Scope of the Spartans: September Surprise
It's not time to press the panic button on the 2018 Spartan Footballseason quite yet, but it is time to take a look around to see if you have that button close by. As the first month of the season comes to a close the Spartans hopes of competing for the Big Ten East through November are under a direct threat. That threat comes in the form of an alarmingly unproductive Offense that has yet to adapt, adjust, or change on the fly as needed. The lack of offensive production now threatening this team calls for a sense of urgency the Spartans have yet to display through the first four weeks.
The main issue with the Offense remains its struggling running game. Long gone appear the hopes of L.J. Scottrushing for 1,000 yards in a Senior season to remember. Scott got dinged up at some point during the first two games, did not run the ball very well in either of those and did not even play at Indiana. At this time his health is expected to improve and he is expected to return to the field, but whether he proves to be the Spartans most effective Running Back from here is also in serious doubt. Scott's early struggles are not only a result of a struggling Offensive Line. Perhaps injury is the other reason he has yet to run with a lot of zip, burst, or conviction. The next two weeks need to sort out the Spartans Running Back rotation so they’re stable and ready for the biggest games of October.
Though MSU currently ranks 113 out of 130 teams in average rushing yards per game there have been a few bright spots on the ground. Speedy Jalen Nailor broke the Indiana game open for good with a 75-yard Touchdown run that caught everyone's attention around the Big Ten. Connor Heyward has shown a good posture and nose for the hole during the first three weeks, and La'Darius Jefferson looks to run with the energy and raw power you hope for out of a very young back. Of course, there have been growing pains with young ball carriers that will probably continue for a while. Pass protection, missed assignments, and other traditional underclassman issues are ready to be ironed out in the coming weeks.
The MSU rushing attack has not struggled for a lack of talent as much as it has from the Offense getting back in its own way again. The Spartans have basically slid back into the "Run-First Stubborn" approach we all hoped was gone for good after 2017. As a result, MSU lost a difficult game at Arizona State they should have won, struggled at Indiana, and now face the prospect of ending up a six to eight-win team in 2018. That is where this team is trending right now. The easiest way for MSU to end up with that type of win total is to get just a little bit more stubborn with the offensive game plan from here. That will definitely do the trick.
The Spartans are not going to run the ball well in 2018 unless they significantly shake things up, immediately. While Big Ten Network analyst and former coach Glen Mason continually called for MSU to go to the Option as a base package last Saturday night, MSU may not need to go that far yet. But MSU does need to explore all possibilities around the “plain old run game” in order to have any chance of ever opening up that “plain old run game” this season. It will not happen any other way. Mason knows that, and that's why he repeated his opinion so often during the Indiana game. Will Mark Dantonio and staff recognize that bold innovation is now necessary to avoid sending the 2018 season off track for good? It’s honestly not completely clear at this time.
MSU should try running traditional Option plays as their base rushing attack. As we have seen both recently and historically, the true Option is the most difficult thing for an opposing Defense to prepare for inside a regular season. Running the Option as a base rushing attack would not mean that MSU would convert its entire Offense to the Option. Nor would it mean that MSU would entirely abandon the traditional, “plain old running plays” that we have enjoyed for decades across the sport. It would instead be a concentrated effort by the Spartans to utilize the traditional Option in order to open up the rest of a Defense. We have seen MSU do this as recently as late in the season opener. Let’s see what happens if the Offense starts doing that from drive one. Once you throw a Defense off rhythm with the Option, a wide range of other offensive opportunities always seems to present itself.
Don't like the Option much? Well, when you rank 78th nationally in points per game absolutely everything should be on the table. The Spartans have plenty of wideouts and capable pass catchers to line up five-wide. Let's see how that looks. Let’s see how teams line up to cover MSU all spread out. In reality, MSU cannot win the Big Ten East without running the ball successfully, and they cannot run the ball successfully in 2018 without doing something dramatic to open things up like going to five-wide. Yes, football can be a crazy game like that sometimes.
If MSU goes five-wide and starts carving people up through the air, opposing Defenses will have to adjust and MSU's rushing odds will then dramatically improve. You might call that approach going full on “pass to run.” It presents another potential path to help revive the running game. Make no mistake, the running game as it has been over the first three games will not all the sudden get much better without a major adjustment, and possibly multiple adjustments during games. It will also not happen from running a bunch of long, east-west sweeps inside the twenty-yard lines. Fortunately, the Spartans have the tools needed to make these kinds of adjustments starting this week. The players do not need an entire offseason to rely on the option or convert a pass to run attack.
Look across campus for an example from another sport. The Spartans’ best half-court offenses under Tom Izzo have worked the ball from inside out. They’ve gotten into their offensive sets, thrown the ball in deep to gain leverage on a defense, and then either kicked it back outside for a deep ball or took advantage of a favorable matchup down on the blocks. Spartan Football has to find a way to do the same kind of thing with their running game. It’s not nearly as simple as just running the ball outside the tackles to open up the middle lanes. They’ve got explore the entire available spectrum of their Offense, then go outside the box to see if anything good is hanging around out there too, in order to turn this around. There's no other way this team can position the “plain old running plays” to be consistently successful again against the better teams they have left to play.
MSU is arguably sitting outside the box when it comes to playing multiple Quarterbacks this year. It's pretty surprising that Rocky Lombardi has not played significant minutes yet. College Football is not nearly what it was years ago relative to young Quarterbacks playing. Did you see Georgia last year? Five-star QB Jacob Eason went down early in the season and the Bulldogs rode Freshman Jake Fromm all the way to Overtime in the National Title game. Remember who he faced at the finish of that so-called national title game? True Freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who took over the Alabama Offense at Halftime of that game from Jalen Hurts, despite Hurts' 24-2 record as a starter to that point. 24-2, folks! Alabama won that thriller over Georgia in January, and we all know what has happened since. This is not the same sport anymore.
Right now in Athens, Fromm is backed up by the top QB recruit in the 2018 class, Justin Fields. Fields has already seen significant time for the 2nd ranked Bulldogs, having already thrown about 20% of UGA's total pass attempts. Alabama has stuck with Tua but has worked Hurts in for a number of drives in September. Just a bit further north than those two, Clemson has managed to find time for three different Quarterbacks already, all of whom can play at the top level of the sport, and who were recruited at the top level of the sport. Those programs are ranked 1, 2, and 3 in College Football right now. All three are expected to continue finding significant time for their backup Quarterbacks, even though Clemson just lost one, to play as the season progresses. Who knows, maybe another one will end up the deciding factor in an upcoming championship game.
Michigan State has no idea what Rocky Lombardi can do right now, and has no idea whether Theo Day might be that rare true Freshman that make an Offense go. By this point in the season, Lombardi should have been in a number of non-mop-up-duty series. That omission is on the MSU Coaches more than anything else. While there's no need for a Quarterback controversy at this time, you're not going to create one in 2018 by scheduling a set of series that your backup QB is going to work into. It’s quickly becoming the norm at the top level of College Football, and no doubt the players on this Spartan team realize that. If such a change worked out for the Spartan Offense and it suddenly took off again, it would be unexpected, but not exactly be unprecedented.
The Spartans hand has practically been forced at this point because their Offense is struggling to such an extreme extent. Make no mistake, there's no effective answer out there that's any simpler than what we’ve just discussed. Everything must be on the table. Not just the vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors. That includes the expectation of the vast Spartan Nation that we will see Rocky Lombardi in a number of series over the next two weeks to go along with the other significant adjustments and innovations the Offense tries out. It's like an end of the season sale at your favorite department store; everything comes out on the table to browse through again. Otherwise, you’re pretty quickly going to go out of style.
While there's no need to push the panic button on 2018 yet, Spartan Nation, you really should get a firm location on that thing in case the Spartan Offense doesn’t make big moves in the next couple weeks. That's how worrying the Offense has become. It could easily turn an otherwise Big Ten East contender into a 4th place finish, like that. On the other side of the coin, Michigan State has a very fine Defense once again. It's one that will battle with the best in the country until the season’s end. But they can’t win this division alone. They need a productive Offense, and they need the support of solid play from Spartan Special Teams. Despite the crushing loss of Jake Hartbarger, that unit looks as buttoned up and sound as it has in a number of years, plus they just added another nifty fake to the program's trick play reel. Yet, Special Teams cannot win the division without more help from the Offense either.
This team's hopes are now in peril because of a relatively stale Offense that shows no sign of getting better without a significant and immediate shake-up. If the Spartan Offense stays stubborn you can expect a harsh reality waiting for MSU in October, and a final-season win total of a lot closer to six-wins than ten. That's a good ways from where this team looked like it was headed a month ago, which has left Spartan Nation to ponder quite the September surprise.
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