Coming off a bitter 17-13 loss at Notre Dame and subsequent Bye Week, the Spartans travel to Iowa City to open Big Ten play against the Hawkeyes at high noon this Saturday.
It’s clear that eyes are on the Offense as league play begins. Jobs are on the line for both players and Coaches, but there were a few seeds of progress nestled in the loss at Notre Dame despite the 1st Half production and ridiculous final drive Quarterback substitution. If those good seeds can actually sprout, the Spartans will finally create an explosive play (they’ve yet to have a single gain over 40 yards) and can complete the kind of bounce back 2013 many envisioned before the year began. But if those seeds ultimately blow away, so too will the Spartans Offense that we’ve come to know.
The Spartans won the battle up front for the first time in a couple of years against the Irish. “We controlled the line of scrimmage, which was a positive,” Mark Dantonio told us earlier this week. “That’s where’s it’s got to start, but it has to end down the field scoring in the Red Zone.” With one of the least productive Offenses in the country through September, that entire statement reads as the truth. The first part of it (about the line play) seems to provide the best slice of optimism after a horrendous start for this unit.
The Offensive Line has mostly been a mess since Fou Fonoti went down two days before the Notre Dame game last year, and other starters like Travis Jackson later followed suit. But now all of the pieces to the playing group seem to be back in place again for the first time in more than a year. Their first effort back together produced a better and more meaningful push up front than we’ve seen in quite a while. Now that MSU’s best “big uglies” are healthy, they actually have some experienced depth at a consistent talent level. That could mean a much better line performance as the season goes on, which is not necessarily the norm.
Nick Saban recently said that once your big guys get tired, they can’t really refresh themselves during that game. Now that this unit has 6 or 7 guys that can work in and out, they should be able to stay fresher deeper into Big Ten play and show some real progress for the first time in a couple of years. That progress should include the much needed “explosive plays” too. “Explosive plays I believe come with execution,” Dantonio said earlier this week. “When we have an opportunity, we need to convert.”
Connor Cook has settled in as the starting QB (at least for now) and raised his play substantially in the 2nd Half at Notre Dame. Coming from a guy who thought MSU should’ve replaced him early in that 3rd Quarter, take Cook’s strides during the 2nd Half as a sign that he’s making his way through the steep learning curve that most young QBs must experience. Perhaps the biggest boost up that curve could come from a stronger and productive running game.
Jeremy Langford has been around this program for over three years now, but as Coach Dantonio reminded us earlier this week, is still new to game action as a Running Back. “He played well against Notre Dame, in that environment, with a lot of cards on the table,” Dantonio explained. “He’s a big “home run” type threat type guy…we’ve got to get him in the second level…we’ve got to get him in the secondary. Against ND, Langford looked to make a conscious effort to run it more north-south when he could. He looked very different than the constantly juking Le’Veon Bell we saw last year. That’s not a knock on Bell, but a reflection on where the blocking game was then and where it is hopefully heading now. We will begin to find out on Saturday whether Notre Dame was just a blip on the radar or the beginning of a serious progression in the ground game.
This unit had a really bad September that saw a returning Red-Shirt Senior Quarterback unseated, too many passes dropped, and simply too few points scored. The result was the 103rd ranked Total Offense in the country. No changes were made to the Coaching Staff though many felt they were needed, and no shift has been made to any Coach’s individual responsibilities as far as we know. Therefore it’s fair to speculate that we won’t see much of a change from here. Kirk Ferentz told Spartan Nation earlier this week that his Hawkeye’s aren’t looking out for anything different from past years. “I don’t think we’re expecting a “Run and Shoot” or an “Option” attack this week,” he began. “The things we’ve seen them do through the years, that’s what we can expect on Saturday.”
This unit has come to play in 2013 as everyone expected they would. Mark Dantonio stopped short of proclaiming them his best Defense at Michigan State so far, but didn’t exclude the possibility earlier this week. As usual, he’d rather look at those kinds of things after the season, but it’s safe to say this could develop into his best group.
The difference for these Spartan Dawgs has been their ability to turn over the opposing Offense more often. Against Notre Dame, as we know, they surprisingly had a few taken off the board by the Officials. But against a “big boy” level Offensive Line, they did lose a bit of their snarl in getting after the Quarterback relative to what we saw during the first three games of the year. The lines they’ll face this month should not be as good as Notre Dame’s, but look for Pat Narduzzi to dial up some new action to increase the pass rush heat back to the preferred level.
“They do what they do, we do what we do…you don’t come off that too much,” Dantonio reminded us earlier this week about facing a Kirk Ferentz Iowa squad. Iowa has lost 10 of its last 15 Big Ten games and should’ve been handled easily by the Spartans in East Lansing last year at MSU. This Defense may well be able to win this game on their own, but shouldn’t take that mindset into Iowa City because they will end up trying to do too much and potentially sacrifice their fundamentals enough to give up a big play that could derail the entire day’s work.
These Dawgs don’t need to do all that against a young Quarterback who’s never seen the kind of speed and sting the Spartans will bring. They simply need to play their game, put a little more emphasis on affecting the Quarterback, and let the rest take care of itself.
Notre Dame was “next man up” day for this unit as changes blew through the kicking and return game. As we’ve discussed so far this year, they were needed. Kevin Muma was on an understandably short leash as the Place Kicker in large part because of the outstanding youth behind him. After missing left with a flat “duck hook” early last Saturday, Dantonio took the Red-Shirt off Mike Geiger and did not do so for just a few Quarters in Notre Dame Stadium. Look for Geiger to get his “leg wet” with a half dozen or so kicks this month to hopefully prepare for an exciting November run.
Those who read this Outlook know there’s been concern about the Punt and Kick Return games since week one. Apparently the Coaching Staff saw it as well, and replaced A.J. Sims during the game in South Bend. Now the Spartans head to Iowa City with Macgarrett Kings angling to play both return roles as we once saw Devin Thomas perform in ’07. If the Spartans can get anywhere near the performance of Thomas that year, it would be a huge upgrade and difference maker for this team.
Overall this unit has under-performed and missed too many opportunities for the status quo to have continued beyond the Bye Week. So changes have been made across the unit’s depth chart and opportunities will be given to other players to flourish. It’s pretty clear that those who make plays will get chances and those who do not will soon yield to the “next man up,” because talent is not in short supply.
No Spartan performance last year was more disappointing than the loss to Iowa. In the flattest performance under Mark Dantonio, MSU turned what should’ve been a one sided victory into a barely watchable mudder that went to Overtime and then saw the Spartans lose to the lowly Hawkeyes 19-16. As we discussed at that time, it never should’ve been close to a game of inches, nowhere near it. To provide perspective, Iowa beat only Northern Illinois (by 1 in the opener), Northern Iowa, and Minnesota along with MSU to complete their bad 4-8 record. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can later recognize it. That performance established this program’s new low point of comparison, giving us the term “Iowa Flat” to apply in the future.
The last time the Spartans traveled to Iowa City it served up a tasty bit of redemption as MSU pulled away from a very average Iowa team 37-21, avenging a season changing loss from the year before. Many believe this meeting will be another of the very sluggish variety based on what we’ve seen from these two teams so far. Yet, Iowa has averaged more than 30 points per game so far (consider the opponents) with a low total of only 23. No doubt the Spartans’ Defense will come at the Hawks a couple clicks quicker than they’ve yet seen, but this may not be the complete slog that many are planning on.
Things have been rough and choppy in Iowa City over the past few years. Iowa is again just 5-10 in their last 15 Big Ten games. Adversity and some bizarre happenings knocked the program off track in the past couple of season, but they may have bottomed out late last year and now are on their way back to being the Iowa we’ve come to know. Relative to last year, the Hawks’ Red Zone and 3rd Down Defense are exponentially better than they were. On the other side of the ball Kirk Ferentz has a Red-Shirt Sophomore QB (Jake Rudock) from a decorated High School program in South Florida that looks like the answer they’ve needed since Ricky Stanzi moved onto the NFL. “You just never know until you get in games,” Ferentz told us earlier this week when describing how pleased Iowa is with Rudock’s poise under Center. The Big Ten is a better conference when Iowa is factor, and we’ll find out Saturday if the Hawks are truly headed in that direction once again.
Mark Dantonio might even admit he’s facing an Iowa team that’s better than expected to this point. He knows the Spartans cannot repeat the brutal “Iowa Flat” performance of 2012, and has a plan to avoid it. “We’ll do some different things in the morning to make sure that when we do hit (game time), we’ll be ready to go.” The bottom line is clear to Dantonio, and his team needs to set the tone for the Conference season by delivering right out of the gate. “You’ve gotta have your motor running, you’ve gotta have your attitude right.”
The Spartans were the better team against Notre Dame two weeks ago and need to build off of that during the first minutes on Saturday. It’s never going to be easy to win at Iowa City, and with a team struggling so much on Offense there’s an even greater importance to get off to a good start for MSU. It would be a stretch to think the Spartans wheels will fall off here in 2013, but if they’re going to really lose a grip, it will probably start in Iowa City with a bad performance and bad looking loss. It’s up to the team as a whole to make sure that doesn’t happen. If they take Iowa a bit for granted as they appeared to in 2012, it could get very ugly and be an incredibly long trip back to East Lansing. As Coach D summed up best, “you have to match that toughness when you come in (to Iowa City)…otherwise, bad things happen.” The best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to get a jump on Iowa and give this season the serious jolt of energy that’s needed as we approach mid-season play.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- Can you see Mark Dantonio having another year roster full of Quarterbacks that can all play at a BCS level? After the Nichol-Foles-Cousins equation and then this 2013 experience, it might make sense for both players and the Spartans to put a little more space between that kind of talent in coming seasons.
- Why did the NCAA even punish Penn St. to begin with? Is their brand that important to the bottom line financials of the NCAA? What punishment has the culture that allowed Sandusky to progress a predator actually received? Those were my initial reactions to the NCAA’s walk back from some of Penn St.’s punishment. I wonder what the victims think. Many of us think it’s only made a disgusting situation even more despicable.
- Is Scholarship reform on the horizon? What if scholarships covered each day of the week except game days, and on game days College Football players were paid just like any other University Student-Employee? After talking to a few Big Ten Head Coaches, perhaps there’s a solution along those lines that hasn’t been widely thought of before.
- No Big Ten rivalry is more over hyped than the Little Brown Jug. It’s not really overrated, just way over hyped. In the color TV era, what kind of competition has there actually been between Minnesota and Michigan? It gets unwarranted attention because the name is a catchy sounding jingle and the jug looks pretty cool, but it’s very far from a top shelf Trophy Game in the league.