Coming off the bitter late loss to Nebraska and bye week, the Spartans host Northwestern at Noon Saturday for Senior Day.
To sum up this unit’s season to date, they haven’t lived up to expectations. Not up front, not in the backfield, and not out wide. Some struggles were to be expected after needing to replace the mass of the skill position lineup, but that was supposed to be buffered somewhat by an experienced Offensive Line and Le’Veon Bell led running game.
As we’ve discussed before, the root of their dismal production has been the instability of the line. That more than anything, even the contagious drops that plagued the Receivers early, has led to the Spartans’ 110th ranked scoring Offense in Division 1 Football. The injury bug that tore the line apart just as they looked to be coming together (before the Notre Dame game) is the primary reason MSU ranks 80th in running the ball though Bell has big numbers. While you may think Bell has been going east-west too much, even if he took it exclusively north-south all year long, that ranking wouldn’t be much higher.
The Spartans final drive against Nebraska was clearly disappointing. The Offense again could’ve bailed out the Spartans and taken the Officials out of such a decisive role with a strong finish. Instead the Offense reverted back to a familiar conservative approach. The ball was handed off to Bell five straight times, but as Mark Dantonio told Spartan Nation last week, there was a run-pass option called on the final 3rd Down. When Nebraska looked to take the pass away, Maxwell went to the run play.
Five straight runs weren’t going to cut it, and was essentially MSU pointing the gun back at their feet. There should’ve been some safe passing opportunities featured in there. Going ultra conservative turned out to be the final Offensive nail in the coffin. Remember, MSU was playing a most desperate Nebraska team that needed the game to get in line for Indy. So that was not the time to think they could keep moving the ball on the ground, as it was long before established that the Spartans could not run it against teams at will.
So what can we expect off the much needed but possibly depressing week off? They cracked 24 points against the eventual Legends’ Champs last time out, but again stalled out in the stretch. And there have been some signs of life with the patched together line and now exponentially more experienced Andrew Maxwell. In their sights first is a 6th win to secure a Bowl trip and a Northwestern team that has painfully come from ahead to lose double-digit leads three times this year, the worst of which was last week at Ann Arbor in a meltdown for the books.
This unit needs to build off the positive gains of Nebraska and leave the “run first” approach in the dust for the final three (assuming a Bowl) games this year. If they can, they should lock up a Bowl (likely Gator) bid while finishing 7-5.
The Defense has hopefully been building a resilience that will pay off in this program for years to come. Max Bullough is a type of program builder that appears the unquestionable leader of this unit and this team. If he’s successful by his own high standards, his impact on this program through this very difficult 2012 season will be felt for the remainder of the Dantonio era. There’s no doubt that Greg Jones is a future College Football Hall of Famer, but Bullough may well leave a unique and deeper imprint on Spartan Football.
The 2012 version of Northwestern isn’t much like the “dink and dunk” Cats we’ve come accustomed to under Pat Fitzgerald. This is much an opposite group that’s actually 100 ranking spots better in the run (14th) than the pass (114th). Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian split time last week behind Center, but make no mistake, Colter is the Wildcats’ biggest playmaking threat. Colter is a top notch run-pass threat that has given Defenses fits, but he hasn’t faced a Defense as stout as the Spartan Dawgs yet. As Pat Fitzgerald told Spartan Nation earlier this week reflecting on their last opponent, the Michigan and Michigan State Defenses are not a similar challenge.
As Colter goes, so goes the NW Offense. If the Spartans can contain him more along the lines of Denard Robinson than they did Braxton Miller, they should be able to keep the Wildcats from scoring as many as Nebraska’s 28, which is the most an opponent has scored this year.
Mike Sadler raised his game for the kicking showdown with Nebraska’s decorated Brett Maher. Maher kind of flopped after his season best effort the week before MSU, and Sadler snatched the momentum on the way to a Big Ten Player of the Week nod. If he can finish the final two weeks strong, that would set the Nebraska ’12 game as perhaps the launching pad for the final two years of what could be another outstanding Spartan punting career.
Spartan Nation is still looking for more stability and performance out of the return game. With two games left, it’s not clear who will grab the lead jobs the rest of the way, and also not clear how much the other members of the kicking units have been responsible for a far less explosive return game than the Spartans were expecting in 2012.
Special Teams has been a difference maker between these two schools in recent years, and with as close a matchup as Northwestern looks on paper, MSU can hardly afford any Bye Week rust in this phase of Saturday’s home finale.
As rough a set of endings as Spartan Nation has experienced in 2012, Northwestern’s maybe had it even worse. The wheels came off the latest Wildcat meltdown in the final 27 seconds last Saturday in Ann Arbor. A lukewarm punt was followed by a poorly defended Hail Mary gasp from Devin Gardner that was tipped by a Wildcat defender to Michigan’s Roy Roundtree. A 26-yard Field Goal later and the Cats were pushed to OT, and their Legends’ Division hopes pushed of the edge for good. OT didn’t reverse the flow, and after being stopped on 3rd and 4th and 2, Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch had blown another late lead in 2012.
With that in mind, it’s really hard to imagine what the Spartans will get from Northwestern on Saturday. Hopefully the game’s long decided before the final minutes because MSU has the clear talent advantage. Though you can’t count on Northwestern to ever quit, they may just emotionally be out of gas for 2012 after the Michigan collapse. They literally have been a few crunch time performances away from playing for a Rose Bowl bid and being assured of an excellent Bowl trip. Spartan Nation can surely relate.
The question for the rest of 2012 is whether the Spartans can make a late-fresh start and lock in another warm weather Bowl trip. If they’re over Nebraska and the bitter close defeats in three of their last four, they should come out sharp and intent on stopping a still dangerous Northwestern team. This is not a game to let the Wildcats hang around in, nor show up “Iowa flat” to. If the Spartans are as good and as close as they believe they are, they should be able to show it on the field by winning their final two convincingly and topping it off with a second straight Bowl victory.
The time for talk and tweets has long passed, it’s now time for this team to keep the program moving in the right direction by closing the season better than it started out, and much better than it got during the biggest stretch of games. The clean break of the Bye Week potentially made that all possible, a win over Northwestern on Senior Day would move that scenario to probable.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Well, it’s that time of year again, the College Football firing season. It looks like Tennessee or even Auburn might be first out of the blocks, and soon a couple other major BCS jobs will probably follow suit. No one expects Mark Dantonio to even consider moving anywhere else, but don’t be surprised he gets a mention or two. You’d rather have your Head Coach sought after by one of the so called Big Boys than never being thought of.
- The idea that the Big East and ACC could have an automatic bid to the new Playoff is ridiculous. The Champion of the four Major Conferences plus two “at-large” entries should be a part of it, with the two highest ranked teams perhaps getting a “bye” to the semi-finals. How soon can we get an 8-team Playoff already, and how can the ACC or Big East considered on par with the rest?