Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Mark Dantonio era at Michigan State mirrors that of Kirk Ferentz at Iowa...and that could be a problem.

While Kirk Ferentz wasn't an option when Michigan State was looking for a new football coach in 2002, at the time I longed for the Spartans to model their program after his Iowa Hawkeyes. 

After all, if Ferentz could parlay Iowa's past legacy as a football power into becoming a BCS contender in corn town based upon a stout defense and a solid running game, surely somebody like minded could make the same thing happen in East Lansing.

Sparty Said Knock You Out!

Michigan State was just three years removed from the Nick Saban era, and while Bobby Williams had maintained the Spartans talent level through his recruiting, he had lost control of his program, on and off the field.

The Spartans had one chance to make an impact coaching hire or risk losing the momentum their program had built under Saban.

Unfortunately, Ron Mason, Michigan State's Athletic Director at the time went for a "big name" hire in Louisville Cardinal head coach, John. L. Smith.

Living in Kentucky, I knew that the John L. Smith hire would be a disaster from day one, but Ron Mason was in water above his head as a first time Athletic Director, and John L. Smith was a snake oil salesman.

Never mind the fact that Urban Meyer practically begged Michigan State for an interview after kicking off half the Bowling Green roster he inherited and still managed to turn their program around in just one year, but John L.'s Louisville teams were marred by the same type of behavior problems that he was being hired to clean up.

However, that cowboy could sell some oil, and he was able to convince Mason that he needed to buy some.

Fast forward four years, and Kirk Ferentz success at Iowa continued. In fact, he was frequently rumored to be a candidate for many NFL head coaching vacancies.

Meanwhile, Michigan State was once again looking for a new head coach after John L. Smith coached and slapped his way out of East Lansing.

This time Michigan State had a new rising star in Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who went with a Ferentz clone in Mark Dantonio as his new hire.

Dantonio immediately brought his Spartans back to respectability, making them bowl eligible in his first season as head coach. By his fourth season he had brought Michigan State their first Big Ten title in 22 years, based largely upon a solid running game and a strong defense.

However, college football was beginning to change, and Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes were starting to get left behind based upon a lack of playmaker at the quarterback position and an insistence on running the ball at all costs. 

Not only did Iowa begin to lag in the Big Ten standings, but you could all but pencil their once Big Ten championship caliber teams in for a loss to either Iowa State or a MAC school each and every year.

And while Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi has gone on to build what is perhaps the best defense in America, Dantonio risks wasting it after failing to develop another NFL caliber "pro style" quarterback after the graduation of Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins.

Much like Iowa, Michigan State has gone conservative, and now runs a predictable and conservative run orientated attack, rarely even attempting to throw the ball vertically down field.

Unlike Iowa, I do think Dantonio realizes the need to evolve, as he's expressed a desire to base his offense around a more mobile quarterback going forward.

Unfortunately, his upperclassmen do not have the requisite skill set to run such an offense, and his more mobile underclassmen are apparently not yet ready.

Hopefully Dantonio makes the correct call going forward, or his Spartans may find themselves more similar to the Iowa Hawkeyes than they would like.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Yes the Offense Sucks, but Mark Dantonio Still Has Swag with a Capital "S"

After a 2-0 start to the 2013 season, USA Today college football analyst Dan Wolken has ranked the Spartans fan base No. 5 on "The Misery Index.'' 

While Wolken astutely characterizes Michigan State's offense as "a dumpster fire," he takes a shot at head coach Mark Dantonio, characterizing him as "a humorless coach void of any semblance of personality.''

Actually, I've heard that complaint before, and I find it absurd. Maybe I'm just partial to a dry sense of humor, but let's not mistake a dry wit with a lack of personality.

Mark Dantonio may not be Steve Spurrier or Bobby Bowden when it comes to making an ass of himself in front of the camera, but the dude has swag with a capital "S."

This is the same coach who routinely ignores questions from sideline reporters and just slyly smiles and talks about whatever the Hell he wants to talk about, such as when he smugly reminded a shocked national audience that the name of game winning fake field goal against Notre Dame was "Little Giants."

Or that Northwestern "took the cheese" in biting on the fake punt called "Mouse Trap" that helped his Spartans come back from a 17-0 deficit one month later.

Of course, who can forget Dantonio putting Mike Hart and every Michigan fan in their place by saying, "Pride comes before the fall," and, "It's not over, and it will never be over here. It's just started," before rattling off four straight wins against their in-state rivals when Michigan players taunted him after narrowly defeating his Spartans in his first season as their head coach.

Does Dan Wolken actually think that Michigan State fans complained about Mark Dantonio's "lack of personality" when he put an arrogant Michigan assistant coach in Jeff Hecklinski his place?

Or how about when he reminded the national media and Wolverine fan base that "Little Brother" had grown up to become bigger and stronger than "Big Brother" and even landed a better looking girlfriend by asking, "We've beat Michigan the last four years, so where's the threat?"

Mark Dantonio "owning" University of Michigan assistant coach Jeff Hecklinski by comparing him to former Wolverine RB Mike Hart.

Wolken may be correct that the current state of Michigan State's offense rhymes with "flaming bag of dog shit," but that assessment could change as quickly as you can say "Damion Terry."

One thing that you cannot and do not want to do is attack is Mark Dantonio's swag and personality...Just ask the University of Michigan.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Taking a Look at Michigan State's 2013 Quarterback Situation

"I don't think either quarterback played poorly, both quarterbacks played well enough to generate more points than we got from our offense.'' - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, following Michigan State's 26-13 win over Western Michigan on 8/30/13. 

No, Michigan State's quarterbacks did not play poorly against Western Michigan. They were flat out awful.

Despite several drops from their receivers, Michigan State's quarterbacks, fifth year Senior Andrew Maxwell and redshirt Sophomore Connor Cook did not put the team in a position to score with their arms.

In fact, the best the Spartans' offense looked all game was probably when running back Jeremy Langford was taking snaps in the "Wildcat" formation. Sadly, the mere thought of Andrew Maxwell splitting out wide in the "Wildcat" made me laugh and cry at the same time...Kind of like any Paul Walker movie.

Connor Cook also had his moments moving the offense using his legs with quarterback draws from the shotgun and running the read-option when lined up in the pistol.

Connor Cook: Unfortunately, his arm was about as accurate as your order from Pancero's at 2:00 a.m. when you try to explain what you'd like in your burrito after a dozen Milwaukee's Bests and a few keg stands.

While Andrew Maxwell does seem to be more accurate than Cook, the word "vertical" is simply not in his vocabulary.

Much like former Detroit Lions quarterback, Joey "Blue-Skies" Harrington, Maxwell frequently goes through his progressions and checks down, electing to throw "long," at least when it comes to how far the ball travels horizontally, three and four yard outs instead of trying to push the ball down field.

Worse yet, the way Maxwell delivers the ball rarely puts his receivers, phalangically challenged or not, in a position to make any yardage after the catch.

Sadly, Andrew Maxwell is even less effective when pressure necessitates him to either step up in the pocket or scramble.

Quite simply, part of a quarterback's job is to put his receivers in a position to make a play, and Andrew Maxwell has never proven to be able to do that.

While Connor Cook may not be as accurate as Andrew Maxwell, at least when he does complete a pass they tend to go down field and hit his receivers in stride or coming out of their breaks before the defenders have time to close.

I don't want to be a Maxwell basher. He went to my high school, so having him as the starting quarterback at my alma mater is a tremendous source of pride to me. Unfortunately, despite all of his Elite 11 credentials, he just doesn't seem to have the intangibles to be a successful quarterback at the collegiate level.

What the fuck is a Chemic? Andrew Maxwell at Midland High School.

I don't overreact either, I save that for Michigan fans.

Damion Terry is a true Freshman who doesn't have command of MSU's pro style offense yet, so he probably isn't the answer either this year...Not unless you are going to run an offense entirely based on the "read option," and that just doesn't fit Mark Dantonio's philosophy.

Is Connor Cook the answer?

I'm not sure of that yet either, but of the two Spartan quarterbacks that have any game experience, Cook is the one that seems to be capable of moving the offense vertically down the field.

Connor Cook kind of reminds me of a poor man's version of former Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton with his "drunken sailor" style of moving the football.

Michigan State needs somebody at the quarterback position to step up and take this team to a new level by the Notre Dame game and Big Ten play, or this will quickly become another disappointing season.

Right now Andrew Maxwell is not the answer to the Spartans' quarterback conundrum.

It's time to give one of the younger kids a chance to lead this team or Mark Dantonio and company risk wasting one of the best defenses in team history.

Perhaps letting Cook split reps in games with redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor, who's highly mobile and also has a talented arm, is the answer.

If Cook and O'Connor both struggle in games, then the Spartans can always go back to the known commodity in Maxwell as a back-up option, but at this point he appears to have reached his ceiling, and that ceiling's not nearly high enough to cut it going forward if this team wants to contend for a Rose Bowl.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are recurring issues holding MSU basketball back, or are they necessary growing pains?

Over the Tom Izzo era, several recurring issues have plagued the men’s Michigan State Basketball Team. These include a propensity to turn the ball over, a weakness defending the three point shot, and an inability to consistently shoot from the perimeter.

Are these issues simply a matter of going through the early season growing pains that are necessary to produce a Tom Izzo caliber Final Four team? Or are they areas where there is room for improvement in order for Michigan State to become one of the truly elite programs that their opponents fear year round, and not just during the NCAA tournament?

1. Turnovers

One of the biggest weaknesses for Spartan basketball in the Tom Izzo era has been their propensity to turn the ball over. The Spartans have averaged 14.2 turnovers a game since 1999-2000. Over that span they have finished last or second to last in the Big Ten in turnovers 6 times. This is in spite of the fact that they have had no shortage of talented point guards. Even with Kalin Lucas, Marcus Taylor, Drew Neitzel and Mateen Cleaves running the offense, their Spartan teams still turned the ball over at an alarming rate.

While Tom Izzo has always preached responsibility for his players when it comes to turnovers, especially with his point guards, at some point he must look at the design of his offense and not just at the players running it.

Tom Izzo’s “Weave” is a precision based offense. When it is clicking on all cylinders come March, it is virtually impossible to scout and defend. When he has new players or those who are out of sync with their rotations that are running it, the results can at times look ugly.

The Spartans did experiment with a “Drag” spread motion offense at times last season, and perhaps adding more of a simplistic freelance offense like that into the mix can help counter some of their notorious early setbacks. The question remains as to whether employing a second offensive philosophy will hinder them from ultimately mastering their half-court sets and becoming a well-oiled team come March.

2. Opponents' three point shooting

Another problem for the Spartans has been their inability to defend the three point shot. Many Spartan fans have become frustrated watching Michigan State’s opponents knock down wide open three after wide open three, especially early in the season.

It seems as if Tom Izzo is primarily concerned with stopping easy baskets inside. In return, he is willing to let his opponents take a less than stellar shots from outside. Unfortunately, especially early in the season, Izzo’s players can be a little slow in recognizing their defensive rotations and help assignments, which leads to too many open looks from outside.

Fortunately, the Spartans inability to defend the perimeter early in the season simply seems to be a matter of Izzo’s players learning their responsibilities in his “Help-Side Defense,” as it has rarely been an ongoing problem as a season progresses.

We all know that one of the overall strengths the Michigan State basketball program over the past decade has been their defense. Given their results at that end of the floor come tournament time, it’s pretty tough to argue with their philosophy, even if it does take them a little while to get to the point that we’ve all come to expect early in the season.

3. Offensive perimeter shooting

Speaking of the perimeter, it’s as equally maddening to watch the Michigan State's outside shooters miss wide open shots as it is to see their opponents consistently knock them down.

There is no question that the Spartans have struggled with their outside shooting in recent years. This has especially been highlighted by their struggles against zone defenses, and in particular, the 1-3-1.

It’s not surprising that some of the best Spartan teams in recent memory in 2000 and 2009 featured big men like A.J. Granger and Goran Suton who could step outside and consistently knock down long range shots. Both were instrumental in shooting over and extending defenses in their respective runs to National Championship Games.

Finally having a true sharp shooter like redshirt freshman Russell Byrd (if he is recovered from two years worth of foot surgeries) should help remedy Michigan State's outside shooting problems, although the Spartans still have had enough upperclassmen who have had significant shooting slumps to conclude their careers (Jason Klein, Mike Chappell, Adam Ballinger, Chris Hill, Durrell Summers and even Drew Neitzel all come to mind) that there is still some reason to be concerned with their perimeter shooting as a program.


Tom Izzo’s offensive and defensive schemes are both very precise systems. It’s almost as if he gives his players just enough rope to hang themselves by letting them do things “their way” early in the season, and then implores them to come back to him when they are ready to do things “his way” later in the year in order to win. When his players do buy-in and start to gel, they are on par with the nation’s elite programs.

The question remains whether Michigan State basketball will always be a team that takes several months to come together, or whether there is still some room in which to improve and compete with the nation’s elite - not only come tournament time, but all season long as well.

MSU needs to continue improving on the field, alter their reputation to become BCS contenders

Not long after Mark Dantonio took over as Michigan State’s football coach in 2006, he explained his plan for turning the Spartans into a BCS caliber program:
“Our first step was to try to get to a bowl game, and I think we did that in ’07…Our next goal was to try to go to a New Year’s Day bowl game (which they did in the 2008 season), and our next step is to go to a BCS championship-type game.”
In spite of a 2010 regular season in which the Spartans went 11-1 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship, they were still left out of the BCS. This left many MSU fans screaming about a BCS conspiracy and their overall lack of national respect. After all, they could make a pretty strong argument that they were more deserving of a BCS bid than Wisconsin, who they beat head to head, and Ohio State.

Unfortunately, the Spartan football team has not yet moved beyond the point where a single strong season can prevent them from getting overlooked on a national level. Part of that is due to the program’s less than stellar track record over the past two decades, and part of it is due to the negative perception that the nation has attached to the Big Ten in general after their disappointing showings in BCS Bowl Games in recent years.

Mark Dantonio may not have initially realized it, but changing the nation’s perception of the Spartan football program plays a role in the process that he needs to take before his teams can begin to make it to BCS games as he desires. While the BCS touts itself as a mathematical system that in part considers a team’s overall record and strength of schedule, popularity and perception are subjective variables that also come into play when teams are ranked and even selected to go to prestigious bowl games. That is why the Spartans lost out on BCS bids to Wisconsin and Ohio State last season.

The Spartans must convince the nation and pollsters that they are a legitimate football power, and not just a one year wonder or some paper tiger that scraped by with an easy schedule. Changing their national image will not only involve holding up their end of the bargain on the field - meaning less blowout losses and more last second wins on trick plays that have catchy names when they are on national TV - but it will also take some extensive lobbying and PR work.

Coach Dantonio finally seemed to realize the political game that is involved in college football at the end of last season. The usually quiet and low-key coach affirmatively went to the media and lobbied hard for his Spartans to get a BCS bid over Wisconsin over Ohio State. His Spartans ultimately lost out on that bid to their more established conference rivals, but Dantonio made sure that America and the respective bowl committees were fully aware of what his team had accomplished.

Sure, it would have helped his long-term case had his Spartans not gone on to lose to Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl, but at least the national media thought about Michigan State as a football school after Dantonio implored them to consider his team based upon the merits of their season, as opposed to any preconceptions that may have had about the Spartans as a program.

On the field, the Spartans are steadily making progress. As recently as a year ago the local media would frequently throw the phrase “same old Spartans” around whenever they would collapse or lose a game that they were supposed to win. Ironically, after a season in which they won every game that they were supposed to win, and then even found a way to win a few more that they weren’t, the Spartans were written off by many as overrated or lucky. To me, that sounds as if Mark Dantonio has his Spartans on the right track.

Changing the perception of a program is not an overnight process, but as long as the Spartans keep improving on the field, their final step in becoming a BCS contender is making sure that the rest of the nation knows about them.