A year ago, Michigan State was on the verge of clinching another Big Ten Championship. This would be their third in five years. They would go on to make the College Football Playoffs before falling to eventual national champs. Today, the Spartans find themselves sitting at 2-7 after an incredibly disappointing loss the rebuilding Fighting Illini. Michigan State has far more questions than answer as this disastrous season comes to a close. The ever-looming question “How did Michigan State get end up here?” How did a team go from the College Football Playoffs and Big Ten Champions to 2-7 and 0-6 in conference play? The answer to that question, is a multi-faceted one. While the easy targets are clear, Head Coach Mark Dantonio, Offensive Coordinator Dave Warner, Defensive Coordinator Mike Tressel and the one who appears to be everyone’s favorite scapegoat Tyler O’Connor. However, none of these men are the sole culprit to blame.
Answering the Toughest Question
Michigan State plays a very complementary style of football. By complimentary, I mean that the performances by the offense, defense and special teams are all based off how the other units are playing. When Michigan State is playing their winning brand of football, their offense is saying ahead of schedule in terms of down and distance. They are efficient on first down to put themselves in second and medium to short. They get themselves in third and short if they end up in third down at all. Staying ahead of schedule allows Michigan State to sustain long drives that not only tire out the opposing defense, but allow their defense time to rest and make adjustments.
This year, the Spartans have struggled to get ahead of schedule, which is causing them to be in less than advantageous situations for their offense. Michigan State’s offensive philosophy is built on ball control and being able to establish a power run game. Due to injuries all across the offensive line and the quarterback position, they haven’t been able to execute the way they would like. While low scoring games are nothing new to Michigan State football, high scoring opponents are new. This leads to the second toughest question to answer, what happened to the defense?
Where is the Defense?
Michigan State’s strength has always been in their defense, which is why there has been such a panic around East Lansing. Since Mark Dantonio took over 10 years ago, their defense has been a staple that has held them in games against higher scoring or more offensively efficient teams.
This year, the Spartan defense is struggling like never before. A big cause for their struggles, is the play of their offense and special teams. Without the ball control they have had in previous seasons, opponents are getting far more positions than they had in years prior. This is leading to the increase in points allowed per game. Michigan State currently sits at 84th in the country in scoring defense allowing 30.1 points per game. The Spartan defense has played 614 snaps through nine games this season or about 68 snaps per game.
Last season, through 14 games, Michigan State only played 895 snaps or roughly 63 snaps per game. The Spartans only allowed 21.7 points per game last year. While they play count may not seem staggering, an extra five plays a game more can lead to explosive big plays that lead to points. Football coaches will talk about hidden yards, these hidden yards come from special teams and penalties. That leads to the final question; where are the hidden yards at?
There has never been a question about Michigan State being one of the most disciplined teams in the country. This year however, the Spartans have been bitten by the penalty bug and hard. In 2015, Michigan State had 75 penalties through 14 games, which is about five penalties per game. To put this in perspective on the national scale, they finished the season with the 34th fewest penalties per game.
This year, the Spartans are tied for 8th with 62 penalties through nine games. That is almost seven penalties per game. Those penalties become drive killers for an offense and drive extenders for opposing offenses. Michigan State is losing the field position battle, and that in turn is causing their offense to sputter and their defense to struggle.
To get answers to the questions that are currently facing Michigan State, they need to an off-season to fix them. There is no short term or three game solution to these questions, but they can begin the answer search during the final three games. The coaching staff can look those games to find out who is capable of playing the disciplined football that Michigan State has become known for. They can look for players who are willing to make the winning plays that have been absent this year after coming up so clutch in years past. After asking and answering some tough questions, it’s time to back track down memory lane for a few feel good moments.