Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thoughts on Wisconsin Game

I didn't think it was possible after the game against Notre Dame, but a big difference in this game was coaching. MSU looked well-coached, prepared, and creative for Notre Dame, but in this game it looks like the Wisconsin coaches came in better prepared. Paul Chryst was apparently calling the plays and he was simply excellent. Granted, their QB also showed some incredible accuracy. He was putting throws on the money. MSU was just not creative like they were against ND. On defense, Wisconsin was complex and aggressive. MSU was too soft.

Of course, the job of the MSU coaches was made much more difficult by the struggles of O'Connor. He was just too late and inaccurate on many throws. He does not look beyond the first read. And he doesn't have the arm strength and accuracy for the long passes. On the second interception he should have been able to spot a wide open Corely for a touchdown. That play in particular made me really question O'Connor's ability to lead this team to much success. I think the coaches will need to think hard about replacing him. He's a good kid, and it's always painful to see good kids struggle, but I just don't think he has what it takes to beat good defenses.

If O'Connor is the best QB on the team, then the coaches may have to let him loose. I think his struggles are partially connected to his excessive caution. He doesn't want to make mistakes, but that's causing him to throw late and lock onto receivers. So the coaches may need to let him become a gunslinger and they'll just have to live with the interceptions.

They also need to let the backup QBs play. This game was over by the fourth quarter, and the coaches should have immediately let Terry or Lewerke play. I don't know why O'Connor was still in there with less than 5 minutes to go. I do think that MSU has hurt the development of their younger QBs by not giving them more snaps in real games. I thought the coaches learned that lesson with Maxwell, but I guess they're getting another chance to learn that lesson again this year, and likely next year.

O'Connor was also not helped by the fact that the O-line also looked like a shell of itself in the ND game. Hopefully, Wisconsin didn't just show the world how to beat this O-line. Hopefully the performance against ND was not a fluke.

There is still time to turn things around, but MSU may need to do what Wisconsin just did: replace a senior QB with a redshirt freshmen QB.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Thoughts on Notre Dame Game

OK, so apart from the coaches taking the foot of the gas too early, again, I thought this was a program win. I really expected MSU to struggle in this one, because MSU usually struggles against Notre Dame's elite talent (especially on the D line) and because Brian Kelly seems to pull out all the clever stops against MSU. But MSU showed some new things this year that are really encouraging.

First, the coaches showed that they were mostly prepared for this game. They had a great offensive and defensive plan for three quarters of the game. I was impressed with the creativity and relative soundness of the play calling most of the game. I am always so impressed by their ability to succeed by sticking to MSU's identity of "pound, green, pound!"

Second, the O line finally matched up well against Notre Dame's elite front 7. Actually, you could say that the MSU O line looked dominant. That really is something new to me. I have never seen MSU's O line bully Notre Dame's front seven. But that what happened much of this game. Kind of like when MSU bullied OSU in the trenches last year. I said before that this O line could end up being better than last year's O line, and that would make it the best O line in the Dantonio era.

Third, the D line is definitely not as good as last year's, but at least it showed me this game that it can be pretty good. McDowell and Cooper are stars, and the other guys showed some improvement. They played pretty well against Notre Dame's very good O line. That's encouraging. Hopefully they'll continue to improve to the point where they're better than last year's D line. With McDowell and Cooper leading this group, I think that's still possible.

Fourth, Gerald Holmes is a very good running back. He may not be as physically gifted as the other backs, but he shows more awareness and toughness. And he actually showed better speed than I expected and he always shows good lateral quickness.

Fifth, I thought the wide receivers would be a liability this year, but this group could turn out to be the best in the B1G this year. Corely, Shelton, and Madaris are good. Real good. Shelton is clearly the answer to MSU's problems running outside the tackles. He is fast and tough. I think the coaches should let him run the ball a few times a game from the running back position. Particularly the runs to the outside.

Overall, the results of this game strongly suggest MSU is a contender for the B1G title and perhaps for a playoff spot. The "back to back" theme is in play.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Thoughts on Furman Game: Optimism Down a Notch

Well, the game started out as I hoped. On the first offensive and defensive drives MSU looked set to do whatever it wanted on both sides of the ball. But then mediocrity set in.


Observations

The coaches need to take some blame. The defense looked sloppy. The players seemed confused too often, as if play calls were coming in late or as if they had no clue what they were supposed to do. The defense also lined up poorly on several plays, including the touchdown they gave up. On offense they ran the ball too much. Furman is the kind of team against which they should be practicing a balanced attack. This is the kind game in which you let your quarterback find his legs. If they can't establish a balanced attack against Furman, they won't do so against Notre Dame. And if they don't have a balanced attack, they won't win any of the big games this season.

The receivers looked good. Madaris and Davis looked like they should have good years. Shelton looked good too, the few times he touched the ball. Hope there are no injuries (let's pray Shelton and Davis are not out long) because the freshmen looked like freshmen. Stewart and Corley look super talented, but they are a year away from being stars.

The running backs looked pretty good, but not outstanding (compared to Bell and Langford). They look to run to the outside too often and they just don't have the speed to do that consistently. That approach will fail against more athletic defenses like Notre Dame's (and like Alabama's last year). I think the coaches think the running backs are dominant, because they used them too often. They're good, but they're not Bell or Langford, yet.

The linebackers were not as dominant as I was expecting. Chris Frey is the best linebacker out there. He's everywhere and should be considered a starter, not an OR player. He's a star. Riley Bullough went the wrong way a few times and didn't show the consistent aggression I was hoping to see.


O'Connor had a decent game. He made some great throws and some decent runs. But he definitely struggles when when plays go off script. And he has to stop staring receivers down. Furman took advantage of that, and more athletic secondaries will take even greater advantage of that. This is one skill that Connor Cook seemed to have been taught well, by his quarterback guru. Either future MSU quarterbacks need to go to that same guru or the MSU quarterbacks coaches needs to focus on that skill more intensively.

The O-line has a ways to go. They didn't look terrible, but this was Furman. I was hoping to see them dominate. They had trouble opening holes, but they did protect O'Connor pretty well. Notre Dame will be the true test of where this line stands.

The D-line was disappointing. McDowell looked great and he looks like he's committed to having a big year, but the rest of the line didn't seem to do much. Furman ran the ball way too well. If they don't improve a lot in the next 2 weeks, they could get dominated by Notre Dame's O-line. Maybe they'll have to let Lyle's have a few snaps on the D-line.

The secondary held it's own. Hicks was the most tested defensive back and he played pretty well. Needs to learn to look back for the ball, but otherwise, he can keep up with speedy receivers and sticks to them pretty well.

The game was sloppy. There is a lot to clean up. The penalties and turnovers have to be addressed. The kickers need to be better than they were last year. Guess we'll see how much progress they can make in 2 weeks.

I still have high hopes for this team, but the scales have fallen from my eyes on a couple of things. I am particularly more disappointed in the D-line and the linebackers than I had hoped to be after the first game. On the other hand, I am actually more hopeful about the receivers (if the injuries are not serious). Lots can change over the course of a season, so let's see what unfolds.

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.