Scouting Report & Prediction: Michigan State vs. Northwestern

Photo courtesy of Matt Cironi
Photo courtesy of Matt Cironi

Scouting Report and Prediction: #19/20 Michigan State 3-1 vs. Northwestern1-3

A look at this week’s opponent…

The #19/20 Michigan State Spartans have not played well as a team this season. Their best football is ahead of them. Ideally, they would be 4-0, but the reality is that they aren’t. They are 3-1 and if they win out (and they have the talent to do that) they will realize ALL of their goals other than being undefeated.

With that said, I am not a homer, but I am honest I want MSU to succeed. I still believe in these players and this staff. I do not agree with everything, but that doesn’t cause and hasn’t caused me to see enough to throw in my towel of expectations.

Mark Dantonio said of this weekend’s homecoming tilt with Northwestern that, “First off, it’s Homecoming weekend, so the campus will be exciting. Midnight Madness going on so it’s always exciting for our fans as well. So, a big weekend for us. Northwestern comes to town, good football team, I think their record sort of underestimates what they are as a football program, what they are as a football team. I think they play very, very well. Always been impressed with (Northwestern head coach) Coach Fitzgerald, what he brings to the table. Very good offensive quarterback in (Clayton) Thorson, he’s been very good against us. They have lost some players so they’re down some players as well, so we’ll see how all that shakes out. But defensively when you look at them, (NU defensive coordinator) Mike Hankwitz has been there forever, the defensive coordinator, he’ll know exactly what’s going on and to the detail. I was with him at Purdue University as a graduate assistant way back, so I know Coach Hank. (Linebacker) Paddy Fisher’s back, (defensive end Joe) Gaziano’s back, they’ve got some other starters back as well. They’ve got some other starters back as well, got some changes in the back end in the secondary offensively. Talked about their quarterback. (Wide receiver) Flynn Nagel is a guy that can make plays for them they moved (wide receiver/running back Solomon) Vault back in, number 4, back into the backfield from being a wide receiver, so you got a guy that can really effectively catch the ball as a running back. So it will be another big challenge for us.”

We will know this week what the Spartans are. Will they adjust? You can be balanced and still pass to set up the run rather than run to set up the pass. You can make adjustments or stay stubborn and lose. We shall see.

When MSU has the ball…

OC Dave Warner said of the Northwestern defense that, “As always, good defense. (NU defensive coordinator Mike) Hankwitz has been there for a long time, known him for a long time, and he always runs a very strong, but nothing complicated about his defense, you already know where they're going to be, but it's still difficult to plan against. They have a scheme that's been very good. We did not run the ball on them last year, we've got to find a way to get some yards on the ground game and not rely on the pass.”

He added that the Spartans must stay balanced to beat the Cats. “We need to be balanced. We threw the ball well on them (last season), but we lost the football game and that's the bottom line. Our formula is to be balanced, we run the ball 35-40 times a game, we end up winning a lot of those games, so we just need to find ways to get some yards on the ground and mix in the pass. Obviously, hopefully, he has a big day passing, we need him do that, but we also need to try to stay balanced.”

But Warner also let people know that while the Spartans must be balanced, he has a boss and let us into his earphones and his head coach. “It mostly depends on how Coach Dantonio is in my ear, how hard he's screaming in my ear. We try to make sure we're running the ball enough and we might not be getting the yards that we want to get running the football, but I think it's still important that we keep banging away in there and trying to get positive yards. It's definitely a difficult thing to try and weigh, especially if you're throwing the ball well. If you're throwing the ball well, the tendency is to keep throwing it. We still need to put the ball in our tailbacks' hands, we've got some good tailbacks and obviously, we know we have not run the ball well, but a lot of that so far has been because we haven't gotten those big explosive plays. We've been somewhat steady getting three, four, five-yard gains that's not enough, but what has sort of been missing is those explosive runs.”

I had a wonderful conversation with Brian Lewerke this week. I have always said going to back to the recruiting process, that I like him. Nothing has changed that. But he set the bar very high for himself last year and he hasn’t lived up to that standard this year. That isn’t a slight, it is a compliment to how talented he is.

Dantonio addressed Lewerke’s risk and reward play this season. “Well, I think we’re all chasing perfection and that’s what I’m doing as a coach, constantly trying to say, okay, what happened and was that a perfect ending to a play, I don’t care offense, defense, special teams. So you’re always chasing that. I think Brian gives us the best chance or opportunity to have that. To have that perfection at the end of that particular play. There’s going to be some inconsistencies, there always are, play calling, head coach decisions, how we tackle, all these different things. So the quarterback, obviously, is not immune to that. I think the quarterback gets more than his share of praise, so does the head coach when we win. And they get more than their share of criticism when things don’t go quite as well too. So that might be a route not run at the right depth or that might be a route not run consistently or a defender playing well or whatever it is, so there’s a lot of things that he has to go through, a progression of things that he has to go through every single play and that’s across the nation every single quarterback. And it’s a challenging position, but I think he’s doing a very good job and I can handle... I think as a coach like I said, you can throw five interceptions one game come back the next game and throw zero. And I would say five (interceptions) that was a loss, that was a win. I wouldn’t come back to say, well he’s thrown five in two games so that’s 2.5 per game and he’s not playing very well. I would look at it and then one was good, one was bad. So that’s what I’ve always tried to do, take every game and look at it and say and evaluate that one game opportunity and then move from there. I don’t know if I’m answering the question but I think he’s done a good job.”

OC Dave Warner said of Lewerke that, “I don't know if he's said this or feels this, I don't know, but I think he may have been pressing a little bit through four games resulting in some turnovers. Obviously, the turnover situation is one that we feel that we need to correct. We've had a couple red zone turnovers that if you take those out of the equation all of a sudden you put a few more red zone scores on the board and you're maybe feeling a little bit better. So I think just not press, just play the game, let guys do their job whether it's receivers or handing the ball off or dropping the ball down to the backs, just let them do their work and I think in the long run he'll play better and I think we can be better.”

Play calling has not helped MSU this year. The time has come to take the reins off of the offense. MSU did it last year AFTER the loss to Northwestern. MSU can’t reach their goals if they lose on Saturday.

The time is RIGHT NOW for Dantonio to take his foot off the brakes and let MSU free. I think he will based on what I am hearing.

When MSU is on defense…

Northwestern gets rid of the ball fast. It makes it almost impossible to get pressure. DC Mike Tressel addressed that this week, “Well with Northwestern, they get rid of the ball quickly. They understand first down, second down, and they really try to stay on track and stay on schedule. Gain five yards on first down, try to make sure the third downs are short and mediums and not long and that way they never have to keep the ball in the quarterback's hands too long. If it's third-and-12 the quarterbacks probably going to have to hold onto the ball a little longer and that's when your pressure can really get to be a factor, but if all you're throwing is quick game, it doesn't really matter how many people you bring.”

The Cats QB Clayton Thorson torched the Spartans over his career. Last year especially he took out the Spartans. Dantonio said of his performance last year that, “Yeah, he got some RPO plays, they hit some crossing routes where we blew a coverage or we didn’t have it right on or they rubbed us, and I can think of two instances last year where it created pretty big plays for them. So didn’t play well in overtime, turned the tight end loose in the flat in man coverage with him, ‘I got him and if he runs the flat, take him.’ So some of the things are on us. Some of the things are well-designed concepts.”

One advantage that the Spartans have is that they have plenty of film to study of the elusive and talented Cats gunslinger. Something Dantonio could not downplay as far as an advantage.

“Yeah, I don’t think it hurts, that’s for sure. You can see the mistakes we made and you can see how we can rectify those things and I think our players... you know we’ve all of our players predominantly back, so we played against that system in the past, they’re a hurry-up offense as well so we’ve got to prepare for that. A lot of different things you got to prepare for, you’ve got to tackle well in space, got to be able to pressure the quarterback at some points and then also you’ve got to play the ball in the deep part of the field and they force you to do that’s a well.”

DC Mike Tressel was blunt and honest about why Thorson torched MSU last year. “Probably mistakes, I mean you can't play three plays well and one play poorly, especially when that one poor play is a big play, and if you look at every one of those overtime periods there was at least one play that was a significant chunk and put us in a mode where we're really behind the sticks and were the ones on the defensive instead of being able to be on the offensive. So you just need to be sound every single snap and Northwestern's offense is the same type of deal, you need to execute every single snap. This is an interesting game because we do what we do, they do what they do, no one, for the most part, is trying to trick each other, we're trying to out-execute each other. It's always a good game in that regards.”

MSU must find a way to get pressure. That doesn’t mean sacks, but they must force quick decisions and make Northwestern one dimensional. Know this, the defense will not cost MSU this game. If the Spartans lose, it will fall on offensive play calling and execution.

Intangibles…

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.

MSU has been outscored 44-7 in the fourth quarter in the last three games. That is a terrible stat. Dantonio took it right on, “Well we got to finish. Some of these things, they’re all different scenarios, I haven’t really looked and said, ‘okay, what’s happened’ and itemized them, to be quite honest with you. But obviously this last week onside kick, trick play, one drive in the fourth quarter, which they were down on the 10-yard line, I think the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Arizona State game, that football game sort of, you know the storyline on that one. But a big drive in the fourth quarter, not a lot going on other than that. And then the Indiana game they scored, I guess, a field goal, maybe 10 points in the fourth. Something of that nature. So, yeah, you know, I guess you create another opportunity for me to go back and look at that again 

Dave Warner has come under intense criticism this year from the fans, after what I believe was an outstanding 2017 campaign. I have been called many names by fans when I make it clear that Warner has a boss. I mentioned that above. So I asked Dantonio about Warner and his role in the offensive game plan. Here is the complete transcript of our exchange.

  1. Your philosophy, your favorite quote this year has been, ‘hey, run that play that scored the touchdown again,’ and (MSU offensive coordinator) Dave Warner has come under a lot of criticism and several of us, not just me alone, but several of us who’ve covered you for a long time have tried to explain to fans, he has a boss and he does what you want. Would you talk about your involvement in the offensive game plan during the week, please?

MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, first of all, on game day itself I allow our coordinators to make these decisions. Now I’m going to always enter my opinions, maybe after the fact or before the fact, well before the fact, but I’m not going to disrupt play calling. I think if we get the play in fast, that’s as important as anything. Give our players time to digest what’s being called. It’s very difficult. Everybody across the nation is making these decisions in 20 to 30 seconds. Some work, some don’t. A lot of that depends on execution, repetition, and then what’s the defense being able to do. As far as my involvement in the offense, I’m going to look to say, are we doing these things, are we putting pressure on people on the perimeter, are we, what are we doing inside, what’s the basis of what we do. Do we have the concepts covered to be able to attack a defense from an offense perspective. Are we covering all the aspects? Do we have a screen game, do we have a perimeter game, do we have an inside run game, how do we throw the ball down the field, how do we attack the football field vertically, how do we attack the football field horizontally, all these different things. And then you’ve got to say okay, what do we rep? Because there’s only so many things you can rep and then you got to get things different ready for the game. Then I’m always self-scouting and saying, ‘what have we run already and when so and so is in the game what do we run?’ Then I walk back in and say, do a self-scout on what’s it look like on third and long when we get into third and long. Not just what we ran but how did we get into third and long. What’s not successful on first down and second down. And so I keep asking the tough questions and then I’m going to walk in and say, we need to run this. I did today. I would like to see this being run. Of course that will be the only one that doesn’t work (smiling). So I’m involved, but I let our coaches coach. I empower our coaches, I do that with the offense and the defense and our special teams. You have to do that because you can’t possibly be an expert on every subject matter. I’m not the expert on the offensive line. I know some, I have a foundation of football. I’m an expert I would say in the secondary in terms of how to play things and you could certainly point the finger back there too sometimes. So I try and learn and listen as much as I can and then I ask tough questions. And then I want to see certain things implemented.

Warner addressed the dynamic with Dantonio saying, “He's great on game day and certainly he has his opinion on things, but very rarely does he call for something that he definitely wants. He's going to suggest things, which is his job, a lot of them are good suggestions. But game day is great with him, he's great. I know what he wants, no doubt, I know what he wants. We meet before games and it's normally the same talk about what he's looking for as we go through the game plan offensively, it's normally the same thing that he tells me. So I know going into the game what he's looking for and what he wants.”

I said earlier that I believe this game WILL BE a turning point based on what I am hearing. I want to see it, but I do believe that is the plan. But Mike Tyson was famous for saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

MSU has the plan to change, will they stick with it? If they do, the Spartans are back. If they do not, this is going to be a long, tough season.

Extra Point…

The Spartans have the #1 rushing defenses in the nation. Now their pass defense numbers aren’t as good, but people who don’t understand the game are failing to understand that those numbers while not good, are skewed because NO ONE can run on them. They have completely made teams one dimensional and that is the goal.

Dantonio said of having the #1 rushing D that, “Last year we ended up No. 2, so we’ll see if we can do that... you know I think this, these type of things are made up over the course of the season, so we’re going into the heart of our season. So a lot of who we are and relative to run defense will be defined I think over these next four, five weeks. But we’re building a wall, we’re not getting knocked off the ball, we’re tackling well, we’re limiting, we’re leveraging the ball well, those type of things. We’re making it difficult. Consequently there’s a lot of RPO’s, which the quarterback pulls the ball, he could be handing it, could be pulling it, depending upon what he sees and there’s a lot of different things where they’re putting the ball on the perimeter where they’re considered a pass, but they’re really runs. If you look at them, a bubble was really like a run, a perimeter run. So you’ve got to throw all those things in there too.”

Tressel said of the passing defense that, “Pass defense is team defense. I mean it's pass rush, it's pass coverage, it's the underneath coverage with the 'backers, it is one hundred percent team defense you can't point out any position like, defensive backs, and say that. I will say this, I think we've looked at it, and teams are 75% pass against us and averaging over 55 pass attempts a game I think, so there's going to be some yards when that happens. We need to make those turn into more negative plays. There needs to be more strip sacks, there needs to be more interceptions, things like that, because when people do drop back and pass 55 times you ought to be able to pin your ears back and get after it.”

Every week, Northwestern releases an injury report. I think everyone should. Here is the Cats for this week:

Week 6 Injury Report

LB Nate Hall – OUT

CB Greg Newsome II - OUT

DT Ben Oxley – QUESTIONABLE

SB Trey Pugh – OUT

The 2018 Spartans have yet to find themselves. If they are going to and I think they will, it will be this weekend. Dantonio addressed that, “Yeah, I think you try and find your identity of every football team and you don’t know when that’s going to come. And I talked to our team yesterday about that, what’s our identity, we talk about here’s the goals we want to accomplish this next month. We’ve really been in two months of football, one month of camp and one month of four weeks of one Big Ten game and three out of conference games. So these next four games sort of start to define you a little bit. And then you chase November. You chase championships, you chase bowl games or you chase whatever in November. So these next four weeks are critical weeks, I think, for our football team. We’ve got to get some players back who are hurt, I think we’re going to do that, but again, guys such as Tre Person who played last week should be a better player. I thought he played well with the exception of one play. And that’s just an example. So I think you’re right, we start to develop an identity. If you go back to 2013 those first four games, who were we? After three games who were we? And then we lost to Notre Dame and then I think we started with Iowa, we started developing an identity and coming out in November we were playing our best football. That’s what you want to have happen. You want to play your best football through November.”

Warner said something this week that should inspire fans. He was open and honest and to me, he showed a glimpse into the Spartans changing mindset. “Overall we're not anywhere close to where we want to be. The word potential has been out there since January and we certainly haven't reached that yet. Haven't come anywhere close to that and we talk about what we're capable of as an offense and I think we all know that we haven't gotten there yet.”

Prediction…

To me this game is simple. I stick with my gut and predict MSU keeps the ship and the season on course. They have an adjustment to their plan from games 1-4 and it pays off this week. 14 of the last 29 Spartan games have been decided by 10 points or less. I do not think that is the case this week. I believe in this team. In the end, I say MSU wins this 35-20.

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