East Lansing, Michigan
The football game that fans witnessed today was a joke. After whipping CMU in Mount Pleasant earlier this year, those same Chips went on the road to beat Iowa. The Hawkeyes are well coached, but not the Iowa teams of old. The Spartans reverted to the teams of old and were let down by some of their coaches.
The Spartans played not to lose and the Hawkeyes played to win. Once again, the Spartans left the field for the second straight home game with their coaching staff having cost them a critical game. I have written about it extensively, but once again the Spartans failed to attack. They have weapons and they didn’t use them.
Content to play a game of field goals and close calls, the undermanned Hawkeyes scraped and clawed and fought to win. For those that follow me on Twitter I made my opinion clear prior to a second quarter fourth and one. The Spartans had the ball at the Iowa seven. The Spartan D had been outstanding and I said that I felt Dantonio was making a mistake not going for the first down. I made it clear that whether or not he got the first down, he had a defense playing well and he needed to play to win, not kick field goals. You be the judge if I was right.
Dantonio said after the game, “Sometimes life’s tough and life’s not very fair, but sometimes it’s fair too, you sort of get what you deserve sometimes,” I agree. What isn’t fair is that the abysmal play calling is haunting MSU again. MSU had success when they attacked the Hawkeyes who are following the key laid out by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl in 2011. If you stack the box against MSU and stop the run, they won’t move away from it.
You’ve read Nick Saban’s quote. I have used it over and over. Prior to the Spartans Capital One Bowl tilt he said to me, “They are stubborn and will keep trying to establish the run.” Saban knew it, and the so has everyone since then. Teams are stacking the box in order to take away what MSU wants to do the best; Run the ball. The Spartans will go on the attack, have success and go back to the run.
MSU refuses to use the pass to set up the run. They are committed to the run to a point that it is costing them games; three losses this year so far where opponents stacked the box and didn’t move away from it. They stayed focused on the run even when MSU had success in the air. They knew they would come back to the ground game.
Look at Notre Dame earlier this year. When MSU went to the hurry up aerial attack they had success and immediately went away from it. It continues to happen and it continues to take away the chance to win. MSU refused to go on the attack and that is a coaching decision.
I wrote this over a year ago about Michigan State and the play calling. Even Saban, in his book, How Good Do You Want to Be admitted his own failure of thinking similarly while the head man at MSU. He said on page 70, “…as the head coach at Michigan State, I was much too conservative on offense. I thought you could win with a solid defense and a stable, but not aggressive, offense. We lost five games that year -games that we might have had a better shot if we’d tried to win on offense. It took two years, but I realized my mistake and learned from the consequences.”
Anyone who knows, or understands The Nicktator, has a clear sense of how difficult admitting something like that must have been. For the record, I do not want, or dream that Saban should come back. I think the Spartan Nation is fortunate to have Dantonio. I also know that Saban has the advantage of looking back and writing those words after years of retrospection. Dantonio is just now into his eighth year as a head coach.
Brian Kelly, the Notre Dame head coach, said nearly the same as had Saban, when after last week’s Irish win over the Spartans he declared that he knew the Spartans were dedicated to the run and would stick with it. Manti Te’o, their fine LB, told me personally when I asked about the Spartans in the first three quarters continuing to attack the middle – when it wasn’t there, “We knew they were dedicated to running the ball. We knew it was something they would keep coming back to so we had to be prepared to stop it.”
The Spartans came into the season talking National Title, Big Ten Champs, and a Rose Bowl. They will tell you (and did Saturday in the locker room) that those goals are all ahead of them. The first one is officially out. The other two are germane only mathematically, not realistically.
People are clamoring for Dan Roushar’s head. They want him fired. My social media and email tells the story. I still disagree. Roushar is facing what Don Treadwell faced; fans screaming about the play calling. The problem is NOT the offensive coordinator; it rests on the head coach.
I support Mark Dantonio. I think he is a great coach and has done an amazing job at MSU. He is a man of great character and integrity and has become a victim of his own success. He has raised the bar of expectation and experience.
The play calling has been a common thread through his reign at the helm of MSU football. OC has changed, but that remains the same. He doesn’t call the plays, but there is NO DOUBT inside MSU football who sets the direction, philosophy and expectations.
Mark Dantonio must learn to adapt his offensive strategy to his defense. The Spartans must learn to attack. This isn’t about an occasional going for it on fourth down or a trick play. It is smelling the blood in the water like a hungry shark.
Mark Dantonio has to understand that he has brought MSU to an entire new level and to get where it wants to go, he has to go from the hunted to the hunter. It is one thing to play a lesser opponent and to manhandle them. It is another to play good teams (OSU, Notre Dame, Iowa) and not adjust when they line up to take away your bedrock philosophy.
The time has come for Dantonio to not be committed to a run first philosophy and playing smash mouth football. Pound green pound works great against teams in which you have an overwhelming superiority of talent. It must be to doing whatever it takes to win. You can point to the yards by LeVeon Bell, but MSU continues to scratch and crawl for points. It isn’t working.
LeVeon is a great back. Teams are loading up on him. Andrew Maxwell is the real deal and has all the tools to be great, but you have to turn him loose. Like Saban, Dantonio must evolve his offensive philosophy for the Spartans’ dreams and goals to be reached.
The defense looked drained on the final drives of the last two losses. A product of an offense that can’t get sustained drives. They are not the issue, but they will have to find ways to sustain the energy until the end. Perhaps more substitutions would help, but again they aren’t the issue.
The issue is the Spartans need to attack. Football is a violent game. It is a game of brute force and blunt force trauma. They must evolve. Mark Dantonio is the right man to lead Spartan Football. He is a good man and a good football coach.
I have often said he took the best from Saban and Tressel and was able to maneuver away from the worst. Now he needs to follow Saban’s path and learn to attack. Like Saban said, “We lost five games that year -games that we might have had a better shot if we’d tried to win on offense. It took two years, but I realized my mistake and learned from the consequences.”
MSU has five games left. A season that started with talk of a National Title, a Big Ten Title, and a Rose Bowl is fast taking shape as one that may end in no Bowl. The Spartans are better than that. Until they get aggressive on offense the Spartans are what they are. It’s time to become what they can be.
If the Spartans continue their current course they will lose the next four games. That puts them out of a bowl. Even Saban who loves the smash mouth approach went to a pass to run philosophy against LSU the second time last year. It was the only team in which is Tide didn’t have the overwhelming talent advantage.
Dantonio must take a long hard look. The offensive philosophy is reflected in the play calling. Play calling isn’t the issue, the philosophy is. I love pound green pound. That can be your foundation, but winning has to be your ultimate goal. The Spartans must go on the attack and as long as teams follow Saban’s example that is through the air.
Only one man can change the situation. Only one man has the power and that man, Mark Dantonio, must do it to save his season.