Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Central Michigan

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Coming off their 17-13 win over Boise St., the Spartans travel up US-127 to “Celebrate the State” against the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Offense

Boise St. was quite a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good (putting it lightly) was Le’Veon Bell. The Spartans’ Bell Cow practically bailed out the unit that struggled to pass protect, struggled with their timing, and clearly with ball security. Bell put up video game numbers behind a pretty good run blocking effort, but mostly featuring his outstanding athleticism. Bell’s experience and field vision are starting to catch up to his physical skill set, which could mean huge production, and even a run at a couple trophies down the road.

Bell made many of his 200+ yards in the open field. First he jumped over a Defensive Backs, later he went around would be tacklers, and then through a handful of Broncos before killing the clock near the Goal Line to end the game. As Coach D reminded Spartan Nation earlier this week, MSU will go with the hot hand in the backfield. That might not always be Bell, but it’s a safe bet he’ll get his chances to stay the Bell Cow back there.

Andrew Maxwell was the major headline coming into Friday night, given he’s waited so long and prepared so hard to take the reins of the Spartan Offense. Results were mixed, but the most important stat of his career (wins and losses) got off to a great start. A look at Boise St.’s record against BCS Conference opponents (6 straight before Friday night) should remind Spartan Nation that a “W” over BSU wasn’t already sitting in the bank.

When Maxwell’s passes started getting tipped in the air and then picked off by Bronco defenders, the game’s result hung in doubt. Maxwell looked mostly poised through the inconsistent results, and did battle through adversity. Some balls were thrown too far behind, some too far ahead, and one memorable one towards Bennie Fowler was too flat and too hard. No one was expecting a perfectly polished QB to come on in his first start, but they were expecting a prepared Andrew Maxwell. It appears in most respects they got one, and because of that, it would not be a surprise if Maxwell’s performance curve was a rather short one.

The Quarterback’s command of the Offense never wavered, nor did his confidence in the games most crucial moments. “He was calm and collected…he showed great leadership skills,” Coach Dantonio told Spartan Nation earlier this week after assessing the game tape. It’s hard to argue with that since he technically led a 4th Quarter come from behind win over a perennial National Power. “There’s no question that we can improve…but I like what I saw when I looked into his eyes,” Dantonio added about the demeanor Maxwell carried for all 60 minutes.

Maxwell’s stat line (22/38 248 yds. 3 INT) mirrored the ups and downs of the night Offensively. He needs to build on his bigger completions to Dion Sims and Bell, but could also use a more solid pass protection effort from the Offensive Line. It’s safe also to assume Maxwell and his Quarterback Coach saw many things on tape that he didn’t see before the snaps, which should leave fans much more encouraged about the future of the passing game than concerned.

As simple as the adage goes, a new Quarterback’s best friends are a good Offensive Line and a good running game. The running game looks really solid going into Mt. Pleasant, and Central Michigan is physical mismatch against MSU. Many different Spartans should get into the Offense and find opportunity to make plays and earn their place on the depth chart moving forward.

Defense

We knew they’d come out a hungry bunch of Dawgs. Punch another notch on the belt of the Defense under Narduzzi and Dantonio for keeping the BSU Offense out of the End Zone. The last time Boise St. didn’t score an offensive touchdown, Bill Clinton was the American President. I don’t know about you, but that seems a really long time ago.

The Dawgs came out swarming and snarlin’, but credit BSU for adjusting to keep their new Quarterback upright and settled in. This was not a repeat of the Tackle for Loss display seen in the Outback Bowl. Broncos’ Joe Southwick (QB) faced a tough task in his first start, and stayed under pressure though he never got too rattled from the Dawgs nipping at his ankles. The schemes and execution of the Broncos also kept MSU from completely shutting down the potent Bronco attack, though they did nearly blank the Bronco rushing attack. BSU Coach Chris Petersen told Spartan Nation after the game that the Spartans’ shut down of the running game essentially killed their Offense.

The Spartans kept the Broncos from the End Zone when they had chances to stretch a lead. Perhaps the Defensive stat of the game was that Boise St. got into the Red Zone three times, and scored twice for only 6 points. Coach D talked to Spartan Nation earlier this week about the Defense’s ability to adapt to the situations they were thrown into during the game.

“The (Defense showed an) ability to play after an interception, play in the Red Zone and limit them to a Field Goal…when the ball gets down to the 4-yard line, to play great Goal Line Defense.”

It was that situational play that kept MSU in a game they probably should’ve been further behind in. The fact that the Defense was charged with keeping MSU in a position to the win, and did so, bodes very well for some of the tougher matchups later in year. You can stay in a game with a great Defense, but only for so long with a great Offense.

Newcomer R.J. Williamson (RS-Fr. CB) showed the Secondary’s depth and talent by picking one of those deep drives off for a Touchback. When ball skills and athleticism meet, turnovers and highlight making plays usually result. Williamson’s pick was the first of what could be many from the highly touted Spartan back line.

Many different Spartan Dawgs should get work in against the Chips Saturday afternoon. That’s not to say that Central can’t compete at all with MSU, but that the Spartans are looking to sprinkle more experience in with their depth across the Defense. They want to be able to play fresh guys at most positions as the season wears on. I doubt Narduzzi and Dantonio want to be calling on the 5th or 6th Linebacker during the 3rd Quarter of Notre Dame or Ohio St., unsure of how he’ll handle the situation because he’s yet to play this year. It’s a sign of strength that the Dawgs run deep, and Saturday the unit will be no doubt looking to hang a bagel (0) in Mt. Pleasant on the Chips.

Special Teams

Dan Conroy came up big hitting a Field Goal from 50, but later missed badly from 43. If you were playing the kicking odds in Vegas, you probably would’ve bet the opposite result. But Conroy’s got something to build on from Friday night, and as we discussed last week, could be counted on early while Maxwell’s Offense develops. While Conroy shouldn’t be pivotal against CMU Saturday afternoon, it’s important that he stays active and builds confidence towards the national stage again next Saturday night against Notre Dame.

Mike Sadler was solid again, punting only twice but sticking BSU inside the 20 when he was asked to do so. The other punt featured perhaps a missed coverage assignment or two as the Bronco return was longer than it looked like it should have been. Against the better opponents, when games are expected to be close most of the way, field position becomes more important and Sadler will be counted on significantly. Just as Dantonio and staff can count on a stingy Defense to bring their game each night, they need to be able to count on Sadler to punt well enough to change the position of the field and put an Offense’s back against the wall to deal with the heat that the Defense can bring (think last October against Wisconsin in the 2nd Qtr).

Kevin Muma came up short on more Kickoffs than Spartan Nation might have expected. With the spot moved up 5 yards, many expected Muma to get the ball to the Goal Line or in the End Zone with relative ease this year. But that was not the case Friday night, and should be a concern for Dantonio if opponents end up with a good starting field position consistently because of it. It’s going to be tough to score on the Spartan Defense, so an emphasis must also be placed on Kickoffs and kick coverage. The last thing the Spartans want to do is help an Offense gain any ground against their most established and impressive unit.

Nick Hill picked up where he left off, notching an even 100 yards between 4 punt returns and 1 kick return. Hill still looks a threat to break one each time he gets a shot, and will probably do so eventually because he looks patient enough to let the play develop before he hits the gas pedal. Hill doesn’t look like he tries to force much action when it’s simply not there.

Overall

During the 2nd Half Friday, I sat in the Press Box and realized “if the Spartans can pull this one out, wow…that would actually be a pretty good sign.” The Offense was off, if not threatening a Spartan victory for much of the night. If not for the Le’Veon “bail out,” the Defense would’ve been even further up a tricky looking creek. But the first major storm of 2012 passed as the Defense rose to the challenge, Bell broke enough plays open, and Maxwell settled in to complete a few big time passes (ex. 3rd and 6 to Sims, at the BSU 25, down 13-10) down the stretch. It’s a big deal that the MSU Defense could keep them around long enough for the Offense to get going, get the lead, and secure 1-0.

MSU will learn lessons from the Friday night opener, no doubt. Some of them will be good, some of them a bit harder to take. The Offense didn’t look as far along, outside of Bell, as Spartan Nation would maybe like to believe. And the Offensive Line also looked more often like a concern than a place of total comfort. As Coach D said earlier in the week, all areas of the team have a lot to improve on this week (ex. penalties and turnovers). That’s a key, this week. You can’t put that improvement off a week if you expect to play for Championships in November and beyond. That puts Central in a really good spot on the MSU schedule. Look for MSU to take care of their business this week and get better than they were last Friday night.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Credit Mark Hollis and Mark Dantonio for creating the Spartans’ home opener on Friday night of Labor Day Weekend. They have created an opportunity for MSU to host the game of the feature opening weekend of College Football. Let’s hope the matchup with Boise St. sets the standard for what’s to come in future years.
  2. Friday night should’ve been a wakeup call to the Spartan Offensive Line. Joel Foreman is gone, and that group needs a new leader. Andrew Maxwell was on the run far too often Friday, against less than the New York Giants pass rush. The Offense will become more one dimensional and less effective if the OL doesn’t take ownership and a true Line leader of 2012 doesn’t emerge in these early games.
  3. The Spartans shut their Red Zone attack down during the final minutes of Boise St., content to win 17-13 rather than add unnecessary points to their margin of victory. Oklahoma St., on the other hand, decided to hang an extra 42 points on Savannah St. after they were already up 42-0. That’s right, the 18th ranked Cowpokes felt it necessary to stretch the final tally to 84-0! 49-0 at the Half wasn’t enough? Sadly, OSU will probably be rewarded more for their gluttony than MSU for credited for their respectful restraint. That’s a major flaw with College Football right now that needs to be first acknowledged, and then addressed.

* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum, and also @JPSpartan