This was never a good matchup on paper for Michigan State. Even with the promising offensive performance against Youngstown State the week before, the thought was that the spike in opposing talent would remind us all just how profoundly limited this offense still is. Against what is still a pretty talented Notre Dame defense, the Spartans were deploying largely the same set of offensive personnel that they did in last year's debacle, where MSU was lucky to get the 3 points they did. I expected a closer score than last year only because Notre Dame lost a ton of playmakers from last season, and MSU's defense is perhaps even better than last year's version. Bottom line, if you had told me before the game that we would keep it this close, I probably would not have been entirely unsatisfied.
Yet, as this very outcome unfolded on Saturday, I and my roommate spent most of the 4th quarter and the postgame interviews raging at the TV.
Rationally, it's not worth getting that worked up about. Yeah, the Megaphone now stays in South Bend until 2016 at least, but as long as we have the LAZERZ Trophy safely ensconced in the Daugherty Center, I'll be able to sleep at night. MSU was clearly not running the table for a national title appearance this year, so in a sense, the players and coaches are right when they say all their goals are still in front of them (though I'm getting awfully tired of hearing that after losses). I fully expected the Irish's front line of tanks to trample MSU's once-again-injury-riddled offensive line, and in so doing make the outcome of the game entirely dependent on how many times we could stop the Irish offense.
But the way the game played out, it felt like MSU deserved to win- or, at least, did enough to win. Contrary to what I expected, the players on the field did enough to beat a team I thought was better than us, and on the road no less. The reason my spleen flared to levels it hasn't in a long time is because someone other than the players decided the outcome of the game. I'm talking, in equal measure, about the coaches and the officials.
On the coaches: I am, at this point, very worried about Dantonio. Because, as The Only Colors' crew has pointed out here, here, and here, this offense's problems can no longer be pinned primarily on the players.
To be sure, the offensive players are not great. We have QBs who either can't throw or crumble under the first hint of pressure and receivers who can't run routes or consistently catch the ball. If I hear one more commentator say, after a drop, "The QB's got to take a little but off that throw," I am going to scream and launch the nearest object at the TV. I mean it. Catch. The gottdang. Ball.
But offensive players aren't as completely hopeless as we once worried they might be. Connor Cook, for all his accuracy problems, shows good poise in the pocket, and if he ever learns to set his feet properly (fingers crossed!), I think he can be a better-than-average QB. Macgarrett Kings Jr. looks like a real, live, BCS caliber WR, though Cook's really not doing him any favors with some of these throws. Jeremy Langford is, in my eyes, a capable lead back, though it looks like his fumble against USF has convinced the coaches that he can't handle a full load. And despite a couple of lingering injuries, the offensive line looks pretty good- in fact, stunningly good against the same Notre Dame front that manhandled them last year, giving up just one sack on the day.
No, this offense's biggest problem is that the coaches can't get out of the damn way. Langford's gaining close to 5 yards a carry? Better bench him for Nick Hill, who wouldn't recognize a cutback lane if it were painted on the field. The conventional offense is finally working? Better dial up a gadget pass play for a true freshman scatback who's going to throw that pass whether it's triple-covered or not. It's third and seven? Better call a pass pattern with routes that are exclusively 4 yards or less, and thus require a) quick, sharply cut routes from wideouts who don't consistently do that, b) A quick, accurate throw from a QB who can't consistently do that, c) a catch from receivers who can't consistently do that (sensing a theme yet?), and d) enough separation from the defender to get the necessary YAC, or enough receiver skill to break a tackle and get said yards.
That last point may actually be the most consistent thing about MSU's passing attack; the WRs are pretty good after the catch for the most part. But to even get the ball in their hands, at least three things have to go right on the same play, and as rudimentary as they are to a passing offense, they just aren't lining up frequently enough for this kind of passing game to make any damn sense at all (I left out pass blocking because it's been consistent enough on the quick throws that it isn't a huge detriment). You've got a QB hitting 50% of his passes. You've got receivers still dropping 4 or 5 balls a game. And even when the pass is completed, it doesn't freaking matter because defenders know perfectly well that we aren't running any intermediate or (Gawd forbid) deep routes, ergo they are all over these shallow drags, slants, and outs we are so fond of, and a 4-yard completion on 3rd and 7 is not going to get you a first down in any mathematical universe that I'm aware of.
As Heck Dorland adroitly mentioned in the second piece I linked above, it's not like nothing was working for this offense. Running the ball, with Langford and to a lesser extent the other backs, produced some good results. But it should be pretty clear by now that Langford is by far the most complete and talented RB the Spartans are running out there. Care to hazard a guess how many carries he got in the 4th quarter on Saturday?
One is truly the loneliest number, and it's also the number of totes this staff entrusted to its most productive offensive player in the 4th quarter. Granted, it's not like they fed the rock to anyone, since they attempted only 5 rushes in the final stanza. But one touch for your best offensive player when you are trying to retake the lead is beyond asinine.
not going to shouldn't but briefly will dwell on the decision to put Andrew Maxwell in the game for the final drive. I would very much like to believe, as it appeared while it was happening live, that Cook had been hurt and couldn't play. We don't really have enough information to properly judge the decision to pull Cook, but man, did it ever sound like he could have played. Cook's comment about wishing the coaches had had more faith in him, combined with Dantonio's line about wanting a "change of pace," imply that there was indeed a choice made by the coaching staff to pull a ready-to-go Connor Cook and send in Andrew Maxwell.
If this was indeed the case- if Cook was healthy enough to play but Maxwell went in instead- this decision is not only a bad one, it's not fair to anyone. It's not fair to Cook, who we all thought had solidified himself as the starter, because really, what message does that send the kid? You're the starter, and we have complete confidence in you- until the game is on the line? It's equally unfair to Maxwell, who's standing around holding a clipboard for 3 hours, didn't play at all the week before, and must now come in, stone cold, and run a 2-minute drill with (I think) one timeout. And what happens if he does it and wins the game? Is he now the starter again despite 14 games of hot garbage? If not, how the hell does Cook operate as the starter, knowing that if the chips are ever down, he's getting yanked?
This brings me back to why I'm worried about Dantonio. He's not, and has never been, an offensively-oriented coach. But in his earlier years, he had capable assistants around him to design and run the offense he wanted. The problem is, Don Treadwell and Dan Enos are gone now. And the guys running this clown show are failing at every level- player development, gameplanning, personnel choices, in-game adjustments, all of it. I literally cannot remember the last MSU game I watched where I came away thinking man, that was a solid offensive game plan. Because of his fierce loyalty to his assistants and his preference for guys he has already coached with (see: Bollman, Jim), I really doubt that Dantonio will voluntarily clean house on the offensive side of the ball, regardless of how bad it gets. And he is burning through the goodwill his first 5 years generated very, very quickly. No, he's not on the hotseat. As I said at the beginning, most of us expected to lose this game. But if, as appears to be the case, we're in for another full season of offensive ineptitude wasting defensive brilliance, the conversation will begin.
And now a quick word on the refs.
First, to anyone who wants to say "you shouldn't have let the refs decide the outcome"- shut up. You are saying that because it hasn't happened to you yet. I'll guarandamntee that if Ohio State loses on a late score because of some BS pass interference call, you'll be talking about it. The fact is, really close games happen a lot. And erroneous calls can absolutely change, and in bad enough cases determine, the outcome of a game. I'm not saying the calls on Saturday won the game for Notre Dame, but I know what I saw: Notre Dame's only effective offensive play was to chuck it up the sideline and cry for the laundry, whether a penalty was committed or not.
This crew's distorted version of what pass interference is was completely out of touch with what was actually happening on the field in front of them. Defensive backs are allowed to make a play on the ball. End of story. I'm not saying every PI call was bad, of course a couple of them were right. But every correct call was matched by a bogus one, and it got to the point where I half expected a PI call on run plays. It was an absolute disgrace, but it's over now and there's nothing we can do about it except line our tinfoil hats a little better next time.
Fortunately, we're still undefeated in the bye week.