November 20, 2011

Post-Indiana Exit Analysis

EAST LANSING - There were lots of trophies, smiles, photo opps and curtain calls near the end of Michigan State's 55-3 victory over Indiana, but before that show could get started, the Spartans' happy Senior Day was ignited by good old-fashioned, premeditated X's and Os.

The Spartans began breaking the game open with a 63-yard senior-to-senior TD connection involving Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham.

Cunningham had no one within 5 yards of him when Cousins found him deep down the middle of the field, racing with the wind toward the north end zone.

What looked like an easy game of long-distance catch was a counter move within a game of full-contact chess.

That play was Michigan State's favorite new wrinkle, designed for a defense leaning up too heavily to stop the run.

"When we set our game plan, we talked about that being the opening play (of the game)," said Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. "But we kind of held that one off."

They figured Indiana would be smelling run too aggressively. But Michigan State waited until the second possession, just to make sure.

The Spartans rank last in the Big Ten in rushing offense, but some opponents still come to the field bent on stopping the run. Minnesota was successful in crowding the box and preventing the Spartan ground game from getting into a rhythm two weeks ago.

Michigan State rebounded with one of its best ground games of the year, last week at Iowa.

Indiana is a base two-deep one type of team. And that's what they showed at pre-snap for most of MSU's first series. But at the snap, Indiana shifted into various forms of eight-man fronts - whether it be with a safety charging down to the linebacker level (with cover-three in the back), or a short-side cornerback coming on a run blitz, or a safety simply flowing fast to the box, anticipating run.

Indiana's ground-sniffing approach helped the Hoosiers extinguish MSU's opening drive in the red zone, resulting in a field goal.

Roushar knew their secret play to Cunningham would be open. But first, he wanted the Spartans to spring one good run play to set the bait even better.

That play came when Edwin Baker gained 7 yards on a 'power' to the weak side on the second snap of MSU's second drive. On that play, right guard Chris McDonald pulled to the left/weak side and delivered a lead block in helping Baker gain some yardage.

On the next snap, MSU showed the exact same action, again with McDonald pulling for what looked like another power to the weak side.

This time, Indiana charged the free safety to the linebacker box, sniffing out the area at which Baker had run on the previous play.

MSU enhanced the scent by bringing Keshawn Martin across for an end around fake. Thus if the safety saw that Cousins didn't in fact hand the ball to Bell, that safety would bite a few beats longer in anticipation of a possible hand-off to Martin.

Meanwhile, Cunningham sold the plot as well.

"That's a crack-and-go," Cunningham said.

It's like a slant-and-go, but first he has to sell it as if it is a run play. Cunningham had to make it look like he was delivering a crackback block on a play-side linebacker or safety.

The play-side linebacker was already flowing to the line of scrimmage. He was out of the way.

The safety charged down hard and Cunningham was willing to act like he was setting up to block him, "but he just disappeared."

Disappeared as in diving toward the line to bite on the run.

So Cunningham had to ease up and make it look like he was crack-backing air.

That left one other safety in the back. He bit too.

"That safety came up the field and and I just went," Cunningham said. "I just took off up the hash. We worked on it all week in practice, and it was just like in practice - it worked."

Cunningham was by himself as Cousins carried out the two fakes, did a deadpan pause, then turned and fired downfield. It was the easiest of 19 career TD catches for Michigan State's all-time leading receiver.

"They executed extremely well," Roushar said. "B.J. came down and the safety broke down on him as we expected, and then he just kind of slipped through. The guys did a great job of front of protecting and Kirk threw a strike. That was a big play and that certainly got us going."

But it was the ground-game threat, and Indiana's over-aggressiveness in trying to stop the run which opened the door for a well-designed play that had been exhaustively rehearsed earlier in the week.

Other Things From This Game

  • You have to like the way Mark Dantonio appeals to the human side of running an organization. During Thursday's practice, he came up with the idea of letting senior Joel Foreman carry the ball on an end sweep. He practically drew it up with a stick in the dirt during a practice huddle as if it were a game of backyard ball. They ran the play a couple of times at the end of practice.

    "I thought it was a joke but I guess it wasn't," Foreman said.

    "I said we may do that on Saturday if we get the chance," Dantonio said. "Everyone was like 'No, no don't do that.'"

    No one thought he was serious about calling the play. But just in case, he had o-line coach Mark Staten put in the proper terminology so that it could be called and aligned quickly.

    The opportunity presented itself during the curtain call portion of the program, when it came Foreman's turn to bow out.

    That's when they moved him to right tight end, and brought him around to the left side with a handoff for a rumbling gain of 3 yards.

    After being tackled, Foreman came to his feet, still holding the ball, wearing a type of numb smile no one had seen from the obtuse lineman from Milford. Then it was his turn to leave the field. And he left, still carrying the ball, all the way to the sideline.

    "That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman said.

    Those are all nice stories and good quotes, but this one from Dantonio goes beyond the normal protocol: "I just felt like we need to try and be people that can make dreams come true sometimes," Dantonio said.

    Sometimes I wonder if Dantonio has a team of writers who feed one-liners to him.

    But he doesn't. No cue cards or teleprompters either.

    "He's got the game ball for that," Dantonio said. "He took it as a matter of fact."
  • We saw more evidence of the "athletic" Travis Jackson that we heard about prior to his preseason ankle injury, on Le'Veon Bell's 18-yard run in the first quarter. On a zone left, Jackson shot out to the linebacker level and cut off the back-side linebacker.

    Jackson's block helped amplify the room Joel Foreman made up front on a zone block. We've seen Foreman do that in the past. But this was the first time I've really seen the foot quickness from Jackson that we've been hearing about. And there is more to come.

  • Senior second-stringer Jared McGaha received some early playing time at left tackle midway through the first half. It was noteworthy that he played at left tackle, rather than left guard, which was the position at which he was listed for most of the season.

    Meanwhile, sophomore Micajah Reynolds checked in at left guard midway through the second half for mop-up duty. Again, this is noteworthy because Reynolds had repped as a second-string left tackle most of the season. Reynolds' move to left guard indicates that he could be staying at that position for bowl practice and into the spring, possibly as the new leading candidate to succeed Foreman as the new left guard for 2012. There will be other candidates (Blake Treadwell, and possibly one of the tackles moving inside), but I like the idea of Reynolds staying at guard. He looked good at the position at this time last year as a mop-up guy. And, after moving to d-line and then back to offense again in August, he looks good again.

  • There continues to be growing similarities between this MSU football program and what we've seen out of MSU basketball for the past 10-plus years.

    Last week, I mentioned Tom Izzo's excitement about the football Spartans becoming a "player-coached team."

    And Saturday, there was more Breslin-brand magic.

    Examples: We witnessed a championship ceremony of sorts, with a trophy, and familiar comments from players indicating that this was only being one of the steps along the way to greater goals. (Where have we heard that before?)

    And in the process, there were these Senior Day curtain calls that were straight out of the basketball script we've seen around here in recent seasons. They began with ], the first man out, saluting the Spartan head at midfield. That could catch on.

  • By my count, Foreman has tied Aaron Bates for the most winning starts by a Michigan State player in school history (33). [He would be at 34 if he hadn't stepped aside and requested that [db]Arthur Ray start in his place for the season opener against Youngstown State. And he would be 35 if he hadn't forgot to pack his tie for the walk from Kellogg Center to the stadium for the Wisconsin game during his freshman year in 2008. Dantonio yanked him from the starting lineup for that one. SOURCE: November issue of SPARTAN Magazine.]

  • For recruits in attendance, including committed guys like Se'Von Pittman, and juniors like Cam Dillard, and grayshirt hopefuls like Prescott Line, those guys can visit a lot of schools and see a lot of games, but I don't know where they are going to see curtain calls and hugs for seniors like those which recruits saw on Saturday at Michigan State. It was uncommon.

  • Sideline Sight of the Day: Sparty doing the Weekend at Bernie's. Probably senior day for the lad inside that costume, too.

  • Sideline Sight of the Day II: Cousins giving Zeke "The Wonder Dog" a going-away hug during his final lap around the field.

  • I think it helped MSU's defense to have seen Minnesota's zone read option and inverted veer offense two weeks ago. Indiana ran similar stuff, requiring the Spartan front seven to stay assignment-sound. This is a more difficult task than IU's 1-10 record would indicate. Indiana's offense has been pretty good in recent weeks (netting 333 yards of total offense against Ohio State, 488 against Northwestern and 414 against Iowa, since true freshman Tre Roberson became the staring QB).

    MSU rarely had defenders out of position and held the Hoosiers to a season-low 236 yards.

  • At a time when most teams around the Big Ten and the country are trying to battle through bumps and bruises and stagger to the finish, Michigan State players are excited about playing their best football of the season.

    "We just want to continue to build momentum and go out and play our best ball in November," said junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, "and we're on our way, to Northwestern and Indianapolis and look out."

    At his very first press conference after being named head coach, Dantonio said playing their best football at the end of the season would be a goal for the team and the program, each year. It sounded good at the time, but I shrugged it off with a, "yeah right." But he's made it happen. MSU has been lethal under Dantonio, and they've caught a November gale again this year.

  • Dantonio altered some of the Senior Day pre-game ceremonies. They changed the tone of the player videos on the jumbotron, making them more upbeat, less retrospective. Dantonio felt the Spartans had come out flat on his four previous Senior Days as head coach at Michigan State. He sought to give Senior Day a spark. Mission accomplished.

  • Dantonio's strongest quote of the day: "We've talked about that a lot and I think this football team and program shows that we can handle this success that's been thrown at us. That comes back to leadership at the ground level. It comes back to leadership at the coaching aspect or the administration as well. Ultimately, it's the players who play and they have done a tremendous job leading and setting the bar. They continue to set the bar higher for the next group. That's what will allow us to reach our dreams of a national championship again. I think those things can happen as long as we keep getting players that will buy in and more talent, more experience with different ways to do things great things can happen."

    Did he say National Championship? Like my colleague Gillian Van Stratt pointed out after the press conference, this was the first time Dantonio had come out and said the N.C. words during his time at MSU. Play for a Big Ten title three times in four years and these things begin to come into view, I suppose.

    I'll say this: If Jerel Worthy stays, MSU will have a defensive line befitting of a National Champion.

    And the one thing that ALL National Champions have had in common over the past 25 or 30 years is a dominant defensive line.

    Who is going to win the National Championship next year? Well, start by picking out the three or four percent of teams in the country that have a chance to field a dominant defensive line. MSU will be in that three or four percent. That doesn't mean they will be among the top three or four percent of all teams in the country. I'm just saying they will be among the dozen or so teams, maybe less, that will have the one necessary ingredient.

    I think the Spartans will be hurting for field-stretching receivers and experience at the QB position. But a great d-line covers for a lot of ills, and turns good linebackers and DBs into great ones.

  • A Nebraska loss meant MSU could clinch the Legends Division championship a week early. The Michigan-Nebraska score was flashed twice, once when the score was 10-10. That received neutral reaction, as you can imagine. Then later when the score was shown with Michigan leading, there was a decent amount of cheering. I heard no booing.

    At Michigan Stadium they flashed scores from all around the Big Ten all day, but never once showed the score of the Michigan State game. Nice complex.

    I hear David Brandon is leaning toward this look for Michigan's legacy uniform for next year's Michigan-MSU game:

  • Did Saturdays Old Brass Spittoon scrimmage serve to help MSU in its preparation for Northwestern's up-tempo no huddle? I'd say yes. Good drill.

    Would exposure to those two no-huddle attacks help MSU in the event that it sees Oregon in six weeks? I'll say yes, a little bit.

    The coaches struggle to simulate uptempo football from the scout team in practice. What's better than repping against a scout team? Repping against Indiana, and then Northwestern, I'd say. And along the way, you need to beat Northwestern too. The Wildcats have won four straight and are one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten.

    And if you follow my logic that Michigan State won the Big Ten championship belt last year (if not the Rose Bowl bid), then which team currently holds that belt?

    Well, MSU came into the season with it. The Spartans' one and only conference loss was to Nebraska. Then Nebraska lost to ...... Northwestern.

    The Wildcats have the belt.

  • Johnny Adams turned in a highlight-reel play at cornerback for a second straight week. "Johnny Five" is coming alive.

    But I'm guessing that Darqueze Dennard will be held out of next week's game at Northwestern - even though having a good fleet of cornerbacks can be extremely important against the uptempo, multi-wide Wildcats.

    Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett didn't have any major errors that I noticed this week. Two weeks ago against Minnesota, he erred during the Gophers' 64-yard TD pass in the first quarter. Last week, he had some understandable problems in trying to cover Marvin McNutt.

    This week, there were no such gaffes - although the Hoosiers don't have anyone near McNutt's class. Still, I'll take it as a sign of progress from Lippett. I think he is benefitting from all of this playing time he is getting in the second half of the season.

  • Blocking And Tackling: Fou Fonoti got out front with a fold block in helping pave the way for Edwin Baker's 10-yard TD run in the second quarter. Fonoti has shown good agility and foot quickness all year. Now he is starting to do a better job of finding his target and finishing. Still needs sharpening, though.

  • Blocking And Tackling II: I liked the way Dana Dixon tackled during mop-up duty. The third-string safety was crisp with an aggressive sweep tackle on one occasion, and then ended that possession with a pass break-up on fourth down.

  • Second straight quality game from senior TE Brian Linthicum. He's finishing strong.

  • Coaches always say that the championship teams are the ones that come back in the greatest numbers for reunions. I suspect that this bunch of seniors will take that axiom to a new level. Tonight was their last game night in town, but it won't be the last time they'll be in town together. They'll come back, and back, and back, for the 5th, the 10th and various other reunions.

    I've covered a lot of teams and a lot of Senior Days but this group of seniors seems to care for one another more than any MSU senior class that I can recall. They all love Foreman, they all love Pickelman, they all love Trenton Robinson, they all really love K-Martin; you should have seen the reception McGaha got when he came out; and they have voted Cousins captain for three years. This team has a very strong bond.

  • In-Game Adjustments? Indiana showed a new wrinkle in their offense by going with a split back formation. This changed some of MSU's assignments on the defensive edge.

    "We didn't practice against that as much, and when they did it they got a few yards," said William Gholston. "Then they coached us up on the sidelines and we got it done."

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