Coming off a 21-6 win over South Florida, the Spartans welcome Youngstown St. to Spartan Stadium at 2:00 this Saturday.
The passing performance Saturday was among the worst in school history. If you can remember one that was as bad as the 12 for 24, 94 yard performance, we feel for you. While you could’ve expected some choppy waters with the decision to start Connor Cook and play Tyler O’Connor (even for just a smidge) and Andrew Maxwell, that doesn’t explain or excuse the performance entirely. “We need to find a rhythm as an offense…whether that’s conceptually, whether that’s execution wise, or specific to personnel,” Mark Dantonio told Spartan Nation earlier this week.
The Offense didn’t look like they had an entire Spring Ball and Fall Camp under them, they looked like it was “Day 1” of learning the passing game. But Coach D said that’s not because of any issues amongst the unit’s staff. “(There’s a) good working relationship amongst our offensive staff,” he confirmed, and added that the Co-Coordinator setup hasn’t been an issue. Dave Warner calls the plays, and though it may look confusing when you see both Coordinators up in the Coaches Box, “Coach Bollman serves as a consultant between series, and is very much involved in the running game throughout the course of the week,” Dantonio explained.
The Coaches looked unsure of which Quarterback to send out there after starting Cook and giving O’Connor a series. And in the 2nd Half, the rotation got pretty puzzling. They need a better plan for YSU than they had last Saturday. It’s not time to force a final decision on a starter or even set a true QB rotation, but they need to show a stronger purpose in deciding who is going to get a shot at jumpstarting the nearly flat-lined Offense.
Connor Cook started the game and looked good in spots, but somewhat unstable overall. He calmed a bit deeper into the 3rd Quarter after surprisingly coming back in when the Spartans were only up one possession. Though Cook has a big arm, he doesn’t yet look to have the field sense or more importantly the ball protection sense this team needs right now. Cook looks the most turnover prone and most dangerous of the two other QBs we’ve seen at this point.
Tyler O’Connor looked to have the most juice of the bunch, though he did try to thread one through three opposing jerseys in the End Zone before Kevin Muma misaligned a 25-yard Field Goal try. The Offense looked best under O’Connor’s short leadership, but it was far too short a sample to make any kind of conclusion. It sounds like Coach D pulled O’Connor for that ill fated passing attempt and perhaps a couple of bad pre-snap reads. Whatever the reason, we saw far too little of what looked like could be this Offense’s best bet at the position. The Spartans need to see more of him this Saturday than any of the other Quarterbacks.
As the 2nd Half wore on it was a surprise that O’Connor didn’t return to take snaps, especially when the Offense the other Quarterbacks ran looked to be the one that would fit O’Connor best. For the Spartan Coaches to go with Cook when only up one possession, after he had already turned the ball over and nearly turned it over a couple other times, didn’t necessarily add up. It would’ve made more sense to ride Maxwell out the entire 2nd Half than to play Cook, and arguably more sense to try O’Connor again because of the great Defense the Spartans can rely on.
The issues across the Quarterback landscape could be more mental overall than physical at this point. Each of the three we’ve seen take snaps so far has the physical tools to lead a competent Offense, but none have showed enough spark or just plain taken the reigns yet on this thing. Aside from the QBs, you have to take a realistic look at the talent up front. If you’re not running the ball very well and not passing it well either, you really don’t have a good Offensive Line. There are signs of improvement, however, but still massive strides to go between now and the big-boy games if this line is to play at even an average Big Ten level.
The Running Backs we’ve seen have looked okay, but they don’t appear to have the explosive gear Edwin Baker once carried or the special physical ability of Le’Veon Bell. That’s not a knock of the current group, those two were truly special and one may make a significant impact at the next level. But based on who we’ve seen thus far and presuming they’re better players right now than any of the reserves, there is no top flight back in this lineup. So without great Running Back talent and really without great proven talent anywhere on the Offensive side of the ball, the Spartans have the 111th ranked Total Offense in the country. That’s where this unit is right now. It’s possible they could make strides of improvement from here, but the start against two weaker opponents has been among the most alarming on-field developments in the Mark Dantonio era.
With the snarl and scream of a classic Gibson SG guitar, the Spartan Dawgs have torn through the first two games of 2013 like a Championship Defense. This week it’s time to stay healthy, keep sharp, and work in as many young guys as the 60 minutes will allow. By now the entire world of College Football, and assuredly every NFL Scout, knows Shilique Calhoun. The Red-Shirt Sophomore from New Jersey has exploded in a way somewhat reminiscent of the “Sack Daddy” Jonal Saint-Dic in Dantonio’s first year. Saint-Dic came out of literally nowhere to the national scene by racking up a lot of sacks really fast. For Calhoun, his early splash came by scoring Touchdowns and running with the ball better than your average Tailback. Once the public realizes his first name isn’t Shaq, unless that nick name somehow sticks, hopefully Calhoun will get tagged with something good.
For those around the program who claimed the Spartans wouldn’t miss a beat with Calhoun replacing Will Gholston this year, you were correct. And for the observers that said Calhoun’s burst off the line was superior to the highest ranked recruit of the Dantonio era, it looks as if you were correct yet again. Calhoun has a long way to go to become great, and needs at least another full season in East Lansing if he wants to be a highly drafted Defensive End, but at this point you can confidently say it look like this a guy who will play at the next level.
“Were always looking for guys that our extremely athletic,” Dantonio recalled about recruiting Calhoun. Back then, he was far too light to even line up at Defensive End, but as part of an “an outstanding class to Red Shirt,” according to Dantonio, Calhoun met Ken Mannie and bulked up the right way, over time, and is now in position to be an impact player off the edge.
The Spartans saw a “slippery guy that could accelerate, could get off blocks” when they recruited Calhoun, but knew he had to get much stronger to do anything at a major college level. “They (Defensive Recruits) have to fit our scheme and our way of doing things if they’re going to be great players in our system,” Dantonio laid out. If Calhoun can handle a bit of early success and keep developing his technique as an End, he could fit a lot of NFL systems too in a few years.
Calhoun’s emergence has brought the Defense to a higher level, and he’s done so by being in the right place at the right time, disrupting entire Offensive game plans, and surprisingly running away from opposing skill position players after fumble recoveries. Maybe this guy can line up at Fullback and hammer out a hole on the Goal Line, or just carry the all and would be tacklers into the End Zone with him. He’s that athletic, and with a big performance next weekend at Notre Dame, could become the top national interest in the 2013 Spartans.
Kevin Muma’s missed chip shot Field Goal was a bit alarming, but simple to make sense of because it looked like he just lined it up to the left and missed it to the left. That doesn’t excuse the miss, but does provide an explanation, which is better than the alternative. When you can’t understand what happened in a miss or if an issue is all mental, then you’ve got the kind of kicking issues (or putting if you’re a golfer) that can make a real difference in your final win-loss record.
Until proven otherwise, count me in the column that’s not sold on the Punt Return game. That’s an area that can make a difference given the performance of the Spartan Dawg Defense. They’re going to remain very active all year. The concern is growing because it looks like the staff doesn’t have anyone to push A.J. Sims, and-or that he’s far better than any other option they have. That’s not a very good scenario right now. The lack of a better and more stable option returning punts won’t help the Spartans transition into Notre Dame and league play unless Sims really steps up a notch.
Nick Hill has led the Kick Return unit, but how many reps can a kick returner get when the other team is only scoring a couple times a game, with no difference expected hosting Youngstown St. It may not be until October that we have a real feeling about the kick returns, though Hill has looked better than he did last year and appears to be gaining confidence in his game while those around him on the Offense side of the ball appear more lost at sea.
Youngstown St. shouldn’t provide many “real” opportunities with the kind of pressure this unit will face over the next few months, but that in itself will serve as a mental test for the Spartan Special Teams. Any kind of mental error or overall let down would be a legitimate concern about the players’ maturity and preparedness for bigger games.
This team is much further from where most of us thought they would be at this point. They haven’t looked close to a legitimate 10-win team yet because of the dearth of offensive production. The Offense is so bad right now that the Spartans could probably (or may have to) scrap their philosophy, start fresh, and not experience any negative impact. The Defense is among the top 5 in the country and should stay there as long as they can stay healthy and mentally cope with the performance from the other units around them. Special Teams looks good kicking punts or off a kicking tee, but missing a little chip shot is cause for mild concern because scoring points is going to be at such a premium. Returning punts is not very stable right now, and I’d say a concern because we haven’t seen any other options tried out. The kick return slots are hard to judge since the opponents have only kicked it a few times so far. Nick Hill has looked better back there, but it’s simply too soon to judge. All in all, that’s what two weeks have told us thus far and it’s far from what anyone expected to see.
Youngstown St. again isn’t all about the final score, it’s about either a complete Offensive reboot or trying to eliminate as many mistakes as possible for the coming trip to ND. That’s going to call for some very tough and forward thinking decision from Mark Dantonio. If he chooses to do nothing different with the Offense, I don’t think we can expect much of a different result for the rest of the year. Make no mistake, he must be fuming that his Co-Coordinators have led an 111th ranked Total Offense that’s produced only 562 total yards after two mismatch home games. So now what?
It made sense that Andrew Maxwell was brought out to begin the 2nd Half Saturday and given another chance to either move the ball better or lead the Offense better. Having done neither, he was replaced by Connor Cook, which was again a surprising move. Going into YSU, it would seem to make sense to start Tyler O’Connor, giving each of the experienced QBs a chance to start a “pre-season” game. If we saw the most from Cook last weekend, the most from Maxwell in the opener, then we would need to see the most from O’Connor in the coming game to get a balanced look. I believe it’s critical to the season’s overall success.
If O’Connor looks good running either the regular Spartan playbook or hopefully one that’s a little more option based, you may see some life from the Spartan Offense. It looks too risky with Cook running it outside the tackles or going through passing progressions to just hand him the reins at this point. And though you could assume it may look a tad risky if O’Connor was back to pass that way too, we haven’t seen enough of him yet to know. In this scenario, knowing is more than “half the battle.” Hopefully we’ll see O’Connor working an option based attack more often in the 1st Half and this Offense can finally provide some respectable production.
If we don’t see that scenario, if we just see more of Cook or more of Maxwell once again, I’m not sure the Spartans will score 30 points against a Division 1 team all year. If the Offense doesn’t spur into action, MSU is basically a one-unit team that will have a very tough time with average or better opponents. Youngstown St. doesn’t play the game the same game as MSU since they’re a 1-AA program, but Notre Dame is already waiting to reveal the truth next Saturday in South Bend. Unless something changes dramatically for the Offense this Saturday, that truth could be quite inconvenient and painful.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- After Saturday night’s destruction at the hands of BYU, Mack Brown pulled a “Bielema” and fired Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz. If you recall after a less than Badger start last year, Bielema said “adios” to his Offensive Line Coach, and later hello to another Rose Bowl trip. As a comparison, Texas is 115th in Total Defense at this point. MSU is 111th in Total Offense. If the Spartans still rank in the triple digits after Notre Dame, might it be time for Dantonio to do the same? Would he really have much of a choice?
- History will talk more about Johnny Manziel than Texas A&M’s first two season in the SEC because the Aggies have been largely overrated (to be revealed in a little time) and the ESPN led media chose Manziel as a new talking point. We won’t find out whether Kevin Sumlin can really hang at the SEC level until he’s got to work with another Quarterback, one he actually discovered.
- NFL scheduling continues to drive viewers crazy. Why are so many games played at 1:00 eastern, last Sunday leaving only two that kicked in the late afternoon slot? If you want more people to come to games in person, and even watch on television, kick all of the day games off at 1:00 local time.