Thursday, October 18, 2012

Q/A with Chris Vannini

Pat learned so much in school at Michigan that I have to post for him.

Here is a Q/A with Chris Vannini, the managing editor of the MSU blog The Only Colors.  You can follow Chris on twitter at @chrisvannini

Below, Pat's questions for Chris will be in bold/blue.  

5 serious questions concerning Saturday:

1. Last season Michigan State had some injury issues on the offensive line and I believe ended up starting either former walk-ons or guys who recently switched over from the defensive line.  While the line had some issues early in the season things seemed to really come together as the year went on (especially in the Michigan game)  I went into the game last year thinking MSU's Oline was a train wreck only to watch them dominate the line of scrimmage against a pretty stout Michigan defensive line.  Can they do that again or are the issues this season much worse than last year? 

It's hard to tell. This year's team has lost the top two linemen in center Travis Jackson and right tackle Fou Fonoti, and struggled mightily against Notre Dame and Ohio State. They even had problems against Eastern Michigan and Indiana. They seem to be getting a little bit better overall, having a decent, but not great, performance against Iowa. Based on what I've seen, Michigan's defensive line has gotten close to where it was last year, while the linebackers are a lot better. If MSU wants to spring any big runs, they're going to need to get some blocks in the second level, something they've struggled to do this year.

2. The Spartans have faced Denard Robinson as the starter twice in his career and twice he has played arguably his worst game of the season against Michigan State.  For all his stats and accomplishments, is Denard Robinson overrated?    

He's not overrated, at least not in my opinion. That may be because I haven't considered him a legitimate Heisman candidate outside of the start in 2010. That said, he is what makes college football great. So many different schemes, types of players and whatnot. The NFL is basically the same bland stuff (which is why Michael Vick is overrated). College football is full of variety, and it's always fun to see competing ideals and strategies face off. Denard Robinson won't be a quarterback in the NFL. That doesn't mean he's not a good college quarterback. He picks up yards and wins games (mostly without any help). Yeah, he has struggled against most of the best opponents he has played, but that's the case with many players. MSU rarely runs the ball well in its big games. He is what he is. He's electrifying, he's frustrating, but he's what college football is all about.

3. Other than the emphasis placed on the rivalry by the coaching staff, is there a schematic reason Dantonio has been so successful against Michigan?  And as a follow up to question #2, is there a schematic (or other) reason that Pat Narduzzi's defense has owned Denard and Michigan's offense the previous two seasons? 

The blueprints to stop Denard Robinson are there, but only a few teams have the personnel to get away with them. Alabama sat back and let Denard use his arm, while MSU puts him under tremendous pressure. It's schematic, but only because they have the players to do it. Most teams can't get away with what MSU or Alabama do on defense. Pat Narduzzi's first few defenses at MSU were really bad, but once he got his players in, they fit the bill, and the schemes that seemed so bad now seem so good. There certainly are weakness. There are no perfect defenses, but with a limited offense like Michigan's, you can cover up the holes easier.

4. Cracks in the D...while the overall numbers look good it seems like MSU's defense has had difficulties making the key play or stop in the 4th quarter.  While there might be a few explanations (maybe they are on the field longer and for more possessions due to the offensive ineptitude?) is there an issue with the defense?  As it pertains to this Saturday, do you believe MSU's defense is better, the same, or worse than the version last season that faced the Wolverines?

I'm in the camp that isn't putting much heat on this group. They're actually giving up fewer yards and points than a year ago, although obviously the opposition is weaker. They've given up second-half leads to Ohio State and Iowa, but allowing 17 and 13 points in regulation, respectively, should be enough to win. If MSU has just an average offense, the few mistakes on defense aren't as noticed. 

The defense isn't as good as last year, no. It's for a variety of reasons (and I don't think "press clippings" are one of them). Other teams have figured out how to scheme against Narduzzi (like you would with anything you see every year), the pass rush isn't nearly as good, and the blitzes are getting picked up more. The rush from the line has been slow to develop, as Jerel Worthy isn't there to blow up a play before it starts. Still, this is a top-10 defense in the country. That's plenty good enough. They need help.

5. Is MSU is capable of beating Michigan on Saturday if they don't win the turnover battle?  
Sure, as long as it's a close difference. If one of the turnovers is in your own red zone or a pick-six or something, that obviously will go a long way toward a victory. They can win without a turnover edge, but they just can't be crippling turnovers. I don't think it will be a high-scoring one. Iowa's turnover last week on their side of the field lead to a TD, while MSU's turnover ended the game. So it's all about the context. That seems like a simple answer, because it is.

And 3 fun questions about the rivalry in general:

1. Throughout your Spartan fandom and when it comes to playing Michigan, which loss was the most crushing?

I have to admit, I was a U-M fan growing up until high school. I didn't have a real reason for it, but I grew up in suburban Detroit, and that's just what everyone was back then. I started to switch when I realized I wanted to go into writing, and U-M didn't have a journalism school. To my surprise, U-M didn't admit me anyway, and that made my college choice much easier. (Long story as to why I wasn't admitted, but I don't need to get into it. Ended up being the best thing to happen to me). So my choices on this are limited to one game: 2007, my freshman year. 

That had been a frustrating year with all the close losses, an you began to wonder how much different the Mark Dantonio era would be from JLS. We obviously all know what happened that night. After MSU went up by 10, I told the guy in front of me to double Mario Manningham all night. Don't let him pull a Braylon. He sorta did, and then all the stuff afterward. After not getting into the school (even if I wasn't going to go anyway), it was a punch in the gut. I had some U-M friends, they let me have it, and that might have been my christening as a Spartan fan. Still the worst loss I've gone through. What Mark Dantonio had to say in the next few days showed me that things weren't going to continue the way they were. And he was right.

2. Which Victory over the Wolverines has tasted the sweetest? 

It's close between 2008 and 2010, but I'm going to go with 2010 because of the hype leading up to it. Breaking the losing streak in 08 was more a sense of relief than anything. In 2010, with the Denard Robinson Heisman talk and the "Michigan's back" blah blah blah stuff, shutting people up was definitely the sweetest victory. I was sitting next to a major douchebag at that one, and when he left after the third quarter, the party began. We were surrounded by mostly MSU fans, so we had some fun with cheers and taunts and everything. An old lady called me the best fan of the game. So that was cool.

3. Would you trade winning the B1G for beating Michigan?  Or put another way, how much does the success of every season hinge on the game with the Wolverines?  
No way. Times have changed. The days of a win over U-M making the season are long gone. That's because the expectations have changed. MSU expects to make a good bowl game, expects to compete for the Big Ten championship and expects to be right there with Michigan every year. It's certainly treated unlike any other game, but in the last two years, you celebrate the win, then move on and continue fighting for a Big Ten championship. Their hopes of winning the Big Ten are all but dashed this year, but the U-M game can still be a turning point toward a decent season. A win Saturday wouldn't make up for the three losses already, but the hope is it would help right the ship.


  1. Good stuff from Chris. Always cool to learn about how someone's fanaticism has developed.

  2. Late to this, I was in rural Michigan most of last week before Saturday.

    Good Stuff from Chris, who I might add is also a former staffer at The State News, (Though he accomplished far more at The State News than I did in my one year there).

    I might come up with some thoughts on the game and the rivalry later on this week before the Tigers start