Coming off their 31-27 comeback win at Indiana, MSU welcomes Iowa for Homecoming at Noon this Saturday.
It was a brutal start for the Offense. Indiana stacked the box, and Le’Veon Bell went next to nowhere early on. But starting in the 2nd Quarter, there were new signs of life. By the end of the day, MSU looked like they had found an Offensive line to move forward with.
The Offensive Line has arguably been ruined for the year by injury, but with half a regular season to go they’ve made progress in rebuilding it on the fly. During Indiana, Ethan Ruhland and Jack Allen worked at Center, and Blake Treadwell found his way around the Guard position opposite Chris McDonald. Those slots should solidify more versus Iowa, and will have to get stronger collectively if the Spartans are to score enough points to beat the teams left on their schedule. Offensive Lineman need experience playing together before they can all get in sync. Indiana was the new line’s starting point.
The breakout performance from Wide Receiver Aaron Burbridge was huge for this unit. Not because it was from the True Freshmen out of the Spartan factory that is Farmington Hills-Harrison, but because someone finally stepped forward at that position. Burbridge looked like a playmaker who wasn’t scared of the ball coming to him or scared of getting hit. He looked more like he wanted the ball as the game went on, and looked good enough that you could see him starting each game left in MSU career.
Bennie Fowler jumpstarted his year, and may have rebooted his career with the 36-yard game winning TD score. On that pre-snap read, it looked like Andrew Maxwell identified the “Hot Blitz” coming from his left, and then threw quickly into it towards Fowler. After Fowler shook the first defender, he got his legs stretched and Indiana had no answer for the speed and agility of the Red-Shirt Junior.
Coach D told Spartan Nation it was great to see Fowler make a couple of big plays when the game was on the line, but that there was another level to his performance. “He demonstrated his leadership and the quality of person he was throughout the week by not tanking it (after being shifted down the depth chart) and continuing to practice upbeat, and continuing to be a leader.”
Fowler needed something to energize what looked like a very promising career back in 2010. A foot injury crippled his 2011, and he hasn’t looked like himself much since. That play may be exactly what’s needed to get Fowler back making big plays in space again. A healthy and playmaking Fowler is needed for this Offense to improve. They’ve got to find a way to get more explosive plays from this unit, and Fowler has an established record of making them.
The Receiver picture looks much clearer than it did a week ago. Burbridge looks ready for primetime (and leaves you wondering why he wasn’t in more often earlier this year), Fowler looks like he’s probably back, and Keith Mumphrey looks to have the surest hands of the lot. You could see the chemistry building as Maxwell started connecting with the receivers in the 2nd Half, finally.
Andrew Maxwell doesn’t seem to get too down or too high up, no matter what’s going on. He had a rough start along with the rest of the team, but survived to finish strong. He didn’t just “manage the game” and avoid critical turnovers, he made plays to engineer the comeback. The season’s fate was arguably more in Maxwell’s hands than any other player’s. The smooth operator threw it 40 times on the day, which become closer to the norm moving forward because the Spartans’ struggles to establish an effective running game (currently ranked 64th in rushing yards).
The challenge of Iowa for this unit is to show Spartan Nation that they have found a solid lineup across the field and can build on the 2nd Half last week. We’ll be watching to see if they can they move the ball on the ground first, or if they will essentially be forced into becoming a “pass to run” team the rest of the year. Iowa is traditionally a solid fundamental team, but continued off-field issues and coordinator shuffling have contributed to a rough 2012 so far in Iowa City. Anything but progress from the Spartan Offense should be considered a red flag.
The Defense may have opened with their worst half of 2012, and closed with one of their best. After getting gouged for 27 points in the first 30 minutes, thanks in part to a buffet of MSU penalties, the Spartan Dawgs locked down completely in the final 30. Indiana couldn’t move the ball for beans, gaining only 37 yards and getting frozen at 27 points for the day.
The Hoosiers best half under Kevin Wilson was up tempo, in sync, and clicking all across the field. There was a real chance for the type stunning upset that could completely derail a football season. Yet, where the Defense didn’t step up in the first 30 minutes, they made up for it in the final 30. They should take pride in their finish, but also revisit their mentality and focus coming out of the gate. Teams left on their schedule will certainly try to copy some of what Indiana did because it made the Dawgs look so oddly average.
Coach D said after the game that like the Offense, the Defense will stick with the hot hand. Taiwan Jones got it going on Saturday, though he was flagged for one MSU’s half dozen 15-Yard Penalties. Jones is a heavy hitting playmaker that may be too good to keep off the field for much longer. Chris Norman is a Senior and Captain, but Jones could keep pushing him for time if he gets better by the snap.
The same may soon be said at the Corner Back position. We know it’s among the toughest to play in this Defense, and probably the one that hinges most on confidence. Johnny Adams’ confidence appears shaken right now. He doesn’t appear physically banged up, but his ego looks a bit bruised. You’ve got to have a bit of an ego or swagger to succeed out on a Corner Back island. It’s a good thing that all the great ones of the past (Charles Woodson) and present (Ricardo Allen) bring to the position.
If the Spartans’ back end is as deep as advertised, expect to see more guys rotating around back there if Adams continues to slip up. His struggles aren’t foreign to upperclassmen, as you might recall Otis Wiley found tough times during his Junior year at a Safety. Perhaps those two will connect because there’s still plenty of time for Adams to return to an All-Conference level, but he’d better get to it quick before another upstart Red-Shirt takes some of his snaps.
Nick Hill has gone from a position of strength to losing a strong hold on both return positions. He’s looked stronger returning kickoffs, but appears to have lost the mental edge needed to return punts. He’s had trouble fielding punts, deciding what to do with punts, and may just need a little breather to rebuild his fundamentals before stepping back into that role. Spartan Nation is interested to see what A.J. Sims and others may be able to do in that spot, but MSU needs to lock down that role as they begin the season’s key 4-week stretch.
Dan Conroy has likely steadied his ship, hitting his only try on Saturday from 46. If nothing else, Conroy has gotten a good bit of work from 40-yards and beyond. On each attempt, the snap has come off pretty well from MSU’s new long snapper Taybor Pepper. It’s easy to forget about the snap’s execution because we never see it as much of an issue on Sundays, but it is often an issue at the College level. The Spartans have been in good hands under Dantonio at that position, which tends to come into focus most often when the kicking game is a deciding factor.
Spartan teams under John L. Smith looked really good in a lot of 1st Halfs, especially right out of the gate. Under Dantonio, MSU has looked the opposite. They’ve been worse in some 1st Halfs going back to 2007, and have no question become a 2nd Half team. If you’re going to struggle somewhere, you rather play your best in the game’s final minutes. That concept doesn’t excuse any of the Spartans bad 1st Half efforts, but it does provide evidence that this team doesn’t quit under Coach D. They can be counted on to close games out strong.
It’s hard to say exactly what the 2012 Spartans are right now. Mark Dantonio told Spartan Nation earlier this week that he was most pleased with his team’s effort and attitude thus far, and most disappointed in their execution. We know this team is not exactly what we thought they’d be, but don’t have a complete handle on what they actually are yet. The lost to Notre Dame handily, and to Ohio St. by a point. Both teams are in the Top 10 now, and could be around there for a while. So the Spartans are arguably the best 2-loss team in the nation. That doesn’t mean much today, but if they’re still at 2-losses going into the bye week next month (granted a BIG if), all of the sudden they’d be a lot closer to where many thought they’d be.
“We’re going to learn more about our football team in these next coming weeks as we get into the meat of our schedule,” Mark Dantonio admitted to Spartan Nation earlier this week. This team needs to demonstrate on Saturday that they’re not already thinking much about going down to Ann Arbor, and all that sibling rivalry entails. The best way for this team to begin this critical stretch is to come out completely focused on Iowa, and to beat them convincingly for all 60 minutes. They might even want to take a “road game” mentality into Homecoming this time around, and treat the Iowa Hawkeyes like a local “business trip” by limiting distractions and tightening their focus on one another. After that trip’s completed, they’ll be plenty of time to prepare for the next 3 games.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- You can’t say Urban Meyer has come into the Big Ten quietly, and after Ohio St. scored to make it 63-38 on Nebraska with less than a minute to go Saturday night, it now looks clearly like he’s doing so on purpose. Watch out Indiana, you may be next.
- Want a sign that your fan base is entitled? Look at the Georgia Bulldog contingent. If consistently ripping Mark Richt for only producing the most consistent winning period in school history isn’t enough, maybe toilet papering and egging the rented home of the SEC’s best QB Aaron Murray is. After Murray apparently lost to South Carolina 35-7 all on his own Saturday night, Bulldog fans took their consistent verbal trashing of Murray to the next level by creatively decorating his home. I guess taking to Twitter and message boards just isn’t enough anymore. But if you get a hold of a Georgia fan this week, they might quickly rationalize that incident away and shift back into a conversation about how Georgia should’ve had 3 National Titles in the past 10 years. Hopefully this is an example that other rising programs can learn from, of what not to do.
* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and also @JPSpartan