Spartans football team suffers identity crisis

Jeff Sherry

Practice had just ended for the Gophers football team Wednesday afternoon when defensive tackle Raymond Baylor was pulled aside for what sounded like a simple question:
What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Michigan State football?
Baylor took a long pause and smiled. He shifted his weight, put his hand on his right hip and looked up at the overcast sky.
“I don’t know,” Baylor finally said, about 15 seconds later. “Nothing in particular. I know they have a big offensive line.”
Baylor shouldn’t be ridiculed for drawing a blank — it isn’t a simple question. The Gophers’ Homecoming opponent Saturday has a century of football tradition and a total of 75 first-team All-Americans, yet the Spartans have one of the most unidentifiable identities in the Big Ten.
Illinois is known for linebackers and defense. Michigan is synonymous with Bo Schembechler and championships. Michigan State has … Tony Mandarich?
The problem has manifested itself again this year. The Spartans are once again a team without a specific identity, and through their first six games they’ve seldom looked the same from one week to the next.
Michigan State looked impressive in its opening 52-14 defeat of Purdue, but then fell flat in losses at Nebraska (55-14) and at home against Louisville (30-10). The Spartans are now 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.
Even second-year coach Nick Saban has had a hard time pinning down his team this year. He said the Spartans played their best overall game last week while defeating Illinois, 42-14, but they still need to be more consistent.
“I think we’ve played in spurts throughout the year,” Saban said. “We’ve shown an inability to have the kind of maturity you need to beat good football teams. I think we (played consistently) against Purdue and we did it against Illinois, but a lot of times in between we’ve been very, very up-and-down.”
The Spartans got a boost last week that should help them continue their high level of play. Quarterback Todd Schultz returned for the first time since injuring his knee against Nebraska, and the Spartans offense took off.
Schultz connected on 20 of 25 pass attempts and threw for a career-high 281 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think having our quarterback Todd Schultz back certainly added a lot of stability to the football team — especially offensively,” Saban said. “We’ve not been able to utilize the skill guys we have, other than the two running backs, like we would have liked since he’s been out. We’ve been a little more conservative in our offense, and we probably weren’t throwing the ball quite as much.”
The two running backs Saban spoke of are Duane Goulbourne and Sedrick Irvin. Goulbourne leads the team, averaging 86 rushing yards per game. Irvin, a cousin of Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, was one of the most highly recruited tailbacks in the country last year. Each has rushed for more than 100 yards twice this season.
So when Michigan State comes to the Metrodome this weekend, it will have a chance to both improve its conference record and establish more of its identity.
“Some people think of them as a pushover and some people think of them as a really solid team,” Gophers cornerback Rodney Heath said. “I think Michigan State is a physical opponent and they fly around offensively and defensively. They’ve got a lot of talent. It’ll be a good match-up.”