Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Michigan

Jonathan Schopp

Coming off the stunning 19-16 double Overtime loss to Iowa, the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines at 3:30 this Saturday for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

Offense

This unit looked decent at times considering the conditions, but did more to lose the Iowa game than any other unit. They left points on the field at both the start and end of the 2nd Quarter, and failed to score 3 points to keep the Overtime going beyond the second session.

Up 7-0 a few minutes into the 2nd Quarter, the Offensive play calling got alarmingly timid and tentative. After a 1st Down run to Le’Veon Bell for 3-yards, MSU stuck with Bell two more times unsuccessfully. 2nd Down looked like the best situation to go to the air, before the snap took place, but instead they ran it sluggishly and with Bell for a meager 2 yards. On 3rd Down the Spartans looked like they had already conceded to take the short Field Goal attempt, and again handed it to Bell who never had a real shot at another 1st Down. While the scoreboard read 10-0 after the 24-yarder, the 4 points and heavy chunk of momentum the Spartans left on the field stood out more.

What can you say about the Spartans final possession of the 1st Half that began with 1:15 left from their 8-yard line? It looked like they were content to run out the clock to the Half, but Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz called Timeout after a 1st and 2nd Down runs to preserve the clock. On the 3rd and 1, Bell took it for 9 yards. Then Maxwell found Aaron Burbridge for 20 to get to the MSU 46. All the sudden something was brewing.

The clock stops in College while the chains are moved, but for some reason MSU used an expensive Timeout of their own before that 1st Down snap. They should’ve been able to line up and spike the ball with only a few seconds lost, and even if it cost them 5 seconds, it still would’ve been better than using a Timeout. Maxwell then went to Keith Mumphrey for a mere 3 yards, after which MSU took its final Timeout. On 2nd Down from the 49, Maxwell went back to Mumphrey, this time for 19-yards and bringing MSU into a shot for about a 49 yard Field Goal with only a few seconds left.

Then things got confusing amidst the wind and rain. About half of the MSU kick team went on the field, some form the Offense appeared to stay. As the final seconds of the Half started to slip away, the Spartans had no Place Kicker on the field or a Quarterback to spike the ball. It was about as disorganized a sequence as we’ve seen under Mark Dantonio, from the start of that drive. It culminated with Le’Veon Bell and then Andrew Maxwell behind him scampering out on the field in hopes of getting a snap off with the final whistle blowing before the Spartans did anything.

MSU burnt their last Timeout and apparently had no clear plan from there. If they had a plan, it was executed incorrectly. The result of that drive was probably 3 less points for MSU. The lack of urgency, organization, and execution in that circumstance matched the dreary playing conditions of the day. It was another big chunk of Spartan momentum lost in a Half they could’ve conceivably shut the door on Iowa, but instead left the door open for a sluggish Iowa squad to recover.

With a solid Offense, MSU should’ve scored at least 7 more points during regulation play. The Offense isn’t solid right now, however. It’s pretty much a one trick pony (Le’Veon Bell) that can be shut down when it matters most because the Offensive Line isn’t strong enough. They cannot give Andrew Maxwell enough time to find a young (though improving) receiving corps, nor provide a strong enough push to produce anything more than the 6th best Big Ten running game (9th in rushing TDs).

It would be nice to see the reigns lifted off Maxwell a bit more, to see him room to roll out of the pocket, and to see him on a couple of designed runs. I don’t know that you can expect the pass protection to improve if the play book remains this constricted. Mark Dantonio confirmed to Spartan Nation earlier this week that the Play Book hasn’t yet been opened completely. “It’s a little bit limited due to some younger guys playing (and injury),” he explained, but added that the Offense would adapt as they progress. Now is the time to do so.

The Offensive Line looks to be limiting this unit the most right now, but many in Spartan Nation are also looking at the Offensive Coordinator and different position Coaches and wondering if they’re having an off year too. Iowa was supposed to produce a solid Offensive performance for MSU because the Hawkeyes are not a very good team and the Spartans were selling that their Rose goals were still out ahead of them. This unit has unfortunately cost those goals to wilt most, with little sign of hope the rest of the way. Dantonio told Spartan Nation simply that execution and the timing of play calls will be the key for any improvement moving forward.

Defense

They tried again, but they can’t do it all themselves. As good as the Spartan Dawgs are, they can’t beat many Big Ten teams practically on their own. So much is being asked of the Defense that they are now starting to tire in the stretch. When Iowa went 68 yards in 9 plays late to tie the game up, that had to ding the Spartan Dawgs’ spirit. It wasn’t the first time this year that they were beaten when asked to close a game out, which also has to gnaw at them.

On that final drive’s TD run, it looked like Denicos Allen was in position to stop the Hawks Mark Weisman well short of the Goal Line but was leg whipped by Iowa’s Drew Clark. Coach D was asked about it earlier this week, but didn’t want to focus on into just that play specifically. Yet, he did confirm that MSU sent tapes to the Big Ten of it. Somehow, the Official wasn’t in place to see the violation, which would’ve set Iowa back quite a bit in distance and the clock. Breaks like that and the quick whistle against Ohio St. can get into the psyche of the Defense and linger around if they’ll let it.

Iowa was the reemergence of Denicos Allen. After the early interception was tipped in the air and then grabbed by Allen, it looked like exactly what the Doctor ordered for this unit and this team to get going. Allen got free for the first time this year and made plays all over during his 13 tackle effort for the day. Allen will have to play at that kind of level if this Defense is going to be able to maintain or build on their solid play during the final 5 games.

Now the Spartans must go down to Ann Arbor to face what should be hungriest Offense they’ll encounter all year. We all know Michigan’s lost 4 straight to MSU, with most of them led by strong Defensive performances. Denard Robinson and company think they’ve finally got the MSU D figured out, and must believe they can tire them out if they can break a big play early. Look for the Spartans to stick to their proven game plan of containing Robinson, but don’t expect Michigan’s attack to much different than we saw last year. Brady Hoke told us earlier this week, “we kinda are who we are when you look at what we do Offensively.”

“They go as he (Robison) goes,” Coach D told Spartan Nation before pointing out that what makes Robinson so difficult to defend is his versatility and ability to “create when things go bad.” Limiting those loose plays will again be a key to a fifth straight “W.” If the Spartan Dawgs can lock down Shoelaces one more time, MSU should at least have a chance of extending the streak.

Special Teams

It’s hard to tell much when the weather is as poor as it was on Saturday. But overall through the first seven games, this unit hasn’t been very sharp. They’ve also been rather inconsistent. The Kickoffs have improved since the start of the year as Kevin Muma’s done a better job placing the ball, and coverage has held pretty steady. But outside of that, it’s hard to point to an area that is as strong as it was expected to be, or even and better than it looked early in the year.

This unit lost a chunk of its identity as Keshawn Martin took his all-time playmaking skills to the NFL, and they’ve yet to find a fitting replacement. Starting with Michigan, the Spartans need to become a more fundamentally tight team when it comes to both sides of the Punting game, and may look again to put different returners out there who may be able to break an explosive play.

We talked about expecting Dan Conroy to be counted on heavily as the Offense developed early in the year. Now it looks like their development may not come much further with the lineup and experience they have. That only makes it more likely that Conroy will be counted on moving forward to provide MSU with points that are needed to win games. At this point, they sorely need another win.

Overall

We haven’t seen the urgency or killer instinct expected out of a program that’s been so hungry for a trip to Pasadena and robbed of it in each of the last two seasons. We didn’t see it out of the gate against Boise St., nor at the end of that game when MSU left points off the board. Did that carry over to the lack of urgency shown in the 1st Half against Iowa? It’s hard to say, but the urgency level has looked pretty consistent during year.

All Saturday long the Spartans shot themselves in the foot and basically begged Iowa to take the game from them, and with that their realistic chances to compete for the Legends’ Division. Iowa could do very little most of the day, and even spotted the Spartans their best Offensive weapon in the Overtime. Still, the Hawkeyes ended up taking the game with another OT dagger. It was nowhere near a game that Iowa won as much as a game the Spartans brutally gave away. And perhaps just as discouraging, there didn’t seem to be the emotional edge the Spartans needed to save the game late, and likely their season’s high aspirations.

Iowa never should’ve been a “game of inches. It never should’ve been that close. MSU should’ve been up much more than just a Touchdown ahead late in the 4th Quarter. They probably should’ve been up 10-points. But the identity of the 2012 Spartans right now is a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” team that is very far from complete, and much further from being able to compete for championships than expected.

If this team can’t wake up for Michigan, when would you expect them to this year? It already looks like this team is doomed to look back at 2012 as the great opportunity lost. Saturday at Ann Arbor is realistically their very last shot to turn things around, and it won’t be an easy trip. Coach D told us earlier this week that it’s important for his Spartans to understand the tradition of this game and their relative place in its history, but also that it needs to be fun and not just serious enough to become overwhelming. That’s a delicate balance give the Spartans current state.

Michigan knows they’ve lost 4 straight to MSU and 2 in a row at Michigan Stadium. MSU has big problems in two of the three units. And you cannot beat a good team, let alone a starving one, with just a really good Defense. So unless some real answers suddenly appear to the serious questions facing the Spartans during the week, this Saturday could be a hard and sobering experience for Spartan Football. Right now, woulda-coulda-shoulda won’t come close to getting it done against a Michigan team that can make this Saturday anything but a game of inches.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Jerry Kill seems like a terrific guy and good Football Coach for Minnesota, but it looks like a Big Ten job may not be good for his health. It’s too bad because Kill’s identity is one that you could see working again for the Gophers after the inexplicably exploded their program by firing Glenn Mason after 2006. Let’s hope Kill figures it out fast.
  2. Starting Big Ten play earlier won't just increase excitement for fans, it will also help the league manage the National Polls later on. Think about it, when you’ve got a directional or purely cash transaction scheduled sometime in October or November, you’ve got a much better opportunity to look really good for pollsters and take some of the physical conference grind off of your ball club.

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

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