September 25, 2011

DotComp: It's getting late for small victories

EAST LANSING - Central Michigan did not present Michigan State with a good test in the Spartans' quest to prove itself as a big, bad rushing attack.

Instead, this 45-7 victory over the Chippewas was more like a study group session.
CMU met Michigan State with the type of teasers the Spartans may encounter in future tests, but on a watered-down, less-intense level.

The Spartans came out of the game feeling better about their ground game, more confident and manly. However, the majority of MSU's season-long grade will begin to be accumulated next week with a real exam at Ohio State.

"I thought we functioned well, we ran the football," said head coach Mark Dantonio, stopping short of giving a glowing review of the performance. "We had some explosive runs which, to me, we were lacking on a consistent level."

Last week, the Spartans netted only 29 yards rushing against Notre Dame, when factoring in two sacks and things like losses on Wildcat reverses.

Michigan State came out of South Bend with the belief that they had stopped themselves on the ground more so than they had been stuffed by the Irish. MSU offensive coordinator Dan Roushar criticized himself for delving too deep into exotic formations and new wrinkles.

This week, the Spartans promised to get back to ground-and-pound basics, such as the old fashioned 'power' off-tackle, and inside zone runs. On a good Saturday, MSU would like to run those play 20 or 25 times. Last week, MSU ran those plays only 11 times, and averaged a workmanlike 4.0 yards per carry on them. They just didn't run them enough. And by the time they realized their error in game planning and play calling a week ago, the Spartans were down 18 points and had to throw on virtually every down for most of the second half.

This week, there would be no quirkiness, no experiments. Just meat-and-potatoes football.

They couldn't get a do-over on the failure at Notre Dame, so they would settle for a make-over against the Chippewas.

"We got challenged this week by our coaching staff and we got challenged by one another and we came together," said left guard Joel Foreman.

MSU proclaimed last Tuesday that a return to ground-oriented goodness would be the goal this week. Central Michigan knew it was coming. That's the way the Spartans wanted it. The Chippewas were a willing and somewhat-able sparring partner, with head coach Dan Enos stating that limiting MSU on first down running plays was a major point of emphasis.

We have a match.

I don't know when we've seen a football game like this, in which one team flat out told the press, the fans, the opponent what it intended to do in terms of a game-opening game plan, and then went out and tried to execute it.

I mean there have been days when Oklahoma's wishbone was unstoppable, and everyone knew what was coming; or when the Houston Cougars' run-and-shoot offense of Andre Ware made no mystery of what they intended to do on offense. Duffy Daugherty's statement that the Spartans might open a game against Notre Dame with an on-side kick was a classic in 1968, because he did, and MSU recovered.

But in this odd, methodical case, Michigan State is fashioned as a balanced offensive attack, supposedly capable of hurting an opponent through the air or on the ground. Yet in this game, MSU stepped out of the batters box, pointed to the dirt, and made a called shot, proclaiming that the Spartans would make a statement on the ground, by running the ball with brute force.

Of course this Spartan offense, although potentially pretty good, lacks the punch and dramatics of Babe Ruth at Wrigley Field in 1927. But MSU's bravado made for an intriguing opening Act.

How bold was Michigan State on this day? The Spartans won the toss ... and elected to receive.


Hey, the intended journey toward long-term ground dominance begins with small steps.

"As the head football coach I just wanted to make sure that what we talked about all week long, that given the opportunity we were going to take the football and not say, 'Okay, let's do this, let's do that, and by the way you can have the ball,'" Dantonio said. "I don't think that would have been the right mindset. Just wanted to force the issue a little bit."

Credit Dantonio for staying in character.

The Spartans opened with 'power' right, behind pulling Joel Foreman, for a gain of 6.

Then came an inside zone left, behind center Travis Jackson, for a gain of 8.

And then 'power' left, again behind a pulling Foreman, for a gain of 6.

Who carried the ball? Who cares. We're charting the linemen. That's the type of week this was.

In just three plays, MSU had run 'power' more than it did in the entire Notre Dame game. This is noteworthy because 'power' had been MSU's most frequently-run play in the first two games of the season against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic.

What does Central Michigan have in common with YSU and FAU? They're a bad football team.

But at least the Spartans were back to the familiar, and successful, brand of football Dantonio has established in East Lansing over the last four-and-a-half years. The staples were being put back in place.

Then MSU gained 1 yard on a zone to the right.

Then came third-and-three at the MSU 41. Draw your sword. Prove your manhood (as much as you can, against these stale 2011 Chips).

This time, MSU pulled right guard Chris McDonald and ran 'power' to the left. That's as tricky as the Spartans intended to be in the opening flurry of activity. Foreman cleared the area with a strong down block, McDonald got a piece of a linebacker, fullback Todd Anderson took out the cornerback and the Spartans gained four yards.

Somewhere in the cloud of dust, the umpire signaled a first down, and Daugherty smiled.

MSU had come out and run the ball five straight times against an average defense, and proved that their running game was ... better than average!

Then it was time to go deep to B.J. Cunningham and get on with the rest of the game.

On that play, Kirk Cousins threw deep, into coverage, and got away with it because CMU's deep-middle safety got his feet twisted up while misjudging the ball. Cunningham bailed out a somewhat questionable throw with a tremendous leap and grab. (Cunningham's route was also exquisite. His nod to the flag, followed by a quick, determined post cut left the cornerback a couple of steps behind).

Cousins saw the safety in deep center field, but as Cousins likes to say about Cunningham - he's open even when he's covered. Cousins put some necessary air under it, and the cornerback caught up to Cunningham and the safety, creating a three-way jump ball of sorts. That's Cunningham's world, his chance to show off on a stage that had been reserved for a ground exhibition.

Next play, on first-and-goal at the 1, it was back to the ground-and-pound for a ceremonial 'power' lead to the right, with Foreman pulling and drilling a linebacker in an open area blazed by a good McDonald down block.

Michigan State 7, Central Michigan 0.

Time for a study break, with the very academic Kirk Cousins.

"I saw a group of guys that was challenged this week to play at a high level and I thought that they did that," Cousins said of the guys who are on scholarship to protect him. "I thought that we ran the ball very well. Ultimately our offensive line probably has the toughest job week-in and week-out in terms of the work that they have to put in in practice and then on gameday. They did a great job of responding to the criticism that they faced last week and I think that they will do that all season."

MSU led 31-0 at halftime. At that juncture, the Spartans were averaging 5.8 yards per carry (122 yards on 21 attempts).

By the end of the game - and a couple dozen reps by a few back-up offensive linemen, and a fourth-and-one stoppage by the Chips inside the 1-yard line - MSU's average was down to 4.2 yards per carry. The Spartans finished with 197 yards on the ground.

It wasn't a great performance by the Spartan rushing attack, but it was good enough to give Dantonio and most MSU fans reason to believe that Michigan State was ... back to square one.

When asked where he thought his overall team was as it gets set for Big Ten play, Dantonio said: "Where were we at the beginning? That's really where we're at."

That's not entirely a good thing. But back at the beginning, most of us had a higher opinion of the Spartans. So maybe it's a good thing, kind of.

"This week has been completely on Central Michigan," Dantonio said. "And our focus has been on these first four games and we are in position now that we start looking to the Big Ten conference. Obviously it will be a great opponent down in Columbus at 3:30. We will point toward that and have our guys ready to go. We'll be focused and we'll be ready to go. It will be a challenge for us, but I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

The Spartans are late in getting their offensive front squared away. Micajah Reynolds is the new No. 1 contender for the left tackle championship belt held by Dan France. Reynolds, who was a defensive tackle last week, became the fourth left tackle to see reps with the first string this season, when he split time with France against CMU. Jared McGaha (injured) and Fou Fonoti (the current right tackle) have been the other two.

France has the physical attributes to be a quality left tackle. But there have been enough shaky moments to prompt coaches to bring in Reynolds for a look.

Reynolds saw quality playing time in the first half. Bell's second and third TD runs were run to Reynolds' side.

"I saw some really good things," Roushar said of Reynolds. "I'm not sure of the number of snaps that he had but very quickly, from making the move on Tuesday to offensive line, you could see the retention that he had from the previous year."

Reynolds was a second-string left guard last year. He played d-line during the spring and August camp.

"I thought he was pretty poised and I thought he did a very good job," Roushar said. "I'm anxious to see how those two look when we compare them."

So this wasn't just a move to manufacture some depth. Reynolds can compete with France for the job, right now?

"Yes, absolutely he can," Roushar said. "I think it's difficult when you haven't had a lot of work but I think he got enough work that we are going to be able to evaluate him."

One-third of the way into the season, and Michigan State is still evaluating things at left tackle.

The strange thing is that I think the Spartans have a decent chance to get a serviceable left tackle out of the process. Serviceable against beat-able teams, but it's doubtful whether MSU can get left tackle squared away to the point of expecting to secure the edge against the best, this year, if in fact MSU ever sees an opponent in 2011 comparable to the best. Last year, Iowa, Wisconsin, Alabama and even Purdue had people at defensive end who were pretty much the best in the country; the NFL Draft would agree.

This year, against this schedule, maybe the Spartans will be functional at left tackle with the winner of the France-Reynolds competition. It remains to be seen exactly how difficult the tests are going to be.

Saturday's study session was a breeze.

Meanwhile, at center, Travis Jackson played for the first time in his college career. And he started, in his first college game. Why not? What's more 'square one' than this?

The good news is that Jackson had been No. 1 in spring and for much of August, but then lost the starting job to an ankle injury. Blake Treadwell was functional as the starting center in the first three games. But Jackson is a guy who has a chance to be better than functional, real soon. Although he's a rookie, he shows signs of being special.

"I think he brings a real presence of leadership," Roushar said. "There is an enthusiasm. He identifies fronts and he communicates very well and I think the guys feed off of that."

"Travis plays with a lot of confidence," Foreman said. "He plays hard and he is going to be a heck of a football player. He's a great component for us."

At right tackle Fou Fonoti made the first start of his college career. He's been enrolled at Michigan State for about four months. He's been practicing with the Spartans for about seven weeks.

Fonoti struggled in the opener against Youngstown State. He was a little better in a reserve role a week later against Florida Atlantic. He was solid in emergency relief of injured Skyler Burkland at Notre Dame.

How good was Fonoti against Central Michigan? Good enough that no one asked about him.

And good enough that he is now getting good enough to think in terms of team, as a starter, complete with all the phrases and slogans.

"One thing that the coaches really pushed about this week was the physical practice and Pound Green Pound," Fonoti said. "With the coaches putting that on our shoulders, we took it personally. We trusted the man next to us and the guys went in and got the job done."

Yes they did, and Fonoti carried out his job responsibility nicely.

Good study session.

Now the real tests begin.

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