Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State 3-2 vs. #8 PSU 4-1
A look at this week’s opponent…
I write this for the first time in 12 years truly perplexed. I have prided myself over many many years of bringing you the best information. I wrote the following last week: 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.
We saw. The Spartans are what they are. 3-2 and not in the hunt for the Big Ten title legitimately and not headed to the playoff for sure. Is the program dead? No. But the season’s expectations from both coaches, fans, and media is.
PSU head coach James Franklin said of facing the Spartans, “Shifting to Michigan State, obviously got a lot of respect for Coach [Mark] Dantonio, what he’s been able to do in his career and the Michigan State program. It’s obviously very, very impressive what he’s been able to do in his 12 years there. Very consistent. We’re facing a team that’s got as many returning starters as any team in the country, 29 of 30 starters returning off a 10-3 team. A group of guys that know how to win and a bunch returning from a leadership perspective, as well.”
A somber MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said of the game, “Go to Penn State this weekend. We’ve had very competitive games here with them over the course of time and should be another great one. Great atmosphere there. Another Big Ten game. Big Ten East Division game, so it’s obviously big.”
When MSU has the ball…
This article will be full of reminders of what I wrote last week. Such as this nugget: The time is RIGHT NOW for Dantonio to take his foot off the brakes and let the MSU loose. I think he will based on what I am hearing. I did hear it and they didn’t do it.
I know of one situation specifically in which I have been asked not to detail, in which Mark Dantonio took a very intimate approach to the MSU offense and play calling. So this week I asked Dantonio if he would do that again with his offense failing.
He told me, “I’ve always been involved to a certain extent. To sit there, what about this, what about that, can we do this, draw something on the board, tell them, hey, we need to put this in, those type of things. Basically, like I said, you have formation sheets that are very in-depth, and you can’t recreate the wheel. Even if you said, hey, we’re going to change next year to something, it’s very difficult to recreate the wheel.”
He continued, “What you do have is you have a vast library to go back to and say, how do we tweak this or tweak that to help generate some productivity in certain areas. I’d say that’s it. That’s what I do. I always look at the quality control and different components of quality control and ask, okay, what are we doing here, what are we doing there, are we doing these things here, which are, from a defensive standpoint, recognizable; do we change here; do we change there. That’s the way I’ve always done it.”
He finished answering my question by saying, “Again, I go back to, not going to micromanage. Maybe my coaches will say I do, but I’m going to try not to micromanage. I’m going to try to empower our coaches to do their job and allow them to do their job with confidence. So I’m not going to be in a threatening mode, I’m just not. I’m going to be who I am, I am I am going to allow them to do their work and believe in them and push it forward. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s served us well.”
MSU OL Coach Mark Staten says of the PSU D that, “Really good at the end positions for those of you that have done any research on them. Long guys, athletic guys, newer guys in the middle. Like I told the offense you know, ‘they’ve had five games under their belt, they’re playing at home.’ I think the biggest thing, not just the 11 that’ll be on the field defensively, but its the 100,000+ that are in those seats. I’m sure you’ve all been to a game there and it can be, if you allow them to be, it can be a very, very loud place. So how we go about our work, how we finish once we get across that 25, and what we’re able to do will dictate what we get. They’re very skilled they’ve got another defensive end that I heard is coming back this week, a highly sought after recruit, and so that’s going to make it a little more difficult. You guys all have talked to me a lot of times, there’s no excuses. Once Saturday comes at 3:30, we go.”
Franklin had high praise for OC Dave Warner and the MSU offense this week saying, “Dave Warner has done as good a job as any offensive coordinator in our league over the time that he’s been there. They do a lot of different things. You know, they are as multiple as you’ll probably see. Eleven-personnel is their lead personnel group. Twelve-personnel is their next most popular personnel group at 63 percent, and then they also get into 21-personnel – which it’s almost like you never see that anymore – and also 22-personnel.”
Franklin went on to add, “We’ll get a lot of different things we have to defend. We have to be ready for the power, the kick play, the truck — we call it truck. Some people call it pin-and-pull. We have to be ready for all those things. I think time of possession is something they do very well. They rank No. 2 in the Big Ten and No. 10 in the country. Obviously, we have to protect the football. They already do a great job of time of possession, so we can’t turn the ball over and put them in a situation which is really the style of play that they want to play with.”
He concluded on the MSU offense that, “And guys we’re impressed with on offense, obviously the quarterback, Brian Lewerke, seems like he’s been playing there forever: 64 percent completion ratio; is a guy that can beat you with his arm, his mind, his legs. I think he’s what most people are looking for at the quarterback position. He’s also 6-3, 220 pounds. And then they have two wide receivers, Cody White is playing at a high level and then Felton Davis seems like he’s been playing there forever, as well, and done some great things and both of those guys have given us headaches in the past.”
Juwan Johnson, the PSU Jr. WR said of the Spartans passing defense that, “They are a great team. They fell a couple times, which any other team has, but they are a good team. Just fell to some great teams that they played. Just watched the Northwestern game, but they played them well. I didn’t watch the offensive side, but defensively they played great. They played the best they could, but they just fell short.”
PSU Jr. LB Cam Brown said of Lewerke from last year that, “What I remember is the fact that he can move well. He moves better than some of the quarterbacks we’ve seen. He likes to throw the ball, I mean, I don’t know if they are always accurate, but his receivers just make good plays.”
If MSU wins, it is going to be because the offensive performance has stepped it up. That includes Brian Lewerke being more accurate and turning his legs loose. He is at his best gun slinging and that Lewerke needs to reemerge. There has been a strong emphasis on keeping him in the pocket this season, that is not working and NOT his fault.
When MSU is on defense…
I wrote this last week: If the Spartans lose, it will fall on offensive play calling and execution. It did.
Dantonio said of his team’s passing defense that, “First of all, we’re averaging — people are averaging throwing the ball 54 times a game against us. So when you look at that, and you’re trying to say, per attempt, what I’ve always thought was per attempt, you want to be less than five yards per attempt.”
He pontificated, “So two of the games, we actually accomplished that. The other games, we did not. The answer for that probably is, you know, they’ve hit some deep balls on us where deep ball judgment comes into play; and again I go back to a game of inches. It’s the difference between Tre Person making a play on the deep route is this far (holds fingers close together). Same with Tyriq Thompson, this far (holds fingers close together); and same with Justin Layne, this far (holds fingers close together) against Arizona State. They’ve gone up top, we’ve lost three corners, or two corners in Josiah Scott and Scott Smith played a lot for us, and Josh Butler played in and out of the game this past weekend. That’s probably hurt us a little bit in that regard. I think in this day and age, you know, I saw the the stats — there are all kinds of stats. You can look at stats and you can make them what you want.”
He added, “I say to our guys, we’re playing very well against the run. Well, how are we playing against the perimeter pass, which is bubbles and jailbreak screens and things like that, because they’ve got to throw that into the run game because that’s how people are running the ball against us in some regards. So we look at that aspect and ask ourselves how we’re playing and we work at it. There’s a lot of different statistics there. The No. 1 statistic and the thing I have to hang our hat on is: Do we win or do we lose? And at the end of the day, you know, we’re a 3-2 football team, and I feel like, again, I feel like we had opportunities to win those other two and did not. A lot of reasons for that. We’ve got five guys out on offense these past couple games. That takes a toll a little bit but we’ll get them back. Got to wait on it.”
DL Coach Ron Burton says of stopping PSU QB Trace McSorley that, “Number one, pass game and run game. McSorely is really a triple-threat out there and that’s a part of the game plan, that’s obvious that we need to stop their run game with McSorley and also to stop their pass game with McSorely. That’s always the challenge and we’re looking forward to it, we really are.”
Franklin said of the MSU D that, “Defensively, Mike Tressel, obviously Coach Dantonio, this defense is kind of what they have made their name on, really since Coach Dantonio has been there. You look at them: They are big, they are stout and they are physical, especially up front. They are a four-down base defensive front.”
He added, “They probably have a little bit more diversity from a coverage perspective than what you saw a few years back. They used to be a, what we call, quarters 4x and zero; they press the two outside receivers and play the two-quarter safeties. They are playing other things now. They are playing cover one a little bit more than they have in the past and playing a little bit more fire zone than they have in the past, and they are pressuring about 30 percent of the time overall. Obviously, the thing that jumps out to everybody is they are No. 1 in the country in rush defense. No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 1 in the conference and in the country, so obviously that’s something that jumps out.”
He concluded with, “We think the middle linebacker, No. 35, Joe Bachie, we think may be the best linebacker in the league that we have seen. Very productive, very physical. Great leader for them. Runs really well. And then obviously their defensive end, No. 48, Kenny Willekes, is really making a bunch of plays from a lot of different ways. Eight tackles for loss, four sacks, four quarterback hurries 29 tackles. And their cornerback, Justin Layne with him being 6-3, kind of stands out to you on tape and during games. Seems like he’s been playing there forever, as well. Has had a nice career.”
McSorley will not run over this defense. He will have some success as he is a great player, but his running won’t be the reason unless they have to reassign to stop the pass because PSU passed to run first.
For him to beat MSU, James Franklin can’t screw this up as he did against Ohio State. Franklin’s failure against the Buckeyes cost his team the win. If he tries to break the Spartans #1 rushing defense acumen, they will open the door for MSU to win. MSU needs Franklin’s help to win. It is not unreasonable to think he will give it.
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. Teams that win the rule of five wins 91% of ball games.
The game for MSU now is more mental than physical. Dantonio blatantly said, “As far as where we’re at, you know, my perspective and I’m sure all of your perspective, feel like we should be 5-0. My message to our players is: Play like it; play like we’re 5-0. Keep the same mindset as we go forward.”
I wrote last week: 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.
Franklin said of the Spartan special teams that, “And then special teams, Paul Haynes, is running their special teams right now. Obviously, Paul has been a head coach and been very successful. You look at them, we are going to need to be ready and we have studied a lot of this and we have made a lot of cut-ups. They are willing to run a fake at any time in the game. That goes back with Coach Dantonio. They are up by points; they will run a fake. They are down by points; they will run a fake. Different field positions, overtime to win the game.”
He added, “You look at 2018, they ran a speed option versus IU. They ran a kicker sweep versus Maryland in 2017. They ran a kicker ISO against Rutgers in 2015, all on field goals. Notre Dame, 2010, overtime to win the game, they run a tight end wing switch pass. Notre Dame in 2016, they run a muddle two-point play. They have run punt fakes versus Ohio State. They ran a punt fake in 2016, and Northwestern on a kickoff; they ran a popover. We have all these things cut up. Obviously, we are showing them to our players to get prepared because they have a history of doing these things and they are going to look for these things and take their opportunity when they see them there.”
Lost in a disappointing season is that Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk have played outstanding. So much so that Burton said, “Well, experience is the true teaching, yes, they are playing well, they know their strengths, they know their weaknesses and we’re constantly trying to make them even better than what they are. It goes weekly, those guys are older guys now so they’re always looking at ‘what I can I do to get even better’ and what’s been good about it, they’ve had those experiences and now they’re learning what they need to work on even more to get better. Each week we want to continue to get better, but know your weaknesses and work on that. But those guys have been a foundation in there for sure.”
I tried to politely ask Dantonio about his team and the unsuccessful offensive plan this season. I could write about it, but instead, I will give you the complete transcript of my question and his answer after some interesting comments by his former boss Nick Saban.
SPARTAN NATION Since you got here, the motto has been, you have to run the ball. You come from Nick Saban’s tree, where he certainly holds that philosophy, but this year it’s been different at Alabama. And he said on Saturday, he’s just come to the point where he’s learned: There’s no more points than running for passing, and if he can’t run, he’s going to throw it. Obviously, you still want to run, but does there need to be a shift when you can’t?
HEAD COACH MARK DANTONIO I think there has been a shift when we can’t. I think we’re throwing more now than we have.
I try to taint that and say, hey, we’ve got to run it. At the Indiana game, I said, hey, you’ve got to run the ball. Even though we ran for 140 or something, we ran the ball somewhat. We’ve got to keep people honest. Can’t allow it to go into just a pass-rush game like it did at the end of the game last week.
We have to keep it honest because we have limitations in other areas, too. We’re down some wide-outs, we’re down some offensive linemen. You’re trying to balance things a little bit but we’ll be all right. I have confidence in our football team and I have confidence in our drive and who we are as individuals and how we approach things.
Dantonio said in the aftermath of last week’s loss that, “It’s frustrating coming off a game you feel like you should have won and it slips away from you, and there’s a lot of different reasons why that happens.”
I made it clear last week that we would learn last week if this was the Spartan team we thought it was. We learned that it isn’t. I predicted MSU to go 11-1 prior to the season. This was the loss I had pegged then. I still do, but this one will not be close as I suspected before the season it would. I say PSU wins this 38-17.
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