aaron Burbridge to see the field, if anything, for a boost of excitement to an otherwise drab offense.

But is it an upgrade when inexperienced youth is replacing inexperienced youth? What, is 18-year-old Justin Beiber next in line?

Before we rush to place judgment after one subpar showing, let’s believe that Maxwell just needs to be thrown into the fire a few times before he can extinguish his critics. But for now, any team that can generate a half-decent pass rush on the Spartans’ first-year starter can expect a lot of hurried, inaccurate throws. Adding an increased dose of bubble screens or tight end hitches to Maxwell’s plate would be wise, simply as a way to strengthen his confidence. Getting into a rhythm is one of the best things that can happen for any quarterback, especially one that has been missing on a majority of his deep throws.

The premature talks of Michigan State running the table in the Big Ten or even reaching the national championship game was absurd, with head coach Mark Dantonio even reminding the “experts,” that they were looking too far ahead. But now that MSU has been knocked down a peg, let’s remind that it’s also too early to project doom and gloom. Remember, this team also looked downright awful against Notre Dame last season and rebounded quite nicely to reach the Big 10 championship game.

As weak as the Big 10 Conference is this season (it’s easily the worst in my lifetime), the Spartans could easily get on a roll and achieve their goal of reaching the Rose Bowl.

Really, is there one team in the Big 10 right now that stands far and away as a better team than the Spartans? Their defense is still probably their best offense in creating turnovers and great field position, a luxury that no other Big 10 team can match.

But again, if Maxwell and the receivers don’t show steady progression, good luck trying pick a favorite when MSU faces Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, or even Northwestern — the only unbeaten team remaining in the lethargic league. Really, any of those contests could sway either way.

If MSU is a mystery, then the upcoming chapters of in-state rival Michigan could be even cloudier. It’s a given that the Wolverines won’t face a team in the Big 10 as talented as its opening opponent in Alabama, which is good because Wolverines’ fans can’t stomach another 41-14 beat down.

But the Wolverines’ bottom line is simple: if they can’t stop the run, then expect mediocrity the rest of the way. U-M currently ranks next to last in the Big 10 by allowing an average of 211 yards in its opening three games, along with five rushing touchdowns.

Michigan simply doesn’t have the horses on the defensive line to improve on those statistics dramatically, and the Wolverines face another dilemma considering their freshmen linebackers are more talented then the current starters.

Can you survive in the Big 10 starting two freshmen (Joe Bolden and James Ross III) at linebacker?

Being a run-stuffing defensive lineman isn’t a skill you can develop in a few weeks, so defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is going to continue to have to cheat safeties up and be extra sneaky in disguising his blitzes in hopes of blowing up plays and creating turnovers — another area where U-M is nearly non-existent.

If Michgan’s run defense continues to stink, there’s only two ways they can overcome it and still contend in the Big 10: Denard Robinson throws well, and Denard runs very well.

The senior quarterback is the ultimate equalizer for U-M, and for the foolish critics who claim that the Wolverines are a one-man show, well, sure, but wouldn’t you want him running your offense, too?

I bet Notre Dame wouldn’t mind him under center. They’ve lost to him two times —both in heart-breaking fashion — and if they aren’t careful, No. 3 could happen on Saturday.

I mean, I think it could happen. It might. With the Wolverines and Spartans this season, your guess is as good as mine.

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