Spartans, Bears have few reasons to overlook opener
By Joe Rexrode
EAST LANSING - Before they cross helmets in six days, Michigan State and Cal should thank each other for helping each other slog through fall camp. August, with its heat and two-a-day sessions, is never easy for players. But unlike most teams in college football, the Spartans and Bears aren't opening with a lopsided matchup that equates to a fancified scrimmage. They're opening in a prime-time affair Saturday at Cal's Memorial Stadium that should be one of college football's best first-weekend contests. That must have helped with the up-downs and the tackling drills. "No question, it helps camp, it helps challenge us," MSU sophomore linebacker Greg Jones said. "Obviously we'd be excited regardless, but with a game like this we know where our focus is from day to day." The Spartans have been paying close attention to the Bears since Aug. 3, when Cal's starting left tackle, Mike Tepper, told reporters this about his pectoral and hamstring injuries: "I'm about 80 percent right now. I don't think I'll get to a full 100 percent, but I'll definitely be able to push 245-pound defensive ends off the line."
That probably reached the MSU bulletin board within minutes after leaving Tepper's mouth. "In this computer age we live in, everybody sees what everybody says," said MSU coach Mark Dantonio, and his 245-pound defensive end, Trevor Anderson, noticed the comment. Alas, the Anderson-Tepper cage match probably won't happen. Cal coach Jeff Tedford told reporters Wednesday that it's "highly doubtful" Tepper will be healthy enough to start.
Other developments from both camps include:
The biggest one on either side was decided Thursday evening when Tedford named sophomore quarterback Kevin Riley the starter over senior Nate Longshore. Longshore took much of the heat for Cal's collapse from 5-0 and a No. 2 ranking to a 6-6 regular-season finish. Riley was terrific in his place at times, especially in leading the Bears to a 42-36 comeback win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. Tedford emphasized that Longshore will play against the Spartans as well. "We feel like Kevin has the ability to make plays," Tedford said. "We feel great about Nate's experience and knowledge and his play-making ability as well. We want to see with the roles reversed, how that works. We're looking for the best chance to be successful. It's so close, it's going to (be) continual evaluation."
The same goes for MSU's No. 2 running back situation, where no clear-cut leader has emerged. Junior A.J. Jimmerson, redshirt freshmen Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, and even true freshman Glenn Winston could be tapped to aid senior star Javon Ringer. Pass blocking will be the primary emphasis for this game, which favors Anderson and Jimmerson.
The Spartans won't release specific information on injuries until Tuesday, but camp has seen its share of nagging setbacks. It appears most of MSU's regulars will be able to go, barring bad luck in the next few days.
Cal, meanwhile, has the Tepper situation, a knee bruise for starting right guard Noris Malele and a shoulder injury for starting cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson. Ankle injuries have hit the top two nose tackles, but Tepper is the only player expected to be held back Saturday.
New looks for '08
MSU had to switch up its secondary last week when projected starting free safety Roderick Jenrette was asked to leave the team for undisclosed "personal reasons." Jenrette, a junior, still is not back on the active roster. So starting cornerback Kendell Davis-Clark is a free safety, and it looks like he may stay there regardless of Jenrette's status. MSU also is making a forced change at kick returner, trying to find someone explosive enough to replace departed receiver Devin Thomas, who set a Big Ten record with 1,135 kickoff return yards in 2007. Ringer likely will get a chance to be that guy, a move Dantonio has expressed no reservations about making.
Cal's big change is the move to a 3-4 defensive front, primarily to take advantage of its deep group of linebackers. The linebackers are the strength of the defense and perhaps the entire team. The Bears also have been trying to diagnose and correct the intangible ills that surfaced during last season's collapse. That's a familiar theme in East Lansing. But the Spartans discovered consistent competitiveness in their first year under Dantonio, finishing within a touchdown or closer in all six losses. Saturday is a chance for both teams to show they can finish - and start with an impressive victory. "We have the talent," MSU senior quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "We just have to do the little things to get over the hump and win those close games."