A look at this week’s opponent…
With all due respect, MSU must look in the mirror and play themselves on Saturday. This is gut check time right now. Their season goal of back to back Big Ten titles and another trip to the College Football Final Four, while not mathematically eliminated, is nearly gone. How will they respond?
Dantonio said, “We need to refocus as a football team. I don't think there's any question about that. Disappointing situation last Saturday, but that's what this game is all about. It's all-inclusive, and when you look at football, I think every play takes on sort of almost a life of its own. In that play there's got to be execution, there's got to be, I guess, play calls and things of that nature, but execution and decision making, split-second decisions. And then you've got to come down and make that particular play work, whether it's offense, defense or special teams.”
He bluntly added, “So it's coaching, its players, its plan, its execution, it's all those things. You need to do a better job in all those areas and it starts first of all with coaching better.”
When MSU has the ball…
While the MSU offensive line struggles, the easiest way to beat BYU is to see the MSU offense from the Notre Dame game prior to the Spartans admittedly taking their foot off the gas.
MSU passed to run versus Notre Dame and they ended up where they wanted to be with a dominant rushing attack. The Spartans need to come out on the attack with an attitude that the end results of rushing dominance is sacred, not how they get there. Pass to run.
While the BYU defense is far from dominant, remember the Spartans made the Hoosiers defense look like the Purple People Eaters. Dantonio said “Defensively, they play a lot of different people, a lot of different people. So they're going to keep their guys fresh. Receiver-wise, they've got guys going down the field. Bigger, wide receivers. Probably four of them with similar amount of catches or so.”
MSU OL Coach Mark Staten alarmingly said this week, “I think we always try and control the ball. That is always something that is our motto. We have always had great time of possession. We just don’t have the finish with that time of possession this year. We had that great drive to start the game and then we miss the field goal. All of that gets evaluated.”
If the MSU OL doesn’t come out knowing exactly what is going on they are in trouble. There is a sense of relief among some of the team to see several of the offensive linemen moving back to their original and more natural positions.
When MSU is on defense…
Mark Dantonio addressed the potent Cougar offense. “Taysom Hill is a guy that was hurt last year with the ankle injury, and before that, I believe with a knee injury, and he was a very productive quarterback prior to that. It gives him the ability to throw the football. He's thrown for over 1,000 yards, and he can run the football. So he's a threat in terms of pulling in on the zone read type thing, but he's a very, very good quarterback.”
He also added, “All their games have gone down to a two-minute drill. You look at their two-minute drill tape, I mean, it's large. You're talking five games, you've got 60-plus plays on it. So there is a lot to look at there and examine and say, okay, what are they -- how did they get into this situation? But they've lost a couple of very close games, and won two very close games.”
He loves the BYU running back and he should. “(Jamaal) Williams is the No. 1 running back in the country in yards after contact. I think he had 260 or 280 or so this last week against Toledo, big runs, breakaway guy, very good running back, number 21.”
The aforementioned BYU RB Jamaal Williams has all the Spartans worried. DL Coach Ron Burton knows that he is good and the aerial attack is deadly. Stopping the BYU rushing attack is critical. “Like any Big Ten back here, he is a guy that has done a tremendous job as far as running the ball. He is a stiff arm runner and gets yards after contact. That is our challenge is to be able to stop it. He is a good back and we are looking forward to the challenge against Mr. Williams.”
For BYU they can run the ball. If they implement the MSU attack from Notre Dame the Spartans are in real danger on Saturday. The Cougar offense has been bi-polar. Some games they have been potent and then stunningly like the Spartans they look anemic. If BYU passes to run, watch out. Pressure is critical for the Spartans D and it has been non-existent this year.
DL Coach Ron Burton said of his DL woes, “We will look at all of the guys inside. (DT) Kevin Williams, I will be looking for. (DL) Gerald Owens to be able to show up, we will have (Brandon) Clemons, who will do a great job. We have some guys up front that will really help us and get going. (DE) Auston Robertson can play inside and out. We have all hands on deck, that is for sure. (DT Mike) Panasiuk has done a tremendous job and will see more reps.”
Dantonio added, “So we've got to play defense like we know how to play, got to tackle in space, got to cover down the field. They'll be one-on-one. They create one-on-one match-ups. I don't think there's any question they create these whether you're in zoned coverages or manned coverages.”
I thought Mark Staten was unbelievable this week speaking to the media. In fact, it was the best he has been in the many years that I have known him. He was blunt honest about his offensive line failures. “We were a bit surprised inside. I don’t think we played as strong inside. We had been playing a lot more physical. I think they did a really nice job penetrating with their interior two guys. I think that had, I don’t want to say shocked our inside guys, but it looked like a wakeup call and I don’t know why. I figured out why after talking to them and going through it and all of that. At that point, it was like a smack upside the head. We recovered from it and had a few nice drives, but then just faltered for different reasons at the end. I think overall, we’re playing well enough to win, but not consistent enough to win.”
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don't remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus five ratio at least every game. For an understanding Indiana was +2 in that category last week versus Michigan State.
Dantonio addressed all of the intangibles that the rule of five encompasses. “You know, the turnover margin to me, we've got opportunities for three other turnovers just really four right off the top of my head. You know, they throw a corner route, and (Vayante) Copeland's got a chance to almost pick it. They throw one in the end zone and we've got a chance to pick straight and pick it. One goes through the hands of Andrew Dowell, and then Montae Nicholson taps the ball back in-bounds, Chris Frey taps it, we'll try to recover it, he tries to fall on it, he didn't get it, ball pops out of bounds. So those are four others right there.”
He continued, “So those are guys where it's a ball flipping this way, flipping that way, those are inches. All of a sudden, you come out four to one or 5-1 in turnover margin and it's a different type of game. As far as quarterback pressures and things like that, we've got to create those things schematically, and then also we've got to cut it loose a little bit. But there were three times where we had the guy and he got out of our grasp.”
MSU has been anemic with their attack of the QB. In fact, the MSU defense is completely dependent on pressure with their DB’s in single man coverage. The DB’s have not been as bad as they have looked. On an island with no pass rush to hurry the QB, any signal called will look like Peyton Manning.
In fact, Ron Burton talked about the Spartans lack of a rush. “Number one, just keep playing and experience. That is the opportunity that's presented, being able to be an attacking front and stopping the run. Consistency in doing that, you just have to finish that and that is what it is all about. Then, that puts you in a position to pin your ears back more for the pass, but, stopping the run has been our main focus and attacking it and then being able to stop the pass. That is our focus and that is how we transition to getting a better pass rush, is being able to stop the run consistently.”
OL Coach Mark Staten made a brilliant analysis earlier this week. He talked about how every game has mistakes; they have just come in combination at bad times this year. It is a great perspective and if you are honest, it wasn’t an excuse.
He said, “The flubs aren’t as grand, it is key times. It is the timing of them. We have had them before. They have been there throughout our time here, but just the timing of them this year. Sometimes the ball bounces to you and sometimes it bounces away from you, and it seems like it has been bouncing away from us more often right now.”
If the Spartans can’t get a pass rush and BYU is attacking through the air, the Spartans will lose. Dantonio addressed the pass rush in simple terms, “You've got to get a pass rush on them. You've got to pressure the quarterback. You've got to make it difficult for them to throw, or get the ball out quicker and then you've got to tackle in space.”
I am no longer convinced that the Spartans have learned their lesson on play calling despite what they say. Their backs are against the wall. Riley Bullough is not playing this week (look for him to return versus Maryland) but he gave an inspiring speech this week that fired up the entire team from coaches to players. Let’s hope they got it. I say 28-27 MSU.