Final In Depth Recap of What Went Wrong: Spartans’ Stubbornness Cost Them Chance to Upset Alabama in Dallas

Publish date:
Mark Dantonio & Nick Saban at the final 2015 Cotton Bowl pre game press conference.  Photo courtesy of Rick Waugh.

Mark Dantonio & Nick Saban at the final 2015 Cotton Bowl pre game press conference. Photo courtesy of Rick Waugh.

Spartans’ Stubbornness Cost Them A Chance to Upset Alabama in Dallas

It is imperative when writing a critique article with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to put it in perspective. I have never backed off writing truth that was tough or glowing. It is far more enjoyable doing reflective articles after a Rose Bowl win than this one.

I took my time to be thorough and I will be. I also think it is critical to remember that the loss to Alabama, while unfortunate and frankly a failure by the Spartans, doesn’t change the success of the season or the great job Mark Dantonio and his staff have done. With that said, we dig in.

“Pride comes before the fall.” Dantonio uttered those prophetic words on November 5, 2007, after a 28-24 loss to the University of Michigan. Dantonio has a 7-1 record vs. the Wolverines since that loss.

Sadly those five words can describe the Spartans’ 38-0 blowout loss to Alabama in the latest Cotton Bowl. That’s tough to write, but it is accurate.

Before we go farther, if you didn’t read my analysis five years ago after Alabama blew out Michigan State 49-7, I suggest you CLICK RIGHT HERE and read it now. So much that I wrote in that article is germane today, and I won’t repeat it. It is worth the read, though.

This loss shook Dantonio hard. I don’t mean it from a quitting or loss of confidence angle. Just listen to his own words. When asked if the loss was overwhelming, Dantonio responded, “I think -- I don't know, you know, from my perspective I felt a little out of sorts. I don't know if that's lack of composure, just out of sorts.”

So how did it happen?

First let’s start from the Alabama perspective. According to people I spoke with in the Alabama program, OC Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban knew their plan soon after the matchup with MSU was announced.

The above linked article contains my analysis after the Spartans lost to Saban and Alabama just five years ago. Saban had told me then that stopping MSU didn’t require adjustments from the Spartans because they are, “Stubborn.” (Go back and click to read!)

I asked Dantonio about taking time off after the Big Ten Championship game leading up to the Cotton Bowl game and making some adjustments. Did he prove Saban’s earlier statement to be true? You be the judge of his answer: “You can't change and be somebody we're not in 26 days.”

Alabama did. Well, at least they made adjustments that the Spartan offense never did.

According to people in the Alabama program Lane Kiffin went to work watching copious amounts of film after the Spartans were announced as the opponent of the Tide.

According to one member of the staff, “He really picked up on how Purdue was a team that two years in a row had given MSU more than they wanted. We felt like we had better personnel and if we utilized what Purdue had done well, with our talent, things could be good.”

Another person told me, “Even with Derrick Henry (Heisman Trophy Winner) we didn’t think anyone was going to line up against MSU and just run the ball down their mouth. We couldn’t in scrimmaging our defense and MSU had the best defensive front that we were going to face separate from our own practice. We felt confident MSU would sell out with concern for Henry, and we could capitalize.” They did.

Stats from the game tell the story. Alabama ran 35 times and passed 25, but only passed twice in the 4th quarter when Saban had called off the dogs. So while Alabama had the Heisman Trophy winner in Henry, arguably the best player in college football, they were content knowing that to beat MSU they had to do it through the air.

Saban admitted as much. He said afterward, “I think that the way they play when you catch them in a certain coverage which we had caught them in before, and their safeties ended up having to cover a guy in the slot… you know, we had one open before. And I just said we're going to go back to that and make their safeties cover our guys in the slot. So the next time we did it, that's when we made a big play. And I think that was a momentum swing, and we also hit it several more times in the game.”

Alabama QB, Jake Coker, addressed he changes that Tide OC Lane Kiffin made against MSU, adding, “We have a lot of respect for Michigan State's defense. And they played a hard physical game. And we just got a lot of athletes on the outside. I think Coach [Lane] Kiffin called some plays and adapted throughout the game and ended up calling plays that were open. And we made plays. And Coach Kiffin, I think he did a great job and just happy he's on our side.”

I wouldn’t use the word surly, but you could tell when Dantonio was questioned about Kiffin attacking MSU on the perimeter and coming back to the slot, that it was ripping a Band-Aid off of a fresh wound.

He said, “We tracked everything imaginable, so he was in the slot 38 times during the season. Okay? So we knew exactly how many times he went into the slot, how many times they threw to him, and how many big plays were there with that. With that being said, we knew that when they drag the ball, or they play-action it to the Heisman Trophy winner who has 2000 yards rushing, you're in a "Catch 22" situation; you're in a little bit of a dilemma because you've got to get your backer into the box. But when he was in the slot, we had a game plan where we would go to specific different things, one of which was blitz 'em. They give us the middle of the field coverage, they give us the reroute on No. 2, on Ridley.” He went on, “But they started doing that more often than not initially in the game. Eight out of the first 16 plays -- they went to Ridley, or they -- no, they were quick screens. First three or four plays they put the ball in Ridley's hands. So they made us soft on the edges a little bit. We were just in situations where I felt like we were blitzing too much. We had to stop doing that because we were doing it too much, too often, at least that's my semblance of what it is. When I go back and research the whole game seven and a half times, a half, okay, he was in the slot during our games. Okay?” Dantonio continued, “So there's a lot to be said for the thinking on that. We thought that over and over and that was a big part of what we were going to have to do to be able to stop the explosive play from Alabama on the passing game to Ridley.”

Now don’t think this game was lost by the Spartan defense. It wasn’t. They were stellar. The Spartans lost on offense. How can I say that when the Spartans gave up 38 points?

The MSU D stymied the Crimson Tide. At the half they had only given up 10 points. And it was at the half that the game turned.

MSU was down 10-0 when they got the ball with 1:25 left on the clock in the first half. MSU finally did what Alabama DC Kirby Smart had feared. He was concerned that MSU would go up tempo.

Smart and Saban knew if the Spartans used their QB and receiving threats (especially including a TE attack) that they were vulnerable if MSU did it with a fast tempo. A young Tennessee team had almost upset them in Tuscaloosa by knowing they couldn’t run and attacking them both on the perimeter and down the field. Ole Miss had done that and they were the lone team to beat Bama.

When MSU went up-tempo with 1:25 left in the half, they marched right down the field 63 yards to the Tide 12 yard line. The Bama defense was on their heels and there was blood in the water as the hungry Spartan sharks were looking to eat.

With just under 20 seconds on the clock MSU QB Connor Cook threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted at the Bama one. One Spartan senior described the demeanor in the locker room: “I think the defense was pretty jacked up, but you could see on some, not all, but some of the offense…they were broken. That hurt.”

Heading to the other locker room was some worried Crimson Tide. They had feared MSU using an aerial attack on them with the best TE group they would face all year. The concern was that going deep with a highly talented receiving group and adding the Spartans excellent TE talent coming down the middle was a tough 1-2 punch.

Sources from the Tide program explained, “With MSU doing what they did at the end of the half, it was a poor pass that had stopped them, not us. We felt for sure they had found some motivation to attack. We knew we couldn’t beat MSU just running the ball down their throat. Their defensive line was way too talented. You had to do what Purdue did and use a passing attack. They hadn’t seen that as our area of weakness, but they did heading into the locker room we thought.”

That was not the case. In the Bama locker room at halftime, Saban implored his future national champions to put the Spartans away early. To be prepared for what MSU had just done at the end and to, “Knock them out,” quickly.

But Saban had his doubts as to whether the team and coaching staff he had called, “stubborn” just five years earlier would change course. He didn’t think they would move their attack to the air, despite the success. He was right; they didn’t.

I had asked MSU Co-OC and play caller Dave Warner just two days before the game about Saban calling the Spartans stubborn in the past for sticking to their run-first game plan even when it was clearly stopped. I asked Warner if that was a concern. His answer that day foreshadowed the MSU halftime adjustment.

“So we're going to be stubborn maybe again and try and keep running in there. But I think we've got a quarterback that can do some good things in the pass game as well. So we're going to try and establish a run, but we're going to try to be balanced, too. So that's always the trick. Trying to find that happy medium.”

He prophetically added, “Especially when you've got offensive linemen like this always saying, ‘Let's run the football. Let's run the football. Let's run the football,’ that's all I hear in the headsets from State (Mark Staten). These guys want to run the football.”

When I had asked Warner’s fellow OC Jim Bollman that same day about Saban’s “stubborn” comments he nearly reiterated his counterpart telling me, “Well, you've always heard me talk about the threat of balance, you know? I really believe that. In most games that we play, not only in a giant game like this, you have to be able to do both aspects of the game. I really think they help each other.”

Bollman went on to add, “You put it in perspective of if you're going to sit there and throw it all the time and those guys are going to rush every single time – putting it another way, you're going to run every single time, they're going to bring more guys in the box, this and that. So we have to keep doing things to counteract the other. That will be the approach as it always is.”

Stunning. Saban wasn’t being arrogant when he called MSU prior to their tilt just five years prior, he was answering a question honestly. Facing those comments the MSU offensive brain trust doubled down.

MSU proved Saban to be as brilliant as people claim, by not changing the plan. Alabama put their foot on the gas and the rest was history. The frustrating part is not losing, but losing when MSU had a good chance to win. A blow out inflicted even more pain.

Along with some other information in this story, I do not believe it has been previously reported that at least one, and Spartan Nation has reason to believe two, SEC coaches had talked with members of the Spartan staff on how to beat Alabama. Both coaches stressed that attacking Alabama was the way to beat them. Running was not going to be the way to do it. The staff ignored them.

One of those coaches said privately to a fellow Division One head coach counterpart, “Give me (Connor) Cook and those threats and I would have gone out slinging, why go out getting crushed? When MSU punted down 31 in the fourth I just turned it off. (I) don’t get going down with bullets still in your gun.”

I asked Dantonio why after the late interception by Cook the Spartans didn’t come out on the attack and stay with it. Alabama feared it and MSU avoided it. His answer was interesting.

“Well, I think we did that initially in the game and then we didn't go back to it basically because I told Coach Warner, ‘Hey, we need to slow it down a little bit,’ because at that time we weren't playing defensively well either. We went three times in the third quarter three and out, and when you flip it like that, if you're going -- and we went fast-paced in the third quarter one time, maybe twice, but we went three and out. That's only good if you're making plays.”
Dantonio continued, “So consequently, we needed to slow the game down and try and get ourselves back in the game and then have a drive and then move from there. That last touchdown I feel like it's on me. I sorta -- you know, that last touchdown, I feel like we should have went for it on 4th and one on the 20, and I lost my composure, so we didn't go in that direction. I thought we did some good things in the game, very competitive game in the first half, but you've got to play consistently throughout the game.” So let’s go back to immediately after the game. Dantonio said then, “As far as the football game, inability to run the football consistently obviously hurt us. First time all year that that's happened to us. When that happens, you get behind the chains, you're forced to throw. They pressure you. We're four out of 16 on third down. So bad things start to happen when those things – when things tilt that way.”

The Spartans were constantly set up for failure on third down because of the way they failed to call an attacking game plan. At halftime MSU had 13 rushes for NINE yards. NINE. But they had nine completions for 133 yards. Did you get that? Attacking Alabama MSU was averaging nearly 15 yards per play at 14.7 yards. Conversely they were averaging LESS THAN 1 yard per rushing attempt. Yes LESS than one yard .69 to be exact. What does that tell you? Stubborn. Saban called it.

Now we know that Cook claimed to be 100% with his shoulder, but he wasn’t. So that makes this more perplexing. If he wasn’t and MSU knew that they had to attack via the air then why not do one of two things. Either switch to a QB who could throw, or go back to the running attack led by Tyler O’Connor at Ohio State? Many people felt that MSU had already beaten a team that was better than Bama in the Buckeyes. MSU was able to make that adjustment in one week, but it couldn’t make these adjustments in 26 days?

So moving forward, what now?

Make no mistake that the MSU offensive brain trust (including Coach Dantonio) was out coached. If you are a fair person there is no way to get around that. But if you look at this team and program with the same objectivity, you still have to be a complete buyer on Coach Dantonio.

He is a man of great character, a terrific coach and an honorable man. He just signed his best recruiting class, and we have to remember how far MSU has come since that first devastating loss to Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.

Hopefully Dantonio and his staff learned from this tough lesson. The Spartans aren’t going anywhere. They are deep, talented and despite this loss and how it went down, they are well coached. Every one of us, in whatever field we work, has bad days. Most of us just don’t have them on that stage.

Dantonio said, “Pride comes before the fall.” The Spartans pride in their success in 2015 would not let them adjust. They didn’t listen to others, didn’t adjust and paid for it. Alabama learned from Purdue. MSU simply looked in the mirror. That was a crucial mistake.

We will soon learn if the Spartans brain trust learned from this loss. Based on past performance led by intuition, I say they will. I am as firm of a believer in Dantonio today as I ever have been. Now let’s turn the page to 2016 and put this game behind us.

This article is reprinted from Spartan Nation Magazine. If you are not a subscriber to the 100% monthly magazine you can do so WHEN YOU CLICK RIGHT HERE.