The Air Force Falcons are entering rarified air this Saturday afternoon when they travel to East Lansing to take on the #4 Michigan State Spartans of the Big Ten. We headed down the internet superhighway to Michigan to get in contact with Austin C. Smith of The Only Colors to get some intel on how the Spartans will approach the matchup with Air Force.
MWConnection: The Oregon victory was an extremely emotional one for Michigan State Saturday. Is there a fear of a letdown from the team?
The Only Colors (Smith): The victory over Oregon last Saturday night was no doubt an emotional one. It was another "program win" (a term that is being applied pretty frequently at East Lansing nowadays) and afterwards, Mark Dantonio referred to it as a stepping stone towards the team's ultimate goals. MSU went into that game hell-bent on avenging last year's loss in Eugene and they were able to do just that.
On the flipside is the fact that MSU still has a lot of room for improvement. Not to take anything away from the win, but despite controlling the majority of the game, MSU only won by a field goal. Had Vernon Adams not overthrown a WIDE open Byron Marshall in the endzone with about three minutes to go, this one could have easily ended in heartbreak. Don't think for a minute the coaching staff hasn't touched on that point this week.
Could there be a letdown? Sure, especially given how complex (not to mention prolific) Air Force's triple-option attack can be. However, this team's sights are set on winning the Big Ten and going to the playoffs. In order to do that, they cannot afford to look ahead. I don't foresee it happening this week.
MWConnection: How do you see the Spartans defense playing the Air Force offense which is multidimensional but built around the triple option?
The Only Colors (Smith): MSU has always concentrated on taking away the run above all else during the Dantonio era. Given that Air Force's offense is mostly on the ground, that seems like a good game plan. Unlike a lot of modern day college defenses, MSU runs out a traditional 4-3 look. Their "STAR" linebacker position is more of a linebacker-safety hybrid - he has more coverage responsibilities than the average outside linebacker - but at its core this remains an aggressive 4-3 front.
One of MSU's biggest strengths is their defensive line, namely their ability to set the edge in the running game - which will be imperative against the triple-option. Coincidentally, last week against Oregon serves as a great example of this. The Duck's potent rushing attack managed only 123 yards on the ground (including sack yardage) and had a long run of 17 yards. That's downright stingy defense, and Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas had a lot to do with it. The duo did an excellent job at keeping Royce Freeman and Adams from popping outside, instead forcing the run to the middle where linebackers Riley Bullough, Darien Harris and Jon Reschke (among others - MSU rotated a LOT defensively) were mostly in position to bring them down.
With the Falcons transitioning to a more limited passer in Karson Roberts, I'd expect MSU to try and disrupt the running game with a heavy dose of run blitzes and man coverage on the outside. Nothing out of the ordinary for State, really.
MWConnection: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Michigan State offense?
The Only Colors (Smith): Right now there are a lot more answers for the former than the latter. Entering the season there were two main concerns -- who will replace Jeremy Langford and who will replace Tony Lippett? Those have all but vanished in the span of just two games. Madre London and LJ Scott have both impressed running the ball, while Aaron Burbridge looks ready to take over as Connor Cook's go-to guy -- topping 100 yards in each contest. Macgarrett Kings Jr. has been reliable and shown some great hands. Oh, there's also Junior Tight End Josiah Price who has a TD catch in each game so far.
While Cook and the skill players gets most of the press, the key to this offense is the line play. Against Oregon, Cook hardly ever had to move off his launching spot and London and Scott were running through huge holes. Seniors Jack Allen and Donavan Clark and Junior Jack Conklin all look like guys who will be playing on Sundays in the near future. MSU's inability to run out the clock late in the game was concerning, so there is room to improve, but this is as impressive a group as there is in the nation.
In terms of weaknesses, I'd like to see Cook be a little more accurate. He's never been a high completion percentage guy, but he still throws balls up for grabs when he probably should eat them or tuck and run. Also, and we're getting nit-picky here, but the third wideout is a concern. No one has stepped up to claim the job so far, but there are young guys on the roster, like true freshman Felton Davis, whom the coaching staff has been impressed with. One of them just needs to claim the spot.
Outside of that, it boils down to health. MSU lost starting Right Tackle Kodi Keiler for a few weeks to a lower body injury during last week's game, which isn't great. Luckily for the Spartans, Clark has experience at both guard and tackle and reserves Benny McGowan and Miguel Machado both held their own. As long as the offense can stay healthy, they should be able to have success all year long.
MWConnection: What is your prediction for the game?
The Only Colors (Smith): MSU has struggled against option teams in the past (see: Taylor Martinez and Nebraska) but while the first units are on the field, I expect them to control this one. The Spartan offensive and defensive lines will simply be too much for AF to handle. Once the second half rolls around, I think the Falcons will pop a couple on the MSU reserves. MSU 41-20.