Coming off a 26-14 road win over Iowa, the Spartans welcome the Indiana Hoosiers to Spartan Stadium for Homecoming at Noon this Saturday.
The Offense started slow in Iowa City but made real progress again in the 2nd Half. Connor Cook looked more settled in, yet suffered from a mix of bad throws and drops during the first two Quarters. Enough so that it looked like MSU could’ve benefited by mixing in another Quarterback for at least a series or two, to shake things up. The Spartans fell behind 4-points at the Half after Iowa found a few gaps in the vaunted Spartan Defense, but the Offense flipped the script in the final 30 minutes.
The Offensive Line also struggled early to pick up where they left off at South Bend, but remained pretty consistent and got a better push in the 3rd and 4th Quarters that saw MSU score four times. Coming home for the next two weeks, look for the Offensive Line to get better and better before the Illinois trip. If they are going to lead the Offense towards a double digit win total, these two weeks are their opportunity to set themselves up for that kind of run.
Speaking of the run, we said hello to Freshmen Delton Williams during the 3rd Quarter, and expect to see a lot more of him from here. Williams has a bit of pop and power, a strong High School background, and really gives the unit three different types of Tailbacks (including Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill) to work with. Collectively they will only go as far as the blocking game can set them up for because it’s not reasonable to expect one of them to quickly transform into Walter Payton. Still, there is enough variety within the three to maximize any given game’s blocking efforts. Williams looks like he could develop into a powerful back with a rare agility to boot, though it’s awfully early in his young career.
Part of the Offensive Line’s back and forth performance Saturday could be credited to a few play calling blunders. The Line did not produce a good push on more than one stale 3rd Down play call, which is far from the player’s fault. This Offense is still a good bit away from being able to call the most predictable run in the playbook against a decent Defense and convert it. This is not Wisconsin. When the entire stadium and viewing audience know what you’re going to call, let alone the players other side of the ball, it’s not going to work without superior talent and execution. The Spartans don’t have that yet, so the Coaches need to figure out some other options like maybe lining up “five wide” and either immediately pitching it to an unguarded receiver or using Cook’s size to take advantage of the numbers up front to pick up the 1st Down.
While Cook is clearly the Quarterback right now, MSU should work Tyler O’Connor and or Andrew Maxwell into series by design during the 1st Half of these next two games. There’s expected to be another QB competition next fall and we saw the results of a failure to get potential starters enough meaningful work beforehand earlier this year. Therefore, a correction should be made this month for the long term future. And if MSU gets up more than three scores (24 points) in one of these next three weeks, reps should immediately go to another QB. (Yes, Spartan Nation has been saying this for more than a few years now, but not all of you read and remember every article)
While that may not be best for Connor Cook, can the program really afford to let another highly recruited QB remain unprepared to compete and play at a BCS level? As much as Maxwell had to (and continues to) sacrifice for past coaching failures, Cook should bite a bit of the bullet too for the best interests of the program. A big part of what Head Coaches are paid to do is make those kind of tough decisions and later deliver disappointing news to players. After all, the program is bigger than any single player, and MSU needs to badly break this cycle. Cook will still have plenty of opportunities to progress his game if other guys get a few series this month. If they see no time at all, it will put MSU in a position to repeat a similar Quarterback scenario again next Fall.
The overall performance against Iowa was dominant, holding the Hawkeyes to less rushing yards than Mike Sadler picked up on his own. “They’re good at every turn,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz summed up earlier this week. “(It) probably starts right there in the middle,” he added, before saying that Max Bullough reminded him of Percy Snow and a lineage of pretty good MIKE Linebackers from a couple decades ago. But it wasn’t all perfect for this unit. After a fantastic start the Defense looked to get a bit tired got tired towards the end of the 1st Half as Iowa got going. The Spartans missed a few opportunities to call a Time Out, however, to break up their building momentum. As we’ve discussed in the past five seasons, you can’t take Timeouts with you and should not hesitate to use them to cut off an Offense’s rhythm that is rapidly advancing.
Darqueze Dennard was a star before Saturday but started his final Big Ten season in style picking off two passes and then picking up Conference Player of the Week Honors too. Coach D told us he could tell early on that Dennard could have a fine playing career. “He responded as a starter when one of our guys went down (in 2010) and did an excellent job.” Dantonio said the increased his size and speed over Dennard’s career has helped to make him “a complete football player.”
Dennard first burst on the national scene by leading the Spartans comeback in the classic Outback Bowl win over his home state’s Georgia Bulldogs. If you recall, MSU was down and nearly out for good until Dennard picked off a couple passes, including taking one back for 6 that re-energized the entire team. But Dantonio stopped short of calling that performance a spring board to his development. “It was a big moment in his life because he’s from Georgia, (but) I really believe that he started showing signs of being an outstanding Corner for us earlier in that year (2011).”
Indiana Head Coach Kevin Wilson knows his high flying Hoosier Offense will have their work cut out for them this week. “Their kids know what they do, they do it very very well…they do it very very aggressively.” Wilson said this Defense is solid across the board, and believes the Spartans versatility adds to the challenge. “They can always be multiple.” Kirk Ferentz told us an important part of that versatility lies in the complete play of the Corners. “They’re not those NFL guys that just play Basketball out on the edges.”
Coming back to Spartan Stadium this unit hopes get a little more snarl up front and affect the Quarterback more often, but that won’t necessarily come easy against the high-tempo “spread” based Hoosier attack. They could play pretty well this weekend and still give up 25 points or so. Indiana is averaging 44 a game and just hung that number on Penn St. last week. The Defense’s job this week may be just to keep the Spartans by putting the team in position for one of the other two units to basically win it for them. This is not a game the Defense should be able to win on their own.
It became clear that MSU needed to shuffle this unit up and it looks like they got it right in Iowa City last week. “The thing we were looking for was overall consistency…I thought we got more of that on Saturday,” Dantonio said. As we’ve discussed before, this unit can be a major difference maker as the Offense tries to find a higher gear and the Defense keeps games winnable. Mike Geiger would’ve been perfect on the day had a wind gust not pushed his first attempt dead right, but bounced back well to make three Field Goals in the 2nd Half. Now that his role is settled as the Place Kicker, the kicking game looks strong on all fronts.
Mike Sadler worked too often early on, but again did very well building an All Conference resume before Mark Dantonio “done did it again” with the Fake Punt call of “Hey Diddle, Diddle…” The Spartans had a scenario in mind to run a slice of trickeration and since it looked like a good bet that the Hawks would set up a Punt Return on the first play of the 4th Quarter, they made the call. It worked for 25-yards, which proved to be enough to set up Geiger’s first big kick, a 49-yarder to give them more than a one-score lead (23-14).
The kickoff return game looked much better with True-Freshmen R.J. Shelton quickly threatening to break a big one, and Macgarrett Kings looks to be getting more comfortable returning punts on each attempt, making a better effort to identify open space and get straight through it. Both return games look vastly improved and in position to make a needed impact on field position moving forward. “They’re exciting to watch…wait for those guys to breakout,” Dantonio warned us.
Change was needed in this unit, and new opportunities were taken advantage of coming off the bye week. Players’ new roles that have emerged should become solidified during these two upcoming home games, and ultimately make a identifiable difference to the Spartans record over the rest of the year.
The Spartans 1st Half at Iowa wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t the dreaded “Iowa Flat” we saw last year. It featured a handful of drops, simple passes thrown off target, and worse the kind of penalties that lead you to believe this team is not yet as mature a team as we thought they’d be after a tough 2012. That’s not a criticism as much as it is an evaluation thus far, with many games still to play. But after falling behind 14-10 at the Half, MSU grew up some in the locker room and owned the final 30-minutes 16-0, hopefully giving this season the needed jump to make for the kind of bounce back campaign the entire Spartan Nation is looking for.
Now Indiana comes to town with two main sources of inspiration. First, they’re coming off the biggest win in the Kevin Wilson era, a sound 44-24 win over Penn State. Then there’s the score to settle with MSU after the Hoosiers blew a 27-17 lead after the 3rd Quarters in 2012, a game they owned for the 1st Half and probably should not have lost. “That’s last year’s game, this is a new year,” Kevin Wilson told Spartan Nation earlier this week. “We’ve not really talked at all about last year.” That’s really hard to believe from the outside looking in, so anyone expecting the Hoosiers to show up out manned and perpetually confused needs to consider those two factors before predicting a Green landslide. Indiana will present a unique set of challenges.
The Spartans can’t afford the type of Offensive false start we saw last week at Iowa City, which they should be able to avoid at home against a Defense giving up more than 450 yards per game. They have no choice but to produce points because Indiana can move the ball on Offense about as well as any Spartan opponent left this regular season. An Offensive drought would put excessive stress on the Defense and immediately place MSU in jeopardy of losing to Indiana in the type of fashion that would inspire the laziest of journalists to dust off the old version of the “SOS” tag and slap it around the newsprint come Saturday night. MSU must score Touchdowns and adjust well during the game if they’re struggling to move the ball for more than three straight drives. It’s time for the Offense to put it together for 60-minutes and adjust to what’s happening on the field.
If MSU can get a continued burst from the Special Teams and probably more than 28 points out of the slowly progressing Offense, they should have enough to hang another “W” and add another layer to a growing snowball of momentum. If they show up “Iowa Flat” or can’t move the ball for a Quarter or so, get your nails ready because you could be biting them down pretty far around 2:30 this Saturday, and frantically looking for something to save the 2013 Homecoming.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- It could get ugly in Champaign over the rest of the year, and if the Illini win just 1 or 2 out of their last 7 games, they should do whatever they can to try and replace their Head Coach with a guy who likes to wear a sweater vest on the sidelines. But we’re talking about Illinois, so don’t expect too much.
- The best overall game in Spartan Stadium I can think of was the 2011 thriller with Wisconsin. On the verge of being knocked out in the 1st Half, the Spartans battled back with a flurry of stadium rocking plays to get ahead by 14 with 8:03 to go, completing a 28 point in-game swing. Then Wisconsin clawed back to tie it late and we appeared headed for OT until the Spartans connected with “Rocket,” which I fortunately saw from the back of that End Zone. With NFL talent all over the field and such a fantastic finish, I can’t think of another game to top it.
- Do you think Tom Coughlin would like a mulligan for his decision to return for one more year with the New York Giants? Tough way to end it for one of the last “Old School” hard-nosed Coaches of his era, and another example of why if you’re unsure whether you should come back for one more year, you should err on the side of walking away too soon.