Photo courtesy of Michigan State Athletics
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Spartans notched a school-record 11 wins for the second straight season last year, culminating in a thrilling triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
Those accomplishments seemed out of reach following an early-season 31-13 drubbing at the hands of Notre Dame. However, MSU would rebound from that mid- September setback by winning eight of its next nine outings. Included in that stretch were three straight victories over Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State (10-7), Michigan (28-14) and Wisconsin (37-31). The triumph over rival Michigan was the Spartans' fourth in a row in the head-to-head series, no small feat considering the Wolverines also notched 11 wins a year ago. A week later on Oct. 22, MSU's victory over Wisconsin came courtesy of Kirk Cousins' fourth- quarter Hail Mary touchdown pass, which sent the Badgers to their first loss of the year. However, Wisconsin would later return the favor with a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
As disheartening as that loss was for the Spartans, they regrouped to knock off 18th-ranked Georgia on Jan. 2 to earn their first bowl victory in the Mark Dantonio era, and the program's first bowl win since 2001. Michigan State finished No. 11 in the final poll.
OFFENSE: It will be no easy task replacing record-setting quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year captain, along with virtually the entire receiving corps. Taking over in the huddle is redshirt junior Andrew Maxwell, who barely ever touched the field behind Cousins. The Spartan coaches believe Maxwell has the tools to win games in the Big Ten, but with only 294 career passing yards, they are taking a leap of faith.
The offense will likely lean on bruising junior running back Le'Veon Bell (6-2, 238), who is primed for a workhorse role. Last year as a sophomore, he led the team with 948 yards (5.2 ypc) and 13 touchdowns on the ground, hardly ever losing yardage. With Bell handling the workload for a whole season behind an experienced offensive line (four starters return), look for the Spartans to improve upon last year's 11th-ranked rushing offense (137.9 ypg) in the Big Ten.
At wide receiver, it's a much different story as MSU must replace its top three pass-catchers from 2011 -- accounting for a combined 171 catches for 2,356 yards and 19 TDs. Some of the players being counted on this year include sophomore Tony Lippett, who played cornerback last year, and junior Bennie Fowler, who has the tools but is coming off surgery to both feet.
"Certainly our skill level at our wide receiver position is something that will be a challenge as we move forward," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "But we have talent at that position and talent across the board on our football team."
DEFENSE: This unit dominated the All-Big Ten team in 2011, finishing sixth in the nation in total defense. Losing tackle Jerel Worthy and safety Trenton Robinson to the NFL presents a couple of big holes, but MSU still boasts plenty of talent on this side of the ball.
Coach Dantonio will look to senior tackle Anthony Rashad White (6-2, 320) to plug the middle of the defensive line, while junior end Will Gholston (6-7, 275) looks to improve upon his breakout 2011 numbers (58 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks).
At linebacker, all three starters return, anchored by junior Max Bullough (89 tackles) in the middle. Junior SAM linebacker Denicos Allen is back after racking up 83 tackles, including a team-high 18 for loss and 11 sacks.
Opposing quarterbacks won't find much room to throw against arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in senior Johnny Adams and junior Darqueze Dennard. Adams almost took off early for the NFL this past year, but the Spartans will enjoy his playmaking presence alongside Dennard, who came up with two big interceptions to help seal the Outback Bowl.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The punt return unit suffered a blow with the departure of the dynamic Keshawn Martin, but Nick Hill figures to once again handle kick return duties after averaging a healthy 26.3 yards per return a year ago.
The kicking game is in good hands with All-Big Ten senior kicker Dan Conroy, who has converted 32-of-39 field goals over the past two seasons. Punter Mike Sadler impressed last year as a freshman, averaging 41.1 yards, with 25 punts inside the 20.
OUTLOOK: Coming off a Legends Division title and a bowl victory, expectations are high in East Lansing.
"We're very, very excited about the 2012 season," coach Dantonio said. "When you look back at Michigan State right now, we've been in five straight Bowl games since 2007. Two 11-win seasons these last two years, so we've sort of set things in place in terms of a foundation right now, and we're excited about the opportunity to compete further."
All eyes will be on Maxwell as he tries to fill Cousins' big shoes. Maxwell won't be asked to put up huge numbers with the capable Bell lining up behind him. The strength lies with the defense, although the offense will certainly have to carry its weight to win games in the competitive Big Ten.
The Spartans will get Notre Dame, Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio State at home, but they'll travel to Wisconsin and rival Michigan. An early home date with Boise State will set the tone for the season, and the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish both come to town before September ends. By that time, it should be clear whether the Spartans are for real.