The Outlook Moving Forward: Rutgers

Coming off their 37-15 win at Maryland, the Spartans return home for a Senior Day clash with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at high noon on the Big Ten Network.

Offense

This unit looked to be suffering from an Ohio State hangover more than any other group on the field. If it wasn’t that, was it the cold weather? Mark Dantonio, Connor Cook, and practically everyone else that was asked afterwards said that the 34 to 28 degree game temperatures were not a factor. It sure looked like they were. What else would explain Cook’s short throws early on, a couple uncharacteristic drops (Aaron Burbridge’s dropped Touchdown leading the way), and other instances beyond the MSU Offense where the ball became insecure.

Speaking as a man who covered the game from the sideline, it was cold and that may have been a factor because neither team had played in temperatures quite that cold so far this year. Lucky for both teams, they will greet those cozy temps again this Saturday. If the cold wasn’t a factor, we saw some very rusty play from the high powered Spartans Offense that has yet to be explained. It’s not that big a deal that Cook’s consecutive Touchdown streak was stopped, but it was surprising to see his play so far off from the level it’s looked for approximately the last calendar year now.

It seemed that after a certain point, the Offense accepted that Cook would not find a great rhythm Saturday night, so they decided to lean on their size and strength advantage over the Terps by pounding the ball. Jeremy Langford led the way going for over 100-yards, again, though Delton Williams and Nick Hill also got valuable reps. Hill even broke a long one late for a 33-yard Touchdown as the Spartans’ Offensive Line simply took and established their intent to finish 2014 playing their best. It would appear that MSU will want to pound the ball through the last two games as the polar vortex remains hanging in the air above.

Rutgers is like Maryland in that they cannot matchup with MSU physically. Not just their strength, but their size, agility, numbers, etc. The Spartans aren’t just competitive at the top of the Big Ten in those categories, they are among the best nationally. Sometimes College Football analysts act like the Spartans achieved the #3 ranked team of 2013 by accident. Maybe after 2014 ends, they’ll come around to the current Spartan reality.

Rutgers brings the 88th ranked Total Defense to East Lansing for Senior Day. They give up, on average, more than 28-points per game. Ohio State hung 58 on Rutgers about a month ago. Look for MSU to have a great shot at scoring 45 or more once again. They should be acclimated to the cold by Saturday, and could use a powerful bounce back performance heading into the Land Grant game.

Defense

The Spartans looked like they were about to get off to a huge start Saturday night when an easy interception was thrown towards Kurtis Drummond. Drummond looked like he was in store for a momentum building Touchdown return, but ended up dropping the ball all together. Later in the period, Drummond picked off the first of three from Maryland’s C.J. Brown on the night. Drummond’s personal bounce back mirrored the efforts of the unit for the evening. The Terps were short their best player in Stefon Diggs, and never looked like too much of a threat to the Spartans. MSU also recovered a fumble later on to end up winning the turnover battle 4-0. In short, the Defense got back on track last week.

MSU had no trouble making Maryland one-dimensional, holding them to 11-postive rushing yards on the day. Maryland was overmatched from the get go and struggled to string together many decent plays before the game was out of hand. At one point, it was 9-7, however, and the Spartans Defense was asked to hold the team together while the Offense struggled to a low 16-point 1st Half.

The night featured some of the future stars of this unit like Freshmen Malik McDowell. McDowell got a bunch of reps, continues to improve, and should have a very high impact on MSU’s 2015 and 2016 seasons. Rutgers may have the top Offensive Coordinator in the Big Ten, Ralph Friedgen, but they do not yet have anywhere near top talent needed to do compete successfully with the Spartans. The Scarlet Knights rank only 77th in the country in Total Offense, and 80th in Scoring Offense. If they can keep Friedgen around and get to a competitive Big Ten talent level, they should eventually become one of the league’s bigger producers. Saturday they may have a tough time scoring in the double digits. The Spartan Dawgs no doubt want to do their best to erase the horrifying memories of the Ohio State performance while sending the Seniors of this unit out on a fitting note for their fine Spartan careers.

Special Teams

Michael Geiger got it going again Saturday night. On a cold field kicking a cold ball, Geiger setup to the kicks much better, and made three in a row to open Spartans’ scoring. Granted, it was a disappointing that MSU, one of the top scoring Offenses in the country, had to rely on Field Goal tries early Saturday night. Yet, it was great to see that Geiger got his groove back.

It probably didn’t help that he was called on to try a 47-yarder in the latter Half of the 2nd Quarter when MSU was only up 9-7. The golf ball doesn’t fly as far at 32 degrees as it does at say 50 degrees, and neither does the football. So Geiger’s try from 47 was probably playing closer to 52 or so. It looked like he got under it slightly, causing it to come up just a couple yards short. Given the game situation, regardless of the result, it didn’t seem like the best idea to try at the time and it still doesn’t today.

Thanks to the polar vortex arriving before Christmas decorations have even been thoroughly dusted off, it should remain cold for MSU’s final two games. If MSU goes for field position instead of a Field Goal try that’s more than 40-yards, don’t be too surprised. Though MSU kick coverage has been a bit shaky this year, the Spartans have a proven Punter and Defense to rely on.

Mike Sadler has not had a great year, but sometimes post season awards are based on perception and past year’s performances, as silly as that sounds. If that is again the case this time around, Sadler’s 2014 will be perceived as much better than it’s actually been. Still, Spartan Football would not be where it is today without Sadler’s collective efforts over four years, and he may go down as the best punter in school history. That’s saying quite a bit because MSU has arguably the best kicking history in all of College Football. Plus, if it comes down to a tiebreaker between Sadler and other past MSU Punters at a future alumni get together, nobody’s got the history of pulling off fakes like Sadler does, and he may not be all done in that department quite yet.

MSU didn’t look completely solid on kick coverage again last week. This has been a down year in that area relative to the last couple. It’s not completely clear why it continues to be an issue, but maybe it’s too late to clean it up all the way before Bowl practices start. Safe to say, the Spartans will revisit this topic again, and had better be more careful and disciplined about staying in their lanes in the final two games or they could have another Touchdown broken on them before the year is done. If one of the final two opponents is going to scare MSU, a Special Teams play will probably spark it.

Overall

As I stepped on the Byrd Stadium sideline last Saturday the first thing that stood out was the physical disparity between the Spartans and Terps. MSU was far bigger, far stronger, and it was never going to be a fair fight. I was reminded of walking out on the Citrus Bowl field for the Alabama massacre after 2010. Well, maybe that one doesn’t look so bad now as it has aged to become a blip between National Championships for the Crimson Tide. We also now know just how shorthanded MSU was missing future pros in Will Gholston and B.J. Cunningham for that one. But without question on that day, especially at the line of scrimmage, Alabama stood out as far bigger, stronger, and faster. That’s what I remember walking around the Citrus Bowl during warmups, trying to eyeball what the game would end up to be. That’s how far Spartan Football has come since January 1, 2011, other teams now look at MSU in a similar way.

There are 18 Seniors that will take a final Spartan Stadium bow Saturday afternoon. Some like Marcus Rush will leave with records and a future spot in Spartan lure. All will leave with great appreciation from Mark Dantonio. Michigan State Football in 2009 was far from the program as it is today. It was, in fact, a very long way from it with most people doubting there would ever be the amount of success achieved between then and now. But there was a vision Mark Dantonio’s staff held, which that group of commitments ultimately believed in. “They had to put their trust in us as people…and believe in the process,” Coach D reflected earlier this week. “They’ve been critical to our success.”

The Seniors are not done yet, and should show a sense of urgency in these last two weeks that we have not seen before. That’s just what happens when you see the end approaching so fast. Two solid performances is all that separates them for a marquee Bowl game and a chance to achieve another Top-10 national ranking. One of the Seniors’ lasting legacies will be winning all of their Bowl Games during the era when Bowl records transformed from nearly an afterthought to arguably the most important toll that programs are measured by. And in case you’re new to the party here or have otherwise become complacent after 2013, back to back Top-10 national rankings have not happened very often around Spartan Football in a long, long time. There will not be a lack of inspiration for the Seniors over the next few weeks.

“All I can ask of our players is to play extremely tough and with high energy,” Dantonio said about his team as they prepare to close out 2014. “You build an identity in November,” he later concluded. Saturday afternoon we’ll get an indication of what kind of identity the 2014 Spartans want recorded in the history books. Spartan Pride is on the line.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Bo Pelini is a smart Coach when it comes to Defense. He has told me in past years that there is no question that playing good defense starts up front, by stopping the run. Wisconsin ran for 581 Saturday, blowing by the 539 the Huskers gave up to Bucky on the ground in the Big Ten Championship laugher of 2012. How can the Huskers retain Pelini if he wants to retain his Defensive Coordinator and many of the current position coaches?
  2. How embarrassing is the SEC slate of games this coming Saturday? Eastern Kentucky, South Alabama, Charleston Southern, Western Carolina, and Samford make up SEC opponents in 5 games on Saturday. Not only does the SEC benefit from being over hyped early in the season by featuring league games in the first few weeks, before anyone knows how good teams are, almost half of the league has backload their schedule with Cupcake U for a functional bye week heading into the rivalry weekend of Thanksgiving. Let’s see what kind of heat or perception hit they take for it cheapening the entire Playoff race down the stretch. Maybe their teams will drop for a lack of competition in next week’s rankings, but don’t count on it. Count on ESPN jokingly mentioning it and then breezing by it to other topics. I asked Coach D about it this week and he said, in part, “there’s very meaningful games down through the last three or four weeks of November (in the Big Ten.)” He added that November “should be when championships are won,” noting that exactly what players and fans of the game are looking for. The SEC should be hammered for allowing their teams to make a mockery of late November football.
  3. The Playoff Committee’s evaluation of Mississippi State’s performance against Alabama last Saturday confirms the fears some of us have had about this process since very early in the Fall. It also seems to confirm the minority view held about the Spartans trip to Oregon, and their failure to blow Nebraska away similar to what Wisconsin just did. People tend to only remember the end result and highlights, not the context of each game. Archie Manning looks even more like the winner right now for getting out of that thing because it shows no signs of pulling out from a nose dive to the finish.
  4. Lastly, a reminder that the NCAA does not run the CFB Playoff or Bowls, outside of setting the playing rules for the games. So in this case, don’t blame them for the final results.
Comments