Scope of the Spartans: Stubborn to a Fault?

Mark Dantonio vs. UM (PHOTO:  Duffy Carpenter)
Mark Dantonio vs. UM (PHOTO: Duffy Carpenter)

While it may be hard to digest the Spartans 7-5 regular season, it’s not hard to explain what happened. MSU’s Offense did not produce at anywhere near the level needed for the Spartans to compete for the Big Ten Championship. That was 2018 in a nutshell. Some of us saw the Spartans’ biggest issue coming as soon as the season opener when the Offense looked shockingly similar to the old "run-first stubborn" approach that failed MSU in seasons past. As the struggles continued deeper into September the writing wasn't just on the wall that something had to change quickly, red flags were flying high and bold neon lights were flashing across College Football that MSU had big problems moving the ball. We even talked about it in this space before the end of September:

The powers that be inside Spartan Football either did not see those bright warning signs of trouble ahead or they did not react to them sufficiently. The MSU Offense basically dug its heels in deeper as we all watched a team with more than 10-win talent slide backwards into a 7-5 finish. How could the Offense slip back into the strategy that produced underachieving units in 2015, 2016, and about half of 2017? That’s the question that a lot of people will ask for many years to come.

The traditional Option plays that saved MSU late against Utah State had been the Offense’s most successful style of runs for the prior few seasons. Yet, those plays disappeared in the desert as the Spartans fell to Arizona State after midnight in week two, leaving College Football fans across the country scratching their heads. It also left the Spartan Nation wondering why those Option plays did not travel west, and whether the MSU passing game would start to get going in 2018.

Mark Dantonio and staff looked alarmingly comfortable going back to the failed “run-first stubborn” approach, nudging early critics to consider the mounting injuries early on, the unsettled lineups yet to fit into place, and generally tried to convince themselves and people on the outside that they were only inches away from moving the ball well again. In reality, the Coaching Staff was either ignoring the obvious, lacked a sufficient self-awareness, or maybe experienced a combination of both. Folks, curiosity didn’t kill the cat nearly as often as complacency did, to borrow an analogy from outside the bubble of college football. Make no mistake, the struggles of the 2018 Offense lie far more on the shoulders of the Coaching Staff than anything else.

The players showed up consistently, they brought the right energy, and they did all they could to execute the plays that were called. Some balls were dropped, assignments were clearly whiffed, but the primary issue with the MSU Offense in 2018 was that players were not put in a position to be successful often enough. From an unsettled Center position allowed to persist out of fall camp to injuries that included MSU losing both of its top two receivers for extended periods of time, it’s fair to say that it was never too easy for the MSU Offense this year. Anyone that saw this season would acknowledge that the Offense did not exactly catch a lot of breaks on the way to 7-5.

Plus, they had to deal with the Brian Lewerke situation, which is still playing out to this day. As we discussed last month, when you already have issues on Offense and then you struggle managing the Quarterback position, you are in for big problems. While fans of the Spartans understand that the constant lineup shuffling made it harder for the Offense to produce, they also realize that wasn’t the biggest challenge slowing the Offense down in 2018. Spartan Nation had seen this movie before. This time, the final numbers were probably the worst of the Mark Dantonio era.

The Offense scored 38 against Utah State. They tallied 31 at the end of September against Central Michigan, and they have not scored more than 24 points since. The unit produced less than 20 points five times this season and failed to score more than 14 points in any of their final three games. For a group that laid out the rather meager goal of scoring at least 28-points per game before the year began (which would rank 75th right now), the final totals from the Offense were among the worst in the country. Those numbers cannot be forgotten as the Spartans begin to look towards 2019.

MSU ranked 115th in Total Offense through regular season play, 122nd in Scoring Offense, 115th in Rushing Offense, and 117th in 3rd Down Conversion Percentage. Those categories paint a pretty good picture of how well any Offense produced this year compared to the other 128 Division 1 teams. For MSU, those are the numbers cost the 2018 Spartans a shot at playing for big trophies.

Those numbers do not represent the amount of talent and ability the Offense had, regardless of the run of injuries and lineup changes they played through. There was still more than enough available to the Offense to produce better numbers. Spartan Nation saw flashes of hope from week one but soon began to shake their collective heads as Dantonio and Staff repeatedly tried to force pieces of the offensive puzzle together in a way those pieces were not designed or capable of being fit.

If you’ve read this space for the last ten years let’s prepare to once again recite our favorite Bill Parcells quote, “you are what your record says you are.” A couple years back the Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach expanded on that line by explaining, “that (quote) eliminates the people rationalizing that things are different than the actuality,” which effectively dismisses any kind of “woulda-coulda-shoulda” talk that sometimes gets massaged into a discussion. Almost all of us have been around that kind of scene before. We know what it can do to a business, an organization, or team.

Parcells added that his famous quote makes it clear that “what happened was the result that you now have to accept and realize (as) the basis of the truth of this particular endeavor.” For the Mark Dantonio and the 2018 Spartan Offense that should be rather unpleasant and difficult to deal with. Sometimes that’s just the way it is in big-time football, and it won't get much better on its own for the Spartans in 2019 without significant changes to the structure of the Offense.

After being duped a year ago that the "run-first stubborn" era was over for good, let's concede that change won't happen with the current staff in place. More importantly, Michigan State Football will not revive its Offense unless Mark Dantonio will completely let go of that approach. It's not that the Spartans don't need to run the ball, of course they do, it's about how they run the ball, using the pass to open up the run, featuring traditional Option plays, and finding other aspects of a successful running game that we've covered before at length. At this time, however, if we take Dantonio's word that his Offensive Staff was free to run the Offense they saw fit, it's time to make some tough decisions.

MSU has ridden the co-coordinator experiment into the ground at this point. It’s time for a fresh start. It’s not clear how the fans' favorite "blame game equation" will break down between Dave Warner and Jim Bollman, it's just clear by now that this arrangement is not working. Neither Warner nor Bollman should not return to those roles in 2019. Not only will the Spartan Offense benefit from those two moving on, but Jim Bollman and Dave Warner also stand to benefit as well.

Viewers around the Spartan Nation and across the Big Ten have observed the extraordinary anguish on Dave Warner’s face during post-game interviews this fall. He hasn't looked like the same Coach that we've seen in the past, suggesting his frustration level is high up and his patience for the situation has run thin. On a couple occasions this season it looked like he was about to boil over, which would have left a public scar. We don’t exactly what was behind Warner’s added frustration but at this point, after this many downs, series, and seasons, it's hard to imagine Dave Warner wouldn't benefit from a fresh start.

MSU’s young Running Backs showed promise in 2018 but did not consistently play well. The running game struggles for MSU go back more than a few years now. As many of you know out there, the MSU running game is about more than just rushing yards from the backfield. Blocking is a pretty big deal too. For Bollman, the chemistry of trying to coordinate a running game without being directly in charge of the Offensive Line does not appear to be working out. Again, its not that either Warner or Bollman are not good position coaches or coordinators, their records are what they are, it’s just clear that this setup has not worked well for either of them, and that it's not something worth hanging on to versus going out to find a new lead vocalist for the Spartan Offense.

If you're going to move on from the co-coordinators you need to consider replacing all of the position coaches on that side of the ball too. As bad as the Offense performed this year that's not a very harsh statement, and it is in no way a personal attack on any of them. With the ongoing struggles of the Spartan Offensive Line, you would think first that it's time for Mark Staten to be replaced. You would also think that a new Offensive Coordinator would likely want his new message channeled through a new voice for that critical position group. A coordinator change often goes hand in hand with a new Offensive Line Coach. Again, what does MSU have to lose from trying someone new there?

Brad Salem has had success identifying, recruiting, and developing future NFL Quarterbacks. His position should be the safest on the staff, assuming he is not in the mix for more responsibility elsewhere this offseason. Given how the Brian Lewerke situation was handled this season you could not blame him for taking a look around. Lewerke’s regression during 2018 appears the result of some combination of the yips and an injury. We won't know exactly what it was until sometime next fall. Either way, Salem didn’t have much to do with either of those issues, and as for Lewerke playing longer into the season than he should have or being left out to wilt in a 5 for 25 performance against Michigan, we have to assume that those were not Salem’s calls to make. If they were, that might change things.

Terrance Samuel has seemed pretty solid since arriving at MSU. He has consistently developed more wideouts that MSU could reasonably find playing time for, compiling a playing group that went six or more deep for multiple seasons. Two players transferred out after last year, as supporting evidence, and though MSU has lost former 5-star and 4-star recruits during his time for various reasons, the group has not totally fallen off. Even during the leanest weeks of 2018 after MSU lost both Felton Davis and Cody White, more Wide Receivers kept cycling in without looking woefully unprepared. It does not appear that MSU needs a leadership change for that position group.

In addition to the changes that should be made Spartan Staff this offseason, MSU should not start 2019 without a dedicated Running Backs Coach. It was never fair to ask Dave Warner to call plays and manage the Running Back rotation. That mistake stood out among the biggest during the Dantonio era so far. The rotation has improved a good bit since the brutal mismanagement of a couple years back, but MSU paid the price. Bigger than the rotation issues, the Running Backs at MSU need a coach that is solely focused on their position group again if they are going to get a decent running game going for 2019.

2018 was far from the first time the MSU Offense underachieved during the Mark Dantonio era. In fact, that’s been the trend since 2015. That year the Spartans won the Big Ten and made the College Football Playoff thanks largely to the best Quarterback in school history and a couple of all-time Special Teams plays. That Offense wanted to be a “power running” attack, but could not pull it off against the better opponents on the Spartans schedule. If Connor Cook had been healthy against Ohio State, MSU might not have run the Option all over the Buckeyes, and the Spartan Nation would be looking back at 2015 as the year that could’ve been.

As good as the 2015 season was, Cook, got hurt against Maryland (a bottom tier Defense in College Football that year) because of an Offensive Line breakdown. His shoulder was never the same after that, and then the MSU Offense went "run-first stubborn" right into the heart of the Alabama Defense. Nick Saban would probably still chuckle at that MSU game plan that played right into the dreams of the Alabama Defense. That was three years ago, with one of the best and most fortunate MSU teams in school history. What has the Offense done to move forward since then?

Without reciting too many details of 2016, the Offense and that football team did not look the same after someone flipped off the switch in the second half at Notre Dame, leaving the Spartans to hold on way too tight in the eerie final minutes. MSU dug its heels into the “run-first stubborn” strategy from there, helping to doom that ugly snowball of a season. Rather than innovating by featuring more of the Option style plays that beat Ohio State the year prior, trying something dramatic like going five-wide until stopped, or trying a quick-passing game, the Spartans Offense pretty much fell on its sword.

2017 was a wild ride early thanks to the legs of Brian Lewerke. MSU still wanted to force itself into the mantra of being a power running team, despite failing to do so consistently in prior seasons, and found little success to start. Thankfully, Lewerke took off running and kept MSU in the mix. He was MSU’s most effective runner last year, which actually serves as a rather strong indictment of the Spartan Offense. Lewerke’s success on the ground laid the foundation for that fantastic bounce-back season.

As that season went on it sure looked like the Spartans' scheme was again holding an Offense back as we noticed a group of new faces like Lewerke that could make plays. Then the Spartans went to Northwestern and the Offense started to look different. Not all at once, since you can't topple over a beast with just one push. That thing's got to rock back and forth a bit before it finally falls. But by the end of that triple-overtime loss to a special Northwestern team, the story of the game was a new life and look of the MSU Offense. It looked like a major page had been turned.

While it was not all smooth sailing early in the transition, it looked to tip over for good in the final week at Rutgers, and then exploded in the final three-quarters of the Holiday Bowl. MSU put up 40 points in consecutive games. The Spartans looked like they left the “run-first stubborn” approach in the dust for good as Mark Dantonio celebrated win 100 at MSU. Spartan Football was back on the national map, and more than just this writer looked at MSU as one of the few programs in the country positioned to take a shot at running alongside the two giants at the top of the sport for a while.

More than anything else in 2018, including the lineup shuffles and the mismanagement of the Quarterback situation, the root cause of the failures of the Offense lies in the “run-first stubborn” approach that Mark Dantonio and his staff fell back into. While losing grip of the Quarterback situation towards the middle of the season cost MSU a chance to win its biggest games, the overriding philosophy did more damage to the Offense from the beginning of the season through the final sluggish week. Now many actively wonder or suggest that it’s time for major changes to the Spartan Offense. That was not expected to be in the discussion for late 2018, but neither was a 7-5 and the statistics we looked at above.

It looks like the time has come for new leadership and new ideas to lead the Michigan State Offense. Any attempt to try and retrofit or revive the unit with what's currently working inside the Duffy Daugherty Building will not produce the results the vast Spartan Nation is expecting. Something more substantial is called for when you look at the cumulative results of recent seasons.

The 2019 team will again feature a big chunk of talent on Offense and there are plenty of fine coordinators and position coaches that would love the opportunity to work under Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. Some of them would surely make a great fit. While it’s not time for MSU to flip to a spread offense or start running the winged-t for an Offense, it is time to recognize reality, accept it, and do something about it, as Coach Parcells might say.

If Mark Dantonio chooses to stick with the type of Offense that got him to this point in time, look for the same kind of results in 2019. And bet on a very loud set of boo bids coming out in Spartan Stadium early next September. The balance of the Spartan Nation has lost patience with MSU trying to force a square peg of an Offense ("run-first stubborn") into a round hole. After struggling for the bulk of the last four seasons with it, folks are convinced it will not fit. They’re sold on it by now, so their tolerance for any additional tries to make it fit has worn quite thin.

Michigan State Football is presently lined up to compete with the best programs in the country on the field, in the classroom, off the field too. That's the level this program is operating at, and that's the level the Offense has to return to. It's up to Mark Dantonio to make that happen this offseason. By the sounds of it so far, not a whole lot may change. By the middle of next September production levels from the Offense need to be restored, or Spartan Football will start to slide back towards the "would-coulda-shoulda" type program that it had become before Mark Dantonio arrived as the Head Coach to fix it.

On the day he officially arrived back to East Lansing, Dantonio acknowledged the Michigan State University motto "boldness by design," and has since established that through the football program while building a career that is on the path for the College Football Hall of Fame. That day he also referenced the importance of mental toughness, wanting to be the best, and making sure that his players know what to do in order to be successful. He noted that sometimes you have to take risks to get where you want to be as a football program. Then he talked about filling out the Spartan Coaching Staff.

"We need to be coached at the highest level. So regardless of where we have to go to find that expertise, or whether that expertise exists here, football is a cutting-edge type of game. It's very innovative. So things are constantly changing, constantly changing in the game...," he explained. Looking back at that quote today, and then over at the results of the 2018 Spartan Offense, something stands out boldly. Mark Dantonio has to seriously consider making some big changes to restore and revive the stalled out Spartan Offense that cost Spartan Football so dearly in 2018.

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