Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Eastern Michigan
Coming off their 20-3 loss to Notre Dame at home, the Spartans host the Eastern Michigan Eagles at 3:30 Saturday afternoon in the final non-conference game of the season.
The Offensive lack of production was a bit of a surprise, and not the good kind. Stifled to just 237 yards of total Offense, Spartan Nation was left stunned, and the Offense’s areas of concern left exposed.
The two glaring issues to be addressed are the Offensive Line and development of the Wide Receivers. The line took a heavy blow last Thursday when they learned that Fou Fonoti, perhaps the anchor of the line at Right Tackle, would be out with a stress fracture in his left foot. The news hit hard for Notre Dame week since it came so late preparations, and should hit deep as the Senior may be out for more than a month, or end up a candidate for a Medical Red Shirt.
Skyler Burkland (Rs.-So. OL) was thus forced to a quick return to the starting lineup, with the rest of the line shuffled around a bit besides Center Travis Jackson (Rs.-So. C). The results were not smooth. The patched together line was out of sync, sometimes off assignment, and completely out of sorts in the Spartans’ worst “big game” output in a while.
Now that Fonoti is out and the new group of starters has this week and next to get ready for Big Ten play, they’ll need to put themselves back together again. There’s plenty of talent to do so, and Eastern provides a much better opportunity for cohesion than next week against Ohio St.
The Receivers had a bad night last Saturday that snowballed as the game went on. We saw as many Receivers grabbing the air for Pass Interference flags after incompletions as we’ve maybe ever seen. It reminded you, in contrast, just how good B.J. Cunningham was at catching balls over the last 4 seasons, and how much work this young and talented group has left to go. They simply dropped too many balls in what’s become a concerning trend of the first month’s play.
Whether or not the Notre Dame game was called too loosely by Officials, Receivers have to feel that out early in a ball game and adjust. If they can’t adjust this week against Eastern, they may find their name lower on the depth chart for the rest of the year. This group needs a leader to step forward sooner than later to go along side Andrew Maxwell’s top target, Dion Sims. Look for the Coaching Staff to have their Receiver line up settled down a bit more after Saturday night. It’s time a couple receivers separate themselves from the six pack that’s been grouped together, and take ownership of their success.
As Andrew Maxwell readies for his 4th career start, Mark Dantonio sees signs of progress from what he refers to as an “experience based position (QB).” “He’s extremely composed and resilient, and he doesn’t panic under pressure,” Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week. “A Quarterback continues to grow.”
Maxwell’s growth along a learning curve may be at its sharpest angle over the next few weeks. “(It’s) probably a lot like golf, you can call the same play but it’s always a different shot,” Dantonio said. “There’s so many different things a Quarterback is seeing…no play that we run is really too often the same because of the different things (coming at him from a Defense each snap).”
As he lines up under center for more snaps, Maxwell will identify much more in the opposing Defense, and react and adjust his Offense accordingly. There’s no question he’s got a head start on becoming a winning Quarterback in the Big Ten, but that edge in preparation can’t substitute completely for game experience. Eastern is the final chance for Maxwell to put together the lessons learned from his first three starts. Trust that he and his Coaches know that more than the rest of us.
The first stat that jumps out from the Dawgs effort against Notre Dame is 1 for 14. That’s the number of times ND converted a 3rd down. The Defense was far from perfect and started to wear down towards the end of the night, but if you’re getting off the field that well on 3rd downs it’s hard to imagine losing that game. Eastern Michigan is a mismatch for this unit. Look for them to stay sharp, work in a lot of different guys, and to work as a unity to leave a “0” on the scoreboard under “EMU.”
One Spartan sure to mix things up again is All-American candidate William Gholston. The Junior from Detroit arrived on campus tall, skinny, and filled with raw talent. That seems like a long time ago now as Big Will is dozens of pounds stronger and football smarter, but still with plenty of room to grow.
“He has a very high ceiling (looking ahead)…he’s a guy that plays extremely hard,” Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week. Dantonio said that for Gholston to reach for his remaining potential, he’s needs to stay committed to mastering the basic techniques of his position, and concentrate on playing within the scheme of the Spartan Dawgs as a Defense.
Eastern will be another chance for Gholston to grow in his new role as a heavily marked target while also finding space to attack within Pat Narduzzi’s overall scheme. In some ways, Gholston is playing a new position because every opposing team will game plan for his presence. He’ll never sneak up on a team again, even a little bit, but still can make adjustments to his game versus Eastern to prepare for the coming Big Ten play. Gholston knows all of this about his game, knows more about his Defense than he did two seasons ago, and appears to understand his leadership role in establishing this unit as one of the best in Spartan history.
It was not a great day for this unit, but not necessarily a horrible one. Dan Conroy hit a triple from 50, but missed one from 44. Looking back now, neither seems that important, but Conroy’s start to 2012 has been pretty interesting. As we’ve discussed earlier this year, Conroy was expected to trot out for a lot of Field Goal tries early on. His early numbers are not exactly what we expected.
He’s 4 for 7 on the year, 0 for 3 from 30 to 49 yards, but 2 for 2 from 50 and beyond. That’s not a very traditional stat line for a Place Kicker. Over the course of the year his numbers should normalize a tad, and his overall percentage rise substantially from its current 57.1%. It doesn’t look like there’s reason to panic about the Senior Kicker right now, but there is good reason to keep an eye on his performance from here.
Nick Hill didn’t get many good opportunities Saturday night, and didn’t really get a great shot to take one back. He needs a couple good reps against Eastern to regain top confidence heading into Big Ten play. It’s going to start hard and fast on the 29th when Ohio St. comes in, and the emphasis on the return game will pick up a notch in Big Ten play.
Mike Sadler has been okay thus far by his high standards, but has to be more consistent if he wants a realistic chance to chase Nebraska’s all-everything kicking weapon Brett Maher (Punter/Kicker/Place Kicker) for Big Ten honors. More importantly, Sadler needs to be consistent to give the Spartans a needed field position edge. Given the Offense’s struggles against ND and BSU, Sadler’s influence on field position will only become more important moving forward.
Notre Dame, for the second straight year, looks like a wakeup call for the Spartans. The question now is whether they’ll answer the bell. The final score of 20-3 wasn’t a numerical shock, but the Spartans ending up on the short end of the stick was. Many expected a sound Spartan victory last Saturday night, yet few saw anything close to the 20-3 result in the Domer’s favor. This one was at Spartan Stadium, at night, on national TV. It was supposed to be another milestone and respect builder for the Dantonio led program. Instead it was a sour and sobering pill to swallow.
“We’ve always tried to focus on the task at hand…just like this week, it’ll be all about Eastern Michigan and what we have to do to win,” Dantonio reflected earlier this week. I asked him how he’s been able to convert the mentality of Spartan Football into one that understands that the best way to have a championship season (or simply to make the very best of a season) is to literally take games one at a time. Before Dantonio returned in late 2006, that was far from the norm.
The norm, quite frankly, was that most Spartan teams came in with high hopes and as soon as they were off the table (ex. being eliminated from the Big Ten title run), the season started to tank. Teams would completely bail out on taking the season one game at a time. Instead, they’d be hung up in disappointment and stuck in that moment rather than working towards the next game on the slate.
That’s why you had a lot of Spartan teams that underachieved. Six years into the Dantonio era, that’s no longer the case. It’s not even a real threat anymore. The difference is that Dantonio first sold, and has since instilled that this program commit to taking each season one game at a time. That’s evidence of maturity, in College Football terms.
Eastern is the next opportunity for this team to prove they’re on board with that approach by showing us they’ve left Notre Dame behind and they’re not yet locked in on Urban Meyer and Ohio St. “Were always trying to put things in perspective, keep things relative to what we’re doing,” Dantonio concluded. That’s what the coming Eastern Michigan game is really all about.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Credit the Big Ten Network for fulfilling our Saturday dreams. Remember the early days of the BTN and your frustration of only seeing one live game a week there? And how many of us we were stuck in a fight with cable company to provide the channel somewhere in our lineup? Now you can get the BTN just about anywhere, and they’re airing games from noon until the end of Saturday night. Other leagues around the nation still hate us for our network and dream of something like their own Big Ten Network one day.
- Welcome back to Spartan Stadium, Mike Hart. The last time you were in East Lansing you picked up one of the luckiest bounces in stadium history during the epic and painful 100th meeting of the state’s sibling rivalry. After the game, you put your foot in your mouth so badly that it’s stuck with you ever since. Thanks for stirring up the Hornet’s nest though, Mike. It’s been pretty awesome around here ever since. In case you’re wondering, we definitely haven’t forgotten you. “It’s not over…it’ll never be over here…it’s just starting,” still rings true today.
* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum & @JPSpartan