Joe Rexrode, who covers Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal, was nice enough to answer some of my questions leading up to Saturday's game between the Badgers and Spartans at Camp Randall Stadium.
You can read Rexrode's work online at http://www.greenandwhite.com/">www.greenandwhite.com.
Polzin: It's not easy to get inside players' and coaches' heads, but where do you think the Spartans are mentally after back-to-back close losses.
Rexrode: Good question. Players and coaches always say the right things, but two tough losses in a row like that has to weigh on a team to some extent. I think the fact that Big Ten play is starting will help. The Spartans fell down 13-3 right away last week and fought back throughout the game to get into position to win, which was a good sign for them. They need to win one of these close games soon, though, or confidence will be a real concern.
Polzin: You wrote earlier this week that the MSU coaching staff made some changes on the depth chart on defense, which was supposed to be a strength for the Spartans but has struggled. What's been the biggest issue for a unit which has allowed 62 points and 855 total yards the last two weeks?
Rexrode: The secondary has been the biggest issue, both in terms of communication and tackling. The Spartans probably have as many blown coverages this season as they had all of last season. The best cover corner, Chris L. Rucker, has been victimized in three straight games and was benched for this game. At safety, Dan Fortener, a starter last season, was replaced early in the Central Michigan game by Trenton Robinson. Robinson is much faster, but Fortener always seems to be in the right position. That group was supposed to be the defense's best, and the talent is there, but it needs to recover in a hurry. In fairness, the Spartans won't see too many quarterbacks this season as good as Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen.
Polzin: His poor decision that resulted in a late interception last week against Notre Dame was well-documented, but has Kirk Cousins been better than you expected? And what kind of role do you see Keith Nichol playing now that Big Ten play has started?
Rexrode: Kirk Cousins has been outstanding and better than expected, except for that one very costly play. Of course, MSU isn't in position to win without his passing in that game. He is this team's quarterback. But I think Nichol will still see the field from time to time. He brings the spread option element that can keep a defense off balance, and he has a big arm as well. But Cousins is clearly the better of the two at this point.
Polzin: Replacing Javon Ringer was obviously a big key for the Spartans. They're so young at tailback with Caulton Ray and Larry Caper, both freshmen, receiving the bulk of the carries. Do you think Michigan State's running game will be a work in progress this season?
Rexrode: Definitely a work in progress. It showed some improvement against Notre Dame, with Caper showing signs that he might soon emerge as the primary back and a guy who deserves 15-20 carries a game. Ray is a quick, slashing runner, and sophomore Glenn Winston is the third guy in the mix right now, a powerful runner. The offensive line has been banged up, although MSU may get starting center Joel Nitchman (knee) back this week. Even if the line gets settled and the backs keep improving, no one will replace what Ringer did for this team.
Polzin: Finally, the Spartans were picked to finish third in the Big Ten this season and I know their goals were set even higher than that. Based on what you've seen the first three games, do you think a top-three finish is realistic?
Rexrode: I think it is possible, for one because of a schedule that includes no Ohio State, with Penn State and Iowa at home. This offense has the potential to be one of the league's best, thanks to Cousins and receivers Blair White, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, and a line that is protecting well. MSU has the best pair of specialists in the Big Ten. The defense has been a major disappointment, but there's reason to believe it will improve. Eight starters are back from a solid 2008 defense, so these guys have done it before. However, a loss at Wisconsin may be too much for this team to overcome emotionally, with resurgent rival Michigan up next. That's why Saturday's game is pivotal for the Spartans.