Central Michigan vs. Michigan St.: 11 Weaknesses Spartans Should Work on
Michigan State's weaknesses were hidden during its initial two non-conference games. Playing games against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic allowed the Spartans to coast by on superior size and speed.
Last Saturday, Mark Dantonio's Spartans found themselves facing a Notre Dame team that could match their speed and size.
The result? A 31-13 beat down from the Fighting Irish.
Michigan State left South Bend with its tail between its legs. The loss dropped the Spartans from the AP Top 25 and exposed more than a few weaknesses the coaching staff need to address.
Central Michigan comes to East Lansing this weekend. The matchup provides a perfect opportunity for the Spartans to work on their weaknesses as they face a Chippewas team that should not pose much of a threat.
If Michigan State does not fix its weaknesses, Big Ten play will prove to be a struggle.
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Michigan State only surrendered 275 yards of total offense to the Irish. That number, however, could have been much lower.
Michigan State's defense had a hard time bringing down Notre Dame stars Cierre Wood and Michael Floyd in open space. Too many times were Wood and Floyd able to make the initial tackler miss and in the process pick up another five yards.
The Spartans cannot continue to miss tackles. It is the most basic defensive skill.
Michigan State has struggled with kick coverage all season, even against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic. It ranks 84th in the NCAA in kick return yardage allowed.
Up to the Notre Dame game, the Spartans' inability to cover a kickoff had not hurt them. That changed when George Atkinson took a kick back 89 yards for a score.
Good teams do not give up points on kick returns very often. The Notre Dame touchdown could be forgiven if the special teams had not struggled all year to cover kicks. That is not the case.
Not Capitalizing on Turnovers
Notre Dame was 0-2 entering its showdown with Michigan State, thanks to its inability to hold onto the football. The Irish tried their best to hand the game to Michigan State with three turnovers.
When a team gives you three turnovers, you must find a way to win.
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A quick glance at the statistics could lead one to believe Michigan State's offense does not have a problem with balance. Thus far, the Spartans have run the ball 109 times and thrown the ball 109 times.
Those numbers are misleading.
The numbers do not account for the fact that Michigan State spent nearly the entire second half of its blowout of Florida Atlantic running out the clock. Against Notre Dame, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw the ball 53 times. He handed it off only 19 times.
Don't get me wrong, Cousins is a very good quarterback and should be given a chance to air it out. What he needs is a viable running game to keep the opposing defense from dropping seven on every single play.
Converting on Third Down
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Against Notre Dame, Michigan State was only 5-of-17 on third down, a 29 percent success rate. For the year, the Spartans rank 71st in all of college football with a 38.1 conversion percent on third down.
The Spartans' inability to run the ball has hurt their ability to convert on third down. They were faced with plenty of 3rd-and-longs against Notre Dame. There were also plenty of manageable third downs that were not picked up.
Michigan State's offense has a lot of intertwined problems. An inability to convert on third down is just one of the weaknesses Sparty's offense is faced with.
Michigan State is the 15th most penalized team in the nation with 23 penalties.
The Spartans committed 12 penalties for 86 yards against Notre Dame. Committing that many penalties will spell disaster for even the best teams.
Michigan State has too many other weaknesses to allow unnecessary penalties to bring it down.
Red Zone Offense
Michigan State's kicker, Dan Conroy, has accounted for far too many of the Spartans' points this season. The offense has repeatedly stalled in the red zone, resulting in plenty of field goals and not enough touchdowns.
The Spartans have scored touchdowns on only 53 percent of their red zone visits. What's worse, they have failed to score any points at all 29 percent of the time when crossing their opponents' 20-yard line.
Coach Dantonio and his offensive staff need to get the ball into the end zone. Field goals are not going to win games in the Big Ten.
Cunningham Is the Only Receiver Producing
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B.J. Cunningham and Cousins make up one of the best receiver-quarterback tandems in the Big Ten. The problem is that Cousins seems to have forgotten he does not have to throw the ball to Cunningham every time he drops back.
On the season, Cunningham has 26 catches, over a third of Cousin's completions. Against Notre Dame, Cunningham caught 12 passes for 158 yards. The next most productive Spartan wideout caught only three passes for 38 yards.
Cunningham is an exceptional receiver and should be targeted more than any other Spartans receiver. That does not mean Cousins should not throw the ball to the rest of his receiving corps.
The Spartans have talented receivers. Using all of them would make Michigan State's offense stronger. Opposing defenses would no longer be able to blanket Cunningham.
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The pass rush has not reached the quarterback enough this season for Michigan State. The Spartans have only sacked opposing quarterbacks four times this season and did not register a sack against Notre Dame.
Michigan State's front seven is obviously talented. It racked up nine tackles for loss against Notre Dame.
The defensive coaching staff needs to inject some life into the pass rush. This week's game against Central Michigan is a perfect opportunity to test out some new blitz packages.
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Michigan State's inability to run the football has contributed to each of the other offensive weaknesses mentioned on this list. The Spartans have a talented stable of running backs, but they have averaged an anemic 3.4 yards per carry in 2011.
Their running game hit a low last weekend against Notre Dame. The Spartans rushed 23 times and picked up only 29 yards.
Michigan State needs to establish the run if it is to be successful in the Big Ten. Doing so will help the Spartans avoid 3rd-and-long situations, score touchdowns in the red zone and provide some semblance of balance to the offensive game plan.
The offensive line is the root of all of Michigan State's offensive problems. The Spartans were already breaking in three inexperienced starters before right tackle Skyler Burkland was lost for the season on Saturday.
This unit needs to come together quickly. The coaching staff needs to realize the talent level on the offensive line is lower than what it is at the skill positions. Tailoring the blocking schemes to the strengths of the offensive line could help disguise individual weaknesses along the line.
Michigan State may be stocked at the skill positions, but that will not matter if its offensive line play does not improve.