Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Wisconsin

Jonathan Schopp

Coming off the bitter 12-10 loss to Michigan, the Spartans travel across Lake Michigan to Madison for a 3:30 meeting with the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.

Offense

The Michigan game was there for the Offense to win. On a 1st and Goal from the 6 during the 4th Quarter, Andrew Maxwell executed a solid play fake and had Tight End Derek Hoebing open for a score that would’ve put MSU up more than just a Field Goal.  But Maxwell threw it too high and outside for Hoebing to reel in. The pass was broken up and the Spartans couldn’t sniff the Goal Line from there, sticking with Bell on 2nd and 3rd down, barely getting inside the 2-yard line. They had to settle for 3 points, and Michigan has still not given up a rushing Touchdown all year.

Later in the Quarter MSU had a second chance to close the game out again, but went “3 and Out” to leave opportunity for Michigan’s final dramatic drive. Outside of Boise St., the Offense hasn’t been able to win a game when they’ve had the chance. But after learning that another Offensive Lineman (Dan France) would be out for Michigan, did you really expect much more from them?

The Offensive Line is the story of this unit, if not the story of the entire 2012 season. We’ll forever look back at 2012 and wonder “what if Fou Fonoti didn’t get hurt two days before Notre Dame,” and on and on. But perhaps there’s a speck of silver in the dark cloud that’s formed over this group and spoiled the season most. Donavon Clark is a sign of a better future. The Red-Shirt Freshman started for France, and serves as an example of how the best talent years under Mark Dantonio may actually be coming towards the middle of the decade.

Yes, it is possible we may see a better group than the one that included Cousins, Martin, Cunningham, and the lot. It’s not guaranteed, but possible because of the recruiting and Red Shirt classes Dantonio has successfully stacked together. It won’t happen, however, without continued development from the Offensive Line. Offensive Line Coach Mark Staten is now firmly under the microscope, and it shouldn’t cool down much for at least a couple years. It’s his time to develop a lineman like Clark beyond what we saw last week and into a strong enough player to help win the bigger games up front. The talent is there, the depth is there, and hopefully the injuries will subside in the next couple years. The development question will remain.

The Spartans rank 4th in Passing Offense and 10th in Rushing Offense inside the Big Ten. If the Offensive Line play were better, those numbers would practically be flipped and the Spartans record probably 3 wins better. It’s not, and it’s time the Coaches accept that and adjust their game plan accordingly. You can jam a square peg into a round hole, and you can’t “Pound Green Pound” very successfully when you’re second from the bottom in performance. Look for the Spartans to throw more safe passes in the flat (which are practically running plays for a “Spread” attack) on early downs. If they become overly stubborn in sticking with the run when it’s not working, they shouldn’t book any Bowl trips right yet.

Defense

Once again they did all they could, and came up just short. Had Kyler Elsworth looked right instead of left over his shoulder, he might have been running with Drew Dileo on the inside and broken up the back breaker that moved Michigan into Field Goal range for the game winner, if not season breaker for MSU. You can hardly blame Elsworth for looking to his left instead of floating back to the center of the field to pick Dileo up, it’s just the kind of luck this team has in 2012. The Defense played so hard, and probably shut Michigan down better than any non-SEC team will all year. That’s just the way it is in 2012, they have no margin for error.

You cannot beat many teams, let alone decent ones, without any real Offensive production. This unit is stuck in that situation, but continues to play their hearts out. It’s just not enough, they need more scoring support. They’re first in the league in Total Defense and would have even better numbers if the Offense had scored more than 16 TDs on the year, which is currently tied for 10th in the Big Ten.

Still there’s room to improve (see Denicos Allen’s raised play) and laces to tighten up, but hopefully this unit can stay the course mentally. They’re not immune to what’s going on around them, and that can turn the good pressure they want into stress that they don’t. This unit shouldn’t have to feel like they must be perfect in order for the Spartans to have a decent shot at winning, but that’s probably exactly how they’ll feel again on Saturday. That’s a clearly established concern right now after holding Michigan to 0 TDs and still coming up short. Pat Narduzzi definitely has his hands full to keep them playing loose, without succumbing to the extra pressure applied from the other two phases of the team.

Wisconsin won’t be much easier than Michigan. The Badgers look like they’ve cleaned up most of their early mess that was made in their Coaching Staff and Backfield (including a QB controversy), and you know they want a piece of their hottest current rival back on their own turf for a change. Somebody queue the broken record, the Defense will have to stand on its head again for MSU to prevent losing their third straight game.

Special Teams

We talked all year about how Dan Conroy was expected to be in positions to win games for the Spartans as the new Offense developed. Saturday, Conroy’s missed 38-yarder was arguably the difference. If Conroy is still the Spartans clear best option, he should keep on place kicking. But if there’s any question, MSU should look at opportunities for Kevin Muma and Mike Sadler to compete. Someone will need to step into the role next year. The Spartans aren’t going to finish the year with a winning record without a better Place Kicking performance.

Muma has improved since the start of the year kicking it off, and will be expected to keep improving over his final 16 games of his career. He needs to guard from slipping up, regardless of the score or the Spartans record. His kicking position is one that’s only noticed when something goes wrong at an important time (such as Indy last year), but the best way to avoid such a breakdown is by staying mentally sharp on each and every kick. It’s not that easy a task.

Also on tap for this phase that needs to step it up towards the finish of 2012 is to get a better look at potential kick and punt returners. A.J. Sims is still an intriguing possibility, but he really hasn’t had a chance to show much of what he can do. Le’Veon Bell also presents a different look worth considering. Spartan Nation wonders as well if we might see an Aaron Burbridge or Bennie Fowler back there too during the final-third of the year.

Mike Sadler’s fake Punt-run early in the 4th Quarter looked like a game changer. Instead of punting from his 23, Sadler took off down an open sideline and re-energized the entire Spartan Nation. You know it was a well designed fake because Michigan was completely caught off guard and nowhere near Sadler for a while. It was without a doubt the Special Teams highlight of an otherwise dull performance to this point. Hopefully it will inspire more magic over the final third of the schedule.

Overall

If you can’t score more than one Touchdown and you give a Field Goal away that you should’ve had, you can’t be that surprised by losing on a Field Goal in the game’s final seconds. The 6-point 2nd quarter swing (Conroy missing from 38, Michigan hitting a Field Goal from 48) bit MSU in the end because they could not find the End Zone when they needed to later. Sadly, that’s the headline story of the 2012 Spartans thus far.

At 4-4, the Offensive struggles against good teams in the league cannot be expected to just disappear. Finally in Ann Arbor, the Offense opened things up a bit and hit for some big balls downfield, but again disappointed in the Red Zone. Those 4 downs from the Michigan 6, set up by a 14-yarder to Bennie Folwer and penal 15-yard Personal Foul against Will Campbell of Michigan, serve as a bitter microcosm for the first two-thirds of the MSU season. The Spartans were in position to win, but needed more out of their Offense. They just didn’t have it. They just can’t get over the hump quite yet.

The biggest reason that major College Football Coaches get paid big money is to win. Sure, they’re paid a lot to teach, but winning is realistically numero uno in the modern College game. Coach D will earn his money this week as he tries to find a way to convince the 2012 Spartans that they’ve still got something to play for. The Legends Division is out, and so are their biggest rivalry games. Simply making a “flea bag bowl” (no, we haven’t forgotten that Blue Wall gaffe) not only isn’t that appealing, it’s probably a tad repelling at this point.

Many past teams in similar spots (across the country) have basically bailed out on the season at hand.  They’ve dropped their effort, lost their inspiration, and many have looked like they’d rather stay home than go play a Bowl during the week before Christmas. Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week that the key to avoiding a tailspin was to keep his ball club from splintering apart. Was the Michigan loss the low point of the Spartans 2012? Not if Bucky Badger has anything to chew about it.

After looking like they’d turned their season around only to lose it in the final moments, MSU hits the road for a Wisconsin team that’s been waiting for them at Camp Randall for what must seem like the first time in a decade (actually three years). They’re waiting because it’s been a while since MSU has come to Mad Town. They’re waiting because the Spartans versus Badgers has become must see TV in the Big Ten since Dantonio returned to town. And perhaps they’re waiting most to remind MSU of the incredibly bitter and painful taste of Indianapolis and the phantom Roughing the Punter that decided last year’s Rose Bowl trip. If that’s not enough, they’ll also be there to remind the Spartans that they no longer have a chance of returning to Indianapolis again this year. It doesn't set up to be an easy trip across Lake Michigan.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Look for Andrew Maxwell to make a bigger jump from year one to year two as a starting Quarterback than Kirk Cousins did impressively a few years ago.  Ideally, that jump would start this week.
  2. College Football’s replay system is the best in major American sport. You can say that because it’s the one that gets the least amount of attention and critical blow back. Once again, the Big Ten led the way towards a game changing innovation.
  3. Every time I hear something about Penn St. football this year, it gets upsetting pretty fast. It looks like most inside the Happy Valley bubble have already washed their hands and rationalized away most of the incredible scandal. I wonder what the media charged with covering PSU Football must think as they tout the Lions “story” this year. If it all makes you cringe or change the channel, you’re certainly not alone.
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