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October 24, 2016 by Matt Hoeppner
When things start to bottom out, there will be no shortage of finger pointing to go around. Thus is the case with Michigan State football. The Spartans are coming off their fifth straight loss and a date with rival, and number two ranked, Michigan looms on Saturday.
If “fifth straight loss” sounds like something you don’t remember hearing about Michigan State lately, it’s because it isn’t. Until now the longest losing streak under Mark Dantonio was three games, which happened twice in Dantonio’s first three years. Since then the longest streak is two in a row.
It gets worse. Neither John L. Smith nor Bobby Williams ever had a five game losing streak at Michigan State. They had multiple four game losing streaks, including two four game skids in the same year for John L., but never five in a row. For that we need to go back to 1991 when George Perles and company lost five straight to open the season in route to a 3-8 campaign.
Much like winning, a fall of this nature is a collaborative effort. No one player or coach is to blame when things to this south, this fast. Everyone is to blame in some way. But for now I want to focus on one area where Michigan State has really failed this year, and that is leadership.
Leadership is a difficult thing to judge. It’s not something that is quantifiable statistically, so you can’t just bring up the leadership statistics and say, “yep, there’s your problem right there!” There are also different definitions of what leadership is depending on who you talk to. Some believe leadership involves a “rah rah” speech at halftime or on the sidelines. Some will tell you it’s more about leading by example. Others will deny its existence or importance all together.
Tom Izzo puts a lot of stock into player leadership and its positive effects on a team, so I for one will tend to take his word for it when it comes to the mere existence and importance of team leadership.
For the Michigan State football team, their leadership has failed them in 2016, both on the field and on the sidelines.
One doesn’t need to look any further than Saturday’s game against Maryland to see how the on field leadership has failed.
In just a little over 10 minutes of action, fifth-year senior and captain of the defense, Riley Bullough amassed three personal foul penalties and was ejected for targeting. After coming off a game where the Spartans defense was shredded by Northwestern, they lose the quarterback of their defense in the first quarter.
Riley Bullough was flying around early in the game, clearly trying to make something happen and playing with passion for a defense that badly needed some life infused into it after last weekend. But Bullough wasn’t playing in control and after getting called for a blatant late hit out of bounds and a roughing the passer call, he needed to be smarter. He wasn’t, and Michigan State lost arguably their most important defensive player for the rest of the game. MSU’s linebacking corps was already shorthanded due to a variety of injuries, losing Bullough only made matters worse. To pick up three personal foul penalties and get ejected in about 10 minutes of game time is completely unacceptable. When you factor in that Bullough is a fifth-year senior, and a captain, it makes it almost unconscionable.
Later in the game, there was more disastrous play from one of Michigan State’s captains. This time it was fifth-year senior Demetrious Cox allowing D.J. Moore to run wide open for a 36-yard touchdown catch. After the game Mark Dantonio said that Cox was in the wrong defense on the play. A fifth-year senior captain not knowing which defensive scheme they are in? That should not happen.
Michigan State’s other captain is quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who has been benched in multiple games this year, and eventually lost the starting role to red-shirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
Going back to Tom Izzo, the Hall of Fame coach likes to say that a team will only be as good as its seniors. Looking through that lens at the football team and it’s no surprise that Michigan State is 2-5 right now.
The captains on the field have struggled to perform, and have not been able to rally their team when things take a turn for the worse. If leadership is stepping up and making a play and leading by example, these three have not done that, and neither has anyone else.
Meanwhile, I don’t believe that the players should shoulder all the blame for the struggles of the Michigan State football team. The players certainly are not making enough plays, but as I have said for a few weeks now, I don’t believe they are being put in a positon to succeed either.
The coaching staff has failed their leadership test as well, and judging by the way Dantonio sounded after the Maryland game, he knows it. He also sounded like a guy who doesn’t have any answers to a problem he didn’t see coming. Maybe that lack of foresight is part of the problem. Maybe an unwavering confidence in the coaching staff’s ability to squeeze every last drop of talent out of even the most mediocre players led them here. Whatever the reason, the coaching staff is certainly culpable in this mess.
I, along with many others, have taken issue with the offensive play calling. But that isn’t the only issue. The team consistently looks confused before and during plays. How many times have a quarterback and running back run into each other in the backfield this year? Penalties have been piling up at an alarming rate, the calling card of an undisciplined team. Special teams play has been a nightmare for a second straight year. The defense, even when starting out the game well, withers in the second half.
And Dantonio isn’t free of criticism either. The call to run a fake field goal at the end of the first half against Maryland was one of the most bizarre and awful calls I have ever seen. It was completely illogical and had almost no chance to succeed even in the best of circumstances. For Dantonio to try something like that tells me that he is completely at a loss for what to do with this team. For whatever reason, they just aren’t responding.
Top to bottom the 2016 Michigan State football team’s leadership has failed, and no one has stepped up to fill that gap. On Saturday Michigan will bring its undefeated record and number two ranking to East Lansing, with revenge for last year’s stunning loss on their mind. If ever there was a week for the Spartans to circle the wagons and find a spark, this is the week. I just don’t see it happening. Most MSU fans are resigned to their team’s fate this weekend, the only question is whether the team feels the same way. We will have to wait until Saturday to see.
For the sake of a new post after the lengthy absence of our precious TUS site I offer Matt Hoeppner’s break down of the debacle that was MSU’s 4th straight loss:
Now for the play that basically ended the game for Michigan State. After closing the gap back down to two points, Solomon Vault took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to the house.
And now for the play that sent many a fan to the exits, and probably resulted in a thrown remote or two from Michigan State fans watching at home.
Over-pursuit, bad angles, and poor tackling cost Michigan State time and time again in this game. It is just not something you expect from a Mark Dantonio defense. But that’s what happened on Saturday.
That is all I can stomach for this week. Maryland is up next for the Spartans under the lights in College Park.
October 18, 2016 by Matt Hoeppner
There is a lot to be said about the 2016 Spartans, and many people opining about the issues facing a 2-3, three losses in a row Mark Dantonio team. And since everyone from talking-head pundits to the corner bartender to Auntie Em have provided their solution, I thought I would chime in with a thought about it as well.
While Coach D has said every aspect of the program is on the table, to me that is more about cover talk so as to not put the heat on any particular coach. Yes, there is a need to review all pieces to this puzzling start, but personally, I don’t see the need to make a broad-based program alteration. So I will concentrate on the area that seems the most obvious place to start. No, I am not examining the QB. It’s more about the horses. Allow me to give you a little history lesson before proceeding.
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The best and brightest have defined insanity. That definition seems to embody the execution plan (e.g., a off tackle running play) employed by the Spartan coaching braintrust in yesterday’s game for MSU football.
For the most part, Spartan football players could not execute at any-level and the coaching staff was unwilling (or incapable) of establishing the need for any type of material adjustment to the plan.
I would say that Mark Dantonio’s post-game comment of “Gotta look at everything we do,” suggests MSU Football can claim temporary insanity as it defense for yesterday’s complete humiliation at the hands of the BYU Cougars. MSU was run-over by BYU, offered a hand by gracious sportsmanlike Cougars, only to be run-over again on the ensuing snap from the line of scrimmage. The young BYU squad is only 3-3 on the season, however they are a total of 7 points away from being 6-0. Their matchup against SEC Mississippi State will provide a better measure of the Cougars mettle than the MSU outcome. Who could have honestly made that observation in August?
MSU Football has lived at the upper echelon of the B1G Conference and college football for many, many years. And even with so many player-personnel questions for 2016, who – with the exception of Eyeore – could have seriously believed that MSU would be this inept. Not me! Most of TUS membership – even the “Brian Lewerke is the starting QB before seasons end” predicting Eyeore – discussed the possibility, even likelihood of a downturn resulting in 8-4 or 7-5 2016 season for MSU. If I recall The Pre-season Report by 89 hinted that with a few bad-turns a 7-5 season was possible. The chances of a 2-10, 3-9, 4-8 outcome were deemed as virtually impossible for a MD team.
There are seven games remaining in the 2016 regular season for MSU. So I ask TUS Membership, what say you?
Important Facts to Know
Albert Einstein was heavily recruited by Henry Keep in 1896 to play varsity football in America starting in 1897. MSU then known MAC (named after MAC’s Bar & Grill in Lansing) played in the MIAA league. Einstein was a two-way football star* and four-year letterman for Munich’s Lutipold Gymnasium. Albert was known to the sports-media, recruiting experts, fans, and, Lee Corso as “the speed of light.” Albert declined the advances of the Aggies and attended Zürich Polytechnic stating “three-yards and a cloud of dust may be the cats-pajamas in the midwestern United States, but they are 23-skidoo for me, so I am seeking something like, you know, basically, I mean, something like 186,000 miles per-second and a cosmic cloud of dust and Zürich Polytechnic is where I’m taking my skivvies and Girl Friday.”
One of Einstein’s first big published works “Folgerungen aus den Capillaritätserscheinungen” was originally to be titled “The advantages of the repeated use of the run game – no matter what.” However the Tressel Foundation claimed the title was of their copyright and could not be used by a guy who had earlier advocated for the West Coast Offense.
* Rated ESPN Top 100 (#26), MAXKrautPreps (#17) MonarchyRivals (#19).
To put things briefly, the Spartans might have only 30 minutes to stay on track for bowl eligibility.
MSU has shown no evidence that it can beat the B1G’s undefeated teams. Losing at home to the BYU Cougars (2-3)—a team similar to MSU on offense and defense, but with lesser overall talent and a first-year coaching staff—would gravely reduce MSU’s prospects of sweeping Northwestern and Penn State. Since one must assume a 5-7 MSU will not play in a bowl (and lose three crucial weeks of practices), Saturday’s game is almost must-win.
Why 30 minutes? Because the first half of the game must be played without Malik McDowell. Since Raquaen Williams will not play at all, the Spartan interior defensive line will be punctured in the first half by running back Jamaal Williams [jersey #21]—the nation’s leader in yards after contact per carry. The Cougars will be able to both run and pass (somewhat) in the first half, which will tire the Spartan defense and minimize the chances for a halftime Spartan lead.
McDowell’s return should allow MSU to pull ahead in the third quarter, but BYU is as good in the fourth quarter as MSU has been awful. Furthermore, BYU has superior special teams, and should win the turnover battle. BYU could win by 10 points.
But so could MSU.
If the Spartans are smart, they will keep attacking BYU through the air and rush with Holmes and Shelton. The Report projects a median outcome of Spartans 24, Cougars 23.
The Raequan Williams injury; McDowell suspension; and offensive-line challenges of last week have precipitated major changes on both lines. Right guard Brandon Clemons [#64]—a four-star defensive recruit—will play for McDowell and stand in for Williams after halftime. True freshman defensive end Auston Robertson [#94] will play William’s spot before halftime. (A. Dowell and S. Jones remain the Star and Mike LBs until further notice.) Clemons will miss most of the offensive snaps; it appears that Beedle, McGowan, and Higby will be at the guard spots. B. Allen is now at center, and Kieler is now the left tackle. Dantonio thought Machado improved last week, so he will remain at right tackle.
More than injuries and the expanded B1G schedule are responsible for MSU’s worst start since 2009. Special teams remain ineffective except for punter Jake Hartbarger. Blocking and pass rushing have been inconsistent or worse; the latter has affected pass defense, and the former has affected the backfield. LJ Scott seems more hesitant in finding his way from behind the O line. More broadly, O’Connor has been vilified for his faults: Inaccuracy, telegraphing targets, check-down failures, taking unnecessary sacks, and throwing too many interceptable footballs. But confusion about packages and formations—as well as discipline breakdowns evidenced by penalties and other mis-executions—on the part of several other players have limited MSU’s ability to outscore its foes. The coaches’ play calling is also bemoaned by fans—most incisively cast in terms of an unwillingness to tailor plays to the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel at hand.
MSU’s responses (in addition to the aforementioned changes) are summarized by Dantonio’s comments and a time-honored student tradition. On Tuesday, Dantonio said that coaches “have to reexamine what you’re doing, reexamine how you’re doing it, and make some good decisions.” Later, he added, “As a player, you have to dig deep a little bit sometimes.” The student tradition, of course, is the players-only meeting that every hitherto-successful group seems to have upon losing two games in a row. If these things lead to better outcomes from the coaching end and at least renewed vigor on the players’ part, then there is a chance to salvage much of this season.
It must begin with defeating the anomaly that is Brigham Young football. The Cougars have won two games by a total of four points—and have lost three games to currently ranked teams by a total of seven points. Which this seems to be the quintessence of playing at the level of one’s opponent, Kalani Sitake—a long-time Utah defensive coordinator and the FBS’s first Tongan head coach—attributes the close final scores to BYU’s inability to play a complete game so far.
The inability is understandable. Sitake has never been a head coach—and his assistants, while talented, are in unfamiliar roles. Last year, BYU had a 3-4 defense. This year it has a 4-3 defense with less-than-amazing cornerbacks playing a lot of man-to-man coverage. (Hence the Report’s exhortation that they be exploited.) Last year it had a no-huddle spread offense. This year, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer is emphasizing huddling, tailback rushing, and pro-style drop-back passing—to the consternation of fans that insists it wastes the talents of starting dual-threat QB Taysom Hill [#7]. Playing in disparate time zones and elevations, and a tough schedule, are additional obstacles to quick success with a new program.
Still, it must be frustrating to first give up only 18 points/game through three weeks, then see that number double and triple in successive weeks just as one’s offense is gearing up. Last Friday, BYU beat Toledo as time expired. Sitake was understandable pleased with his special teams and offense; the latter scored 55 points on a defense that had been allowing only 26 points/game. But he was displeased with his defense’s surrender of 53 points. “In order to play this style of defense,” he said, “we need more guys to believe and play the right technique. One guy makes a mistake or tries to do his own thing and they just happened to capitalize on it right away. I wasn’t really happy with the fundamental part of tackling and that had a lot do with the technique and body positioning. When your technique is poor, it’s going to affect tackling. I’m disappointed in the big plays that turned into big scores.”
Whether those defensive woes persists into Saturday remains to be seen, but Members can hope. “Hope” also applies to containing Jamaal Williams, who might become BYU’s all-time leading rusher. He scored five touchdowns on 286 yards rushing last Friday; on the year, his 6.4 y/carry is comparable to that of Gerald Holmes (although Williams is a little taller) and he averages 21 rushes/game. His ability to churn between the tackles is enhanced by what would be one of the better centers in the B1G and Algernon Brown [#24]—the best fullback MSU will see all season. (The other blockers are undistinguished, but O-line coach Mike Empey was named the coachingseasch.com National Assistant Coach of the Week after the Toledo game. BYU is good at preventing tackles for loss.)
(Hill rushes about 11 times per game, not counting sacks. On such runs he averages ~5.5 y/carry.)
Hill has no favorite receiver. His completion percentage is under 60% and he has been averaging 34 throws/game. He averages only 5.7 y/attempt; has a touchdown rate of 2.9%; an interception rate of 3.5%; and a sack rate (which is computed differently than the others) of 6.6%. (O’Connor ‘s numbers: 7.1 y/att; TD rate 6.8%; INT rate 4.3%; sack rate 6.4%.) The WRs are not especially sure-handed.
The Cougar rush defense allows only 3.8 y/carry [cf. MSU’s 3.1]. But they have given up 9.1 yards per pass attempt [MSU 7.9]. In long-yardage situations they are the second-easiest team in the nation to succeed against, according to Football Study Hall. On the other hand, BYU averages 1.8 INTs seized per game. The best defensive back MSU has seen so far this year, free safety Kai Nacua [#12], has gotten four this year. Since BYU’s LBs are pretty good at forcing fumbles, it would be surprising for MSU to break even in turnover margin.
(MLB Butch Pau’u [#38] was out vs. Toledo and is questionable for Saturday. Pau’u is their leading tackler and has averaged 1.5 tackles for loss per game.)
Special teams coach Ed Lamb was a finalist, twice, for the Eddie Robinson Award when he was coaching Southern Utah. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Cougar coverage units are reasonably good; the Report estimates that MSU might lose about five yards of field position per exchange kicks and punts. (MSU’s defensive superiority should cancel that out, however.) Their current kicker is perfect on field goals. In contrast, Michael Geiger, at 40%, is arguably the worst kicker in the B1G so far this year.
Kickoff is at 3:36 PM EDT. ABC will televise the game in most of the US; Members in New England, New Jersey, or the greater Southeast should be able to find the game on ESPN2. GO GREEN!
Michigan State University Football – for the past decade – has had an extraordinary run of success as a football team. Unless a miracle happens is it over? What say TUS Membership?
It appears a series of (some of which border on being brain-dead) personal fouls, and complete confusion on key offensive plays (even after calling timeout because of confusion) allowed Indiana to defeat the Spartans 24-21 in Overtime.
There are unconfirmed reports a Hologram image of John L. Smith appeared throughout the game played in Bloomington Indiana. Other reports claim it was a 5-point Buck that got away from Northfork Rancher.
To put things briefly, Dantonio’s Spartans could lose to the Hoosiers for the first time in eight contests.
If they lose, they will be the first MSU team to lose to Indiana since 2006. If they win, they will have shown only that they can beat a lower-echelon B1G team after a huge, unexpected loss.
That team also had a bad Game Three. Indiana out-gained undefeated Wake Forest by 259 yards, but the normally high-octane quarterback Richard Lagow [jersey #21] also threw five interceptions. Plus, IU had a field goal blocked. Nonetheless, the Hoosiers lost by only five points.
Although Devine Redding [#34] had five straight 100-yard rushing games, Wake Forest contained him—implying that MSU can make IU one-dimensional. But if IU’s two best offensive linemen are able to play, the Hoosiers have a chance to keep MSU honest. Meanwhile, IU’s passing game, with its receivers for almost every occasion, is the B1G’s best at moving the ball. The performances of safety Demetrious Cox and nickel back Jalen Watts-Jackson last week will prove disastrous if they are duplicated Saturday night. And if Riley Bullough does not play, defensive adjustments may suffer at times.
The B1G’s worst defensive line should allow MSU to run, and the Hoosiers’ pass rush is among the B1G’s weakest. But IU’s back seven is markedly better; the defense is not going to yield seven touchdowns as it has in recent years.
MSU is used to night games. But is it better than in 2012? IU certainly is. Projected median outcome: Spartans 27, Hoosiers 24.
That huge, unexpected loss was, of course, to Wisconsin—which has now beaten two Top Ten teams for the first time since 1962. For MSU, it was the first B1G game since 2011 in which it did not score a TD—and the first such home conference game since 1985. O’Connor—who now has the B1G’s largest interception rate [6.1%]—has been the primary focus of blame. But Dantonio was in the unusual position of calling out RB pass-blocking technique—and he implied that protect recognition, execution, and physicality were all shortcomings of those blocking for O’Connor. Still, offensive coordinator Dave Warner and he did take O’Connor to task. “I think he needs to handle the pressure better,” Warner said. “He threw off of his back foot a couple times and got the ball picked.”
Dantonio assured the press that the players’ toughness, effort, and leadership were all in place last Saturday. “There were enough good things that did happen and you saw enough good players playing well and hard that I think our future is still very bright”
That may be. But it will depend on improvement in check downs, targeting stealth, and accuracy on O’Connor’s part. The offense must also learn to adjust its protections and learn to either change plays at the line or call time out at critical moments. And the staff bears some responsibility for not identifying, sharing, and propagating information that might have improved pass protection before the Wisconsin game was out of reach; e.g., Warner did not know RB blocking was an issue until he saw game film.
It will also depend on how well MSU’s talented backup linemen can perform. Shane Jones [#49] did well vs. Wisconsin in place of R. Bullough. But now Star LB Jon Reschke is out indefinitely with injury; it is unclear who will be in charge of setting schemes, stunts, and adjustments. (Dantonio, in passing, did indicate that safety Grayson Miller [#44] could relieve Andrew Dowell [#5] at Star if necessary—which implies that Dantonio is confident that Cox will learn from last game’s mistakes.)
Naturally, the Hoosiers want to brighten their future. Their pass protection—and especially their run game—will be enhanced if their O line is fully healthy. Right tackle Dimitric Camiel [#77] is above average by B1G standards. But Dan Feeney [#67] is probably the best guard in college football and can really make a difference; he is one of a very few college players that could block Malik McDowell one-on-one with any regularity. Without these blockers, the Hoosiers have been giving up several tackles for loss per game.
Lagow is not mobile. But he leads the B1G in passing yards per game ; per completion [15.9]; and per attempt [9.9]. Because of Wake Forest, he does have the B1G’s third-highest INT rate [5.0%]—and it appears that pass rushers got into his head enough for him to draw and unsportsmanlike penalty. Despite the INTs, he is still fifth in pass efficiency and in completion percentage [62.4%] among B1G QBs.
He has three main targets. Nick Westbrook [#15] and Ricky Jones [#4] average nine catches per game between the two—and 21+ yards per reception. Westbrook, in particular, generates tons of yardage after the catch, and his height has contributed to his TD tally (four in three games). (Jones, for his part, had 208 receiving yards last week.) Mitchell Paige [#87] averages five catches/game and reliably moves the chains. He also had two punt-return TDs last year. Lagow averages seven completions/game to other Hoosiers (three to RBs). Copious passing and no-huddle drives reduce the Hoosier seconds/play average to a somewhat fast 23.6 [cf. MSU’s somewhat slow 27.8]. The pace also means that the Hoosiers have rushed for more yards/game than the Spartans despite the parity of their yardage/rush. (Which is 4.25. Not good—although the Spartans’ endurance of the Badgers gives them something of an excuse.)
Wake Forest came into Bloomington averaging less than 250 yards allowed per game. The Hoosiers amassed 611 yards on the Deacons—496 on Lagow’s passing alone.
IU’s offense, like MSU’s, has taken ~17 yards to generate each point scored. (The Report considers ~14 y/pt to be average.) Situational conversions have been problematic for IU: Its final-down conversion rate is the B1G’s worst, and its TD percentage inside the red zone is second worst [40%]. Indeed, its general red zone performance is the third worst in the nation; 40% of the time it has failed to score. The Hoosiers have yielded two turnovers/game (4th-worst in the B1G); the Spartans, slightly more.
Indiana hired a new defensive coordinator. He runs a 4-2-5 defense; the fifth DB is a “Husky” and is more of a LB-DB hybrid than a nickel back. The two LBs are quite good; between them they average ~15 tackles/game, including two TFLs/game. Cornerback Rashard Fant [#16] averages two defended passes per game—third in the nation. (He is tied with Darian Hicks.) Fant is also 3rd in the B1G in punt-return average [10.3 y/return]. Notably, safety Jonathan Crawford [#9] has recovered two fumbles in three games.
Both defenses seize turnovers at the decent rate of two per game, and both are very good at limiting opponents’ first downs [~18/g]. But both are below average in stopping final-down conversions—and even poorer in getting sacks. The Hoosiers are 3rd in the B1G in pass-efficiency defense, and while IU gives up a respectable 6.3 yards/throw; MSU is nearly the B1G’s worst at 7.2 y/t. The Hoosiers are 4th in the B1G in INTs/g; in fact, they have two pick-sixes on the year. In contrast, MSU recovers a B1G second-best one opponent fumble/game.
IU is pretty good at preventing adversarial TDs in the red zone [allowed on 44% of opportunities]. MSU is quite bad—allowing adversarial TDs 80% of the time. Unfortunately, MSU is the worst team in the FBS in preventing red-zone scores; it has yet to deny points to any foe on any RZ opportunity.
Both teams are working on improving special teams. IU has allowed two kicks to be blocked; only two FBS teams have allowed more. Its blocked punt rate [7%] is worse than 95% of other teams. Its net punting is 4.5 y/punt worse than MSU’s. (MSU leads the B1G in net punting.) Kickoffs may be a wash—although Devonte Williams [#7] is probably better at returns than any Spartan thus far in 2016. Griffin Oakes was the Bakken-Andersen Kicker of 2015; he keeps his kicks strictly in bounds.
Expect IU to have four more penalties than MSU. (IU’s are generally of average distance, per penalty.) MSU should win time of possession by about five minutes. Odd-numbered quarters are when IU seems to do best. The Spartans have been best in the second quarter—and worst in the fourth.
MSU players will honor Mylan Hicks by displaying the numeral “6” on the backs of helmets, and by wearing black shoes and socks. (M. Hicks preferred black Spartan gear to other styles.) No announcement has been made on uniforms, but black would be a viable option—because, it recognition of breast cancer, the Hoosiers are wearing pink.
To put things briefly, this is an unfortunate week for Wisconsin to visit MSU.
The inaugural episode of BTN Tailgate will be held before the game. By itself, that would perk up a normally mild-mannered noontime atmosphere. But “posthumous honors for [MSU punter] Mike Sadler” will ensure a keen emotional pitch for Spartans and their fans.
It is tough enough for the Badgers to play their first game beyond Wisconsin’s borders where UW has not won since 2002. But they also will be without four key backups; their kick returner; and their star place-kicker. And their starting left guard; tailback Corey Clement [jersey #6]; and another key TB are all questionable for Saturday. And a redshirt freshman QB will be starting for his first time.
Presumably, the chips will be on the Badgers’ shoulders. They will be bouncing back from a poor game last week, and are certainly nauseated with Rocket video clips and Spartan hype. Their defense is monstrously more stifling than those of Furman and Notre Dame—and their kickoffs and punts will often ensure long fields for MSU. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook [#12], in limited action, has been more potent than Tyler O’Connor has been. A replay of 2015’s MSU-OSU game—with MSU in OSU’s role—is an unlikely but ironic possibility.
The Spartans will likely win. But no Dantonio team has beaten UW by more than 10 points. Ultimately, the fitness of banged-up Badgers—especially Clement—will determine whether the final score looks like 24-17 or 24-10.
Clement is 5’11’ and weighs 227 pounds. “[He has] got great change of direction, gets vertical,” according to Dantonio. “He’s powerful; he can run.” He has a career 7.0 yards per carry average and is second in the B1G in rushing touchdowns per game this year. Wisconsin likes to rotate at least three TBs—which undoubtedly enhances their ability to advance the ball. That rotation will now necessitate less palatable options with or without Clement.
Clement’s backup is team captain Dare Ogunbowale [#23]—a pretty good back that has been only fair this year. He and the non-Clement TBs have had trouble hitting holes at times, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Ogunbowale had a 41-yard kick return last week and may do more return work—especially if Clement can play. Like the Spartans, the Badgers are in the bottom third of the B1G in y/carry average—partly because both teams have rushed over 45 times per game and defenses have adjusted accordingly.
(MSU’s Gerald Holmes [#24] currently has the B1G’s second-longest rush [73 y] this year. LJ Scott—who shares Mike Sadler’s jersey number—is third in the B1G in y/game.)
Hornibrook has looked cool under pressure and is a particularly accurate downfield passer. He is more mobile than the QB he displaced but does not have a cannon for an arm. He has averaged 10.2 y/throw on 17 attempts versus mid-major defenses; while one of his four incompletions was intercepted, the receiver was mostly at fault. Two of his targets—a 6’6” tight end [#81] and wide receiver Jazz Peavey [#11]—each have had 100-yard games. Peavey is generally thought to be the biggest quick and deep threat, but Robert Wheelwright [#15] led all Badger receivers in TDs last year. The Badgers have passed ~30 times per game; given their TB and left guard worries and MSU’s run defense, they may pass more on Saturday.
(The UW offensive line is sophomore-based but averages 322 lbs. It is fifth in the B1G at preventing tackles for loss, but Potrykus thought blocks were being missed at the line of scrimmage last weekend—against a poor D-line. UW’s center is one of the B1G’s best, but not good enough to routinely block McDowell by himself. Note that if #75 is not the left guard, the Badgers will probably be in trouble.)
Passing might cut into UW’s time of possession. But with an average of 38.4 minutes/g [cf. MSU’s 34.2 min/g], it might be able to spare the time. Another feature of Wisconsin, according to Scott DeCamp of MLive, is its dominant starts: It has out-gained foes in the first quarter this year by an average of 147 yards to four. The problem is that UW—like MSU—has not scored as many points as its yardage totals would normally imply. Worse still, its injured place-kicker scored 1/3 of UW’s points (including 2.67 field goals per game). The replacement is supposedly good, but UW’s scoring is bound to suffer on Saturday despite MSU’s minor deficiency in yards/point allowed.
(Among qualifying QBs, O’Connor is 5th, 6th, and 9th nationally in pass efficiency, completion percentage [73%], and yards/throw [9.8], respectively)
But UW has a strong overall defense that will help mitigate its struggles on O. It runs a 3-4 to take advantage of one of the nation’s best linebacker groups. Outside LB Vince Biegel [#47] is one of the B1G’s (and, therefore, the nation’s) best; Lindy’s magazine called him the B1G’s “best pass rusher”. (His counterpart is OLB TJ Watt [#42].) Expect Biegel to tackle a Spartan for a loss. The ILBs are among the better B1G LBs. Olive Sagapolu [#65] is one of the B1G’s better nose tackles, and their defensive ends are above average.. This septet is the heart of the B1G’s second-best scoring defense and has held foes to 3.3 y/rush.
(Although MSU has given up more points than UW, the Spartan rushing D is a B1G-best 2.5 y/rush allowed.)
Superficially, both teams have among the weaker pass Ds in the B1G; each has given up ~7.1 y/throw. But MSU has faced a more potent pass attack than UW has seen. (To be sure, UW has faced tougher defenses, overall, than MSU has.) Not surprisingly, UW’s cornerbacks are averaging three passes defended (= those broken up + intercepted) per game—and MSU’s CBs are averaging 2.5/game. If last week’s game against (0-3) Georgia State was instructive, quick passes can harry the Badgers. “They were able to get some really explosive plays off,” in the words of CB Sojourn Shelton. Spartan fans know the feeling—and this is an instance where it is better to do unto others…
Sidebar: Wide receiver RJ Shelton was recruited by MSU to be a tailback. He is from Wisconsin; both of his parents were athletes for the Badgers. Chris Solari of the LSJ wrote about the “ball-flip” passes that Shelton has been capitalizing on recently. “That ball-toss does two things,” writes Solari. “One, it turns a potential fumble into an incompletion if the ball hits the turf. Two, it eliminates the slowdown of the sometimes clunky handoff procedure and generates more rhythm to flow for the receiver getting the ball.” Note that the flip must be forward for the first point to be valid. Also, classical handoffs allow quicker ball security; there is an elevated risk of something going wrong compared to the otherwise less-productive rushing play. So far, rewards have far exceeded risks.
Wisconsin’s D is very good at stopping 3rd and 4th downs; while MSU is strong on the former, its 4th-down defense leaves much to be desired. Furthermore, the Spartans appear to be among the B1G’s worst at stopping teams from scoring TDs in the red zone (thanks to Notre Dame). And frankly, MSU’s pass rush (three sacks in two games) is anemic. When asked what MSU might do to improve its pass rush, Solari opined, “Need to increase pressure up the middle. Might mean keeping McDowell inside more often, getting more snaps out of [D tackle] R. Williams [#99] – that’s the best combo right now.” There have been signs of improvement; the Report expects defensive end Demetrius Cooper [#98] to register a TFL on Saturday at some point. And separately, MSU’s one fumble recovery per game is fairly good.
Unfortunately, the Spartans and Badgers are tied for 2nd-worst in the B1G for interceptions thrown [one/game]. If the run defenses have their way, that number may increase for one team. O’Connor has been bailed out by receivers here and there; losing the turnover battle is perhaps the most likely way MSU could lose this game.
(The Spartans’ one sack/game allowed is 3rd-best in the B1G.)
Scoring chances might be infrequent Saturday. It is encouraging that MSU is perfect in the red zone this year (i.e., touchdowns 100% of the time). Wisconsin has been poor in the red zone—with Bart Houston at QB. But with Hornibrook at the helm, UW has been perfect in the red zone, too. And while UW is one of the B1G’s least-penalized teams, the Spartans are the most penalized (in yards/game) by a wide margin.
(Paul Chryst—Bret Bielema’s offensive coordinator at UW (2005-2011)—has four 4th-quarter comeback wins in his 16 games as the Badgers’ head coach.)
With field position so important, MSU’s substandard punt returns and B1G-worst kickoff returns are liabilities. Darrell Stewart [#25] will likely return more kickoffs; but it appears the coaches still have faith in RJ Shelton on punts. Both punters in this game are good at placing the ball near the end zone while avoiding touchbacks. Kickoff coverage has been good for MSU [net 44 y/kickoff], but UW is 3rd-best in the nation [net 58 y/kickoff].
Assuming UW has all of its potential personnel playing, MSU should be able to match UW’s rushing, but neither team will make much progress. Despite complaints, the MSU secondary is pretty good, whereas the UW secondary is average at best. A couple of injuries in the Badger back seven exacerbate the differences. Unless Hornibrook is excellent and lucky, the Spartans should be able to overcome any field-position deficits and pull ahead in the second half. Wisconsin will probably not be able to pull off a comeback in that scenario—and the Spartan home winning streak over the Badgers will extend to five.
Stripe the Stadium! Even sections wear green, odd sections wear white. V4MSU!
Gold Yeller does it again, recreating Rocket with LEGOs. Bret Bielema has the same befuddled look on his minifig as he does in real life.
Courtesy of BTN: https://shar.es/1xs8hs
What did you learn from week #3 of NCAA Football?