October 21, 2012

Hot Reads: 14 takes on what went wrong

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Let's examine what the hell went wrong in this game with 13 Hot Reads stemming from Michigan State's 12-10 loss at Michigan:

1. Michigan is pretty good. The Wolverines likely have the second best defense in the Big Ten. Who knows, their defensive numbers might eclipse Michigan State's by the end of the year.

2. While facing the Big Ten's second-best defense, the Spartans employed their fifth different offensive line starting lineup of the season.

Check out these numbers: 0-5-7-32-9-1

No, those aren't winning Lotto numbers. Those are losing offensive line numbers.

Those numbers represent the career starts for the offensive linemen and tight end that Michigan State started on Saturday, with left tackle Dan France being unavailable due to a concussion.

To be eight games into a season and have five of the six front-line blockers check in with fewer than 10 career starts is just debilitating. That means five of the six are basically first-year players, with one or two being completely raw. That's too much green packed into one position group.

Without Dion Sims, the Spartan are not only missing a guy who was their leading receiver and go-to guy on third down, but the Spartans also had to rearrange some of their favorite formations. MSU has run a 3-WR/0-TE formation in the past two weeks, something Mark Dantonio's team had never shown in his previous five-and-a-half seasons as head coach. They've been productive with that new set, but it also signifies the stretching and reshaping they've had to do without Sims.

Redshirt freshman Donavon Clark started in place of France at left tackle. Clark had played in only one game in his college career prior to Saturday, and that was in mop-up duty during the blowout victory over Central Michigan.

At Michigan, in front of 113,000 fans, Clark received his first real playing time as a college player. Furthermore, he hadn't repped at offensive tackle in practice since August. He's normally a second-string offensive guard. He learned he'd be starting just a few hours before the game.

Clark did pretty well, which in this case means he wasn't a noticeable liability. But MSU was extremely right-handed in this game, sending almost all crucial-down running plays to the right, rather than to Clark's side. It didn't take Michigan long to become wise to this tendency. MSU had little choice.

3. Mix Michigan's excellent defense with Michigan State's 0-5-7-32-9-1 offensive front and people are questioning why the Spartans had trouble running the ball?

4. Mix Michigan's excellent defense with Michigan State's 0-5-7-32-9-1 offensive front and people are questioning why the Spartans had trouble scoring points?

(I know, I know. MSU had trouble scoring points long before this game. But I'm talking about this game).

5. Mix Michigan's excellent defense with Michigan State's 0-5-7-32-9-1 offensive front and people are questioning MSU's play calling?

Hey, Bill Walsh could run an offense with an 0-5-7-32-9-1 offensive front in a week-eight rivalry game and he'd probably have about as much success as Joe Walsh.

6. I haven't compared the numbers, but I suspect Andrew Maxwell isn't far behind the passing numbers of QBs Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, Drew Stanton and Bill Burke when they were first-year starters. But he is not as accurate as he was in early September. Back then, he zipped passes accurately and saw way too many of them dropped by his receivers.

The offense sputtered, offensive linemen went away, as did his favorite third-down target in Sims, the team lost, and I guess I can't blame him if he started to shoulder too much of the stress of the losses and lost some confidence.

Still, he has to improve his ability to make reads and key throws. He knows it. He'll continue to work on it. But like I said in the V-Cast, the play design was fine on the third-and-four interception, the third-and-two incompletion in the fourth quarter and the second-down play action pass in the failed time-melting drive. At some point MSU needs to improve its ability to simply read it, throw it and catch it. ESPECIALLY in the waning moments of a game. Sharpness in these areas has eroded in the late stages of MSU's four losses.

7. As for the interception, let the record show that that's what can happen more when throwing beyond the chains on third down. The receiver was open, and Maxwell missed him high. Interception.

Interestingly, he had Tony Lippett open on a shallow crossing route one yard beyond the line of scrimmage on third-and-four. This route had become his favorite checkdown target against third-down man coverage in recent games.

A Michigan defender trailed Lippett well and likely would have tackled him after a gain of one or two, forced a punt, and caused MSU fans to get mad at Dan Roushar about not throwing farther downfield, beyond the chains. Instead, Maxwell (rightly) threw downfield, and you saw what happened. Now imagine what would have happened in those other games when you wanted him to throw downfield on third down against two-deep safety coverages when no one was actually open.

8. If the football gods had been kinder to Michigan State by ordering the place-kicking gods to be meaner to Michigan, this game might have become a salute to and celebration of Paul Lang and Donavon Clark.

Six months ago, Lang thought he may never play football again. Six days ago, Clark never dreamed he would be starting at left tackle in the biggest game on the schedule.

Clark had one false start penalty. He wasn't technically clean throughout the day, but committed no major errors that I noticed (I haven't watched the film yet).

MSU favored the right side on most running plays, especially the crucial ones. But Clark was functional. If the Spartans had won, Clark's ability to serve as a duct tape solution as a freshman left tackle would have gone down in Spartan lore.

Lang sat out most of last fall with a back injury. He went home to Pennsylvania during most of spring term to rehab while taking MSU classes online. He missed spring ball. In June, coaches said they hoped to get him back on the field for August camp but said they frankly weren't counting on anything from him.

By mid-August, they were listing him as a pleasant surprise and a participant in practice. By late-August, they said he might even contribute.

He got onto the field a handful of times as a third- or fourth-string tight end in September. And then when Sims went down with an ankle injury around the same time that former second-string tight end Andrew Gleichert broke his wrist, Lang ascended to the top two in the depth chart at tight end.

He was the primary read for a first-and-goal play-action pass when the Spartans scored to take a 7-6 lead in the third quarter at Michigan. A few thousand Spartan fans erupted at Michigan Stadium. Lang thought about his parents back in Pennsylvania. "I know they were happy," he said.

But what would have been a rich memory bank from this game cracked and emptied when Michigan kicked the field goal to win. If the kick had missed, his TD - the first of his career - would have been remembered as the game-winner.

9. As for defense, I haven't watched the tape yet but I think this game marked the best performance of the year for the interior defensive line. I haven't zeroed in on the play of Anthony Rashad White yet, but based on MSU's control of the line of scrimmage on defense I suspect that he resembled the type of player we thought we would see out of him this season as a senior. He's a Michigander, and playing in this rivalry can bring out the wolfman in some of these in-state guys.

For the regular season to end on a constructive note in November, MSU's intensity level needs to stay near this level, if possible. I have my doubts on their ability to sustain it, but they need to. The pride of the program rests on it. And White needs to make up for a mild September and early October.

10. Pass rush continued to be non-existent. Michigan State ranks dead last in the Big Ten in sacks. Michigan State's defense is very good, a national top 15 or top 10 defense. But the Spartans cannot be an elite defense, and carry the torch for a struggling offense, unless they harness the ability to get heat on the QB with the standard four.

Fittingly, MSU's four-man rush allowed Michigan's quarterback too much time in completing a 20-yard pass to Dileo in setting up the game-winning field goal.

On that play William Gholston was assigned to bull rush the left tackle with an inside-out attitude, in hopes of springing linebacker Denicos Allen on an outside-in slant. The movement was schemed to get Allen free, so I don't want to blame Gholston entirely on failing to come up with a winning pass rush move on that play. He was more of a screener in that particular scheme. Still, he tried to transition to his pass rush moves after the initial interference he ran for Allen, but Gholston just doesn't have a lot of clubs in the bag in that area.

He's very good against the run, but few teams run in Gholston's direction.

He's a good player, but not a great one, and hasn't been a difference-maker nearly as often as most of us thought he would be in 2012, based on his dominant performance in last year's bowl game.

Does this increase his chances of coming back next year, and thereby increase MSU's chances of fielding a tremendous defense in 2012? I would think so.

11. Wide receiver play continued to show progress on this day. Aaron Burbridge failed to finish what would have been a tough catch on a deep fade on third-and-four on MSU's third possession of the day. But overall we saw improved reliability from Burbridge (six catches), Lippett (five catches), Keith Mumphery (two catches) and even a fine deep grab from Bennie Fowler (two catches, 59 yards).

If they had been this consistent against Notre Dame and Ohio State, the Spartans might be 6-2.

12. If the receivers had been this consistent against ND and OSU and kicker Dan Conroy had made his kicks in those game and also against Iowa and Michigan ... well, why even talk about it.

13. Pretty much every area of the team can share blame in the Spartans' four losses: QB, WR, the decimated o-line, the non-explosive RB situation, the TE injuries, the place kicker, the pass rush and late-inning defense. And fittingly, the entire team can share the misery of a 4-4 record heading into late October.

The trick now is to refocus as if they are 0-0 and look to win and advance in tournament mode, as they did two years ago when trying to run the table and win the conference championship. Dantonio has been terrific in November as head coach at Michigan State, and he needs to show championship form in the final quarter of the season once again.

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