Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State 2-3 (0-2) vs. Northwestern 2-3 (1-1)
A look at this week’s opponent…
With all due respect, MSU must look in the mirror and play themselves on Saturday. Does that sound familiar? It is exactly what I said last week and it still rings the bell of truth this week.
Northwestern is a team talented enough to beat MSU on Saturday, and the Spartans are good enough to blow the doors off the Wildcat program. This game will not be played on a 100 yard field; it will be played between the ears of the Spartans. This is a gut check.
I asked Coach Dantonio this week if he has a chemistry issue on his team. He has said since Day one, “We have always won here because of and with chemistry.” They are not winning now, are his Spartans suffering chemistry issue?
“I don't think there's a chemistry problem on our football team. We went into this season with very, very high expectations and hopes. We've had a lot of injuries. We've had quite a few injuries. We've got young players playing at certain positions, whether they're in backup positions, but getting meaningful minutes, or whatever the case. Guys will get better with experience. Our focus right now is getting ready to play Northwestern and get ourselves in gear.”
Dantonio continued, “We have three games. I look at all three of those games, in the fourth quarter, it sort of becomes unraveled. Third quarter in the Wisconsin game. All three games are games where we're right there with opportunities to win the football games. Our games have always been close. We've always found ways to win them. Guys make plays.”
He finished on my question of chemistry by saying, “Bottom line is we got to have the right concepts, obviously, right coaching being done this week, but also got to make plays and execute. So it's all inclusive as I've said before. We'll just get down to it.”
There are problems no doubt. How do the Spartans address them? Are they just schematic or are the schematic issues the fruit of deeper problems?
Co-DC Mike Tressel gave the best analysis of the Wildcats all week. It isn’t encouraging if you are rooting for the Spartans, but it was honest.
“What sticks out to me is what we see all the time, they are so well coached, they are so precise. Obviously their running game has gotten better and better. When you look against Nebraska and Iowa, who are two pretty stout defenses, that is their two best rushing games so I think their O-line is gelling. The receivers and the quarterback just need small windows with what they do, it is a precise, quick passing game, and then as soon as you really start to nail down on that stuff that’s when they take the big shots. I feel like they are gaining confidence and coming together.”
When MSU has the ball…
While the MSU offensive struggles, Dantonio did hesitate to put it in perspective. “We just lack consistency in scoring points offensively. And then you can start pointing from there, whether it's protection, whether it's routes, whether it's throws, whether it's play-calling, all those things; but when things don't go well, there's always a ton of reasons. When things seem to go well, well, that's fine. You sort of push that off, but here we are. Here we sit. We got things to do. Like I said, one focus.”
Tyler O’Connor is not the reason for the Spartans’ struggles. Has he looked like the reincarnation of Roger Staubach? No, but he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by a collage of coaching and teammates that Roger had either.
WR Coach Terrence Samuel spoke this week about Northwestern. What did he notice? “They are really athletic. They keep coming at you. They know that scheme that they have been working and working. They all buy in and that intelligence level that their defense has is one of the better ones we have seen. It is in the same game as Wisconsin, as far as the way they try to come at you with the effort. Of course, we have to match that with our play.”
He went on to add, “Number 16, Godwin (Igwebuike), he is really a good safety. He can play. He can play you man and he comes down hill and he will pop. He has some pop when it comes time to make that tackle. He stands out of course. No. 7 (Ifeadi Odenigbo), that darn defensive end, he is no joke when he comes off the edge. That speed and they are aggressive, so we have to do our job.”
When MSU is on defense…
Mark Dantonio was somber in his assessment of the defense this week. While the D is not the reason the Spartans have lost three in a row, they haven’t been the 2013 Spartans either.
Plainspoken down to earth reality was how Dantonio took on the state of his D. “We are not that far away. We can continually point to the inches, the decision-making, a decision here whether to rip inside or rip outside, where to throw the football, where to make a cut on third-and-one, stay outside or bend it back. That's the difference in games. That's the difference in winning and losing. It always has been.”
He added, “I've sat in here for nine years and said you’ve got to find the inches. We've lost by inches or won by inches. That's this type of game, that's the game of football. First thing we have to do is make sure we have a good plan, our mindset is good, our enthusiasm is good, our intentions are good, and we've got some stuff to us. That's what we'll do. I could use other words other than `stuff.'”
The Spartans will be facing another RB this week that is a game changer. The Spartans are well aware of Justin Jackson. A great kid, he has grown into a man the way he is playing football.
Dantonio addressed their offense adding, “Yeah, he's tough. Might not be as big. He's 193 pounds. He has over three thousand yards now, which I think is the fourth time maybe that's ever been accomplished at Northwestern. He's only a junior. He gives them a guy that can catch the ball, as well. I think he does a nice job in pass protection, as well. He's tough.”
The Cats can throw the ball as well. QB Clayton Thorson has Dantonio’s attention. “Thorson is a run-pass guy. He's been very effective. Austin Carr, No. 80, is the leading receiver for them. I think he has 32 catches maybe. Maybe six touchdowns, No. 80. They'll spread it around, though, a little bit.”
The entire Michigan State defensive scheme is simple. I like it, but not when people are struggling to do their jobs. The philosophy reduced down to the lowest common denominator is gap discipline, man coverage and pressure. MSU isn’t getting pressure and the gap discipline is atrocious. That leads us to trouble with man coverage.
I asked Mike Tressel the Co-DC about the Spartans flat out terrible gap pressure last week in the second half and he minced no words. “A lack of discipline or a lack of attention to detail makes you sick as a coach; there is no doubt about it. If you aren’t coaching it, you are letting it happen. If it is showing up there on film, then there is something that I need to do better. Yeah, it makes you sick to your stomach. Gap discipline is something you preach, but bottom line is attention to detail. Everybody’s job is critical. A lot of times what happens when you’re pressing is, you don’t sell out to your job, because you are worried about trying to help somebody else with their job. We need to make sure that we believe our job is absolutely critical and we trust the other people to do their jobs. Additionally, we need to handle adversity better. We have played very, very good football for the first half the last four games, but then when one thing goes wrong, we are not handling it that great. That is probably the biggest thing that we need to figure out.”
Malik McDowell is a projected first round pick in this coming NFL Draft, but his gap discipline and play was terrible versus BYU. It was stunning to see the Spartans worse when he got on the field in the second half after having served a first half suspension sitting out.
Tressel addressed McDowell’s struggles last week. “That whole situation was hard on him. To get ejected from the game when you believe you did everything you could to stay low, that is a 6’7” guy trying to stay low, and he did a pretty good job on it, so that was hard on him. To sit out the first half, that was something he has never experienced before. He came into the second half and made some big plays, but consistency. You are hearing a common theme, consistency and attention to detail. If we were to say hey if we can be better its, consistency, attention to detail and adversity because we have played some very good football, but certainly not sixty minutes.”
Northwestern must come out of the attack. Simple. They can’t allow MSU to dictate the play. The MSU pass rush has been terrible, so the Cats don’t want to give them help by being in obvious passing situations. The Spartans need to simply play within themselves like they have in the first half all year.
I do not think that Dave Warner the Co-Offensive Coordinator is the issue. People had these same issues with Don Treadwell, Dan Roushar, and now Warner. They work for a good man in Mark Dantonio who has a scheme that he wants. It is time for Dantonio to take his foot off the brake. The Spartans need to attack; varying tempo, passing on early downs and playing like BYU did last week.
I asked Dantonio with changes to the depth chart for the players, if there would be changes in the play calling, offensive philosophy or the play caller. He bristled at my sentiment, but answered.
“I think every single week; we're going to try to tailor things relative to who we play against, what they do. I think that's natural. In terms of who is calling the plays, no, absolutely not. Our football program has been in place for quite some time here, and we've been successful.”
He paused and continued, “The natural thing is for everybody to always start to say, well, it's this guy's fault or it's that guy's fault. It's all inclusive. It's all inclusive. The first person that needs to take that responsibility is me. That's where we sit.”
I asked Mike Tressel who used to lead the Spartan special teams about the woes of the unit he used to control for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio has preached since he arrived in East Lansing about the importance of specials. While stout in his first eight years, they have struggled the last two.
Tressel said, “I don’t really want to get into too much detail, being as that is not my role right now. But, I will tell you this – it comes down to players making plays on the football field. We need to hit the ball well punting it or placekicking it. Things seem to snowball always when things aren’t going perfect. Maybe the effort in practice for special teams isn’t as good. Or maybe your star players don’t want to be on as many special teams. We need to make sure that the team mentality is that this is an area of the game where we can change the game. We have been preaching that this week.”
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 BYU was +5 in that category last week versus Michigan State.
Dantonio didn’t parse his words on the status and mindset of his team. As always it is one of the many reasons that I applaud him. While not a stellar statement of strength, it is honest, brutal and truthful.
Dantonio said, “Where we're at right now, I think we've talked enough about that. Our players are probably getting bombarded with things, as well. When they come to practice, to me, there's got to be a little bit of a sanctuary there. We've got to keep coaching, coaching them positively. Stand in there strong as people, and understand that we've got to get things fixed."
He added, “Dug a hole like I said before. We've got to dig our way out of that hole. There is no easy remedy for things like that. Got to keep positive in that respect and keep coaching. Beyond that, just take that approach of one focus and that focus right now is to beat Northwestern and then move from there. We'll get what we get.”
Terrence Samuel talked about the QB position being in flux. Does that impact a receiver? “If you are aggressive, you don’t care. You just want the ball thrown. That has to be their mentality. You can’t use things as a crutch or an excuse. If you run a good route and you are open, you have a lot of separation. You have time to wait on that ball to get to you and that quarterback can feel good and know that, ‘Hey, he is going to get open. He is going to get that separation he needs and I can throw it in rhythm and comfortable.’ That is something that I think when I had Benny (Fowler), when I had Keith (Mumphery), when I had Tony (Lippett); they were struggling getting that separation at first. After they started to buy into separation techniques, everything started to clean up. Those are the things that we have to work on in our house. As long as we are good at that, we will be good for any quarterback.”
The Spartans are struggling. You can’t deny that. It doesn’t negate the amazing job that Mark Dantonio has done in East Lansing. It shouldn’t. I have the same amount in faith in him today as any. I have zero doubts that he will right the ship.
I invited new Spartan Nation writer Dave Berk to make his prediction as well. Here are his thoughts, “Michigan State cannot lose four games in a row. Honestly, I just can't see it happening as Mark Dantonio and his staff will make sure it doesn't happen. Especially with Northwestern coming to Spartan Stadium this weekend for a homecoming tilt. The Wildcats come in feeling really good following their win over Iowa, but quickly see the Spartans’ defense come together and play four quarters of football after failing to do so in each of the past three games. Also, the time has come for the Spartans’ offense to find their identity and while I still feel they'll have a series or two that will have Spartan Nation scratching their head, they'll move the ball enough to give the program their third victory of the season sending the Wildcats back to the Windy City with a loss. Spartans 27 - Wildcats 17.”
I agree with Berk’s sentiments. I say 28-27 MSU.