Coming off a 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan, the Spartans stay home to open Big Ten play with Urban Meyer’s Ohio St. Buckeyes at 3:30 on Saturday.
Mark Dantonio said it best immediately after Eastern, “protect…throw, and catch.” Those are the basics of any good passing game. The 2012 Spartans are far from putting those three together right now. Perhaps the most consistent component so far has probably been the “throw.” It’s clear that Andrew Maxwell has a gun for an arm. His ball doesn’t come off at the same pace or trajectory as Kirk Cousins’ did for the last three years, but most of his receivers didn’t catch that many balls from Cousins. That shouldn’t be an issue at this point of the year. Yet, all that time that Bennie Fowler and others spent preparing with Maxwell before 2012 hasn’t shown up much on the field yet.
What’s shown up most often from the Wide Receivers is an inability to squeeze and hold the football. Whether it been nerves of an impending hit or timing that’s just not ripe, it looks like there’s more than one element out of sorts. The Spartan Passing Offense ranks 61st right now out of 120 Division 1 teams. The Rushing attack is 53rd. Both numbers definitely impact each other.
Both the passing and running game start up front, and the realigned Offensive Line will have their hands full with OSU despite their relatively low Defensive rankings. If the Offensive Line isn’t up to the task for all 60 minutes, Touchdowns could again be hard to come by. The line must provide protection for Maxwell, who obviously needs his receivers to separate, get open, and catch the stitched ball.
Ohio St. should finally reveal to Spartan Nation which Receivers can stand up to big time pressure this year. Don’t be deceived by Ohio St.’s 104th ranking in Passing Defense. They’re 33rd in Rushing Defense, and their Coaches know the best way to stop the MSU Offense. Expect to see the box stacked against Le’Veon Bell and company once again. The Spartan passing game will therefore have to get production out wide.
It’s up to the Spartans to keep the Bucks honest by passing on early downs to open up the run. If they can do that with any thread of success, it should make the running effort more productive. If they can’t “protect, throw, and catch,” it should be another long and agonizing day for this unit.
This unit has brought it week in and week out. Have they been perfect? No way, but pretty darn close all considering. They’ve missed Jerel Worthy and Trenton Robinson for sure, and have seen some veterans get sloppy on the back end when measured up against their high standards. Nationally they’re 6th in Passing Efficiency Defense and 10th in Rushing Defense right now. Mentally, they’ve carried the burden of having to lead the team to wins as the offensive production has struggled. They appeared to realize early on that they had to be nearly perfect for MSU to win the Boise St. and Notre Dame game. MSU looks pretty lucky right now to have won one of them, thanks as well to the Bell Cow wearing # 24 on Offense.
The Ohio St. Offense is all about Braxton Miller right now, but do not expect to see the Braxton Miller of 2011. This Sophomore is not the same kid that was running around scared as the Spartan Dawgs chased him around Ohio Stadium last year. Urban Meyer’s Quarterback in 2012 has progressed to the point where he’s eyeing a break out game. Spartan Nation remembers Terrell Pryor’s break out game against MSU a handful of years back, and doesn’t want to see that happen again.
Fortunately, Pat Narduzzi’s unit has done a good job at containing “spread” QBs over the past couple of years. But the Defense has to find a way to contain “loose plays” that doomed them in Indy last year and against Notre Dame a couple weeks back. It’s awful tough to stay with Receivers downfield through a broken play, but the guys chasing the QBs down can help their mates on the back end by finishing a play when it’s there. Pass rushers are going to have to secure Miller down or push him out of bounds whenever possible to close out would-be loose plays. The longer a broken play goes, the more likely something opens up way down field.
MSU needs the best out of William Gholston Saturday as well. A bright light will always be shown on # 2 in Green, but he’s got to get a good week of practice in to prepare to affect the Quarterback. If Gholston gets going, Marcus Rush, Denicos Allen, and the rest of the Dawgs should also get going. If they start chasing Braxton Miller around again, he can get rattled into turning the ball over a couple times.
Max Bullough unquestionably leads these Dawgs on the field and in the locker room. “He’s a stud,” Ohio St. Head Coach Urban Meyer put simply. His presence is felt beyond the Defense, however, and will be needed this week to lead every one of the 2012 Spartans into Big Ten success. “He’s always trying to work to get better…he’s in that constant improvement mode,” Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week.
Not to put any more on the shoulders of the Junior’s legacy as a Spartan Captain, but the first major test of his Captaincy comes Saturday at 3:30. There’s no doubt given his pedigree and performance since arriving on campus, Bullough will be up to the challenge. Dantonio told us that he already racks up with just about any Middle (Mike) Linebacker he’s coached. “He’s right up there because of his preparation, his attitude, and his work ethic.”
The mistakes that have been happening across this expansive unit need to be collectively cleaned up to give the Spartans an edge Big Ten play. As Jim Tressel reminded Spartan Nation before his final Big Ten season, most Big Ten titles are won and lost by a couple of Special Teams plays.
MSU’s rankings coming out of the non-conference are not very impressive. A few are a little bit concerning. The Spartans are 102nd out of 120 Division 1 teams in Kick Return Yardage Defense. Opponents have averaged a starting position of the 24.8 yard line. As a point of reference, 49 teams nationwide are holding the opponents average starting position inside the 20. Sure, MSU has played one of the better non-conference schedules to date, but 102nd has got to be far from where Mike Tressel’s unit expected to be. Kevin Muma needs to either kick it deeper for more Touchbacks or higher to give the coverage unit more time to close on ball if that 24.8 number is going to improve.
Net Punting was an area the Spartans expected to excel in, but right now are ranked 66th overall. While Mike Sadler is expected to be the most consistent foot in the kicking game, he has flat missed a couple punts thus far in 2012. He’s got a great, if not game saving history against Ohio St. from last year, but is again likely to be counted on heavily because the Offense should be expected to struggle until proven otherwise. Perhaps that pressure has gotten to Sadler early, but he appears to have the maturity to realize he can only play Punter for Michigan St., and doesn’t have to hit the perfect ball every time. The already stressed Defense could use a boost from a stronger punting game.
Dan Conroy and Nick Hill have had similar non-conference seasons, inconsistent and a little off. Conroy’s mistakes have been more evident, as he’s missed nearly one try out of three. He’s got no excuse to lack confidence though because he’s a Senior with a good track record of making big kicks in big games. He’s needs to become a point of strength for the Spartans if they’re to persevere through the Offense’s continued development.
Hill must also raise his game to play with a more consistent focus than he has during the non-conference season. As long as he sticks to the principles that Tressel and Dantonio place on the Punt Returner, all will work out for Hill and he’ll change the position of the field. If his mind wanders or if he tries to do too much, he’ll threaten the type of killer mistake that often burns red into a memory bank.
The entire Special Teams unit has a good bit of room to tighten up during Big Ten play. They need to make big plays while the Offense tries to catch up to full speed, but more importantly need to avoid the big gaffe going the other way. We haven’t seen the Spartans gain a decided edge through Special Teams yet this year, which has to be chalked up as a bit of a surprise.
As Dantonio described after the Eastern slog, the Spartans came out flat in the 1st Half last Saturday. After the frustration and disappointment of Notre Dame, too many Spartans decided they’d save their rebound performance (hopefully) until Ohio St. While that’s understandable, let’s call it what it is. Great teams don’t usually come out flat.
The great College squads don’t play down to the level of their competition, and don’t get stuck on last week. While the paper matchup between Eastern and MSU was a clear and wide mismatch, Halftime read 7-6 Eagles. Spartan Nation let them know they wanted more maturity and consistency as they walked off the field. The best team in the Big Ten this year won’t get complacent, and will stay after their best performance on each play of each game, no matter what’s the score.
That’s what Alabama does now on a weekly basis and that’s what Florida used to do under Steve Spurrier. The Ole’ Ball Coach regularly explained to the post game media that his teams played their best on each play, regardless of the point total. He also clued us into the fact that some team’s 3rd and 4th deep were better than other team’s starters. Speaking of that, remember Nebraska in 1995? Remember their walk-on tailback running circles around MSU that day? That wasn’t necessarily running it up, that was giving your best on each play regardless of the scoreboard.
Bob Knight would probably say this about the Spartans effort last week, and if you don’t think Knight knows anything about football, ask Bill Parcells. He’d probably say their effort on Saturday was a direct result of their preparation from Sunday through Friday. He might add that if you want to play your best, you’d better practice with your best focus and effort all week. Perhaps it’s not so much that this team doesn’t know that, it’s that they somehow thought they could get away with it and still blow Eastern out by dozens.
We’ve seen that act tried around here before, Spartans. Not only does it not work, it can cripple your chemistry, your season, and if it’s not stopped soon enough, your program. We have evidence that Dantonio’s staff will never let a mega program melt down happen on their watch. But it’s on the players to bring their effort on a week to week basis too. It’s best from here on out (including Indiana or any other game that looks like a landslide) for this team to bring it each day. Those that do will play and succeed. Those that don’t will sit, pout, and probably be forgotten if not deleted from Spartan Football significance.
There should be no problem getting up for Ohio St. and the Big Ten opener. And there’s every reason to expect the Spartans best effort of the year on Saturday. But expectations will far from guarantee an MSU victory on Saturday because the Buckeyes are coming along now as an Urban renewal project. Their smallest margin of victory, so far sitting at 4-0, was 7 points over a pretty good California team. Their Quarterback is much more experienced, and their team is coming at the Big Ten with and edge because they’ve been disqualified from postseason play.
Will the Spartans lax week against Eastern catch up to them Saturday versus Ohio St.? It’s tough to say right now, but if it does, Spartan Nation can’t say they didn’t see it coming.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Messing with the Kickoff rules was a mistake. Setting Kickoff Touchbacks at the 25 instead of the 20 is another rules inconsistency College Football doesn’t need. Leave that and the ridiculous Game Clock rules for the final 2-minutes of a Half for the CFL. I’m all for trying new and goofy rules, but keep them in the goofy football leagues out there. We’re all for player safety first, but College Football looks like their fixing a problem that doesn’t yet exist.
- When the Spartans knelt down against BSU inside the 10 to run the clock out up only 4-points (or one play), I wondered if that might come back to haunt them later on. Not that a 17-13 win over BSU wasn’t great, but so many pollsters only remember the score and use scores to forge rankings for the rest of the year. Worse, rankings still matter far too much when you get into Bowl Selection. Boise St. could’ve easily been an 11-point, two-score win. If you’re only up one-score, I don’t think you need an excuse to extend it to two scores, nor worry that an opposing Coach might take offense. We’ve seen crazy things happen around that “Amp Campbell” (versus Oregon ’99) End Zone before.
- Coach Dantonio’s primarily paid to educate kids and win football games at Michigan St. He’s not paid that much to be a media analyst or quote machine to fill the internet and remaining newspapers with. Now more than ever, as New Media has changed the entire ball game, there’s not as much of a need for Players and Coaches to meet with the media. I’d much rather err on the side of preparing a focused team going into Ohio St. than allowing a player to potentially fill up another opposing team’s bulletin board.
* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and also @JPSpartan