Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts on Spring Game: this could be a good year...

Alleviated Concerns

Coming into this game, there were 4 big concerns for MSU: replacing Connor Cook, reloading on the O-line, reloading at wide receiver, and reloading at defensive end.

I would say that the first concern is no longer a concern. Tyler O'Connor looks legit, to me. I think he can play at least as good as sophomore-year Kirk Cousins. And that would be good enough to make MSU a strong challenger for the B1G title. But I actually expect more than that from O'Connor. I think he can be as good as junior-year Kirk Cousins (2,825 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs). He's plenty smart, has excellent mobility, has pretty good arm strength, has a very good touch and nice accuracy. He should be a B1G star. Damion Terry needs to keep improving, but he should be a solid backup -- especially if he can play more loose (he seemed a little tight at times).

I think the O-line has a chance to be the best in the Dantonio era. You heard that right. Last year's O-line was very talented, but it also under-performed. They lost key players, yes, but this year's group is mature and very deep. The only question that remains with this group is, how long will it take for them to gel? If they take a couple of months, MSU will lose to Notre Dame. Otherwise, this group will be dominant by the end of the season.

I think the receivers group is in a similar situation as the O-line. This unit lacks experience, but it's very talented and deep. So it may get off to a slow start, but I could see this group finishing strong. I think several of the older guys are poised to make valuable contributions (guys like Shelton, Madaris, Macksood, and Barksdale). The young guys also look talented enough to make some contributions. Corley and Chambers should make some contributions, but Felton Davis looks to me like the guy with the highest ceiling. He does need to be more consistent in catching the ball, and hopefully, his hands will improve when the cast comes off. The only concern I have with this group is that it may get exposed by a good secondary, like Michigan's (yes, Michigan will have a good secondary this year...).

Lingering Concerns

As for the defensive ends, Jamal Lyles looks like he could make some serious contributions. He looked like Lawrence Thomas the few times he lined up as a DE (dare I say, he looked more explosive than LT?). But apart from Lyles, I didn't see many explosive plays from the DEs. It seemed like the linebackers were contributing the most to the pass rush. We'll have to keep an eye on this group.

The power running backs are doing their thing, but the Spartans need some speed backs. That became clear to me during the Alabama game, when the MSU running game struggled to get to the outside. In the Spring game, you could see Nick Tompkins running effectively to the outside -- that's what I was talking about! That's what the Spartans missed last year! Can Tompkins become that speed back MSU needs? Can he do it for a whole season? Will the coaches give him a chance?

Upshot

This team has the talent to be favored in most of its games this season, and it has the talent to be in a tossup situation against other top teams (Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State). I don't know that this team will gel fast enough to beat Notre Dame, but it could gel fast enough to beat Michigan, Ohio State, and a B1G championship opponent. I guess only time will tell...

Friday, January 1, 2016

Thoughts on Playoff Blowout

OK, so that did not go at all how I expected it to go. I thought MSU could win this game, or at least keep it close. I did not anticipate this kind of domination by Alabama.

There were several reasons Alabama dominated, but probably the most important one was the planning by the coaching staff. I hate to say it, but Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and the rest of the Alabama coaching staff came in with a better plan. Kiffin was prepared to under-use a Heisman Trophy winning running back. He designed passing plays that got his receivers wide open, including on the long bombs, and including their less-talented possession receiver.

Alabama also showed more diversity on offense. They have their power game, of course, but they also have their speed guys that could beat MSU to the outside. This has been one of my criticisms of MSU's recruiting. Somehow, the team ended up with a lot of power backs, but no backs that could beat Alabama to the outside. MSU did try to run to the outside with Burbridge, and that actually did work a couple of times. But I think in the long run, MSU is going to need to recruit a speed back or two with a goal to diversify the offense.

Apart from the game plan, MSU's execution was poor. Connor Cook and the receivers had to have a great game, but they just didn't. Cook had some accuracy issues and the receivers dropped too many passes. I anticipated that the passing offenses would be the difference in this game, and I thought MSU would have the passing advantage. Instead, Alabama's passing game turned out to be much better than I expected (won't it be the irony of all ironies if Coker stinks next week?).

I felt that MSU's defensive talent was a better match for Alabama's offense than the score reflected. MSU's run defense can hang with them, no question in my mind. But I was surprised to see the secondary struggle as much as it did. I guess it can be exposed by speed receivers like Finley -- I suppose Finley has exposed a lot of secondaries.

Alabama's talent advantage was most visible on the defensive line. It's disheartening that MSU's best offensive line in the Dantonio era was little match for Alabama's front four. Bama's front four was simply too fast, too powerful, and too smart. The telling moment came when their blitzing linebacker easily outran and overpowered Kodi Kieler (I believe). No human being should be able to do that!

The good thing for MSU is that they could be bringing back their bestest o-line in the Dantonio era, next year. But Jack Conklin would have to come back for his senior year. But I'll save my thoughts on next year's team for my next post.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Some Keys to Victory Over Alabama

MSU is now within 2 victories of a national championship. Unfortunately, in the first round of the playoffs, they face a real juggernaut in Alabama. This is a typical Alabama team: well coached, stout defense, strong running game, and elite athletes at nearly every position. Dang! Well, at least we made it to the playoffs, right?

Well, folks, that's the wrong attitude to hold because, in fact, MSU has everything it takes to win this game.

Perhaps the most important element MSU possesses is a rising secondary that is on the verge of re-establishing the "no fly" zone. If the "no fly" zone returns, it will allow the rest of the defense to concentrate on stopping the strength of Alabama's offense: Derrick Henry and the running game. Demetrious Cox, Montae Nicholoson, and Arjen Colquhoun have each played like first round picks in at least one game this season. If they can all play like first rounders in this game, and if Hicks can continue to be solid (maybe even take a leap forward), then Alabama's passing game will get shut down. No question in my mind.

If that happens, MSU has enough depth on the defensive front seven to handle Alabama's running game all four quarters. Alabama usually wears opponents down by the fourth quarter, but MSU's depth and Ken Mannie's training should thwart that strategy.

The second key to this game will be MSU's passing game. If Cook is healthy and sharp, and if the receivers are ready to shine, this will be the best passing game Alabama has faced. We don't know if Alabama's defense can handle a truly balanced offensive attack. Points will likely still be hard to come by, but a strong passing game will allow MSU to put up enough points to let it's defense win the game. MSU's passing must match what it did against Indiana. Cook and the receivers were the difference in that game, and they will probably have to be the difference in this one.


Finally, MSU has the coaching staff to neutralize Nick Saban and the Alabama coaching staff. MSU was well-prepared for Iowa, which has it's own group of hard-working, creative coaches. I think they will have to work even harder this time, but they are hungry. This is MSU's year!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Thoughts on B1G Championship Game

What a war! Iowa was impressive, but they really needed to everything right to win -- and they almost did. Iowa was like Rocky. There were times when MSU seemed ready to knock them out, but they kept taking the pounding and bouncing back. Hats off to them.

As for MSU, the offense was limited by Connor Cook's struggles. The kid was tough and made some big plays, but overall he didn't have his normal accuracy or arm strength. Cook has put this team on his shoulders in other games, but last night he needed his team to carry him. Hey, that happens even to the best players in the world. Hopefully he'll be fully ready to go by the playoff games.

Thankfully the running game took another step forward, with the re-emergence of LJ Scott and Madre London. If the running game can continue to make progress and if Cook can regain his pre-injury abilities, this offense could be unstoppable.

The defense delivered in a big way against a very solid offense. The secondary held up very well, except on those two long bomb throws. Demetrious Cox looked amazing. He struggled a bit against Penn State, but he definitely bounced back in this game. Seriously, the "no fly" zone is close to being re-established. Cox, Nicholson (apart from one big mistake) and Colquhoun are playing at an elite level. Hicks is very solid, but he is not yet a shutdown cornerback. If he can get close to that level, this really could be the "no fly" zone. He's been getting better every week, so let's see what happens.

The d-line was very good against the run. But apart from Shilique Calhoun, they kind of struggled to pressure CJ Beathard. Man, what a performance by Calhoun! If MSU plays a good o-line like Alabama's, the d-line will have to step it up a bit.

Overall, I see that this team has the talent and character to go all the way. But they will be facing some of their toughest opponents yet, so they will have to continue improving.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Trouble with Iowa

OK, so MSU is now a win away from heading to the playoffs. Too bad they are facing a dangerous Iowa team that can easily make the B1G championship game a nail-biter.

Iowa is well-coached. The players don't make many mistakes and their coaches also show a lot of creativity when it comes to play calling. They will be ready for MSU and they will squeeze every wrinkle possible out of their playbook.

In terms of talent, they are solid on defense, and they have an outstanding running back and an outstanding quarterback. Jordan Canzeri could be the most troublesome back MSU has faced since Ameer Abdullah, and CJ Beathard is frustratingly smart, mobile and accurate.

Thankfully, MSU matches up well with Iowa. Frankly, MSU is more talented on both sides of the ball. So I can only see MSU losing this one, if they make more mistakes (especially turnovers), if the Iowa coaches out-work the MSU coaches, or if Canzeri and Beathard go absolutely nuts -- kind of like Russell Wilson in the B1G championship game a few years ago (that still hurts).

So the Spartans are going to have to protect the ball and they'll have to be ready for some creative playcalling from the Iowa side. The secondary will have to step up because Beathard could be the best passer they've faced all year. He could expose them.

Shoutouts

Montae Nicholson has proven me completely wrong. Because of his struggles throughout most of this season, I thought he would need to be moved to wide receiver next year. In fact, he now looks like he could be a first-round pick as a safety by the time he graduates.

Gerald Holmes continues to look like the most effective back. In fact, I think the offense works better when he's getting the carries. He clearly has the best vision, the best ability to anticipate where the holes will be -- he is Anakin Skywalker of the backs, if you will. He is also a little shiftier than the other backs, which helps him gain yards when the blocking isn't there. He also just makes a lot of smart plays.

The corners, Hicks and Colquhoun are playing very well. They are showing a lot of confidence and athleticism. They will be tested against Iowa, so hopefully they don't end up getting exposed.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thoughts on OSU Game: MSU is Elite!

OK, so last night's victory was among the best in Spartan football history. MSU just beat the defending national champions, a team on a 23 game winning streak, in their own stadium. That kind of victory says MSU is an elite program. Period. MSU is now the kind of program that can go into the stadium of another elite program and win. And they can beat that program 3 times in 5 years. All that is left to accomplish is to win a national championship, and that remains a real possibility this year.

Other impressions

The O-line stunned me. They let the OSU defensive ends beat them a few times, but otherwise, they dominated an elite defensive line. It was an astonishing performance that hopefully will continue all the way to a national championship.

Tyler O'Connor showed flashes of being a gunslinger. He flashed some Favre-like abilities: confidence, a good arm, and effective scrambling ability. He could be something special next year, though he has a lot of work to do. Damion Terry reminded me of Tyrod Taylor a bit, but he does need to improve his accuracy or develop better chemistry with the receivers.

The running backs were solid. I still think Holmes is the top back, but we did get to see flashes of Scott's high ceiling. Next year, the running game could be special. This year, they could still get on a roll and dominate, if the O-line continues to play like it did in this game.

The defense looked like a standard MSU defense: dominant. The weather helped. It eliminated OSU's passing game and it was amazing to see MSU's front seven dominate an offense full of 5-star recruits. But even the secondary looked outstanding most of the time, particularly with tackling (shout out to Montae Nicholson, who I hope proves my doubts about his ability to play safety completely wrong). We'll have to wait until MSU plays a good passing team to get a better sense of where the secondary is at. But I think they may have turned the corner. Which means, this defense could be about dominate games the way MSU defenses normally do.

It was great to see Michael Geiger hit the winning kick, but we can see that he has an issue with the ball hooking. He was able to adjust for it on the winning kick, in part because he missed his first kick, and perhaps in part because OSU called the timeout to try to freeze him -- basically, they let him have a practice kick (I hate the idea of "freezing the kicker"). But the hooking action shows there is something wrong with his technique, and it's something that will make him relatively inaccurate the rest of the season.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Bad Surprises

I used to regularly write a post about how "surprises" have such a big influence on how the season is going to go. I figure it's a good time to revisit that theme because there are some key surprises that are massively influencing what is happening to the Spartans this season. Obviously, surprises can come in the form of injuries, but let me stick to surprises in player performances. Three areas that have surprised in a bad way this season are the O-line,  running backs and the secondary.

Coming into the season, we thought that MSU was going to have its best O-line in the Dantonio era. And we can now safely say that this O-line is one of the leas effective of the last 3 years. Injuries have played a role, but almost all the starters are back now, and yet they have struggled in both the run game and pass protection. And sadly, the struggles could get magnified against Ohio State.

As for the running backs, we knew it would be tough to replace Jeremy Langford, but right now the only consistent RB has been Gerald Holmes, and he's been held back by the struggles of the O-line. I think Holmes has the potential to salvage the season for the running backs, but he is going to need help from the O-line, and perhaps just as importantly, he could use help from an explosive back (a lightning option, if you will). Somehow, the coaches ended up recruiting too many big backs, and no real speed backs. It's starting to become clear that their current group is limiting the playbook. They can't outrun defenders to the outside, so basically, all runs have to be between the tackles. That may be fine much of the time, but you need guys that can keep the defensive ends honest, guys that can add a few extra plays to your playbook. Whatever happened to Nick Tompkins?

As for the secondary, we knew they would struggle, but we didn't expect this much struggle. The safety position was supposed to be a strength, but the injury to RJ Williamson and the massive regression of Montae Nicholson have turned this area into a pretty sizable liability. At least Arjen Colquhoun has been a nice positive surprise. As I've said before, he could be really good by the end of the season. Hopefully, Nicholson will progress and hopefully Darian Hicks can solidify the other corner position, while Cox solidifies the other safety position. I don't expect them to revive the no-fly zone, but hopefully they can become serviceable.