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September 23, 2011

MSU linemen, backs eager to answer the call

EAST LANSING - Expect Michigan State to return to the formula that led to an 11-2 finish last season and a share of the Big Ten title.

That formula will include a heavy dose of the run game when the No. 23 Spartans host MAC foe Central Michigan at noon on Saturday in Spartan Stadium.

MSU's meeting with the Chippewas will be its last non-conference test before opening defense of the school's Big Ten crown at Ohio State on Oct. 1.

At 2-1, after an 18-point loss at Notre Dame last Saturday, MSU coach Mark Dantonio has not been shy about expressing a demand to have the Spartans return to a stronger, more committed run game.

But in order to do so, MSU will have to once again get things in order on the offensive line. This time because of injuries.

After questions surrounded the unit entering this season because MSU had to replace three fifth-year seniors at both tackle spots and at center, injuries have now put another burden on the line. The unit is challenged to get its chemistry in order after a season-ending ankle injury cost MSU the services of starting right tackle Skyler Burkland, and an MCL knee injury has sidelined starting junior center Blake Treadwell for what right now is being termed as a couple of games.

Despite the physical setbacks, fifth-year senior captain and starting left guard Joel Foreman said MSU's goals remain steadfast.

"We want to reestablish running the ball. Obviously, (last) Saturday wasn't Michigan State football,'' Foreman said. "That's not how we play. It's not what we've become accustomed to and it's not what we're proud of. We want to go out there and 'Pound Green Pound', run Michigan State football and just return to a high level.''

While redshirt freshman Travis Jackson takes over at center - he was projected to start at the center spot before an ankle injury interrupted his ascension to the position - the question marks at both tackles remain.

The depth chart lists junior transfer Fou Fonoti as the starter on the right side, replacing Burkland. Dan France will start his third straight game at left tackle. Micajah Reynolds is the new second-stringer at LT.

"We take it personal," Foreman said. "We want to go out there and run the ball. Yes, we've had some injuries but adversity builds character. So we want to go out there, regroup, come together and be successful. Those younger guys have been getting in film, getting in their notebooks and they've been out here practicing just as hard. They know it's their time to step up and be able to perform at a high level.''

Both Jackson and Fonoti will be making their first career starts on Saturday and they are expected to help a running backs trio, led by junior Edwin Baker, restore MSU's strong run game.

So far this season, Baker has just 167 yards on 34 carries. And although he is averaging 4.9 yards a pop, last season after three games, Baker had already amassed nearly 400 yards and had scored four touchdowns.

That might be cause to get most backs down, especially after a 1,200-yard season the year before. But Baker seems to have a renewed excitement, especially after hearing Dantonio's pledge about the run game.

"It wasn't just the offensive line,'' said Baker, first addressing the criticisms heaped on MSU's o-line after a game in which he had just 26 yards on 10 carries against the Irish. "I was out there. I could have done things better. Everyone could have done something better. We lose together and win together.

"But I'm taking this very personally now. Coach D came in the meeting room (on Tuesday) saying, 'We're going to run the football.' I got very excited because that's something that a running back likes to hear, that you're just going to run the football all day. So I'm excited and I'm going to put it on my shoulders, and I'm pretty sure the offensive line is going to out it on their shoulders to establish our run game again.''

Despite all of the changes, junior right guard Chris McDonald is not worried about how his new linemates will handle their promotions and how MSU's line as a whole, will adjust to the changes.

"It's tough (the injuries) but it's the third week, the fourth week and you just have to put it behind you,'' McDonald said. "During camp and during spring ball, we did do a lot of rotations. Yes, I was getting really close with Skyler but right now I need to get really close with Fou. With our team, especially with the o-lineman, we always say we have to trust each other. So we have to trust the guy you're playing next to to get the job done.''

McDonald also addressed the idea that he could moved to a tackle spot to help with experience and depth.

"My philosophy is that I love the game so much I will be willing to do whatever so if the coaches ever thought about me moving to tackle I'll do my best at it but it hasn't really been brought up,'' McDonald said.

Exorcising The Demons

All of the Spartans agreed that the 31-13 loss to Notre Dame last Saturday in South Bend, Ind., is not and will not be something the team dwells on in its preparation for CMU and throughout the remainder of the season.

"Basically, you have to put it behind you. We have to learn from our mistakes and we have to focus on Central Michigan. Notre Dame is a very good team,'' McDonald said. "You look at the last two games (Notre Dame) played and yea, they were 0-2 but they could have been 2-0 coming into our game. They came out hard and we just didn't respond. We made a bunch of errors that we just need to focus on now and it's done with. We can still reach all of our goals that we made as a team.''

McDonald was also quick to add that the mistakes made on the o-line were technical things that could and would be corrected before the Chippewas step into Spartan Stadium.

"It was just basic. Your hand placement on the guy, your eyes, your footwork. We just need to go back to basics,'' McDonald said. "We just need to be on the verge of rage for being an o-lineman. We have to know what we're doing but we also have to go out there and have an attitude, and beat the guy across from us. I don't think we did that that well.''

Senior defensive back Trenton Robinson went one step farther, refusing to acknowledge the specific mistakes made in the secondary against the Irish, but remembering the 29-27 loss MSU suffered at the hands of CMU in 2009, promising a much better performance.

"I don't really want to go there with individual type stuff (but) I was very angry. That was a game I didn't plan on losing and didn't want to lose,'' Robinson said after watching the Notre Dame game film. "Watching that game really ticked me off because there were plays where we could have got off the field (on defense) but we didn't execute and do out assignments. We were in the wrong places and not making plays.

"The Notre Dame game was one of the games that was like a shocker for us, a reality check. You think you're somewhere but we still have a lot of work to do. There's a lot of things we need to polish before we're where we think we'll be. Our opportunities are still there to go places we planned on going before the season started. We still have a chance to do what we want to do.

"Our attitude going into Central Michigan is 'dominate.' We want to come into this game and dominate. We'll be playing with a vengeance. We lost to them in '09 too and nobody forgot about that around here. So this is real important. We've got to bounce back.''

Lessons Learned

McDonald said that seeing one of his comrades being carted off the field at Notre Dame was painful but that Burkland's 'thumbs up' signal was an inspiring gesture.

"It just showed us that we have great character on our team. For him to show us the thumbs up told us that it's not the end of the world and that we're going to have to respond. I think Fou (Fonoti) stepped up and did the best he could (in replacing Burkland). It just showed our o-line that we are going to need guys to step up and that we have to have more guys like Skyler that know it's not the end of the world if something happens because we have amazing backs, we have a great quarterback and we have wonderful wide receivers, so if we just do our part, we'll be fine.''

Baker likened MSU's situation after the Notre Dame loss to the one the team faced last season after getting blown out by Iowa 37-6. MSU bounced back from that game by closing the conference slate with three straight wins, outscoring Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State by a combined average of 31.3 points a game to 20.3.

"We had this same situation last year after Iowa," Baker said. "We had to come back and establish ourselves. That was a defining moment about how we came back and didn't get down on ourselves. And we have to do the same thing this week. We have to come back, define ourselves and put ourselves back on the map.''


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