Two teams, two beat writers, two takes on TCU vs. Michigan State
Dec 30, 2012 (Menafn - Fort Worth Star-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- TCU's season comes to an end today, in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan State at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
If you had predicted the Horned Frogs (7-5) would finish with a winning record and earn another bowl berth despite losing Ed Wesley, Waymon James, Tanner Brock and Casey Pachall chances are good that most would have rolled their eyes and told you to get your head out of the purple clouds.
But here we are. The Frogs can finish 8-5 with a win over the battle-tested Spartans (6-6), who finished fourth in the Big Ten's Legends Division.
For the last time this season, I exchanged a Q&A with a beat writer of the Frogs' opponent. Joseph Rexrode covers Michigan State for the Detroit Free Press. We discussed tonight's finale and everything from TCU coach Gary Patterson's future, to MSU running back Le'Veon Bell, to TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin. Rexrode even coaxed a prediction out of me, even though I have no strong feeling that either team has an edge.
Here's our back and forth:
Joseph Rexrode: So how different might this TCU team look with the players it lost in the spring and the quarterback it lost in the fall? Considering those losses, is the 7-5 finish a pleasant surprise?
Stefan Stevenson: I think most Frog fans are satisfied with 7-5 after the personnel losses you mentioned. I have no problem suggesting that if linebacker Tanner Brock, defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey, quarterback Casey Pachall and running back Waymon James had been around, the Frogs likely would be sitting at 9-3 or 10-2 right now.
SS: Did losing five games by a combined 13 points help or hurt Michigan State in the long run? Has it made them a tougher team? Given them confidence that they can play with some of the best teams in the country?
JR: Well, I don't know if it made them tougher or not. It demonstrated their ability, week after week, to bounce back and play hard despite their lofty hopes being gradually crushed in a series of painful losses. If there's anything about this team that impresses me, it's the fact that it never had one of those implosion moments despite the adversity.
MSU definitely has confidence it can play with anyone. The Notre Dame final was 20-3, but that might be a different game if Bennie Fowler holds on to a sure touchdown pass in the first quarter. Ohio State was lucky to escape with a 17-16 win, and the Spartans beat Wisconsin on the road and were one play from beating Michigan on the road. The question is, do the Spartans have confidence to finish?
JR: What's the ceiling for this program under Gary Patterson? Is he in for the long haul or do you think another program may pick him off in the near future?
SS: There's no reason to think Patterson isn't content to remain at TCU until he wins a National Championship. That's his stated goal. I don't think he's that drawn to bigger paychecks. He already earns about 3.5 million and a raise is probably coming if it hasn't already. Also, there's a massive misconception, especially from SEC fans, that any job in the SEC is a better job than most. Not true. In a lot of ways most of those jobs are worse. They may pay more, but that's not the only thing he cares about.
SS: Do you think injured cornerback Johnny Adams will play Saturday or is his turf toe too painful to play on?
JR: No, I don't expect to see Adams in uniform. I suppose a dramatic recovery could happen in the next several hours, but it appears very doubtful. And his loss is a huge hit to the MSU defense. This defense is based around Adams and Darqueze Dennard handling things on their islands, allowing more run support and blitzing. There's a big drop to the reserves.
JR: Is the illness issue going through the team right now anything that might be a factor Saturday? What's the latest personnel/injury info?
SS: Patterson said it's no big deal. The only starter I know who is sick is receiver Josh Boyce. If he's less than 100 percent, he's still one of the better receivers in the country. The team, overall, is as healthy as it has been all season, as far as I know. A few reserves will not be available, but no one who sees a ton of playing time is out.
SS: What makes running back Le'Veon Bell so good? I know he's big, but what has made him such a special runner?
JR: Shiftiness. He has the feet of a much smaller back. You've probably seen him hurdling defenders, and he's great at stopping, starting, changing speeds, making sharp cuts. He does not have great speed and often struggles to get to the edge against a fast defense. But he can make people miss in small spaces, and if he can get going downhill, he's a load to tackle.
JR: Has Trevone Boykin made significant strides since getting the job, and how good a player can he be?
SS: He has progressed and become a much smarter player. It took him a few games to look comfortable. He has quickly learned it's better to take a sack than try to force a pass and risk an interception. When he stays within his abilities and plays to his strengths, he can be very tough to defend. He can be a very good QB in the future, but his accuracy needs to improve. He's a much better runner than Casey Pachall, but Pachall has an NFL arm.
SS: There's been talk of the MSU receiving corps improving throughout the season. Dantonio mentioned it again Friday morning. What's that based on? What was wrong with the receivers in the first place?
JR: They really struggled to catch the ball early in the season. In a three-game stretch against Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and Ohio State, we counted 18 drops. And MSU coaches thought that was conservative. So that's the big thing. They're doing a much better job in that area now, along with everything else. These receivers have talent and speed, they just had very little experience at the start of the season and played like it.
SS: What are quarterback Andrew Maxwell's strengths and weaknesses? Is he a different QB now than he was early in the season? You expect many surprises from the Spartans' offense Saturday?
JR: I don't expect many surprises. Maybe a couple wrinkles, a couple new plays, which is typical for a bowl game. I'm sure there's a trick play ready to go. But it will mostly be the same offense. As for Maxwell, he's very intelligent, good at reading defenses and checking into the right things. He has a huge arm, a cannon, and he makes a few NFL-caliber throws every game. But his accuracy has not been as consistent as hoped, and late in the season he made a few bad decisions leading to picks -- after doing none of that for the middle part of the season. He did have an elbow injury in the Minnesota game and is healthy now, so perhaps that will make a difference for him.
JR: Your keys to the game and a prediction if you care to give one.
SS: Obviously, TCU needs to slow down Le'Veon Bell. At the same time, the Frogs' secondary can't be lulled to sleep and allow the play action to burn them deep. TCU's offense needs to open up a little bit, spread out the Spartans defense. Trouble is, when they get too fancy or daring, turnovers have been an issue. I think special teams could decide this game. Field position and limiting the mistakes in the kicking and punting games could prove important. I don't have a strong feeling on the outcome. Nothing but a high-scoring game would surprise me. I'll take TCU 21-13.
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760
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