Two years ago, the day after Michigan beat Notre Dame in 2009, we discussed on a MGoPodcast the rare occurence that had taken place the day before: Michigan won, while all three of its rivals–Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame–all lost. Michigan, of course, beat Notre Dame, while Central Michigan, behind the guts and arm of Dan LeFeveur topped MSU and USC choked off Ohio State. It was the first time since 2004 that it had happened. We batted around ideas for what to call days like that–well, other than glorious–but never settled on anything. We’re still waiting for another day like that, but this past Saturday came mighty close. Michigan eased by Eastern while MSU and OSU both lost high profile showdown games by double digits. Sure, the MSU loss was to the hands of Notre Dame, but Michigan famously beat them the week before. So, with two rivals going down in flames, one at the hands of the third rival the Wolverines dispatched with the week before, well, that’s about as close as we’re going to get to one of those glorious clean sweep days without it, you know, actually happening.
Watching MSU and OSU go down in such tire fashion begs the question: As a Michigan fan, which warmed your heart more to see? Was it Michigan State flailing about in South Bend, their powerful rushing attack cobbling together a meager 29 yards on 23 carries, for a weak 1.26 yards per carry? Or was it the brilliance of Ohio State’s passing attack that marched across the field to the tune of 35 whole yards on its four completed passes of the night? Admittedly, its a tough question, but one with no wrong answers really. Let’s take each case individually. This post will focus on MSU’s current woes, with special attention to a unit that looks a lot like something we saw in Ann Arbor during the 2008 season.
How could you not enjoy the herp derpiness of Mark Dantonio continually outhinking himself throughout the game with the Irish? You really thought you’d get the Irish again on a fake field goal? Bzzzzt. I also liked the failed attempts on a pair of gadget plays in the third quarter that single handedly destroyed a good looking Spartan drive as Kirk Cousins and company tried to get back into the game. Thanks for crushing my play on your team last week, coach. Last year, everything Dantonio dialed up came up gold. This year, at least using the results of the one real game they’ve played, Lady Luck is looking for some Sparty payback. I think we’re seeing a dropoff in play calling from previous OC Don Treadwell–now the head coach at Miami Ohio–to the current coordinator Dan Roushar, who is taking a lot of self blame in the wake of the ND debacle. Dantonio’s greatest achievement in East Lansing has been the near abolition of the proverbial ‘Sparty No!’ moment that crops up to not only destroy the green, white and bronze in a singular game, but also sets it on tailspin that pretty much destroys their whole season. It was good seeing the coach himself bring that party back for at least one day. That was fun to see as a Michigan fan. However, Dantonio wont out think himself too many other times. His team was behind and maybe they were in panic, catchup mode.
Of greater import to the Spartans, and one that ought to make Michigan fans smile even more, is the state of MSU’s offensive line. It’s a disaster. Heading into the season, it was the biggest question mark the Spartans faced. Outside of Joel Foreman, there isnt much ready made talent. Depth was a major concern, especially with a rash of career ending injuries suffered to line recruits over the two years. At best, the line was going to be a work in progress in 2011. Three games into the season, the situation is worse than it appeared. The Spartans are already cobbling a starting unit together with their backups. MSU was already breaking in three brand new starters on the offensive front. Two new starters had flipped from the defensive side of the ball–LT Dan France and C Blake Treadwell, while a third new starter, RT Sklyar Burkland, takes over as a redshirt freshmen. Burkland was a top-end recruit, a top-10 prospect out of Ohio and, per Rivals, the 21st ranked offensive tackle in the nation. He earned a starting job this year, but suffered a terrible broken ankle early in the Notre Dame game and is now out for the season. Subbing in for him was JUCO recruit Fou Fonito, who didnt even have the benefit of a full summer practice with MSU as he was still trying to get his academic transcripts in order. Also in the wake of the injury, they’ve moved Micajah Reynolds from defense to second string offensive line. This week against Central, Treadwell is already listed as out with a knee sprain and taking his place is redshirt freshmen Travis Jackson, who himself has been ailing with a nagging injury.
So, lets sum this up. Since the conclusion of last season, MSU has flipped three defensive linemen onto the offensive line two-deep as well as added a JUCO recruit who really never has had a chance to practice with the team until the middle of August. And, yet, its Dantonio taking pot shots at other schools for only having nine scholarship players on the offensive line? Good grief, Mork. Three of those guys are now starters, although maybe Jackson usurps Treadwell now that the latter is injured. Still, thats a big uh-oh and red flag as league play approaches.
We saw against their first foe with a pulse just how poorly its working out. One of the holdover starters Guard Chris McDonald struggled matching up with Louis Nix on the interior and was beat at the point of attack by Darius Fleming on his attempts to pull. France made a terrible tactical error, whiffing on a defensive end, allowing him a clean shot on Cousins blindside, forcing a turnover. I didnt see Burkland make a single play before befalling to injury. Fonito looked lost and every bit a player that’s only been on campus for a few weeks. The Irish defensive line graded out with an A-plus and nobody on the Spartans had a cule how to block true freshmen Aaron Lynch. The best block I saw all day out of MSU was by backup LB TyQuan Hammock on a kick return. Maybe he can play offensive tackle? As a unit, it was impressive how the whole offensive line went virtually the whole game without blocking anybody and opening any running lanes. Was that part of the game plan? Cousins was only sacked twice, but seemed to be delivering the ball earlier than he wanted a lot because protection was falling apart in front of him. He looked like a QB who didnt trust his pass protection, despite his own words of encouragement afterwards. Are they going to keep running that goofy unbalanced line, with the four offensive linee starters lined up to the right of the center and the only guy on the left side at “guard” is tight end Dion Simms? If so, hopefully for their sake they have better luck with it than against the Irish. This formation didnt spark the ground game one iota, and the only good play it had come on a play fake toss to a releasing Sims for a 12-yard gain. It helped set up that woebegone fake field goal attempt. Was that what the MSU coaches’ wanted out of that formation?
Maybe these guys improve. Maybe the MSU braintrust finds a way to overcome this. Maybe all the defensive players were out of place originally and end up as real, live Big 10 offensive linemen. But, in the wake of the Irish blowout, its hard seeing MSU getting a push and opening up holes against any of the good defensive fronts in the Big 10. Despite the best stable of tailbacks in the Big 10, the Spartans sit dead last in the Big 10 in rushing yards and yards per carry. How is this going to get better against the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin next month? We’ll see a running game that cant move forward, more games where Cousins threatens 50 passing attempts and offensive gameplans that just look choatic because nobody up front can block.
I like this MSU team and the roster Dantonio has created. Their tailbacks are studs, and I really dig the upside of their defensive depth chart. But, their flawed offense line looks every bit as bad as Michigan’s 2008 offensive line, one of the worst fronts in program history. It was basically David Molk and four turnstiles that season. Michigan State in 2011 is Joel Foreman and four turnstiles. Michigan was in that position because of graduation, a killer injury, the Boren transfer and four other linemen just quitting the team because they hated new coach Rich Rodriguez. The Spartans situation is a little simpler. Injuries have cratered their best laid offensive line plans. They recruited Dave Barrent, one of the best OT prospects in the nation in 2009 that most of the Big 10 pined for, but injuries have already ended his career. The Spartans are still waiting for Nate Klatt, also a 4-star offensive linemen from that class, to develop. Henry Conway, another solid OL recruit from that same class, hasnt been able to contribute due to a series of neck injuries. In a perfect world, I think Burkland, Barrent, Conway and Klatt would be in the mix for significant minutes this season. But, they wont be getting anything out of Burkland this year, Barrent is out forever, Conway is only now kinda, sorta ready to play and remains a huge health question mark despite being listed as a second stringer right now and Klatt still has yet to develop. These are arguably four of their best OL recruits since 2009, and they all will likely remain question marks at best heading into 2012. Given how Michigan is kicking their tail on the 2012 recruiting trail and that Notre Dame just won the Steve Elmer sweepstakes, you have to wonder about the long term prospects for the Spartans offensive line if they cant somehow turn the current group into a competent group.
Like I said, I enjoy this MSU team otherwise. They have so many positives going for them. The OLine might look like 2008 Michigan, but the rest of the squad decidedly does not. It’s a good to great roster. I dont feel this is a .500 team at all. However, right now, the dire straights of the offensive line looks like an example where one positional unit turning into a disaster will serve to torpedo all the big goals the program talked about before the season began. The Spartans have only had three winning Big 10 seasons since Nick Saban left town. Adding a fourth one will be a chore given the the state of the offensive line.