What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an opposing team's blogger, they answer. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Chris Vannini, from SBN's excellent Michigan State blog, The Only Colors.
1) First things first: you won the Old Brass Spittoon -- congrats! What are you going to do with it? Does Dantonio store all the souls he's harvested from unsuspecting media members and underclassmen there? Are you glad that you don't play Illinois this year so you don't have to worry about Tim Beckman spitting some disgusting chew-juice in it? Also, what's up with you guys playing for such a random-ass collection of rivalry trophies? You've got the Spittoon, the Shop Class Trophy from Hell (aka, the Land Grant Trophy), and that weird-ass Paul Bunyan Trophy with Michigan? Do you ever wish you could just play for a big bronze pig or an oversize ax?
We spit in it, of course! As far as I know, only saliva is allowed. (I'll admit this is the first time I've actually seen people spit in it. I don't know if that's a tradition, but if so, it's a pretty cool one, if you ask me). Of all the trophies we play for, that's probably the coolest one, honestly. Most of our trophies are more celebratory than historical. The Paul Bunyan Trophy was created to celebrate MSU's entrance into the Big Ten. I don't even think Michigan likes it, they just don't like when they don't have it. The Land-Grant Trophy was made because George Perles wanted MSU to have an end-of-the-season rival, like many schools do. But when your biggest rival doesn't consider you the same, that's pretty hard. The trophy will be pretty dusty by the time MSU and Penn State meet again. I don't really know much about the megaphone trophy. Many fans don't even know MSU and Notre Dame play for a trophy. The Ax is definitely awesome. As for Floyd of Rosedale, I'd rather get a real pig, the way God intended football to be played.
2) Where does Iowa rank on your rivalry scale? There have been a lot of close games between the two teams going back to the '80s (the last two years, not so much), our programs seem to be targeting similar players in recruiting lately, and there just seems to be some bad blood lately between Iowa and Michigan State when it comes to football. How amped are you to see Iowa on the schedule?
In terms of a rivalry, I don't think it's as much of a hate than it is a respect. Sure, MSU fans will never talk about 2009, but everyone can see we have similar programs — in theory. Mark Dantonio has said as much, saying he wanted to build his program in the model of Iowa and Wisconsin. That's been true in terms of the results, but MSU has actually been pretty terrible on the offensive line and very talented in the skill positions over the years. Still, the IDEA of Mark Dantonio makes people think our programs are similar. MSU fans know they aren't going to win 11 games a year under Dantonio, but after all the ups and downs of the past 50 years, we just wanted the consistency that you guys have had. If you follow recruiting, you see MSU and Iowa are always going after the same guys in the secondary.
3) LeVeon Bell is pretty impressive, but are you worried about Dantonio working him into dust by Halloween? Some of his carry totals have been insane. On a related note, is Andrew Maxwell good enough to help carry MSU to a Big Ten title?
On one hand, the carry numbers have been really high, but Bell isn't getting to the second level very often, or the third level at all, so his legs are kind of fresh in that sense, I guess? He takes a lot of hits, and while his YPC isn't very good, we have to run to keep defenses honest. He hit a wall his freshman year, but got stronger as 2011 went along. On the other hand, Edwin Baker is gone, and he rarely reached 20 carries a game the last two years. But he's the most-talented player on the offense, so he has to be involved in as many ways as possible — whether that's running or catching.
Andrew Maxwell is good enough to win a Big Ten title, but the passing game isn't. The poor guy has been dealing with five drops a game on average, but his completion percentage is still well over 50 percent. Over the last two weeks, he's improved immensely. He's always making the right read, and he's hitting small windows with his passes. Whether or not the receiver holds on is a toss-up. He hasn't thrown an interception since the first half of the opener against Boise State, and he's passing the ball more than Kirk Cousins ever did. I'm really excited about next year, when everything returns in the passing game (and most of the offense line), but for now, we're just hoping MSU can get up to the middle of the pack in terms of offensive rankings.
4) Is there any area of the MSU defense you're worried about Iowa exploiting?
MSU's defense is super-aggressive, so ways to beat that are draws and screen passes. Notre Dame rolled Everett Golson out all the time and bought him some time, and some delayed counter draws caught MSU for some big gains. Unfortunately for Iowa, I don't think they have the speed in the backfield to hurt MSU that way.
Indiana seemingly threw 100 screen passes against MSU last week. It worked early, with a 17-0 lead after the first quarter, but MSU made the adjustments and only allowed 37 total yards in the second half. But Indiana's offense was also build on speed and tempo, which I don't normally associate with Iowa. If the Hawkeyes are smart, they'll try their share of screens.
5) What's your expectation for the rest of MSU's season? What would make this season a success? What would make it a failure?
I think eight wins (5-3 Big Ten), would be considered a decent year, given all the problems we gave the benefit of the doubt before the season started. But if Michigan makes the Big Ten championship game instead of Nebraska, then it's going to seem worse. Nine wins would be great. Less than eight would be considered a failure.
Expectations were probably a little too high, but the ways MSU missed out on the Rose Bowl the last two years were just too heartbreaking to think we wouldn't get there in 2012. In 2010, they would have made it under 2009 rules, and they would have made it in 2011 under 2010 rules. With the way the Big Ten shaped up early, it looked like MSU's conference to lose. But the offensive struggles have been too much to overcome because of various reasons. We didn't expect this many drops from the receivers, and we didn't expect this many injuries on the offensive line. This was supposed to be the top line in the Dantonio era, but the best two linemen were out for the year after five games. So once again, MSU is just hoping to patch enough together on the line to make enough plays.
But in all honesty, things will feel like more of a failure if Michigan wins the Legends than if Nebraska does (or Iowa!). That's just how in-state rivalries work.
6) Okay, prediction time -- who ya got?
MSU 17-10 Like most/all Big Ten games, I'm predicting an ugly one. Both teams' offenses play into the others' defenses, and I'm expecting a lot of runs for little yardage. Whoever makes a few more plays in the passing game and fewer turnovers might come out on top, and I'm going with MSU based off the confidence they showed in the final three quarters against Indiana and the defenses. Dion Sims is out, but Aaron Burbridge emerged as the top receiver for MSU. There won't be many big plays, but I trust MSU's defense to make a few more plays than Iowa's.
Thanks for being a good sport, Chris. Be sure to check out Chris and the rest of his Sparty-loving cohorts over at The Only Colors. You can also follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisVannini, as well as The Only Colors at @theonlycolors. The Iowa-Michigan State game is in East Lansing, MI on Saturday, October 13 at 11am CT, with television coverage from ESPN.