First, a brief disclaimer. I did not watch the entire game this weekend, not even close. I saw all that I needed to see, and decided that my time was better spent elsewhere.
As a fan, there's only so much one can take in a single season. Many Spartan fans are close to their breaking point already, and we're just four games into the season. Now, on to the analysis.
Same Old Spartans is a phrase that I've grown to loathe over the years, but those ghosts are rearing their ugly heads once again. Instead of fighting for a conference title, it now looks as if the Spartans will be fighting to go .500 on the season.
Michigan State lost their third consecutive game this afternoon, 38-30 at the hands of Wisconsin. Don't let the scoreline fool you, this one was a blowout until Keith Nichol put some points on the board in the last two minutes against Wisconsin's defensive scrubs.
After a 1-3 start, this is a team that has gone from a ton of pre-season hype to a team with gaping holes all over the field and on the sidelines. A team that showed lots of promise in a close loss to a veteran Notre Dame squad just one week ago has now taken a huge step backward with their latest performance.
2009 looks to be a long season for Spartan fans after back-to-back bowl berths during Dantonio's first two years.
What's behind this unexpected regression, and more importantly, is there anything that can be done to salvage the 2009 season?
1. End the quarterback debate immediately
Michigan State's quarterback battle has been exhaustively debated. It's time to end the illusion of a two-QB system and name Kirk Cousins the starter.
While Keith Nichol might have more raw athleticism and a higher ceiling, Cousins is clearly the more polished and game-ready of the two right now.
Against Wisconsin, Cousins led the Spartans to their first touchdown of the game, connecting with Mark Dell on a surgically precise throw toward the back corner of the end zone. Cousins had built up some momentum and gotten into a good rhythm on that drive.
Surprisingly, Keith Nichol was given the ball on the very next drive. After picking up a first down with a nice toss to Dell, Nichol heaved an ill-advised bomb downfield that was easily intercepted.
Go ahead and file that one under "awful coaching decisions."
Why throw the offense completely out of rhythm, especially after Cousins had just led the team to a touchdown? It doesn't make any sense.
The Badgers turned that interception into seven points of their own, likely deflating the Spartan psyches beyond all repair.
2. Find a good running back combination
After four games, it's painfully clear that the Caulton Ray/Larry Caper platoon isn't the solution. Caper is a highly-touted freshman, but Ray was nowhere near the top of the depth chart before summer practices began. Now we're starting to see why.
Instead of insisting on throwing those same two backs out there every week, the coaching staff needs to make a change.
Name Glenn Winston the starter and remove Ray's name from the two-deeps. Winston has an excellent combination of speed and power, and ran with a purpose against Wisconsin. He only carried the ball 9 times, but picked up 52 yards.
Winston also ran through several tackles on the afternoon, and broke multiple runs for gains of 10+ yards. A pro-style offense needs a back that is capable of picking up positive yardage on every down. Winston can be that back for the Spartans.
Finding a workable solution for the running game will also assist the passing game. Currently, opponents are able to key in on the pass and really load up in coverage, because they know the Spartans have struggled to run.
Through these first four weeks, Michigan State has had to establish the pass in order to have a successful run. That's a backwards approach.
Get the running game working to take the pressure off the young quarterbacks.
3. Accountability on defense
Before the season began, the defense was supposed to be the backbone of the Spartan team. They were returning plenty of starters, including a secondary that was very solid in 2009. They also boasted the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, in Greg Jones.
So far, Jones has lived up to his billing as a great defensive player, but the other 10 men on that side of the ball have come up woefully short. Instead of helping a young offense through some rough patches, they have created the rough patches.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has to be held accountable for the failures of his defense.
Against Central Michigan, he refused to make any adjustments in coverage, allowing Dan LeFevour to move the ball up the field at will by making short passes into soft coverage.
Against Notre Dame, his unit missed too many tackles to count, and a corner blitz on Notre Dame's final scoring drive left Golden Tate wide open for the game-winning touchdown.
Then there's Wisconsin, where we can't be sure than anybody on the defense even looked at a scouting report. Any Wisconsin fan will tell you that Garrett Graham is a great tight end. So why did the Spartans leave him wide open for not one, not two but three touchdown receptions?
That failure has to be on Narduzzi. It's his job to get the defense ready every week, and for three straight weeks, they haven't been up to the task.
The offense can put up all the points they want, but it won't matter if the defense can't hold the lead.
Over the past three weeks, MSU's defense has allowed 1,291 total yards and 100 points. The offense would have to be absolutely perfect in order to make up for that sieve.
4. Accountability on offense
"The drops" is a terrible disease which has affected the Spartans for many seasons. It's characterized by a complete inability to make simple catches on perfectly accurate throws from the quarterback.
This year's crop of receivers are not doing their job when it comes to helping out the quarterbacks. Watch film of any game and you'll see multiple drops.
These drops kill drives, and essentially take points off the board. Look at the first two Spartan drives in South Bend—three drops by the wide receivers and no points. Make those catches, and we could have had an entirely different ballgame.
B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are two of the worst culprits. It's difficult to understand why Cunningham has so much difficulty making simple catches, because he showed an ability to make circus catches against Wisconsin.
The ball he caught for a touchdown was tipped into the air, yet he managed to corral it on his way to the turf. It's maddening that he'll make catches like that, yet drop a pass thrown right into his stride.
These receivers need to be held accountable for their drops. Perhaps Blair White and Mark Dell need to be getting more reps on offense, because they've shown relatively sure hands compared to the rest of the receiving corps.
5. Drastic changes on the sidelines
While the players haven't been stepping up and making plays, the coaching staff has put them in a difficult position repeatedly during this young season.
Against Central Michigan, Pat Narduzzi's defensive schemes left Chippewa receivers wide open for 6-8 yard gains on every play. After being gashed by short throws for the entire first half, no adjustment was made.
Against Notre Dame, the defense could not take advantage of a hobbled Jimmy Clausen and an absent Michael Floyd.
Golden Tate scored the game winning touchdown on single coverage by a safety, because the cornerback on his side of the field had blitzed. Why was one of the best receivers in the country left with single coverage?
Against Wisconsin, the tight end Graham was left largely uncovered for his three touchdown catches.
On the first catch, the entire MSU secondary retreated five yards into the end zone, so it was easy to find Graham, who had set up—uncovered, mind you—right at the goal line.
Narduzzi's schemes clearly aren't cutting it, so we might see Mark Dantonio get more involved in the defensive playcalling in an effort to pick the Spartans up and get them to a bowl game.
Dantonio was the defensive coordinator on Jim Tressel's 2002 National Championship team. That group went 14-0 and held six opponents under 10 points.
Dantonio clearly knows defense, and may have to get more involved if the season is to be saved.
6. Sack up and finish strong
The hallmark of Dantonio's Michigan State teams has been an absolute unwillingness to quit even in the face of adversity. At no point in his two-plus years in East Lansing has the team faced such an uphill climb.
The team still has eight games left in which to accomplish something this season, and the players must realize that. They have to come to each practice and each game mentally prepared, and ready to play to the best of their abilities.
For inspiration, they can look back to some of George Perles' teams. The Rose Bowl-winning squad of 1987 started 2-2, but rebounded for nine wins.
The current team is likely not Rose Bowl material, but they do have the talent to make it to the postseason if they learn from their mistakes and work their tails off for the remaining eight weeks.
It's an uphill climb, but not impossible.
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