Spartan Football Essentials: Neon Green, and Lit

Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp is here to discuss Michigan State's 29-20 victory over Northwestern.
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OFFENSE

This unit took some advantage of what Northwestern gave them early, and it mattered. After a beauty of a long ball from Rocky Lombardi to Speedy Nailor, the tough Wildcat Defense had to take notice and adjust. Later in the 1st Quarter, after a savvy Lombardi sneak, Northwestern also had to consider that running threat. And all of a sudden, the Spartans had some room to run the ball a bit. MSU ended up with a shocking total of 195-yards for the day. When the Offense got stiff and conservative, MSU didn’t do much. When they got a bit creative and gave Lombardi some options, they found enough plays to knock off the top-10 Wildcats.

On paper, without Ricky White and Jordon Simmons, you would have to have guessed that the Spartan Offense was in for another long and grinding day against a pretty stout. But credit Lombardi and the entire unit for digging extra deep and calming down a bit to make some big plays. Connor Heyward’s experience showed up on the field as he had 28 touches, 105 total yards, and more than a few intangible plays that helped MSU pull it off. While it looked like a traditional option play or two might have helped open up the running game that much more, this game was hopefully the turning point that the Offense needed. They showed up on a big stage and competed for 60-full minutes pretty well after scoring only 7-points in their last two games.

When the game was in the balance, on 3rd and eight from the MSU 38, the Spartan Offense finally went Option. Was it a traditional Option style run? Maybe not, but boy did it work as Lombardi waited as long as possible before pulling the ball back and taking off to get the 1st Down. Without that, it’s really iffy whether MSU would’ve survived a final Northwestern drive. That Option’s success should inspire Jay Johnson and Mel Tucker to call more Option style runs for the rest of the year.

Michigan State Football has not run the ball well for years. No one expects Mel Tucker to fix that during the wild card season that is 2020. Honestly, not many expect that to be fixed before at least the middle of 2021. But this team has a fleet of Quarterbacks that can run the ball, experienced backs who can catch a pitch, and we should see more of those run plays to close out the year. There’s just something about option runs that give a Defense serious fits. Maybe the Spartan Offense sees a little more light in those plays as they prepare for the final opponents.

DEFENSE

It’s often not easy to survive the “dink and dunk” style Offense Northwestern typically brings. Add Peyton Ramsey into the mix, and you knew the Spartan Dawgs would have their hands full again today. The Defense got good momentum early and found a way to hold on from there, thanks to some big-time plays at key times. This was a unit that looked fresh and prepared to face a serious challenge in Ramsey and the undefeated and confident Cats. They held NU under 300-yards and three scores. That is something to build on.

It gets taxing when a dink and dunk gets going against any Defense. As those attacks get going, defenders get tired, tempo gets stressed, and a Quarterback in rhythm can rack up many yards in a hurry. After the Half, Northwestern came out and did that well when they finally broke through for their first Touchdown of the day. They only got one more on the day, taking the lead early in the 4th Quarter.

All 60-minutes count one, so the final fumble recovery for a Touchdown by Kalon Gervin added to the big play workday for the Spartans’ back end. Shakur Brown flashed some real-deal ball skills and footwork by picking off two Ramsey passes on the day. The Spartan Defense has been asked to stand on its head and keep the team in so many games in recent years, and their delivery today must be so satisfying for all of the coaches and players on that side of the ball. Credit Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton and staff for adjusting and adapting their way through the big finish. This is an effort the vat Spartan Nation may point back to years into the Mel Tucker era at Michigan State with great pride.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Has anyone read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lately? Two semi-shanked punts is an issue for any Punt team. You have to have solid punts if you’re going to play your best football in the final month of a season. Mel Tucker didn’t have much choice but to make a switch in the 2nd Half, but the first effort from Mitchell Crawford was not much better. It netted only 19-yards with a Touchback. Fast forward to the final minute of the game when MSU needed a better punt, Crawford dropped one in deep and pinned Northwestern at the 9. The Spartans have probably found a new Punter for a while. Field position is pretty much the gold for your Punt game and so often a difference-maker in close games.

Matt Coghlin came into 2020 as the most interesting player for this unit before 2020 and undoubtedly remains so after a very big Saturday night. The Spartans Senior has been pretty good when needed most so far. He had a shot to make a 50-yarder before the end of the Half in the less than ideal kicking conditions of late November but missed it left. That was not the kind of miss that would erode his confidence, like some we saw in 2019, but it was a kick Coghlin truly could have made. When he made the 40-yarder into the wind to tie it at 20 early in the 4th, you saw the confidence of a battle-tested and proven veteran kicker. And when he kicked a stinger under the wind and through the uprights from 48-yards with 3:35 left, you again saw the confidence of a big-time kicker. What a night for the Senior specialist. His clutch leg was the difference on the final scoreboard.

The battle for “hidden yardage” in Special Teams, which doesn’t often show up in a stat sheet, was pretty much owned by Northwestern today. But Coghlin’s leg and Crawford’s late Punt proved to be enough of a difference-maker in the end. Those hidden yards will not be lost on Mel Tucker and staff as they look to tighten up Special Teams late in 2020, but a good-sized celebration is in order after the big kicking plays they pulled off today.

INTANGIBLES

The Spartans were about due for a really good performance. They were not as bad as they looked in the last two games, and the extra week of practice after the trip to Maryland was canceled sounded a bit rough. Last week, Mel Tucker’s comments suggested there may be several new faces in green and white next season, which came as a bit of an in-season shock to some around the Spartan Nation. That can be a rough process to go through, but a new Head Coach usually has to completely cultivate a stale college football program to produce healthy-new growth again. The shorthanded Spartans came out today looking fresh, focused, and more than a bit galvanized after the unplanned bye week.

Northwestern had a great season going before today. Almost everything had gone the cats way so far, and the relatively muted media world around College Football started to chat Northwestern up a good bit. After the win over the top-10 and upstart cats, some of that media is bound to take notice of Mel Tucker’s mid-season work. What looked possible on paper this week became truly possible after a really good 1st Half for the Spartans. That was step one. Step two was even bigger.

Tucker’s first team found a way to avoid a come from ahead loss to a top-10 team that was confident and rolling as they arrived at the game’s decisive minutes. The Wildcats had the momentum for most of the 2nd Half and looked like they would have the ball and a chance to take the lead for good before the final buzzer. Spartan Football stood up to the challenge when it mattered most. They did not wilt, they did not self-destruct, and they did not flinch. They leaned into the opportunity before them and looked a lot more like the best Michigan State teams of the last decade or so than a team that had lost their last two games by a total of 73-7. What a boost for the Mel Tucker led reboot of the brand that is Michigan State Football.

EXTRA POINT

After missing the trip to Maryland last week, Spartan Football now faces another uncertain work week with Ohio State’s growing virus issue. We will soon find out if Ohio State had an outbreak big enough to knock them out of next week’s game, or only a few cases and still enough healthy bodies to line up next week. If MSU gets a shot at Justin Fields and the Buckeyes, they will find out how well they measure up against the Big Ten’s best in 2020. If not, look for MSU to make the most of a second bye week, pushing forward with a win to finish 2020 as a .500 football team with a win over a top-10 opponent at home and another on the road over their biggest rival.

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