The 17th-ranked Michigan State Spartans begin their highly anticipated 2011 season on Friday night, as they welcome FCS foe Youngstown State to East Lansing for a gridiron showdown at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is no stranger to the Penguins, spending five years on (1986-90) under Jim Tressel. Dantonio is heading into his eighth season in East Lansing and is coming off a 2010 campaign in which his Spartans went 11-2 overall and captured a share of the Big Ten title with a 7-1 league record.
Eric Wolford's debut season with the Penguins didn't exactly go to script, as YSU finished the season a disappointing 3-8 overall, including a 1-7 mark in the MVFC. However, there were certainly positives to take from the campaign and something to build on for the future.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
The Penguins did a lot of things right on the offensive side of the football, setting a school record by averaging a robust 412.0 yards per game. It certainly helped that young signal-caller Kurt Hess had a strong debut season, earning MVFC Freshman of the Year after passing for 2,117 yards and 12 TDs.
Tailback Jamaine Cook was an integral part of the offense as well, becoming the 14th RB in school history to eclipse 1,000 yards. Cook finished the year with 1,276 yards and 11 TDs on 5.3 yards per carry. Both players are back, although Hess will need to find a new go-to-guy downfield with the departure of Dominique Barnes (67 catches, 911 yards, four TDs). Ely Ducatel is the top returning wideout (27 catches, 336 yards, two TDs).
Defensively, the Penguins will need to improve. The team surrendered 41 offensive touchdowns last year, including 26 through the air. The lack of a steady pass rush was certainly one of the reasons. The team managed a mere 12 sacks 11 games.
Senior linebacker John Sasson returns to man the middle, after leading the team in tackles in 2010 with 89 stops. Senior end Obinna Ekweremuba is seeking to build on a solid junior campaign in which he tallied 24 tackles and one sack, finally earning a spot in the starting rotation.
The secondary is young and inexperienced and could feature a redshirt freshman and two sophomores among the starting four. There are only three players on the current roster who have recorded an interception for YSU, so the secondary could be a work in progress.
Seven starters return on offense for Michigan State in 2011. Kirk Cousins enters his third year as the starting quarterback, having compiled a 16-9 career record. Last year, he completed a hefty 67 percent of his passes for 2,825 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He'll no longer have the luxury of throwing to Mark Dell (51 rec, 788 yds, six TDs), but B.J. Cunningham is poised for a big season after racking up 50 receptions for 611 yards and a team-high nine touchdown grabs a year ago.
Junior tailback Edwin Baker, a popular preseason Offensive Player of the Year candidate in the Big Ten, is back to headline the ground game. Baker averaged 92.4 rushing ypg, good for fourth in the Big Ten, as he finished the year with team-highs in carries (207), rushing yards (1,201) and rushing TDs (13). He'll once again be complemented by Le'Veon Bell, who last year contributed 605 rushing yards and eight TDs as a true freshman.
The biggest challenge facing the MSU defense is replacing a pair of four-year starters at linebacker in Eric Gordon and two-time All-American Greg Jones, as those two combined for more starts (95) than any other duo in team history.
"Defensively we're a young football team," Dantonio said. "We have two seniors in our top 22 players. But I do think we bring a blend of experience there."
Still, six starters return on this side of the ball, and it all starts with junior defensive tackle and two-year starter Jerel Worthy (6-3, 305). Last year, Worthy led all Spartan defensive linemen with 40 tackles, including 8.0 for loss and a team-best 4.0 sacks. He'll team with nose tackle Kevin Pickelman (31 tackles) and end Tyler Hoover (36 tackles, 3.0 sacks) on the defensive line. Sophomore end William Gholston, the team's top recruit a year ago, could be ready to burst on the scene.
At linebacker, junior Chris Norman is the lone returning starter after racking up 59 tackles in 10 starts a year ago.
The secondary welcomes back a pair of starters in junior corner Johnny Adams and senior free safety Trenton Robinson. Adams picked off three passes and ranked ninth in the Big Ten with 10 passes defended, while Robinson logged a career-best 76 tackles to go along with a team-high four interceptions and eight pass breakups.