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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The dream season takes a detour (Iowa 37, Michigan State 6)

I didn't think MSU had a realistic shot at going undefeated, but I definitely didn't foresee the drubbing they took at Iowa. I now consider myself lucky that I had to work at the library yesterday, and did not have to subject myself to the pre-Halloween horror show put on by the Spartans.

Hats off to the Hawkeyes, they definitely came to play, and it was exactly the scenario that I was afraid of after Iowa suffered their heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin last week. Iowa was angry and focused.

The game exposed MSU's deficiencies that have been glossed over in their recent victories over Illinois and Northwestern. The running game has improved, but is still not where it needs to be. Kirk Cousins is not a great quarterback, but a very good quarterback still prone to making mistakes, and the secondary continues to be a liability.

Michigan State also looks like a physically and emotionally tired group right now. This has been one rollercoaster of a season and the guys look like they could use a bye week. They may be the last team in the Big Ten to receive a bye week--it doesn't come until November 13. Fatigue, combined with a motivated Iowa team playing at home, helped create the nightmare of yesterday's game. (Do you like the Halloween-themed decription? Witty, eh!).

More on this a little later.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some quick thoughts

Not much time to write, since I have to work today. Unfortunately, my schedule has changed at work and now I must work one weekend per month.

It's too bad that on the eve of MSU's biggest football game in 44 years, the big story was not the GAME itself, but the reinstatement of Chris L. Rucker. Everyone has to put in his or her two cents, and MSU has gotten a big black eye over this whole situation.

Well, gotta run. Wish me a quick day at work and good luck to the Spartans.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The incredible, magical season continues (Michigan State 35, Northwestern 27)

Wow, yet another amazing win for the Spartans. They really had to dig deep to get it done against the Wildcats.

Now it's on to Iowa to play a huge game against the Hawkeyes, in the hostile and crazed atmosphere of Kinnick Stadium. No doubt, the Hawkeyes will be ornery after their heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin. (I'm not sure whether to thank the Badgers or curse them. I'll go ahead and thank them for pinning a Big Ten loss on Iowa).

I will be adding a little more to this entry when I get time.

Northwestern: pre-game thoughts (and updates)

Michigan State takes its undefeated record to Evanston to face the pesky Northwestern Wildcats. I expect a big crowd of Spartans to invade Ryan Field.

Northwestern is a tough team to call. They are 5-1, but they have looked unimpressive in their wins, and lost at home to Purdue. I expect they will come to play, and their spread offense will keep the Spartans on their toes. I just don't expect the Wildcats to be able to make enough big plays, or the Spartans to make enough mistakes, for Northwestern to pull out a victory. However, this game does make me nervous. The Wilcats are certainly capable of winning. I'm going to assume MSU's athleticism and depth will be enough to give them a 37-24 victory.


Awful first half. Is this SOS, Same Old Spartans? Bad tackling, no energy, inability to pick up third downs, Conroy misses his first field goal of the year. State needs to pick it up in the secon half or they will have their first loss of the season.


Postgame: What a win. What a comeback. What big plays made by the Spartans down the stretch, from another successful fake field goal, some big catches by Keith Nichol, an amazing touchdown catch by B.J. Cunningham, some timely defensive stops, and an exclamation point of a touchdown run by Edwin Baker (though it game the Wildcats the ball back and gave me a pounding heart). Eric Gordon intercepted a Dan Persa pass on the Wildcats final possession and the game was over.

Maybe SOS is finally dead.

8-0 feels pretty darned good.

Fantasy football week seven

No longer undefeated, a team beset with injuries and slammed by the dreaded bye weeks. I'm sitting at 5-1 now and have another slapped together team for this weekend. With the Jets, Texans, and Colts not playing this Sunday, I can't start Austin Collie, Braylon Edwards, or Andre Johnson. I will be starting such luminaries as Danario Alexander and the underperforming (and overshadowed by Terrell Owens) Chad Ocho Cinco. Could I be staring at 5-2?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thoughts on NPR's firing of Juan Williams

I'm a big fan of National Public Radio, in fact I listen to it every single day, but I'm dismayed at their handling of the recent Juan Williams situation. They played directly into the hands of the right wing and the ilk at Fox by making themselves look the like the politically correct "thought police".

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last four days, you're probably already familiar with what Juan Williams said on Fox News and NPR's response. (If you don't know what happened, why are you reading this?). I didn't particularly like what Juan Williams said on Fox (essentially, he stated that people he sees in airports, dressed in Muslim garb, make him "nervous"), although compared to some of the stuff that passes for political discourse on that network, it wasn't THAT egregious. (The readers of this blog, if there are any, may wish to argue that point).

The broader issue is the aftermath of Williams' comments, and I did have a problem with NPR's handling of the situation. Apparently, NPR has a policy that their journalists and commentators must remain neutral, which seems ridiculous (and, for that matter disingenuous, since I've noticed NPR folks like Neal Conan, Terri Gross, and Diane Rehm expressing their opinions on subjects--and what's wrong with that anyway?). In any case, was Juan Williams really representing NPR when he appeared on Fox? Couldn't NPR simply have issued a disclaimer stating that Juan Williams was speaking as an individual when he appeared on Fox, and his opinions did not necessarily represent those of National Public Radio?

Does NPR simply have an axe to grind with Juan Williams? Are they angry that he has the audacity to appear on Fox News in the first place? (I never had a problem with Juan Williams appearing on Fox News, as it provided NPR the opportunity to reach out to a more politically diverse--i.e. conservative--community. Why not present yourselves as willing to reach out to a constituency not generally associated with National Public Radio?).

The fallout has been sharp criticism of NPR from many different sides, which is deserved. What is not deserved, but not surprising, is the cries from the right that NPR should have it's funding cut. This is, of course, completely ridiculous. I have no problem with a rebuke, but NPR still provides easily the best radio programming anywhere. (Of course, that is an opinion coming from a bleading heart liberal like myself, so take it with a grain of salt).

With left-leaning politicians taking a beating this year, and with elections only eleven days away, this sort of negative publicity for NPR is ill-timed. It's just the sort of ammunition the right needs to reinforce, to the American people, how "out-of-touch" the left is, as exemplified by the "elitists" at National Public Radio who profess to open-minded discourse but dump one of their own if he does not toe the company line. (If you haven't noticed, I'm putting words in their mouths--but I'm pretty sure that's how people like Bill O'Reilly and Fox will spin this fiasco).

The big winner in this is...drum roll, please...Juan Williams. Nobody need feel any sympathy for Juan. He just signed a two million dollar contract with Fox and is better known now than at any time in his long career.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The dream season (knock on wood) continues: (Michigan State 26, Illinois 6)

Somebody pinch me, please. Tell me I'm not dreaming this up. Is the Michigan State football team really 7-0?

What a ride this season has been thus far. The Spartans overcame first half miscues, unispired play, mental errors, and a terrific Illinois defense. They turned up their performance more than a notch in the second half and dominated the Illini. Now they stand as the only undefeated team in the Big Ten. Once again, somebody pinch me and tell me this isn't a dream.

I started watching the game on our bedroom television, since the kids were playing Wii on the living room TV. With the Spartans behind 6-3 late in the first half (and they were lucky to only be down by a field goal), I knew I'd have to assume my "nervous nelly" Spartan football watching position in our basement, where I'd be relatively safe in screaming at the TV and whooping it up. I grabbed a beer out of the fridge, headed to the dungeon, and watched the second half. Thankfully, MSU provided me with plenty of thrills en route to taking over the game and winning, 26-6.

With the Spartans' victory, I was free to enjoy the rest of my Saturday. I hate to admit this, but during the autumn, much of my piece-of-mind and enjoyment of the weekend is dependent on the result of MSU's football game. If the Spartans win, I'm good through Monday. If they lose, I tend to agonize for the next day or so. Embarrassing, but true.

Anyway, I watched a good portion of Michigan's loss to Iowa, and some of the Wisconsin/Ohio State game. Although a Michigan victory over Iowa would have helped MSU, I simply could not bring myself to root for the Wolverines, and I enjoyed watching them lose to the Hawkeyes. I was thrilled with the Badgers' victory over Ohio State.
My old college friend Tom was in town for homecoming weekend. Friday night, we tried to attend MSU basketball's Midnight Madness at Breslin Center, but Tom hit construction and traffic woes coming into town from Royal Oak, so we weren't able to get over to Breslin until after 11:00 PM. MSU hoops has become too popular (I suppose six Final Fours in twelve years will do that) and we were turned away at the door. The place was packed. After playing text message tag all day Saturday (Tom and his friend Holly went to the MSU/Illinois game and then to popular local Mexican restaurant El Azteco for dinner) we finally got together for drinks. We caught up on the last year and watched the end of the OSU/Wisconsin game. Tom was also interested in the Giants/Phillies playoff game, since as a San Franciscan he's adopted the Giants as one of his teams. Anyway, we had a good time visiting, and I was able to meet his friend Holly.

Back to MSU football briefly. All of this national championship/undefeated talk has got me dizzy. I'm trying hard not to get overly excited. But having said that, this might be the most well-rounded MSU football team I've seen: Kirk Cousins has been, for the most part, excellent at quarterback; there's a three-headed monster at running back (Baker, Caper, Bell); the receiving corps is incredibly deep with Cunningham, Dell, Martin, Linthicum, Gantt, and Nichol; the kicking game has been perfect; and the defense has exceeded expectations. We all figured the linebackers (Greg Jones, Eric Gordon, Chris Norman, Jon Misch) would be great, and they have been, but other guys like Tyler Hoover at defensive end, freshmen William Gholston and Max Bullough, Jerel Worthy, and Colin Neely have all made great contributions. The biggest surprise so far is how well the defensive backfield has played, with Johnny Adams, Trenton Robinson, and Marcus Hyde all making great contributions (particularly Adams and Robinson). Chris L. Rucker was also part of that great secondary, but his status is uncertain after a drunk driving arrest/probation violation after the Michigan game. True freshman Darqueze Dennard stepped in for Rucker in the Illinois game and, though he was burned on one long pass play that resulted in an obvious pass interference call, had a fantastic strip and fumble recovery on another play. The kid is fast and has great closing speed.

One sign of the great team play of this MSU team came after Dennard's pass interference penalty. Immediately after the play, senior Greg Jones took Dennard aside and had a talk with him--not screaming, not angry, just what appeared to be an instructional talk. It reminded me of the MSU basketball team and how the upper classmen always intruct the younger players on the floor. It's an indication of the program that Dantonio is building here at MSU.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fantasy football week six: Amazingly, still undefeated

My point total this week was the lowest it's been this season, but thanks to my opponent having an even lower point total, I was able to win yet again. My team is held together with duct tape at this point, with Knowshon Moreno still out and Andre Johnson still struggling with injuries. Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates once again had excellent weeks, and Peyton Hillis made a solid contribution at the running back position.

Michigan State football at the halfway point: (Somewhat) uncharted territory

It's been eleven years since Michigan State football started the season 6-0. The last time was 1999, and the next two weeks that followed that great start were not good for the Spartans. The team lost in successive weeks to Purdue (52-28), and eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin (40-10). State eventually righted the ship and went on to a 10-2 final record, but those two ugly weeks cost the Spartans a shot at the conference title and a higher national ranking.

Back in 1999, Michigan State couldn't handle the accolades that came with their great start. At that time, it'd been 33 years since MSU had a 6-0 start. (Coincidently, just like this year's team, that '99 squad topped off their great start with an emotional win over Michigan). Local sportscaster Tim Staudt often relates a story of Nick Saban telling him that he was worried about the Purdue game because he didn't think his players could handle the attention (and pressure) of being undefeated.

I hope that the coaching staff has not allowed this year's team to get complacent. Mark Dantonio was on Nick Saban's '99 staff, so he may have learned the correct buttons to push to keep the team grounded and focused.

The week following the Michigan game didn't get off to a great start with defensive back Chris L. Rucker's drunk driving arrest. He's been suspended from the Illinois game and he could be sorely missed on Saturday.

That brings up the subject of MSU's next opponent, Illinois. Definitely not a team to be taken lightly, as they proved by crushing Penn State in Happy Valley. That may actually be a blessing in disguise, because that sort of resounding victory surely got the Spartans' undivided attention, and ended any thought MSU had of simply coasting through the Homecoming game.

I'm hearing a lot of people around here (including several sportswriters and broadcasters) throwing around the words "undefeated season," and that scares me. I've followed MSU football way, way, way too long to be getting ahead of myself. Yes, there is something about this year's team that feels different from squads in the past, but I keep reminding myself that this IS Michigan State: a school that has been to one Rose Bowl in 45 years, has not won a Big Ten title in 20 years, and last went undefeated in 1966.*

If MSU can remain focused, as they have all season to this point, they should beat a dangerous Illinois team tomorrow...and we will be one step closer to that magical season Spartan fans have been craving for decades.

*The one blemish to that 1966 season was the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) 10-10 tie with Notre Dame.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Little brother beats up big sister, again. (Michigan State 34, Michigan 17)

First of all, allow me to apologize for my hand-wringing, neurotic pre-game posts. If you've been reading this blog, you're probably used to it by now.

Call it the most satisfying victory over Michigan in my lifetime. I had waited my entire 42 years on this earth to enjoy an absolutely dominating performance over the Wolverines. A game that left no doubt that the Spartans were the better team. Absolutely nothing for Michigan fans to complain about, they were served in their own stadium in front of 110,000 or so of their fans and supporters.

I never thought I'd live to see the day when MSU would defeat Michigan in football three consecutive years.

Reading some Michigan Wolverine football blogs and it's clear their fans don't like Dantonio. It's at least partly because Dantonio had the audacity to call out the Wolverines after Mike Hart's infamous "little brother" comment after the 2007 game. Michigan fans are miffed that Dantonio didn't realize he was supposed to bend down and plead, "Thank you sir, may I have another!"

Kidding aside, Dantonio gets this rivalry in a way that his predecessor, John L. Smith, never did. It's probably because Dantonio was on the MSU staffs of Nick Saban and, briefly, Bobby Williams, and saw first-hand the importance of this game to MSU fans. Then, he moved on to Ohio State where he took on the qualities and attitude of Jim Tressel--and we all know how the Buckeyes feel about the Wolverines.

Michigan fans like to pretend that the game against Michigan State doesn't mean anything to them. I will not argue that it's as important to them as the Ohio State game. Quite frankly, based on the Wolverines' domination of the series prior to 2008, it's hard to fault Michigan fans for not thinking of the Spartans as a rival. But now that Dantonio has raised the stakes by beating Michigan three straight times, with this years' victory being the most decisive of them all, Michigan will have to take MSU seriously from now on.

Michigan State is playing absolutely the best football I've seen in these parts in...gee whiz, 11 years? You've got to go back to the 1999 team of Plaxico Burress, Julian Peterson, et al to find a Spartan team that was playing at this level. As usual, I'm trying hard not to get overly excited, but this team is loaded with talent. Unlike the 2008 team, which was physically manhandled by the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin (and needed some huge plays and a little luck to win those games) this year's squad is now doing the manhandling. They outmuscled the burly and bruising Badgers, and thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage this Saturday against Michigan. I also see more athleticism on this year's team than I've seen since 1999. In fact, I'd argue that this year's team may be more athletic than the '99 team.

Kirk Cousins had perhaps the best game of his career on Saturday. Any argument that he is not a big game quarterback should be forever silenced. This game against Michigan was HUGE. His quarterback counterpart at Michigan, Denard Robinson, was getting all the media attention--and with the unreal numbers he was putting up, it's not hard to see why. (It's probably unfair to compare the two quarterbacks, since they are completely different in what they bring to the table and run completely different offenses). Cousins won this particular duel decisively. Denard threw three interceptions (though, in fairness, two of them were attributable to his receivers making mistakes), while Cousins was flawless.

By the way, let me say that Denard Robinson is an excellent football player, and has a bright future in front of him.

Michigan's problem is not Denard Robinson, it's that they have perhaps the worst defense in the history of their program. I guarantee you that Bo Schembechler is spinning in his grave.

It is as if the two programs have reversed personalities. Michigan State crushed Michigan by employing an offense and defense that Bo Schembechler would have appreciated.

Anyway, I love what I see from this team. If the Spartans can avoid injuries while maintaining their focus and confidence, a record of 10-2 is not out of the question. In fact, if a few bounces go their way, they may even do better than that.


We watched the MSU/UofM game with our friends Mark and Angela, who we don't see that often. They have two young daughters and they live about a half-hour away, so it's difficult getting together. Mark is a big sports fan, and a Spartan fan, so it's always enjoyable watching sports with him. (By the way, he's also in my fantasy football league and is usually near the top of the standings). I think I cracked everybody up with how tense I was throughout most of the game. Man, I've got to try and not take these games so personally, but it's hard!

Mark and Angela's small daughter, Lucy, was in my immediate vicinity when the Spartans made a big play (interception?) and I yelled at the TV screen. I think I scared the poor child half to death. I tried my best to reassure her that I was only yelling at the television and not at her. (This is why it's best for me, in most cases, to just watch these games alone or in a bar).

In an effort to numb the pain of a potential Spartan loss, I drank about six beers before halftime (that is a lot for me to drink these days--usually after two beers I'm feeling bloated and tired). Once it became clear that MSU was in full control of the game, and definitely NOT going to blow it, I chilled out and cut out the beers.

It was great seeing Mark and Angela again, and I greatly enjoyed experiencing this great Spartan victory with good friends.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why Michigan matters and other pre-game thoughts

Trying to fight off pre-game jitters. I feel as if I'm playing, when in reality I have no control over the outcome of a game between 18-22 year old athletes.

Whtether we want to admit it or not, Michigan State people feel that we are the "little brother" in comparison with our snooty brethren in Ann Arbor. We do perceive arrogance, imagined or not, in the folks from the University of Michigan. (Although, in my experience, the most annoying Michigan fans are the ones who never actually attended the school). Though I'm proud of MSU's history as a land grant institution and the advances it made in scientific agriculture, the "Moo U" epithet I hear still stings.

It's difficult having the winningest program in college football history only an hour's drive from us. Whether we should or not, we at MSU are always trying to measure up with U of M.

Three wins in a row over Michigan would be incredible. I never thought I'd see two in a row, but I find myself not satisfied and wanting more.

It's hard for me to be too critical of those who, with no familial allegiance with either MSU or U of M, chose Michigan as their favorite team/school back in the seventies and eighties. MSU's only great year in football between 1967 and 1987 came in 1978, and because of probation MSU did not appear on television. It's almost as if the 1978 season never really happened.

Lesson learned from the 2004 game: never call anyone in celebration before the game has actually ended. More on that later.

Game time is almost upon us, I hope the football gods are smiling down upon the Spartans today.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fantasy footall week five (Terracotta Warriors are still undefeated)

After some nifty maneuvering to avoid the pitfalls of the first NFL bye week, I'm happy to report that my team won again and I am now 4-0. I picked up Mike Nugent, who was my kicker for the week, as well as the Tennessee defense. Both performed admirably for me. New running back Peyton Hillis was solid, and I had another outstanding week from tight end Antonio Gates.

If I can just get Andre Johnson and Knowshon Moreno back and healthy, I should keep on rolling (knock on wood).

Aside from some minor injuries to the forementioned Johnson and Moreno, my team has been injury-free, which has not been the case in previous years.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Michigan week

It's Michigan week, and with it comes my annual hand-wringing, angst-filled, pre-game post. This is the most anticipated Michigan State/Michigan football game since 1999, when both teams entered the game at 6-0. This season, both teams are 5-0 and in the upper reaches of the top 20.

There are some intriguing storylines with both teams. On one hand, you have the dazzling Denard Robinson and his quest for a possible Heisman Trophy and on the other hand, there is Michigan State's "rallying of the troops" after Mark Dantonio's heart attack after the amazing Notre Dame victory.

I'm nervous about this game. I'm always nervous about this game. I've seen too many MSU losses against Michigan to EVER get overly confident.

Denard Robinson scares me. He is a fabulous player and I'm astounded by his improvement from last year to this year. And, despite what some people have been saying, Michigan is not a one-man team. Stonum, Roundtree, Hemingway, and Odoms are excellent receivers. The Spartan defense will have their hands full, to say the least.

The worst thing that could happen is for Michigan's defense to constantly hear how awful they are. I expect their defense to play one of their best games of the year, and their home crowd will help them exponentially.

I'm still not completely sold on MSU's run defense. They did do a decent job against Wisconsin (in particular, they were able to contain John Clay), but looking at the stats I see that James White had 98 yards on only 10 carries. Denard Robinson is a better and faster runner than either one of those players.

This is Michigan State's first big road test. The game against Florida Atlantic at Ford Field does not really count as a road game. How does MSU respond to 109,000 screaming Michigan fans who will be going crazy for the Wolverines. You know darned well these fans don't want to lose to the Spartans for the third straight year and will do all they can to get their team going. With the expansion of Michigan Stadium, I suspect the place is louder than it ever has been before.

Did I mention I'm a "glass-is-half-empty" MSU football fan?

Having written all of that, I must say there is a quiet confidence about this MSU football team that I haven't seen in quite some time (2008 included). It remains to be seen whether the team is able to behave and perform with confidence throughout the entire season, but I have a feeling that this year's team is different from all the other disappointing or underachieving Spartan teams of the past.

If I have any time between now and Saturday, I'll add more to this post.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Free football tickets are a beautiful thing

Yesterday, I entered a drawing at work for two tickets to today's Michigan State/Wisconsin football game. I never win these drawings, so I had no expectations for that to change. Well, lo and behold, I won the tickets. As it turns out, they're great tickets: lower deck, west corner of the south endzone, row 13. These may be the best seats I've ever had at Spartan Stadium.

Initially, I thought of having my brother come down for the game, but knew it was short notice and he may not be able to make it. His Saturday was already booked, so I'm taking my son Avery. My plan is to keep him supplied with hot dogs, popcorn, and soda pop and he should make it through the entire game (provided it's a game worth staying until the very end).

I have no idea what to expect from this game, but presumably it'll be close. Go State!
Update: I took my oldest son to Michigan State/Wisconsin game and we had a fun time. Above is a picture of him at the game. He was well fed in hot dogs, popcorn, Coca-cola, and hot chocolate. I wanted to stay for the entire game, but compromised and we left after the end of the third quarter with the Spartans ahead 27-17. (It was getting rather cold and damp anyway, and we were both shivering). By the time we got off to our car, parked at my sister-in-law's house across from campus in East Lansing, the game was over and MSU had prevailed 34-24. An excellent win for the Spartans and a fun day for dad and son.