The Michigan State Spartans entered last night’s game with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on fire. They were 2-0, rated nationally as a top ten team, and heralded by fans and media as the Big Ten’s great hope for a BCS game. In fact, the hype was so big that Mark Dantonio said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference, “We’re two games in. We’re two games in. There’s 10 games left. We’re a long way from being where we can say, this is who we are. We make those assumptions at the end. Not assumptions, but we make those statements at the end in terms of how we end up. We need to focus at the task at hand, which is Notre Dame, deal with that. Move forward one game by one game. God willing, we’ll be okay. We’ll see.”
His doubts proved to be prophetic. The #20 ranked Irish handed the Spartans a butt kicking inside a rocking Spartan Stadium jam packed with over 79,000 people. The 20-3 score was not indicative to how the night went. MSU gave up four sacks after giving up none in the first two games. The Spartans stunk on every level…EVERY one: Special Team, defense, and offense and coaching.
Dantonio summed up the evening very succinctly by saying afterwards, “Tough day at the office I guess you could say. Without watching the film you don’t really have a great idea about the breakdowns but we didn’t run the football, we didn’t protect the quarterback very well and we had some drops. We need to have more explosive plays on offense. We didn’t get in the red zone and missed a field goal. I thought defensively we played ok. We gave up a quick score in the first quarter and we gave up a big run in the second quarter that eventually led to a touchdown. Notre Dame did a great job with their quarterback. Zero turnovers, he avoided pressure and did a nice job throwing the ball to the wide side of the field. They started running the ball effectively in the fourth quarter, and I think the most disappointing thing defensively was that we didn’t come up with turnovers.”
The Spartan head man blatantly stated that his team was outcoached, outplayed and even out-toughed. To be blunt you can’t argue with him.
Brian Kelly, the Irish head coach, had one thing in mind for his game plan and he did it well. He said, “Well, the game went as profiled for us in terms of what we expected. Very, very difficult opponent in Michigan State; physical on both sides of the ball. Our challenge was going to be to find some big chunk plays. We were able to get a couple. We missed a few that we’re going to regret when we watch the film, but I think the most important thing is that our defense continues to be the group that we had committed to in building when we started this process, and they’re starting to get to that level that can play against anybody.”
He went on to add, “I think secondly, crucial time in the game – the ball on the 4-yard line – the ability to run the football late in the game proved to probably be the deciding factor.”
And finally, Kelly credited his team’s ball security saying, “And I think finally, not turning the football over, which was our Achilles’ heel last year. We’ve taken much better care of the football, and have been smart in managing offensively what we do so we can win football games. So I’m proud of our football team.”
Brian Kelly just showed the nation how to beat the Spartans. His masterful game plan was simple; make Andrew Maxwell beat you. Unfortunately for Maxwell, that is hard to do when your receiver group looked terrible. Dropped passes, missed routes, and a lack of separation from the Irish defenders made them look silly.
Kelly added, “Obviously, we felt like if we can get him under control and force [Michigan State] to throw the football, we would much rather have that scenario than him grinding the football at us. I think once they started to throw the football more, that was exactly where we’re hoping the game would kind of shift towards, and it did.”
Spartan QB Andrew Maxwell summed up the Irish defensive attack saying, “Obviously when you have a front seven like they have, then they can get a lot of pressure without sending a lot of blitzes; that’s going to cause some problems for an offense. I have got to go back and watch the film but I feel like a couple of them I rushed, a couple of them the protection was better then maybe I perceived it to be and rushed my read a little bit. That’s just going to come with experience and getting more comfortable but that’s a good defensive team and they put a lot of pressure on us.”
The Spartans in the third quarter started to seize momentum. They moved to a hurry up offense and that is when they had their best success off the evening. Then inexplicably they moved away from it. Why they would move away from the only thing that worked was astounding. I asked OC Dan Roushar about it and he said, “We actually stayed in that mode, but we had a couple stoppages. We went back in the huddle to see if we could keep our run game going. Trying to get things in the right formation, and get guys in places where we could have success.”
He added later about that hurry up and getting away from it. “Early in the third quarter, we start into two minute mode, trying to get something going. Maybe we have to wait for what we should have. I don’t know; we will have to evaluate and look at it. It is very disappointing, we can be better than that and will look to do that.”
Even QB Andrew Maxwell couldn’t hide his thoughts on the hurry up and how it helped not only tonight, but in the past. He said, “It seems to give us a spark and it’s given us a spark in the past. When we did it tonight, unfortunately there was a penalty that stalled us out and we had to punt it away. It’s something that has worked for us in the past and was effective tonight. It’s been good for us.”
This game was a complete beat down. It is not like the Spartans haven’t been here before and it isn’t like the staff is unproven. When faced with a situation like this they have got the team back on track. Last year they played the same kind of sloppy game and responded with a magnificent season. They need to.
This game and this performance on this stage with so much on the line puts everyone, players and coaches, on the hot seat. I do not think any coach will lose his job over this one game, but players may and the scrutiny from the head coach is going to get turned up real fast.
I asked Dantonio about assessing everyone’s personal performance and he agreed saying, “We have to look at everybody and what we ran. We first have to ask ourselves if we are giving our players a chance in all three aspects of the game. We have to look at everybody and be completely honest. We have to stick a stake in the ground and start moving forward. I think that we are at a defining moment.”
There is NOTHING wrong with other teams knowing your game plan. There is another when they know it and you can’t impose it. That is what happened.
Brian Kelly came in letting the Spartans own the ground war against him. He ran a few runs, but that was more to keep the Spartans honest. He went right to the air. He used the pass to set up the run; something that the Spartans will need to do to win this year with teams stacking the box. Kelly did that and won. MSU did it in the 3rd quarter, it worked, and they abandoned it.
On January 5, 2011, just after the Spartans were massacred by the Alabama Crimson Tide I summed up the game saying this, “Alabama is going to attack Cousins. They are going to stack the box and bring blitzers from all over. They will use that pressure to stop the run and consequently get pressure on Cousins. There is no problem with that, unless MSU is too stubborn with the run. Yesterday, Saban said it best about MSU, ‘They are stubborn and will keep trying to establish the run.’”
I went on to add this assessment, “I know for a fact having talked with folks from Bama and who cover Bama that they were concerned about the Spartans going to the air. Saban countered some on his staff by telling them what he said in the above quote before the game that he thought the MSU stubbornness to run has hurt them at times. Saban felt that MSU had stuck with the run only to open it up late to get wins. He was convinced his Tide team could stop the Spartans and crush Cousins because of that stubbornness and if they did change, it would be too late. Saban was right. I don’t like him personally, but he is a genius with the X’s and O’s of the game and studying more the coaches he faces and their tendencies than anything else.”
Against elite teams the game plan is simple. Load the box until you take away the run and MSU (Nick Saban said it in the above quote) will not go away from it.
Now you can apply a lot of blame, but that would be dumb. The simple fact is that Bill Belichick, coach of the Patriots and as close to a football genius out there, says it best. “Take away what your opponent does best and wants to do the most and that is how you win.”
The Spartans don’t have the receivers of last year. Their older players are not stepping up and their younger players as a whole look lost. Dropped passes are killing drives and players not executing and coaches not getting their assigned group to step up are killing this younger team’s chances.
Make no mistake the season is far from over. Don’t fool yourself and act as if all is lost. Certainly, the caution lights are blinking and alarms are sounding loud because the elite goals that MSU has don’t come with two or three losses and they already sit at one.
The Spartans have an entire Big Ten slate ahead of them and that is good news. They can still win the Legends division and secure a slot in the Championship game. A win there certainly propels them into the BCS. This season is far from over and in no way a failure, but just like a late night infomercial the Spartans must, “RESPOND NOW!”
When pressed Dantonio said, “We are going to have to make some decisions, tough decisions,” and he is right. You may have great talent, but if you can’t produce when the lights are on, game day, you simply can’t and won’t play.”
All you have to do is look at the numbers from last season and there is no doubt that Dan Roushar is not only a good, but an elite OC. I stand by that. The same people who trashed me for saying that about Pat Narduzzi on defense were proven wrong and I stand by that. He desperately needs help from his staff.
Spartan Nation broke the story about Roushar not being interested in the NFL and wanting to stay at MSU. He is universally well respected around the nation. Last year, he left the OL to take over the offense as coordinator and when the line struggled early he had to take significant time going over and fixing that spot.
Once again, he faces that same situation this year. I asked Roushar if he was expecting to have to go back and give extra attention to the OL like last year. He said, “I think we’ll get a better read when we watch the film.” He will have to.
Mark Staten, the OL coach, is a good guy. He went from the TE coach to the OL coach last year when Roushar got bumped up. I like him so I say this with no animosity. He must step up. His OC can’t keep having to step in and fix things. He does have some young players no doubt. He does have injuries to deal with, but so does every school in the nation.
There is no doubt that the loss of Fou Fonoti was a big deal, but at this stage in the program, the line should have stepped up and didn’t. I am not convinced at all that the loss of one player caused the beat down we just witnessed and Dantonio agreed with me. He said, “I don’t think the injury (to Fonoti) was why we lost that football game.” AGREED.
To me this is his defining moment at Michigan State. He is no longer a rookie OL coach. He has to find a way to fix this line. They will be fine against lesser opponents, but they are better than they showed last night and the responsibility and the pay check belong to him to fix it.
Last year, everyone knew and expected the OL to be an Achilles heel. Not this year and rightfully so. His OC has big issues to address and fix and he can’t if he has to spend an in ordinate amount of time on the OL. Mark Dantonio admitted that this is a stake in the ground moment and a place of evaluation for everyone. That means coaches.
The Spartans suffered a beat down like this last year in Lincoln. They recovered. They can this year and I expect them to, but this team has a much higher ceiling. The goal is no longer to just get to a bowl.
Next week against EMU is a forgone conclusion. They are terrible and MSU will crush them. Two weeks from now against OSU is another story. A loss to the Buckeyes doesn’t put the final nail in the coffin for all their dreams this season, but it does order the plot and start the flow of formaldehyde.
Every dream the Spartans had to start the year, win the Big Ten, win the Big Ten Championship game, and go to the Rose Bowl are ahead of them. None of them are out of the picture and none of them are hanging by a thread. They are all there for the taking. Now they have to do the taking.