October 29, 2011

DotComp: On MSU's Disappearing Offense

LINCOLN, Neb. - Michigan State comes out of this unnerving 24-3 loss to Nebraska needing to find better ways to change up its passing attack, while also wondering whether they gave their ground game a fair chance to make enough of an impact.

Basically, the offense stunk - and the Spartans will need to find some air freshener in time to navigate a manageable November schedule and put pressure back on Nebraska to win out if the Huskers want to win the Legends Division and play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Otherwise, the Spartans - despite this stench in Middle America - might rise again.

But that stuff is weeks and miles ahead. The Spartans need to get back to work at cleaning up their play book and play calling before they can think about a divisional crown.

You can rip Kirk Cousins for throwing 16 incompletions in his 27 pass attempts, but on most occasions he simply had no one open on those 16 unsuccessful pass plays - not to mention two or three coverage sacks.

Spartan receivers credited Nebraska with playing good, smart, physical coverage. They might have wanted more flags for defensive holding and pass interference, but the officials were consistent in letting excessive contact go. All the more reason to saddle up and get the run game going, which the Spartans never thoroughly explored.

Nebraska defensive backs said they knew what routes were coming, based on the formations and situations.

Huskers head coach Bo Pelini credited his defensive backs with hitting the film room and preparing for an offense better than any time all year.

And Nebraska All-America candidate cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said this game marked his first game of 100 percent health since enduring an early-season leg injury.

All in time for a priming Nebraska defense to make a statement against Michigan State, which came into the game at 3-0 in the Big Ten and in first place in the Legends Division.

Nebraska was coming off a vacation victory over Minnesota and a bye week of two weeks ago. They were fresh and determined.

The Spartans were coming off a hard-hitting upset of No. 6 Wisconsin and a hateful defeat of in-state rival Michigan. They had plenty of reason for determination too, but they finished October on fumes.

Michigan State's defense played well enough to win through most of the game. But midway through the second half, the Spartans were visibly slower and less physical on defense than they were two weeks ago against Michigan. This is partly due to the schedule they have played, and also due to the fact that they were sent back on the field too often and too early by the Michigan State offense.

What Happened To The Passing Game?

Cousins was 11-of-27 for just 86 yards and 1 interception. His longest completion went for just 20 yards.

Nebraska's success was borne out of six ingredients:

1. They set out to contain B.J. Cunningham, with extra help from the safety on his side of the field.

2. Nebraska had an edge in stopping Cunningham and the other Spartan receivers due to a tremendous job of scheming and film study.

3. The Huskers had good, quick, athletic DBs to carry out the plan.

4. Nebraska was able to apply pressure to the QB, mostly in the second half after the Spartans got into a pass-every-down predicament. Earlier, Cousins had time to throw- but no one was open.

5. Nebraska didn't have to commit a safety to stopping the run, not necessarily because the Huskers' front six and seven stuff the run, but partly because the Spartans didn't dedicate themselves to the ground game.

6. Nebraska pass defenders had a hands-on approach, both during routes and often a split second before the ball arrived. They were sneaky effective with a little bit of holding here, some slight interference there, and usually without being flagged.

"I felt that with how physical they were being that I needed to put the ball there, so we get some pass interference calls," Cousins said. "I felt like if we kept throwing the ball away, that we weren't going to get a flag. We really felt like they were playing physical and credit them that they never really got flagged and they won that battle."

Nebraska was flagged for holding in the end zone on one occasion in the second quarter, setting up first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. But after losing yardage on an outside zone run and a pair of incompletions, the Spartans had to settle for a field goal and a 7-3 deficit.

Wide receiver Keshawn Martin felt he was held on the third-and-goal pass play from the 11-yard line, and protested to the officials.

"I just felt like I got hold, and the ref didn't call it so I got a little upset, but it is what it is," he said. "I felt like I got held a couple of times but you can't do anything about it if the refs don't call it. You just have to move on to the next play."

Breaking down some of the other ingredients:

Stopping Cunningham

Nebraska played with two deep safeties most of the day, with one of them almost always on Cunningham patrol.

"They were trying to really take B.J. out of the game, take his vertical out of the game," said Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell.

"They took the routes away from us downfield and doubled a bit with the safeties," Dantonio said.

The two deep safeties were usually part of a zone coverage, whether it was cover-two or a quarters shell. They played some two-deep/man-under as well, but none of those x's and o's were as important as the wrinkle of having a safety or a slot-area linebacker sliding over near Cunningham to apply more help than he usually encounters.

"Their corner was making him go inside at all times," Bell said. "Their safety was usually there too, about 15 yards off, like over top of him, making sure he couldn't beat them deep, so there was really no hole that Kirk could throw to him in.

"They were bracketing him, putting two men on him to try to take him out of the game. I'd never seen anything like that, but I've never played with anybody as good as B.J. He was kind of frustrated at times, but he is going to learn from this and come back strong."

Cunningham was not made available for comment after the game.

"They took us out of some things," Dantonio said. "Nebraska played very well on the perimeter. Give Coach Pelini and his staff great credit. They shut down the things that we do well."

2. Huskers Knew The Routes

Cunningham wasn't the only receiver who encountered tight coverage.

"They were right there with us," said Martin, who led MSU with 5 catches for 58 yards. "Downfield, they were everywhere. We did the plays we were supposed to run, but it just wasn't there.They had a good defensive game plan and there really wasn't anything we could do on offense today."

"It's easy to defend a team when you know what they're doing," said Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy. "Judging by the formations they came out with and where their wide receivers were split or the down and distance, we knew exactly what was going to happen, and I think that showed today."

"They jumped routes a lot," Martin said. "They definitely had our routes figured out."

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini credited it to a strong week of film study.

"I thought they were locked in in practice," Pelini said. "I thought they took all the little tips, I thought they put their film time in. I thought they played like a mature group today. They challenged people and played with an attitude, and that's what you've got to do to play great defense."

Nebraska was charged up to beat the team (MSU) that beat the team (Wisconsin). Nebraska's only loss this year was a 48-17 bruising at Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on Oct. 1. The Spartans surged atop the Big Ten Legends Division standings with a 37-31 victory over those Badgers last weekend. The Huskers were in prove-your-manhood form, Saturday - or all week if you listen to Perlini.

"Well, the thing was - we prepared this week," Cassidy said. "When I ran off the field for the last time, Coach Bo grabbed me and said, 'Hey, that's what happens when you prepare the way you should every week.'"

Apparently game prep hadn't been a strong point for the Huskers up to this point in the season. But it was this week, just in time for the Spartans' visit.

Film study paid dividends on the game's first turnover when nickel back Lance Thorell stepped in front of Cunningham and intercepted a Cousins pass on third-and-five, ending MSU's opening drive. This set up Nebraska with a short field for a 25-yard TD drive and a 7-0 lead.

Thorell knew MSU loved to look for Cunningham on the shallow crossing route in that situation, and that formation. Thorell made contact with Cunningham before the ball arrived, shouldering through him and aggressively to the ball for the theft.

"Lance took the tips," Pelini said. "A lot of games like this, a lot of it comes down to will. That's a chance where two guys have a shot at the football, and he came away with it and made a big play."

With safeties and sometimes a slot linebacker giving Cunningham extra attention, the Spartans might have had opportunities in the middle of the field for the tight end, especially between the safeties to the open middle. But the Spartans were never able to find the right formula.

"We made adjustments," Martin said. "You always make adjustments at halftime, but it just wasn't there for us."

Michigan State tight end Dion Sims dropped a pass 17 yards down the field at the MSU 30-yard line when he snuck past coverage on the Spartans' third possession. After that drop, MSU went three-and-out and had to punt.

On MSU's first pass attempt of the game, Cousins had Martin open streaking down the left sideline. Cousins looked right for his first read, and by the time he checked over to Martin and threw, the coverage had slid over and caught up to him, for an incompletion.

MSU punted three plays later.

No one knew at the time that those first-quarter openings would be two of the few play-making opportunities of the day for the Spartans.

"We just had a few too many missed opportunities," Cousins said, "and when you go on the road in the Big Ten against a good team like Nebraska, you can't miss out on opportunities that you had. We beat ourselves one too many times and it made it hard to come out of the hole."

"If you're a Nebraska guy, you feel you played tremendously on defense; if you're a Michigan State guy, you thought we played awful," Dantonio said. "But somehwhere in between there, there are opportunities to make plays and we just didn't make them."

Vacating The Run Too Early?

Nebraska did not shut down Michigan State's run game. They especially did not shut down the Spartans' between-the-tackles run game.

Bell averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Edwin Baker averaged 3.8 yards per carry. But they combined for only 22 attempts. Their averages were even better between the tackles on the 'power O' play and inside zone runs.

But the Spartans vacated that success to go to the air, almost always with empty results.

Oddly, Michigan State began the game with three physical run plays, gaining 6, 8 and 11 yards on a pair of 'powers' and an inside run out of a 3-WR set. It looked like a mission statement drive was under way.

Then after the deep incompletion to Martin, Michigan State gained 5 more on an inside zone left.

But after gaining 30 yards on three interior ground plays on four of their first five snaps of the game, the Spartans went to the air. MSU ran inside on consecutive plays only one other time in the remainder of the game. That was on MSU's first drive of the second half. By that time, the Spartans were down 17-3.

MSU happened to gain 8 and 6 yards on a pair of 'power' runs on the first two plays of the second half. But then the Spartans went to the air with passes on five of their next six plays, leading to another punt.

By the time the Spartans got the ball again, they were down 24-3 and the opportunity to saddle up the running game had passed them by.

"I definitely felt like the running game was working," Bell said. "We got down too far and we had to start passing the ball more. That's one thing that we have to get back to, make sure we stick to the run game, especially when it's being effective."

Michigan State ball carriers gained 122 yards on 26 carries on the day, not counting losses of 21 on four sacks.

MSU did not have success on outside zone plays or toss plays against Nebraska's quick pursuit. But inside, the Spartans were strong.

"It went back and forth a little bit," Pelini said. "They knocked us off the ball a little bit, and I thought we wore them down (on defense) a little bit in the second half."

"We were able to run the football," Dantonio said. "And then we came out in the second half and again we were able to sort of establish the run, but at some point, you have to throw it. Then you get behind the chains a little bit and the drive sort of fizzles out.

"You're right, we did run it but when you have 53 plays and 200 yards of offense, you aren't going to win a game usually. I would agree with you, but the passing game they shut it down."

The Spartans will do a thorough self-scout, analyze their tendencies and try to head into November with renewed sharpness. It's unclear whether a more direct approach to the run game would have changed the momentum of Saturday's game and given Michigan State a better chance at victory, but the Spartans headed back to East Lansing feeling they missed an opportunity to take a major step toward a Divisional crown.

"I'm kind of in shock," said senior safety Trenton Robinson. "It reminds me of last year versus Iowa," a game the Spartans lost, 37-6. "But we still have a chance to do what we want to do, we just have to bounce back.

"We just have to continue to push forward and hope that Nebraska loses another game. But they are a good team and they had a good game plan."

The Spartans must make sure opponents say the same about them in the four remaining games.

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