Michigan State Spartan Players Talk Frankly and Openly About 4th Quarter Struggles and How Theyâ€™ll Fix Them!
When Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, the Spartan Nation was desperate for a bowl game. That was it. They just wanted to start every season with the honest anticipatory expectation that they were going somewhere warm in December or (hopefully) January to see MSU play a football bowl game. Mark Dantonio has stormed past those expectations to where now you can walk away with real â€œconcernsâ€ about double-digit losses on the road in conference play.
MSU has only scored 28 of their 273 season points in the fourth quarter and in their four toughest contests they have been shut out in the fourth. Coach Dantonio has already addressed this issue, and weâ€™ve talked about here at Spartan Nation.
But after practice this week I had a chance to catch up with some of his players and some key offensive assistants to get their take on the situation. In typical, classy Dantonio style, these players and assistants admitted they need to fix the problem right away. Not one person I spoke to tried to dodge the topic or make excuses for it.
Around the Skandalaris Center, expectations for this team are high. They know Vegas has come out and named MSU the favorite to win it all. They monitor ESPN, BigTen, and other national networks, and they hear the slow, steady drum beat about the Spartans. They know. More importantly, they are taking long hard looks at every angle.
I asked QB Connor Cook why the Spartans struggle when the scoreboard flips to the number four under the headline quarter and his frank answer was refreshing. Cook said to me, â€œI donâ€™t know. I think when you look back at it there is a lack of execution, but itâ€™s all correctable stuff. You can go back and watch film and say this guy has got to put his hat here and create a hole for the running back. Or I have to make this read. I know that the read that I made, it was on third down that I threw to Josiah up the sideline--that was just completely my fault. Iâ€™ve never thrown that in practice. Itâ€™s something that you know you can go back and look at, then you can correct it.â€
Shilique Calhoun isnâ€™t happy about it, but he wants people to remember that they are winning. â€œI was talking to our strength and conditioning coach and he said, â€˜You got to finish the game.â€™ But we have won the last few games. Weâ€™ve kind of done what everyone wants us to do, but now it is time for us to dominate the fourth quarter. Not so much finish the fourth quarter because weâ€™ve finished. Weâ€™ve won those games. Now it isâ€¦ can we dominate the fourth quarter? That is something we have to practice and get better and better at each week. I feel this is the week that we are going to come out and try to dominate all phases of the game. And through all quarters. Itâ€™s not going to just be first, second and third. Itâ€™s going to be first, second, third AND fourth. We are going to work at it each and every day at practice and weâ€™ll see what the outcome is.â€
I love that. You might not be able to tell by just reading quotes, but go watch the video. CLICK RIGHT HERE TO BE DIRECTED THERE. These arenâ€™t people ducking the obvious. They are embracing it. They get it.
OL Coach Mark Staten acknowledges the issues. He just doesnâ€™t want the inefficiency of the last quarter to overshadow the vast improvement of the first three, and I think his point is germane. He said when asked about the woes of the 4th quarter, â€œWhat about the first two? Letâ€™s talk about that. Letâ€™s talk about the first two. Letâ€™s talk about us outscoring teams four to one. Letâ€™s talk about that. I donâ€™t want to talk about the fourth quarter. Neither should you guys. Letâ€™s talk about the first two.â€ Interrupted by a reporter he was asked, â€œYou do talk about it right?â€ And he said â€œIn house. Yeah.â€ (Big smile) â€œBut we also talk about how great the first two quarters are.â€ Now, when you read quotes they donâ€™t always tell the story. If you read those and think Staten was being confrontational, he wasnâ€™t. He believes, and I agree, that if you are going to split hairs, then be fair. That is a good point.
In a more serious tone he did elaborate about quarterly production: â€œAll of them together, we are winning games and we are putting up numbers and we (the offensive line) are protecting Connor and opening up holes for our backs and our receivers on some of our plays. The guys are playing at a high level, and we got to continue. Itâ€™s different when the target is on your back and the target is definitely on our back. Teams will play longer. Teams want it more from you. Perhaps last year when we got a lead on someone they would go, â€˜Oh man,â€™ and I donâ€™t want to say give up, but â€˜Oh man, Michigan State got us today.â€™ Now they are like, â€˜No, Michigan State is not getting us.â€™ Weâ€™ve got to come with it for all four.â€
First, let me say that I thought of all the players and coaches we talked to, Staten nailed it. Secondly, his analysis is brilliant. I donâ€™t think people are taking into account that the Spartans are now the hunted. They are taking everyoneâ€™s best shot. For every remaining regular season opponent not named The Ohio State, the Spartans are their Super Bowl, their Big Ten Championship game and their College Football Playoff.
I thought Mark Dantonio offered some great insight on this when I talked with him about it on Sunday night. â€œI think the key is how well we're able to handle success. I don't think there's any question about that. When we came here, when we first came here, it was about trying to get things in order and get the team in order, and then it was about establishing a program by going to Bowl games every year, and then we won a co championship in the Big Ten and we finally went to the Rose Bowl and won an outright championship and then the Rose Bowl.â€
What I respected is that everyone knows the bar has risen with expectations; itâ€™s just rare to hear a coach admit it. â€œSo the expectations have risen. Along with those expectations, though, it becomes tougher and tougher. And so there has to be a resiliency among our football team, and you now sort of become like a I don't see we're the only hunted team in the conference. That's not saying that. But you feel a little bit more of the pressure to go out and just overpower people. I don't think that that's always going to be the case. You've got to play the game. We've gotten ahead. Got to be able to close the game out more effectively because we're up 21 points in the last two weeks. But people don't stop playing.â€
Finally, the always-cerebral Spartan punter, Mike Sadler, had some thoughts. People read him on Twitter or watch his interviews, but often they donâ€™t realize that his self-deprecating humor and joking nature is a mask of the teamâ€™s smartest player and deepest thinker. Sadlerâ€™s sense of humor has evolved from being the smartest kid in the room who had to adapt. Make no mistake that while not a captain, Sadler has his thumb on the pulse of his team, probably better than anyone. He said of the struggles, â€œItâ€™s maybe a lack of execution. I can tell you that everybody is focused coming out at halftime and everyone wants to end the game strongly. We can get it corrected.â€
The Spartans canâ€™t win a national title if theyâ€™re anemic in the fourth quarter. Last year the rallying cry for slow starts was that, â€œWe finish strong when it matters, in the fourth quarter.â€ I agree with that mantra. This team is not perfect, but it is getting better each week, and I expect the fourth quarter inefficiency to be fixed. This team is special.