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Sunday walk-through: Smith, Spartans not a done deal yet

Don't sign the death certificate on John L. Smith's career as Michigan State coach just yet.

Sure, the Spartans appear to be coming apart at the seams after consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Illinois, but MSU still has a very real chance at a bowl game that could save Smith's job. And here's the kicker: It might not take wins over Michigan and Ohio State to get the job done.

Fans that live and die by Spartan football have been in message board meltdown mode for the past 24 hours. Analysts that dissect the team for a living have followed suit, compiling their own private list of potential coaching candidates. But if the Spartans get to eight wins - not probable but definitely still possible - Smith still is in line for a contract extension.

The key is surviving these next two weeks and games against top-six teams Michigan and Ohio State. A win in either would put the schizophrenic Spartans back to where most expected they'd be seven games into the season: 4-3.

Do I think they'll win either game? No. But even two losses isn't a death knell.

Look, MSU was terrible against Illinois. Flat-out rotten. Starting tailback Javon Ringer is injured and doesn't look to be coming back anytime soon, the offensive line is in shambles, and quarterback Drew Stanton has been beat to a pulp the last two weeks.

But after Michigan and Ohio State, MSU will be favored to beat every team on its schedule accept Penn State. That doesn't always mean much with the Spartans, 27-point favorites against the Illini Saturday, but they do have a chance to get to get better with late-October trips to Northwestern and Indiana.

Mediocre Purdue and Minnesota squads come to East Lansing after that, then MSU closes the season at Penn State. As vulnerable as the Nittany Lions look at times, let's assume that's a loss. Still, if MSU finishes 7-5 and wins four of its final five regular-season games, that should earn the Spartans a trip to Tempe, Ariz., for the Insight Bowl (especially if two Big Ten teams get BCS bids). Beat a decent Big 12 team there and you all of a sudden have an eight-win MSU team that ends the season on a nice win streak.

I know, that's the best-case scenario and the Spartans are an emotional and physical wreck right now. But after talking a few of my MSU friends off the ledge last night, looking for a way out of the morass is the least I can do.

Punt, pass and kick

Punt: Remember Alex Daniels, the converted linebacker who ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota's season-opening win over Kent State? The Gophers don't. Daniels has just 10 carries the past two weeks for 24 yards. Amir Pinnix is a better running back, but whatever happened to Glen Mason's theory of sharing the load?

Pass: John Stocco and Wisconsin spoiled Terry Hoeppner's return from brain surgery with a 52-17 thrashing of Indiana. Stocco was a remarkable 15 of 17 passing for 304 yards. Running back P.J. Hill (23 carries, 129 yards, 3 TDs) is pretty good, too.

Kick: Two teams coming off their first loss of the season, Purdue and Iowa, meet in the conference's most important game next week. Curtis Painter and Purdue's offense looked pretty good against Notre Dame, but the Boilermakers haven't traveled outside the state of Indiana yet. Playing the Hawkeyes on homecoming will be a test.


Blogger Sir Douglas said...

You're dreaming man. Smith has lost his team. This is going to get worse before it gets better. And what's happened to Stanton. I've always admired him, but his decision making terrible and he doesn't look like the same guy I saw leading such a great effort against Michigan two years ago.

1:12 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:28 PM 
Blogger Dave Birkett said...

Sir Douglas,

I didn't say I thought MSU would finish 7-5, I just laid out a scenario where it's possible. I think we'll know more after this week's game against Michigan. If they play a competitive, smart game then they're still bowl contenders in my mind. If they get beat like 2002, I'll start to make vacation plans elsewhere for the winter.

9:27 AM 

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