Scouting Report and Prediction: #4 Michigan State (12-1 9-0) vs. #5 Stanford (11-2 7-2)
A look at this week’s opponent…
The mighty Cardinal of Stanford. You read that right, Cardinal not Cardinals. They are led by one of America’s best young coaches in David Shaw. They do things the right way and are nothing short of a complete class operation. Good people playing good football and doing it the right way.
This is a heavyweight matchup between to really good programs led by really fine men at the helm. There are so many storylines and angles that this is truly a real life soap opera. I can’t wait to get back to Michigan so I can turn on the DVR and just watch it for fun and not be covering it. This is what football is all about.
It was Cardinal Coach David Shaw who defended Mark Dantonio this week for suspending Bullough. He said, “Being a head coach it’s your responsibility, and actions like that as a head coach, honestly, even help you in your locker room because guys know where the line is and they know that nobody is bigger than the program. I applaud Coach Dantonio for that because it doesn’t happen everywhere, and there are a lot of places where you get a slap on the wrist and they bench you for a practice and then play you in the game.”
He went on to add, “But it’s a sign of who Coach Dantonio is, and there’s still some really, really good disciplinary coaches in this country that believe in setting discipline for these college athletes, which is vital to your success as a team but even more vital to their success after football.”
When MSU has the ball…
I have been known to say once in a blue moon, OK almost weekly, that football is simple. It is the beauty of football that makes it as pure as fresh snow and as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day. It is at its best when reduced to its simplest form and that is what MSU has to remember.
The Stanford defense is elite. They are going to load the box because they know what MSU wants to do with pound green pound. If MSU comes in conservative, like they have done at times this year, the game will be very slow moving.
MSU OC Dave Warner really did a super job in simple terms of breaking down the Cardinal D this week. He said, “I think what everybody says first off is this is going to be a physical game. Sort of a throw back game that’s won or lost in the trenches. That’s what I see from them defensively. I think they do a lot of things defensively. Gotta be ready for a lot of different fronts. One thing that pops out is when they hit, you see it. You see guys getting moved back. The linebackers are coming, they make the tackle, the running back’s moving backwards. When they’re engaged with an offensive lineman or tight end, they move those guys backwards. I think the physicality they bring is something that — we like to be a physical football team. We’ve got to brace up for these guys, because they’re going to bring the same thing.”
If the Spartans open up and attack the Cardinal I think MSU will get Stanford out of loading the box and be able to pound the ball like they want to. I could give you pages of analysis, but that isn’t necessary. Stanford will load the box. Does MSU move them out of it with a passing attack? Simple.
Connor Cook said of the Cardinal attack, “They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense. They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that, try and confuse you. They’re intelligent, they’re an experienced group and they catch onto things. Really as a defense from top to bottom they’re very stout with their front seven and the secondary. But they have a lot of experience, they have a lot of guys that started last year, so it’s an experienced group, it’s a smart group, so it’ll be a challenge top to bottom.”
So MSU will challenge them at the point of attack, but to score points and loosen up that defense MSU has to attack. Attacking isn’t just passing, it is a mentality. A mentality that says we are not the victim. You are and going right at them.
When MSU is on defense…
The Spartans defense is what it is. People will talk from here to eternity about the loss of Max Bullough, but not me. I love the Bullough family and feel the same about Max, but he isn’t playing and I won’t disrespect the other 104 Spartans by making this about him.
Kyler Elsworth is a great player and Darien Harris is as well. Both have had great weeks of practice and MSU can win with either young man. They both deserve to be on scholarship and both are great players. The scheme won’t change and the Spartans aren’t panicking.
I have watched the film of every Stanford game this year (some multiple times) and one thing that they will do is pull an offensive lineman on a PASS play just to confuse a defense. Most defenders look for a pull to signify a run. The Spartans need to read their keys closely to not allow this trickeration to fool them. On a side note I like that strategy and would like to see MSU instill some of that.
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan watched film of the Spartans and he was impressed. “When you look at them on film, they’re a very experienced group. They do what they do very well. They’re coached very well, and that’s a huge problem because they don’t try and do a lot of things differently, they don’t try and get out of their game, get out of their game plan. They’re just very solid, very stout, and it presents a lot of challenges for offenses.”
That is what MSU does. DC Pat Narduzzi does such a great job of hiding and confusing teams. It isn’t that MSU runs an elusive or difficult scheme because they don’t. What they do well is hiding what is coming. It is a high stakes game of cat and mouse and trying to figure out what the mad genius has up his sleeve.
Stanford OC Mike Bloomgren said it best when asked to describe Narduzzi’s D this week. He characterized it like this. “They do such a great job making everything look the same. You think you’re just going against a vanilla college 4-3 and then, boom, on the snap, you get this crossed off and this guy coming off the edge and one thing I’m not sure he gets enough credit for is what he does on 3rd down. They put people behind the sticks on 1st and 2nd down and 3rd down they swing in from vines. It’s unbelievable how many different pressures they have. They do a super job coaching these guys, and their players play incredibly hard.”
Just like the MSU offense has to force Stanford out of loading the box, the same is true for Stanford. MSU has had their success this season because of the No Fly Zone. Because their DBs are so good, they can stay in single coverage the entire game.
Here is a simple way to tell who is winning this game. If MSU remains in single coverage, as they have the entire year, the Spartans are winning or the game is very close. If Stanford can’t get the Spartans out of single coverage their chances of winning, just like for MSU when they are on offense, go down significantly.
Here is a fun fact. Stanford loves to run a “Jumbo” offense. It is a simple set with eight or NINE offensive lineman. Not just as OL and TE either. They will put some of them in the backfield. It is football porn for those that love smash mouth football, and a lot is being made of it. To me it plays into the Spartans stop the run first mentality so when the Cardinal goes to that set, I look for MSU to do some creative things with their safeties.
Normally I talk about the rule of five. Still true, but this is two very good teams and I highly doubt either team can even come close to that in this game.
Prior to the Big Ten Championship game I mentioned an advantage for MSU because they have been there and MSU had not. I think that Stanford having been to four straight BCS games is a big deal as well.
I also think there is another intangible not getting a lot of play. Stanford had HIGHER expectations than this game. Frankly, they should have.
When MSU played a Georgia team in the Outback Bowl on January 2, 2012, the Bulldogs were a team thinking national title for the entire previous year. That Bulldog team was ONE play away from being in a national title game and didn’t make it. The Spartans won a triple overtime thriller. I think Georgia was a better team, but the emotion of being in a game they didn’t want to be in hurt them.
Conversely on January 1 of 2011, an Alabama team that was the nation’s best, but had been slowed by injuries, came in on a mission to show the world they were number one and beat up the Spartans. Manhandled them. The Crimson Tide did things to MSU that only happen in Maximum Security Prisons and don’t get talked about in public, let alone on national TV.
So how does the underachievement of Stanford play in this game?
Well, first you see a lack of excitement from the Stanford fans. You see that the Spartans own Southern California this week. They are everywhere. You can’t go anywhere and not see a sea of green and white and spontaneous crowd eruptions from the beach to the museums of “Go Green Go White.”
The Spartans will run out onto that field and it will look and sound like a home game. Those fans will be through the roof with emotion and energy when a very good Stanford team has success. The emotional impact on the Spartans on the field cannot be put into words.
When Stanford has success, and they will, the Spartan crowd should be the single biggest intangible in this game.
To me, Dantonio summed this game up best. “I believe it’s going to come down to the execution of what we do, the blocking, the tackling, the catching the football, all the little things that really make the game of football what it is. There’s a lot of things conceptually that you deal with, but at the same time the elements of football remain unchanged. It’ll be who does those things the best, especially in this football game because we are similar in a lot of respects. We put an emphasis on the very basics of the game.”
I love the Stanford squad. Not just how they play, but the way they play and do things. I also think Mark Dantonio has done a great job of making this a business trip. Stanford will have some success, but the MSU crowd makes this into a home game and Connor Cook will hoist an MVP trophy while Darqueze Dennard holds the Rose Bowl trophy. Make it 17-14 MSU wins!