Coming off a 26-13 win over Western Michigan Friday night, the Spartans welcome the South Florida Bulls to Spartan Stadium at high noon this Saturday.
Last week we talked about the questions spanning this entire unit. None were really answered Friday night, which let down the entire Spartan Nation. This unit wasn’t inches away from clicking against Western, they looked miles off course. MSU’s 297 yards ranked 11th out of the 12 Big Ten teams. Only Purdue was worse off after getting hammered at Cincinnati. The Spartans 26 points, two touchdowns worth provided by the Defense, ranked 10th in the conference ahead of just Penn St. and the Boilermakers. The Lions’ 23 points against Syracuse were all produced by their Offense. Purdue managed only a single TD run, for comparison. The bottom line is, if State’s Offense doesn’t improve exponentially from week one, just making a Bowl game should again become a struggle. That’s how alarming Friday night actually was.
When people see a struggling Offense, they instantly look under center because the easiest thing to change in an Offense is the Quarterback, right? We were told before week one that the competition between Connor Cook, Tyler O’Connor, Andrew Maxwell, and Damion Terry was so close, they were all listed as an “OR” in the 1-line of the depth chart. Yet, only Cook and Maxwell played. Spartan Nation asked Coach D how he and his staff decide who goes out to Quarterback a given series, but kindly he declined to answer at this time. Later he said what’s important in evaluating the Quarterbacks is how they move the football as a team. He did not say that each player needed in-game play action in order for them to complete their evaluation.
Why only Cook and Maxwell played has not yet been fully explained. Given how sluggish the Offense moved, even with the extra rain-delay break, it was as surprise that O’Connor didn’t see the field. Not for a series, not to run the Wild Cat, not for anything. I’m afraid that could have sent a wrong and unintended message to the Red Shirt-Freshmen. If O’Connor doesn’t get an extended look in the next two games, that would suggest he really wasn’t that close to an “OR” with Cook and Maxwell to begin with. This week he’s been listed behind those two on the Depth Chart.
As we’ve discussed before, if the Spartans have to play True-Freshmen Damion Terry, that would be a very bad sign. That would mean that three “Major College Quarterbacks,” as Dantonio described them earlier this year, couldn’t perform at that level following an entire Spring and Fall Camp under the new Co-Coordinators’ leadership. Before we see Terry, we should see O’Connor play for a number of series. Not that he may be better than Maxwell or Cook, but it’s time we find out what he brings and how he handles himself in a real game against different opponents.
The other major alarm that sounded for the Offense was obviously the Wide Receivers picking up where they left off from the 2012 opener, dropping balls. We talked about the need for the Wide Outs to step up and lead the Offense while the unit around them settled into place. That still needs to happen. None of the three starters was able to establish and provide leadership by pulling in a couple of tough balls to get the group going. If someone had, that probably would have snapped the entire group out of their funk. Everyone talks about leadership, but there’s an example of how it could’ve been be provided and what difference it can make. Now more guys could get a longer look, and the one that plays with more urgency and intensity will emerge, at least initially, to lead the group.
The Offense must find something that works this week, and something they can build on. Hopefully they will test out as many options as possible rather than just sticking with what they’ve known and who they believe will do the least damage. The Defense is outstanding, and can afford to be stressed a bit against the next two opponents if it means getting some players’ feet wet who may be a better option in October and November. This is not the time to curl up into a shell and win playing small, it’s the time to get a full look at each card in the deck and open it up a bit.
Expected to dominate, the Snarlin’ Narduzzis did not disappoint. They wanted turnovers and not only snagged a few, they did so in explosive “Top Plays” fashion. You wanted more? They scored a couple TDs to top it off. And perhaps best of all, it was a group effort with a lot of different Dawgs contributing effort to the pot.
Knowing it’s a 12-game season, don’t expect much of a let up from this unit. They know they can beat the next two opponents with less than their best effort, but how many can afford to let up with so much playing time at stake? If somebody slips up or loafs around for a play or two, they could be replaced in a second and may not find an easy return to the field.
Ohio St. Head Coach Urban Meyer told Spartan Nation earlier this week that every Coach would love “to be three deep at every position so every day at practice, those kids are going (at it).” You know you’ve got a great group when there’s such a fierce competition for playing time that there’s always a good kind of pressure around. “If there’s competition, there’s no complacency,” he summed up.
Don’t look for Kurtis Drummond to become complacent after he made such a big splash in the opener. Drummond’s most impressive moment was going up high in the air to outdo the most acrobatic interception in Spartan Stadium history. Remember that mega-hyped ball Charles Woodson went up and grabbed on the sideline from 1997, it’s finally been surpassed. “He’s gotten better and better every game,” Dantonio said about the Red-Shirt Junior. “He’s a guy that can adjust very well, he’s got great ball skills, and is developing into a good tackler.”
Dantonio said that with experience and confidence, guys like Drummond are playing faster and faster, which is exactly what gives the Spartan Dawgs their Snarlin’ edge. Staying healthy for the long run is something to keep an eye on in these next two weeks, but look for the Spartans to keep pressing up front for a bigger pass rush. There’s a lot of work they can do to dial it up another notch in the next two weeks against two teams that would be a better matchup for each other than either will be for MSU. This unit cannot get to that rare “5th gear” without a serious pass rush and these two weeks are their chance to sharpen it up so they can let it fly against Notre Dame and then the Big Ten.
Kevin Muma looked solid in his kicking duties to open the season up, though one snap on an extra point was botched in the wet conditions. He’s hopefully on his way to becoming as dependable and as active Punter Mike Sadler has become. Make no mistake, however, we won’t see Muma under pressure until he’s kicking at Notre Dame Stadium. Fortunately his Kick Off experience in some of the biggest Spartan games of the past seasons should benefit him when he lines up for his first crucial Field Goals.
On the other hand, the Punt and Kick Return games continue to be a concern. Andre Sims looked okay at times, but also not good on a punt he picked up facing his own End Zone (almost always very dangerous), and another which was far too shaky for comfort. If we’re going to see another player or two get a shot to return game punts, you’d think it would happen in these next two weeks.
The same goes for the kick return slot, where Darien Harris is listed alongside Nick Hill. If the Spartans can get the Hill production of a couple years back, there won’t be much of a competition. Otherwise, you’d hope to see a few new faces out there returning kicks before settling on a starting pair for Notre Dame. The team dearly needs a boost from the return game.
Though pressure has quickly mounted, it cannot burst the seams of the 2013 Spartans season this soon. After just one week and so much left to be settled, this team is still a ways off from finding their identity. This program has been built to last, however, with a foundation that’s under no imminent threat. But if the Offense doesn’t get going fast, you’d worry that pressure will start to spill over into other areas of the team and potentially create the kind of inner turmoil that crippled seasons past. It’s up to the team leaders, Coaches and Players, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In tournament golf some players choose not to watch the scoreboard during a round, focusing instead on just playing their game and managing it to produce their best possible score. That’s the kind of approach MSU should take this weekend. If that means a 59-6 victory, so be it. And if that means something like a 30-10 victory, that’s got to be accepted too. The point is to play without letting the scoreboard overly influence what play is called or how well it’s executed. This game is all about how the Spartans play, not about USF.
At times during the Dantonio era it’s seemed like there was too much deference shown to the scoreboard. Because of that, Spartan Nation is now suffering from a lack of quality Quarterback development. Having pledged that won’t happen again, you’d have to expect to see at least Tyler O’Connor get in for real reps, not just handing it off to a back headed for the center of the line. The Spartans Offensive deficiency is so severe right now that they need to play out every snap just to identify who should be playing the primary roles. Once that’s revealed, they’ll need the rest between now and South Bend to refine their work. Cruise control isn’t a really good option right now.
Finally, a note from this week’s Nick Saban Show? Yup, that guy, and it relates directly to the 2013 Spartans. Filmed immediately after the Tide waltzed past Virginia Tech last Saturday, it was interesting because every word Saban spoke was selected with a precise purpose, probably shot in one take. As he goes for a third straight National Title, Saban made a special point to express just how important it was that the Alabama fans who came to Atlanta for the opener supported the new 2013 team as they worked to find their team identity, because the 2012 team was long gone. If that kind of support is needed as Alabama chases a third straight BCS title, it’s got to be needed just as much or more right now at MSU.
Asked Coach D about Saban’s statements, Coach D reminded Spartan Nation of the first few minutes of his introductory Press Conference. “As I said on the first day that I got this job, we all have to go in the same direction.” Though he understands the emotions and frustrations of the fans, he looked for the Spartan Nation to remain vigilant and stay the course, then concluded “the bottom line is at the end of the game, are we winning?”
2013 is only one game old and this Spartan team will continue to chase their identity, but at least they have a blueprint for who they want to become. Dantonio told Spartan Nation he hopes the 2013 identity will be consistent with past years featuring great effort, great toughness, and a team that won’t flinch under pressure. If you don’t establish an identity as a College Football team, your record and results will end up defining one for you, and usually not the one that you’d like.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Spartan Football All-Access is back, but again features a Narrator (the position, not the individual) that hurts the show more than he helps it. A couple years ago, All-Access was unique and innovative because it featured no host or narration, just natural sound and interviews. Now the show is more run of the mill and has lost its luster, though still bringing you premium stuff from inside the program like a portion of Max Bullough’s Senior speech.
- Labor Day weekend is a showcase weekend for College Football that should be maximized a little bit more. The Bowl Season now stretches from sometime after Thanksgiving until just about Valentine’s Day, and thus has lost a part of its magic. The Thursday to Labor Day night window is tight, but with plenty of time for a enough of a build up to high profile openers.
- The Georgia Bulldogs don’t like their neighboring state of South Carolina right now. Last year they hit a buzz saw in Columbia, this year their National Title hopes were practically crushed by Clemson in the opening week thriller, and now their backs are all the way up against the wall with a rested South Carolina coming to Athens this Saturday. Those of us that saw 5 possible losses for UGA before this season may not seem too crazy after Saturday. The Dawgs, fair or not, are the current lead candidate to become the USC or MSU of 2013.