September 30, 2012

DotComp: Finding the right things to complain about

EAST LANSING - Michigan State players and coaches are not complaining this morning about an officiating error which cost the Spartans a touchdown. And they shouldn't.

They aren't complaining about a trade deficit in scouting film. And they shouldn't.
Not when they couldn't establish the run, couldn't stop the run when it counted, couldn't protect the quarterback on the most important third down of the game.

Not when receivers dropped too many passes again, and/or failed to finish standout grabs that were there for the taking. Not when the biggest, smartest offensive play design, play call, and throw-catch execution was flagged because Bennie Fowler lined up wrong, and made the guy who caught the ball on a wonderfully-conceived play, Dion Sims, ineligible.

That play might not have cost the Spartans victory, but it cost Michigan State a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line, on a day in which there would be no other first-and-goals.

This is a little harsh, but when you have a player who is struggling as much as Fowler, who was supposed to be a breakout star, lining up wrong, costing you a 24-yard gain on the opening drive of the second half, well then you have no grounds for griping about an official's call.

Sure, an official made a mistake in blowing a play dead and down when in actuality it should have been a fumble and 70-plus yard touchdown return for Kurtis Drummond, which would have given Michigan State a 20-17 lead with 12:14 to play. That's one mistake for the officials, compared to more than a dozen costly mistakes for the Spartans.

Before you can blame something on an official, you better make sure you play flawlessly yourselves.

Mark Dantonio, to his credit, refrained from blaming the officials for anything.

"I'm not going to complain about the officiating because we could have had a pick six in the first quarter if we catch the football," Dantonio said.

That was during Ohio State's second possession of the game. Freshman safety R.J. Williamson jumped a hot route behind a seven-man blitz and nearly picked it off. MSU trailed 7-3 at the time.

"We left some plays on the field and we have to be better in certain situations," Dantonio said. "They (the officials) are doing the best job they can and we do the best we can. But that's just part of the game."

Dantonio could have huffed and puffed and pouted about that call, but down deep he knows that in the basic art of manly tackle football, Ohio State could run the ball today and Michigan State could not. That's not the end game in this sport, but when you lose in the trenches, you also lose your permission to whine about officiating. That's just football code in Zanesville, Ohio, and I God bless him for it.

All of these mistakes resulted in Ohio State being one point better than Michigan State on Sept. 29.

The good news is that despite the operational errors, Michigan State - overall - probably played its best, most physical game of the season. There is progress. Not enough to be 4-1. But enough to still talk with a straight face about winning the division and contending for the Rose Bowl.

The Spartans are not good enough right now to beat all of the teams in the Legends Division. But based on the effort and will they showed in this game, they can expect to get to that level at some point this year. I don't necessarily expect it, but the players do. And right now, that's what a talented but inconsistent 3-2 team needs - hope and confidence. Dantonio has it.

"I thought our guys played extremely hard and I'm proud of them," Dantonio said.

That might sound like Pop Warner coachspeak, but for this team, at this stage of the season, coming off two home losses out their last three, they need to be positively reinforced for the physical effort they put forth. If they keep going iron-to-iron like this, and improve in enough areas along the way, then this season still might become a memorable one. BUT they are running out of chances to prove themselves, running out of chips at the table.

"I can handle the mistakes if our guys play hard, compete, and play with energy," Dantonio said. "When you lose by one point it's a big failure. All of our goals are still in front of us. We still have to grow as a football team but I thought we played better. Even with a loss I thought we played very competitively and we played a good football team with some playmakers."

Rewind For Some Clarity

Go back to our outlook for this team in August. In order to be as good as they were last year, and the year before, the Spartans needed to:

  • Get quality play from the new quarterback.

    [Check. I think Andrew Maxwell has been good, heading toward very good.]

    "I thought Maxwell played well enough to win," Dantonio said. "He threw the ball very effectively."

    "I thought he really made some good decisions today," said offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. "He's growing and I thought he took a step forward and if we can build on what he did today, we're going to go in the right direction.

    "I think every snap he takes, he'll just get better. We have to be collectively better around him; that's me included and everybody."

  • Get great defensive play, giving the passing game some time to work itself out.

    [Uncheck. The defense has been good, not great.]

    The Spartan defense was good for most of this game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes came out hot and fast on the opening drive, to go up 7-0. There was one lengthy drive for a field goal.

    Limit OSU's offensive output to those two scores and the Spartan defense would have done enough to save victory.

    Instead, MSU gave up one deep shot touchdown to WR Devin Smith, working against press coverage from Johnny Adams. That gave Ohio State a 17-13 lead with 3:05 left in the third quarter.

    More tellingly, MSU allowed Ohio State to run the ball and melt the clock at the end of the game.

    "It's tough to say without watching the film but you have to close on that dive play," Dantonio said of the defensive problems on the final drive. "The quarterback is a threat to carry every time. We have to be a little stronger on the point of attack. I thought (Carlos) Hyde slipped out and got four or five yards when we had him for no gain. I thought our defense played hard and played very well with the exception of about three series. One long touchdown pass, their first series and the last series."

    OSU's final, game-securing drive came just minutes after Michigan State was unable to move the ball on the ground on an expensive second-and-10 run call on what turned out to be the Spartans' final possession.

    Reduce it down to those terms: Ohio State ran the ball to win at the end, up the middle, with zone runs out of the spread offense against edge blitzes. Meanwhile, the Spartans didn't come close to being able to run the ball to win in the final minutes, instead becoming overly reliant on a good quarterback and suspect receivers.

    We can sit here and list the plays that got away, and the difference they might have made in the game. But that's a waste of time. If Michigan State HAD made those plays that got away, all that that would have done is put Ohio State in position where THEY would have had to answer with plays. Based on the Buckeyes' ability to run the ball and melt clock at the end, I submit that the Buckeyes would have been able to answer any of those woulda-coulda-shoulda plays by the Spartans on this day.

    The Spartans, meanwhile, didn't have the run game to do the same.

    "We have to stay balanced as a team and run the ball more effectively," Dantonio said.

    That was the fifth sentence of his opening statement, and the understatement of the season.

    Aside from the loss itself, this point about not being to run the ball is the major issue facing this team this season. Dropping passes hurts like hell, but these receivers were kind of expected to have some dry spots. The ground game was supposed to show up each and every week. It's supposed to be one of the cornerstones of the program, for a team that is one of the few two-back, conventional offenses remaining on the planet. But in this game, the Spartans were beaten in the trenches by, gasp, a spread team.

    "On defense, are you kidding?" said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. "If you had to say who's the MVP - that d-line and linebackers did a very, very nice job stopping a very good rushing attack."

    Ohio State came into the game ranked dead last in the Big Ten in total defense. The Buckeyes have improved astronomically on defense since allowing 512 yards to California just two weeks ago.

    I'm not saying Michigan State needs to make as much improvement as the Buckeyes. We don't need to see "astronomical" improvement from MSU, but it's that type of collective progress that's necessary to put together a special season. Ohio State seems headed in that direction now. Michigan State is still teetering.

  • In August, we needed to see Michigan State get strong play from the new group of receivers. No one expected the new cast to be as fine as last year's seniors. But we expected that they would be good from the beginning, heading toward very good at some point this season. That's what the power elite programs do. They replace talent with talent. They reload.

    If Michigan State wanted to remain a Top 10 program, and resemble a team that beat the SEC East Champion in January, with the goal of progressing further from that level, then the Spartans needed to not only replace last year's senior receivers, but reload.

    [Uncheck. Although Keith Mumphery made a tremendous TD play against Ohio State, the wide receiver situation has been the single biggest disappointment of the season. It's the one area that is consistently not living up to its end of the deal. Whereas the issue of the ground game coming up empty in this game is the biggest issue on the team against talented defenses, the play of the wide receivers is the biggest disappointment on a week-in, week-out basis against all opponents.]

  • In August, we expected the Spartans to get strong production from the running game, every week.

    [Uncheck. The Spartans have now been held to 50 yards rushing or fewer on two occasions this year, both losses.]

    Blocking & Tackling Part I

    This was the year that Michigan State had more returning starters on the offensive line - four - than ever before in the Dantonio era. In past years, Michigan State had to rely on two or three new, unproven starters. In past years, those unproven players turned out to be pretty good - often better than expected. And the offensive line - although never dominant - usually over-achieved for Dantonio.

    In those years, Michigan State successfully blocked most opponents, but routinely ran into those next-level defensive fronts that the Spartans just couldn't uproot, like Iowa and Alabama in 2010, and Ohio State & Penn State in 2008. Those experiences reminded us of the limitations of the team and how far the Spartans had to go before they were truly established as a power.

    We thought this might be the year that the Spartans would be able to pound the run against any opponent on its schedule. But in the first two drives of Saturday's game, the Spartans saw right guard Chris McDonald and right tackle Skyler Burkland each get displaced by a yard or two when trying to block Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, resulting in losses for Le'Veon Bell.

    The Spartans seemed to know from the outset that establishing the run was going to be far more difficult today than it was for the Buckeyes' last two opponents, UAB (144 yards rushing) and California (224 yards rushing).

    Is Michigan State that comparatively bad in the ground game that UAB and Cal can out-produce the Spartans three- or four-to-one?

    Not really. Ohio State has just gotten their crap together on defense, almost overnight, in a major way.

    But here's the current reality: Michigan State's ground offense is a big bully against mediocre defenses, but not up to the level the Spartans hoped and expected it to be when playing against heavyweight talent.

    Michigan State has lost two starters to injury on the offensive line in right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson, who suffered a torn MCL ligament and a broken leg against the Buckeyes. Former starter Blake Treadwell was unavailable for most of August and September due to a lower body injury. He returned for a few snaps on Saturday.

    Depth is and was supposed to be a strong suit for this team as a whole, and for the line in particular. That depth is being tested now.

    Burkland has done a promising job at right tackle, beginning with a starting assignment against Notre Dame two weeks ago, on two day's notice, with only 10 practices under his belt since the outset of camp. He had a holding call which negated a third-and-two conversion in the second half, but he's been pretty functional this month and figures to keep progressing throughout the season.

    Senior Ethan Ruhland didn't make any glaring errors that I saw in relief of Jackson at center on Saturday. Now, will MSU keep him in place as the starting center, or possibly move redshirt freshman Jack Allen from left guard to center, and make room for newly-healthy Blake Treadwell at left guard?

    Those are the type of questions that Michigan State's offensive lines have had to deal with in past seasons. We didn't expect these type of emergencies this year, especially when coming out of a game in which the Spartans could only generate 2.6 yards per carry for Bell (45 yards on 17 attempts).

    On one hand, the ground offense was supposed to perk against anyone. On the other hand, the have had injuries. On the third hand, if you have one, there was hope that the unit had enough depth to withstand injuries and still deliver against heavyweight defensive fronts. Whatever the circumstances, the run game seems to be the same as it was in those other years - good enough to push around most teams, but not the beastly ones.

    Is it hyperbole to refer to Ohio State's defensive front as beastly? No. I'll make the leap on this one. It looks to me like the Buckeys have dialed in quality defensive play and I think they'll stay at that level against the run the rest of the season.

    "He (Le'Veon Bell) won't be held to (such low yardage again)," Meyer said. "I'm venturing to say that won't happen again to that guy."

    "We were always behind the sticks a bit and when you have a good player like Le'Veon Bell you have to get the ball in his hand," Dantonio said. "We weren't balanced as a football team and we need to be. We have to be able to run more effectively."

    After the loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago, Dantonio spent time during the outset of the first practice the following week roaming around the offensive line area of the practice field. Dantonio rarely does this. He usually coaches defensive backs during practice. But on this occasion, he looked over their shoulders a little more closely. The players knew what this meant. He was watching them, challenging them without even saying a word, letting them know that quick development was crucial.

    Then came a semi-promising performance against Eastern Michigan. The Spartans blocked eight- and nine-man fronts for more than 250 yards rushing. But that was against one of the worst rush defenses in the country. MSU passed an easy test that day. We weren't really sure how much progress was actually made.

    Now, we've seen the Spartan ground game fail a major mid-term.

    Now What?

    The good news, is that MSU's players and coaches aren't devastated by this loss. They don't come out of it thinking they can't compete with the likes of Ohio State. They don't come out of it cursing an official's call, or a play call, or a dropped pass at the buzzer, or a blown coverage to lose at the very end. It's a bitter defeat, but not a loss that will make you pull your hair out and roll around the ground in agony.

    This loss won't beat Michigan State twice. Meaning, I don't think this loss will stick with the all week and create such gloom that they come out flat the following week. It's definitely a good thing that the Spartans' first out-of-state road trip next week is to Indiana, the weakest team in the conference. That will be a get-well trip.

    The players and coaches believe they have the parts in the locker room to bring the team up to a level that would allow the Spartans to beat any and every team remaining on the schedule. Now I wouldn't predict that this is going to happen. But I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about them. They think they can do it, and I DO agree that they have the personnel to make it possible.

    Michigan State will work to improve their run-blocking and the ground game. I suspect they will run the ball effectively against most of the teams left on their schedule. Whether or not they can get it done against Michigan, Northwestern and Nebraska will likely decide whether the Spartans can get back to the Big Ten Championship Game.

    If the receivers don't come around in the meantime, the progress of the run game may be moot.

    The longer this season goes on, and the longer we wait for receivers to develop and blossom, the less likely I expect it to happen, the more they are going to have to try to win as-is, which likely means fewer than 10 wins for the year.

    Although Michigan State's didn't make all of the plays that were available to them, they made more than in previous games. There was progress.

    "I noticed Tony (Lippett). I thought he really played up to his ability," Roushar said. "Mumphery did some nice things. We'll have to look at the film and evaluate what everyone else did but as Coach (Dantonio) said in there (in the locker room after the game), there are some real positives to take away from it. It's a very disappointing loss but there were guys that took some steps forward, which will help us win."

    Blocking & Tackling Part II

    Narduzzi is the one guy who grumbled publicly about the fumble call, but he grumbled more about Spartan tackling.

    "Kurtis Drummond gets a fumble, he's going to score a touchdown but they blow the clock dead," Narduzzi said. "We don't get anything. We get a turnover; that's all we get.

    "I could probably pick 15 plays when we didn't make a play early in the game," he added. "We got three (turnovers) but we could have got three or four more. We just didn't make enough plays. We left too many plays on the field."

    On giving up 204 yards rushing, with containing Ohio State QB Braxton Miller being the main problem:

    "He (Braxton Miller) is their offense," Narduzzi said. "He's a good football player. Give them a lot of credit. We knew they could run the ball. They run the ball against everybody they've played. We'll look at the tape and find out why but he's a good football player. Number five changed the game."

    Tackling was uncharacteristically shaky. On one notable occasion, Denicos Allen - a former standout high school wrestler with great grip who almost never allows someone to elude his grasp - allowed Miller to escape him inside the OSU 10-yard line on the first play of a drive in the fourth quarter. Miller avoided a sack, and freelanced a pass for a 24-yard gain. "We got him dead to rites in the backfield," Narduzzi said, "and he scrambles and there's linemen down field, he throws a pass...we don't make the play." That drive eventually resulted in the Drummond fumble recovery, but the missed tackle inside the 10-yard line could have helped flip momentum and field position sooner.

    "It's an issue," Narduzzi said of tackling problems on this day. "Good players make you miss. There's plenty of missed tackles that first half especially. You've got to give credit to (Braxton), he's a good football player. They got a lot of quarterback runs where we didn't do a good enough job tackling him."

    The Film Thing

    Much was made during post-game scavenging of Ohio State's creative film editing. As is customary in Big Ten play, Michigan State and Ohio State exchanged films at the outset of the week, for scouting purposes. The film that Ohio State supplied to Michigan State was apparently cut and shortened so as not to reveal many of Ohio State's pre-snap motions and shifts.

    Michigan State made up for it by contacting Ohio State's earlier opponents for their film of the Buckeyes.

    When asked about the film, Dantonio grouchily declined to comment.

    MSU officials leaked information to media about the video charade. Meyer pleaded ignorance when asked about it after the press conference.

    The film transgression was a violation of good faith etiquette and league requirements. But it didn't have any impact on the game. MSU obtained enough film from other avenues for proper preparation, although discovery of the doctored film and alternate arrangements probably cost the Spartans a day or so of film study. Still, "We knew what they were going to do (on offense)," said middle linebacker Max Bullough.

    Three Pressing Questions

    1. What about the run call on second-and-10 on MSU's last possession? The Spartans, who were ineffective in running the ball all game, gained just two yards, setting up third-and-long and an eventual punt.

    My Thoughts: Good play call. It's second-and-10 at the MSU 30. The Spartans had just opened the drive with two passes, one for gain of 10, and the other fell incomplete after almost being intercepted.

    There was 5:05 left in the game. Plenty of time. No need to get into a pass-happy panic.

    Michigan State develops its program in anticipation of moments like this, attempting to pound out the run late in the game. There was a belief in the gameplan that the Spartans might have more success running the ball as the game wore on. That's been the case in other notable victories over physical opponents in the past.
    Spartan coaches would be far more mad at themselves if they had led that drive come and go without at least trying their hand in the run game.

    The run play was a 'power' to the right side, strong side. MSU pulled right guard Chris McDonald.

    The play became bogged down when the play-side guard Jack Allen gave up penetration to Hankins. Allen seemed to come off the ball a little too high, and he was pushed back a yard. This caused McDonald's track as a pull blocker to get bounced. This pushed McDonald back into Le'Veon Bell's way, causing those two to stumble and thwart the play.

    I have no problem with the attempt. The previous time they ran it, five plays earlier, on the previous drive, the Spartans got good movement on Hankins with McDonald and Burkland double-teaming him, driving Hankins to the ground. Hankins was injured on the play. That was a 'power' to the right side, as MSU set up the tight end to that side of the ball.

    In looking back at this second-and-10 call on MSU's last drive, if I were to second-guess anything, I would consider putting the TE on the right side and go with McDonald and Burkland on the play side again. However, the ball was closer to the left hash, which would have made it crowded on the short side for the twin-receiver look that they called for with this play.

    Or, they might have considered running power to the weak side, avoiding Hankins altogether. On MSU's second drive of the game, the Spartans ran a zone to the weak side (away from Hankins) and an isolation lead to the weak side on consecutive plays for gains of 4 and 4 to set up third-and-two (which MSU converted with a pass to TE Paul Lang).

    MSU might have theorized that Hankins was still a bit tweaked, maybe running a little low on fuel - as had been the case with him against Cal and UAB - and the Spartans maybe wanted to run to the strong side, into his neighborhood and test him. But he passed the test, bottled up the play for a gain of two.

    Secondly, MSU operates with the philosophy and belief that the more they run their bread-and-butter ground plays, the more toll they have on a defense, the better chance they have of breaking through and getting things established late in a game.

    I don't mind the run call at all. It came up in the press conference, and there were people barking about it on the message board, but with 5:05 left, MSU was trying to be who they think they can be. The more disastrous plays were the ones the Spartans ran before and after this play. The one before should have been intercepted, and the one after resulted in a sack.

    If these last three offensive plays of the game had produced a near interception (which happened), a sack (which happened) and a third sack, then I'd be sitting here wondering why the hell they didn't at least try to run their best ground play once in this game-deciding drive.

    Just because the run play on second-and-10 didn't work does not guarantee that another selection would have worked. The results actually might have been worse.

    But Roushar acknowledged the merit of the question and said this about the choice of running the ball on second-and-10 with 5:05 to go on what turned out to be MSU's last possession:

    "We ran one earlier, a drive before, we thought we were really close on popping it," he said. "It felt like there was enough time on the clock (that) we (could) establish a big run there. Didn't want it to become a situation where we were in a two-minute mode or that type of situation. We didn't execute it well enough and to their credit they made the play. Obviously, that's one you'll look back on and wish we would have thrown it."

    One Last Thought On This: That was a good, respectful quote by Roushar. Due to the gain of only 2, they can look back and wish they had thrown it, based on nothing but hindsight. But that still doesn't mean that the decision to go with that play call didn't have plenty of logic behind it. I have no problem with the call.

    2. What about the TD Johnny Adams allowed?

    Ohio State took a 17-13 lead with 3:05 to play in the third quarter on a 63-yard TD pass to Devin Smith. Smith went by Adams' press coverage on a deep go route for the pass play.

    Fans often criticize defensive backs for not looking back for the ball when in pass defense. Narduzzi points out that this was a case in which Adams was wrong to look back. Most coaches teach that a player shouldn't look back for the ball until and unless he has at least drawn even with the receiver he was covering. Adams was still a half-stride or more behind Smith when he looked back.
    "That's a big pass that we gave up," Narduzzi said. "Johnny was okay at the line of scrimmage. He's just got to make the tackle. He was out of phase, as we call it, and he looked back to the ball instead of just attacking the ball and making a play. They made a play."

    Adams on the play: "I go out there and try to make plays for me and my teammates and I came up short. He got on top of me and he made a play."

    3. What about Ohio State?

    Ohio State, at 5-0, will probably get some Top 10 consideration now. Ohio State was mediocre last season, and the Buckeyes looked soft, scattered and weak against California, Central Florida and even last week against Alabama-Birmingham while playing the easiest non-conference schedule in the school's history.

    Now, after this sturdy performance against a questionable Michigan State team, are we supposed to believe that Ohio State has suddenly arrived as a Top 10-caliber team? And with it, can we conclude that a 1-point loss to such a team isn't such a major black mark?

    No, I won't make that conclusion yet. But we'll leave that possibility open.


    Overall, we come out of this game as MSU observers with almost as many questions as we had at kickoff.

  • Now that the receiving corps has had a little bit better of a game, can they build on it? Will they become an asset at some point?

  • Can the offensive line function and eventually excel after the loss of Travis Jackson? Will the problems running the ball against Ohio State and Notre Dame resurface in future games?

    And this new one:

  • MSU didn't stuff the inside ground plays. It's one thing to give up yardage on the crafty zone read stuff, but the OSU offensive line seemed to get a push in the middle a little too often. That's a new problem for the Spartans. In this game, more so than any all year, the Spartans missed having a standout defensive tackle such as Jerel Worthy

    A program hoping to gain or retain elite status needs to be able to reload when losing star players. But Michigan State has not reloaded in filling the voids left by Worthy and B.J. Cunningham. You can argue that Keshawn Martin was better than Cunningham, based on the fact that Martin has stuck in the NFL whereas Cunningham was cut. But Cunningham was better at the college level in terms of snatching difficult catches in traffic, in the face of contact - precisely the type of standout catches that MSU lacked in this game, and the Notre Dame game.

    Meanwhile, I believe Michigan State has reloaded at quarterback. And that's not a bad place to begin bounce-back plans for next week at Indiana, then Iowa, then Michigan.

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