Coming off a 14-0 win over Purdue, the Spartans (6-1) travel to Champaign to face the Fighting Illini (3-3) at 3:30 this Saturday.
The Offense was “Iowa Flat” and simply unproductive last Saturday. The biggest issue was the lack of production from the Quarterback position. Connor Cook struggled mightily for the first three Quarters, leaving many to wonder why a change wasn’t made in a 7-0 game to start the 4th. Cook was off all day, mostly missing high, and left analysts to question whether his throwing mechanics would become a long term issue. At the end of the 3rd, Cook had only 33-yards passing and should’ve been subbed out during the 2nd Quarter, at the latest, to wake up the stagnant Offense.
The fact that no change was made was rather shocking, and has many rethinking their own expectations for the rest of 2013. By not putting another Quarterback in to provide a boost of energy, the Offense continued to lay dormant and MSU basically admitted they didn’t have confidence in anyone else to move the ball against one of the worst Defenses in Division 1. That’s pretty hard to swallow since there was a close four-man QB competition earlier in the fall.
There were a few positives from the sluggish performance. Tony Lippett continued an improving Senior season by making a couple tough catches he didn’t make in years past, and completing MSU’s only Touchdown pass of the day on a well executed option play. MSU totaled 185 yards rushing on the day, 131 picked up by Jeremy Langford, who continues to develop his game carry by carry. The Offensive Line took a couple strides as well.
“All those guys are experienced with the exception of Jack Conklin,” Coach Dantonio said about the Line, “and he’s a Red-Shirt Freshmen that’s played very, very well.” For really the first time in the Dantonio era, the O-Line is choosing to play more than just a starting five. “I think we benefit from that, we have seven guys that we can really play in and out.”
Illinois can move the ball on Offense pretty well so the Spartan Offense will need to produce more than they did against Purdue. One Touchdown probably won’t cut it. Yet, after the performance last week (weather is no excuse at this level), I don’t think that’s something we can easily count on. In reality, the Offense scored only 7 points on the 107th ranked Defense in the nation last week. Overall, Purdue was one of the most discouraging Offensive performances of the Dantonio era. How this unit could come out that “Iowa Flat” again and not change the QB to try and shake things up at any point is very hard to make sense of when you step back from the Green Kool-Aid service table and assess the situation.
“We just didn’t complete passes,” Brad Salem summed up during the post game on-field Spartan Radio Network interview. We talked last week about Cook’s fundamental struggles with a combination of either foot work, grip, release, or some other mechanical element. He looked worse against Purdue than he has in the past, which is a growing concern because those issues haven yet been corrected as the easier part of the schedule comes to an end. Cook got the win, but may have been outplayed by Purdue’s True-Freshmen Danny Etling, who was going up against a top Defense in country. That could be more of an alarm than we’ve heard discussed since the game ended.
The Offense may not be as bad as it looked last Saturday, but also is not as good as it looked against the ole’ Indiana Defense. More truth will be revealed at Illinois because more stress will be placed on the Offense to produce more than one Touchdown. If the Offense looks anywhere “Iowa Flat” once again, lacking the necessary leadership and energy, the staff must make a QB change, even if only temporary, to break up the slog. Soon than later, it should be pointed out. It’s not time to worry a potential hit to any player’s confidence, that ship left town in September. It’s time be sure the team is given its best chance to win.
Illinois’ Defense is rather porous, giving up massive 454 yards per game, ranking 104th in the country. MSU’s Offense ranks 95th nationally and 106th in Passing Offense. Something’s gotta give, right? The answer may come at the point of attack, but MSU must do a better job of getting the ball in the hands of R.J. Shelton and other play makers. If it doesn’t, or if the Offense stalls out and does nothing to snap out of it, this unit could fall into another long term funk.
The program owes this unit for saving them from the most embarrassing loss of the Dantonio era. A loss to the 2013 Purdue team would’ve been worse than the “Iowa Flat” loss last year. It is hard to imagine there isn’t any tension building between one of the nation’s best Defenses and an Offense currently ranked 95th in the nation. It’s a credit to the overall chemistry within the program that there’s no evidence of internal strain. The Defense deserves great credit for dominating, scoring, and again covering for an inept Offensive performance.
This week the Defense faces a somewhat familiar opponent though they haven’t played Illinois since 2010. Bill Cubit was hired as Illinois’ Offensive Coordinator last summer after being let go as the Head Coach at Western Michigan, and not receiving any offers to stay in state. “I know Coach Cubit is excited,” Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman told us earlier this week. “We’re going to have to be able to mix and match (the run and pass).” Cubit orchestrates the 48th ranked Offense and should be in better shape to succeed against the Spartan Dawgs than if anyone else was calling their plays because of he knows the Spartan Defense. It’s still going to be the toughest challenge they’ll face all year, however, because the Spartan Dawgs are so effective at shutting down the run.
At times last Saturday they bent a little, Coach D said after the game, but never did they break. The early issues that popped up were fixed on the fly so they could not only shut the door completely, but also get back into the scoring column in explosive fashion. Thanks to a big hit by Max Bullough, Purdue’s Etling coughed it up and Denicos Allen was able to scoop and sprint 45-yards for the score. It was the big highlight of a relatively boring game, and helped Bullough pick up a Big Ten Player of the Week award. It will be tough to crack some of the Linebacker post-season honors Bullough is up for, but he’s building a fine resume by being a team player first.
Once again MSU held an opponent to less than 100 yards rushing. That doesn’t just happen automatically, and is an amazing standard this unit has established. Illinois’ QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a threat to run, and helps balance out the Illini rushing attack that’s averaged 158 yards per game to date. If MSU can once again stop the run, they’ll put themselves in position for another dominant performance. Illinois does average 35-points per game and is at home, so this team cannot assume the Defense will just win this one on their own too. Illinois is probably more comparable to Indiana, which means the Defense may give up more than two touchdowns and still play a decent game. The season is far from over but through seven games this group of Spartan Dawgs is in position to go down with the school’s all-time best.
Purdue was another odd week for Spartan Special Teams. It was not necessarily a bad performance, but they were unable to give the team a boost to break out of their “Iowa Flat” funk. Once again they had no Kick Return numbers because the only kick off was a touchback, and did not get to do much with just two punt returns.
The biggest play of this unit’s day was a 40-yard punt return against the Spartans by Purdue’s Frankie Williams. Williams was ultimately stopped by Mike “Money” Sadler, who was again far too busy on the day. Sadler punted 7 times, dropping 3 of them inside the 20 and adding the one tackle. 2013 has been a Punter’s dream as far as getting opportunities to punt, and even run a fake, so Sadler should be more than ready for the coming stretch run, hopefully with a good amount of leg left in the tank.
Coach D reminded us earlier this week that Illinois brings a unique look to Special Teams. “They create some problems for you, just by alignments and things of that nature, which takes time to work through.” We’ve talked all year about the difference Special Teams can make for this Spartan squad, which is maybe a little more magnified when playing on the road, as we saw in Iowa City. This week the kicking game should get more active and fully tune up for the November run.
“Iowa Flat” is a term that was established last year after the worst loss of the Dantonio era, mostly in hopes that we’d never need to use it again. It’s not what we’d like to say about last week, but that’s exactly what the Offense looked like overall against Purdue. They looked sleepy to begin with, played with little urgency, and looked to be interested in doing just enough to knock off the absolutely over matched Boilermakers.
On a day when a blow out was expected to regain MSU some national respect, they limped on to eventually close out the young and thin Purdue team. “We did what we had to do to win the football game, especially in the 4th Quarter,” Dantonio summed up. Many around the nation and Big Ten saw what they expected, a very poor Offensive performance but a win thanks to the outstanding MSU Defense. As a result, MSU stayed outside the top 25 though they are 6-1, should be 7-0, and probably are one of the top 25 teams in the nation.
Unfortunately, the Spartans performance reminded us that MSU is not yet a complete team. They looked far from it because the Offense only put up 7 points on such a low ranked Defense that’s given up more than 32 points per game on average. If you only play to the level of your competition, you will be in just about every game but will lose a few here and there that you shouldn’t. We saw a lot of those last year and after the Purdue performance it would not be that much of a surprise if it happened at Illinois. But relative to past Spartan experiences against Purdue, especially in the late 90s, MSU should take the win and run forward with it.
If players are having an “off day” as Cook did Saturday, it’s up to the Coaching Staff to quickly recognize it and do something about it. MSU didn’t do that, and was fortunate to survive it. Tempt that kind of fate again and the Spartans may needlessly wake up the ugly and tired “SOS” moniker. If Purdue had pulled the upset that was available to them last Saturday, that’s exactly what would’ve happened and you know there’s people out there just waiting to pull it back out again.
More leadership is also needed from the players. This team doesn’t look like they have enough leadership from their upper-classmen. That’s not necessarily to criticize those individuals, but to point out that there’s either not enough of them (numbers wise) or their voices haven’t gotten loud enough yet. What else could explain the “Iowa Flat” performance they gave last Saturday? It wasn’t the weather, noon start, or lighter stadium attendance.
Though no apologies are needed for winning, there are real concerns that most took from the Purdue performance. We can’t just run and hide from the facts because the Spartans survived a bad team. If the players decide to look ahead to next week (Michigan), it would not be an enormous surprise since they lacked inspiration against Purdue. That approach would set them up for a total face plant this Saturday, which they should already know.
Thanks to a softer October schedule MSU has built the momentum they should have since Notre Dame. Now it’s time to finish it off. Illinois is in the midst of what could be a serious free fall after finishing September 3-1. They will probably win just another game or two the rest of the year if things play out as expected. They were smoked at home last week by Wisconsin, and bashed the week before at Nebraska. If the Spartans want to be considered in the same league as those two teams, they should make pretty easy work of Illinois too. If MSU stalls badly again on Offense and stays too stubborn to try and snap out of it soon enough, they could be in serious danger of an embarrassing October surprise.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- When Mark Dantonio arrived back at MSU to revive this program, Spartan Football was lost. After Nick Saban left, it took 9 long years to get back to where he had it when he left for the Bayou. Dantonio got back to that level, and then beyond, by first building a sturdy foundation. Now his Spartans have qualified for a 7th straight Bowl Game. Most didn’t think that was possible when he arrived back on Day 1, so give an extra ounce of credit to the Head Coach a job well done.
- I’ve gladly already taken credit for the phrase “the Big Ten Conference…they hate us for our Network.” The day the Big Ten Network was established, suddenly millions of fans were living a dream. Granted, it was ugly trying to find the channel early on, but now look at us. Multiple football games per Saturday are the norm, almost all of them available nationally. Meanwhile, you really had to stretch your remote just to find a Top 25 SEC match-up (Florida-Missouri) last weekend. So the next time you try to make sense of the rabid Big Ten hatred that’s out there, remember that jealousy travels well through cable.
- After the sniffle of a punishment the NCAA just dished out to Miami (FL), why do they even bother anymore? The lack of additional punishment can only serve to inspire others to cheat more aggressively. We may be living in the golden age of major College Football cheating, yet following a league that’s known for staying out of that mess.