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OTE Staff Musings: Stoppable Forces and Movable Objects

MSU and Nebraska would both look like national title contenders...if it weren't for that meddlesome other side of the ball. Jesse and I commiserate about what's ailing our respective squads heading into conference play.

Just a couple of writers who really miss these guys...
Just a couple of writers who really miss these guys...
Eric Francis

GA: Our respective teams are thoroughly unbalanced and diametrically opposed- MSU fields the great defense with a horribawful offense, and Nebraska's offense is high-quality all around with a defense that can't stop anybody. Moreover, this week's opponents for both are pretty similar- Illinois is an offense-dominant team, and Iowa's defense is their strong point (though I actually think Iowa's offense is substantially better than it gets credit for, and seems to improve every week).

The first question, I guess, would be which way would you rather have it? We can't all be balanced, well-constructed powerhouses like Northwestern, after all (JK they're pretty much offense-dominant too). Would you prefer your team be an unstoppable force, or an immovable object, if you could only have one?

Jesse: Which way would I rather have it? From a purely entertainment side, I wouldn't mind being like Oregon in the first Kelly-based iterations. Really fun games every week, pretty unpredictable outcomes, and wins. From a, "we're probably going to win more games this way," I'd like to be more like the immovable object because let's be honest, Alabama's offense can look anemic at times (not always and not probably lately) but their defense gives them enough leeway to press until the other teams break. Sooooo, my answer is maybe defense? But this could be completely jaded by the reality that Nebraska has none and I wish - so surely wish - that I had anything to hope for in a young defense filled with talent, but too in over their heads to do anything with it. This is also a good time to mention that Nebraska may need a new coaching staff this offseason, so that's a thing.

With that said, I'll flip that same question to you. Which do you honestly prefer? Are you enjoying watching a suffocating, ball-hawking defense that makes opponents cower with the ball? Or has your anemic - being nice here - offense pushed you over the edge?

GA: When I think it through carefully, I agree that a truly dominant defense is probably the way to go. Don't get me wrong, watching offenses like Oregon and TAMU is very entertaining, though a lot of the time I find myself thinking they must be cheating somehow to complete so many passes in a row. Still, I find nothing more satisfying than, a few drives into the game, seeing unmistakable fear in an opposing QB's eyes when the camera gets a close-up of him making checks, doing everything he can to not make eye contact with Max Bullough, looking to the sideline, hoping to find something, anything, that won't make him look like an idiot in the play that's about to happen.

MSU's defense isn't quite perfect, but they're about as close as you can be without Bama type talent at all positions. Moreover, it took long enough to install this defense that I remember, very well, what it was like to have a defense that couldn't stop anybody, and it just sucked. That's right, there was a very vocal Fire Narduzzi movement about 4 years ago; it's partly because of how ridiculous that sounds now that I've been pretty patient with MSU's offensive coaching staff over the last season and a third (until my little rant after the most recent ND loss).

Your answer, combined with the urge I had to pull the trigger and say yes, for the love of Munn give me some offense already, makes me think there's definitely a grass-is-always-greener element in play here.

So let's look at which situation might be easier to fix for the current head coach, tabling for the moment any talk of whether Bo survives at Nebraska past this season. Both guys are defensive-minded. Dantonio has his preferred side of the ball working, while Pelini has the other side working. Which situation is preferable? Does Bo's personal imprimatur on the defense make you think it'll be easier for him to fix it? Is Dantonio's inability to personally design a solution leading him to rely too much on an underwhelming offensive staff?

Jesse: Fixes are really hard to prescribe, you know? One of the most important aspects of being Head Coach is knowing that you need to surround yourself with people who can sharpen your skills and give you much more insight into what's happening outside of your sphere. When Bo started at Nebraska, he had that in Carl and while Carl wasn't exactly the brainchild of the schemes he was also able to question Bo in ways that a young Papuchis cannot or will not. I have been very skeptical of Papuchis for a while now, but it's looking more and more like he has little to no idea what he is doing which is horrifying and infuriating.

But to your question, right? Which side has an easier fix. At this point, I feel good about MSU maybe hiring a new OC before Bo hiring a DC that will make him better at what he does. I fully believe Pelini is a good defensive mind. Yes, he has been blessed with talent when he is at his best, but he also knows how to use elite talent better than almost anyone in the nation. If he does not succeed at the College level, I fully believe he could make it as a NFL coach and succeed (of course starting at the coordinator level again). That said, he has created such a dictatorship of sorts - or at least a corporate set of groupthink - that it's hard for me to believe that real changes can be made in the near future. The Head Coach is supposed to help with schemes, but more from a refinement or direction standpoint. Bo doesn't do that, and rather, he insists on finding people he can more or less coach vicariously through. For Bo to fix Nebraska's defense, there is a strong argument to be made that he needs to completely reconstruct his schemes and approach to the game and I am not completely sure he is ready or able to do that.

Conversely, while MSU is truly bad at offense at this point, the reality is that they could/should have an identity. Pro-style, smashmouth, game-grinding offense. That starts up front and means you get a stable of RBs who can and will pound the ball. Throw in a few TE slants and you have a four yards per play offense that can take time off the clock and allow your defense to work over the opponent. Again, easier said than done but also the obvious answer. I think Dantonio would even prefer that - with the Bollman hiring proof of that. Give the recruiting some time and the OL some recoup time and you have just enough offense to be pretty scary. First team to 14 every game sounds like a great gameplan.

Of course, that's just my opinion. How do you see MSU fixing their failures on offense? Moreover, do you think that they are systemic failures or just happenstances of bad luck/timing?

GA: We've had plenty of bad luck in the last season and a third, no doubt. Between some dicey officiating and random stuff like fumble recovery rates, there just aren't many breaks going MSU's way, but there's not really anything you can do about that.

There's no realistic way to look at these results and conclude that our problems are anything but systemic, which makes me pretty pessimistic that there's a quick fix coming over the bye week. At risk of repeating my post-ND doctorate thesis on what's wrong with the MSU offense, I think the core of MSU's offensive problems is the fact that, like with Carl Pelini leaving Nebraska, Dantonio lost a couple of vital assistants in Don Treadwell and Dan Enos, and hasn't really found replacements who can develop players and gameplan like those guys could. Moreover, Dantonio's fierce loyalty has prompted him to give guys like Dan Roushar a lot more leash than their performance probably deserves. It's tempting to blame the players, because they're the ones literally not getting the job done, but it's the coaches' job to understand what the players can and can't do, and to adjust the game plan accordingly, which is a trait this coaching staff has never had. Dantonio's comments about how important it is to stay 'balanced' sound, to me, like he's going to keep right on throwing it about 50% of the time, notwithstanding that the passing game is just terrible right now and has shown no noticeable improvement over the last season and a third.

Still, it's not all gloom and doom. I think we already have the personnel necessary to do what you suggest with the run-heavy offense. Jeremy Langford looks like a capable lead back, Nick Hill is a decent complement, they've gotten some nice play out of two young TEs, Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles (though both are still not targeted enough), and most importantly, the offensive line really does look a lot better with Jim Bollman's coaching. I don't think it's good enough to go straight wishbone on B1G defensive lines, but running around 65-70% of the time with Langford, Hill, WR reverses and end-arounds, and some QB runs from Connor Cook can't possibly be any worse than what we're flailing around with now. Plus, after Iowa, we get three straight opponents with, shall we say, unimposing defenses in Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. If we're doing anything but running until they stop it against those three teams, we'll all officially know that this staff is incapable of making the adaptations necessary to maximize this team's results.

You'll notice, though, that I didn't mention much about the passing game as anything more than a nice complement to the run game. That's because right now, it just can't be anything more. The current group of upperclassmen at WR and QB has been a profound disappointment. Again, this is where the difference in the work Treadwell did with Kirk Cousins and the current staff have done with Andrew Maxwell becomes glaringly obvious, as does the cliff that the WR play fell off of when BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol graduated. With a handful of exceptions (primarily WR Macgarrett Kings Jr.), the passing game just doesn't show much promise right now, and we can't even blame it on inexperience anymore. When your best hope for a revitalized offense is a redshirting freshman QB being ready to seize control after this season, things have gone south.

Well that stuff was a bummer to type. So what about Nebraska? From what I've read, the basic problem seems to be that the young players in the front seven just aren't grasping Bo's 2-gap defense well enough to execute it. My impression of Bo is that he ain't changing the scheme to coddle the players. Are you left to hope that the LBs in particular have accrued enough experience to stop making so many mistakes? You are still rolling with multiple NFL-caliber DBs, after all.

Jesse: Honestly, I don't even think there are fixes in the near future. As a whole, I do think that more talent has come through the defense than what we've seen in a couple of years. That in and of itself is part of the fix. Now it's trying to hope for the best while this year's front seven gets gashed and gashed again while trying to learn on the job. So that's fun. Making matters worst, while I do believe our secondary has a couple of guys who will be playing in the NFL, I also think they're being put in untenable situations. Whenever you have Safetys and CBs with as many tackles as they have, and when you see the absurd Passing Yards Allowed stats, you realize that this secondary isn't in a position to point fingers either. Bottom line? Well, bottom line is this defense isn't so good, and that's just going to have to suffice until further notice sadly. Nebraska will not be able to overlook any opponent this year, even though they legitimately have claim to have more talent than most of the teams on the schedule.

Let's get away from this, though. The point of this back and forth was to try and contrast the two games we'll be seeing this weekend: Iowa-MSU and Illinois-Nebraska. In one, there is a strong chance we see fewer than four combined touchdowns and in the other, would it surprise anyone to see each team score that many or more? What do you see as the tipping point for each game and who do you got?

GA: The tipping point for MSU-Iowa is going to be performance in the red zone. Both teams have had serious problems turning yards into points (and in MSU's case, gaining yards at all). Iowa has moved the ball pretty well, but also stalls out inside of 20 yards. I don't view either team as having reliable big-play capacity, so if either can turn the grinding, 12-play drives their offense needs to move down the field into touchdowns instead of field goals or nothing, that will be crucial. As far as a winner and score...I'll reluctantly pick Iowa to win 16-10, simply because I'll believe MSU can make enough plays to win a close game on the road when I see it.

Illinois-Nebraska ought to be a story of turnovers. I say that simply because neither defense has the horses or execution to stop the opposing offense. If either offense gets in its own way too much (looking squarely at Nebraska), it'll put additional pressure on an already-overwhelmed defense, and nothing I've seen from either of these defenses makes me think they'd respond especially well to pressure. Nebraska's still got a big talent edge, the game's still in Lincoln, and I'm still not sure Bill Cubit can singlehandedly stop Tim Beckman from being Tim Beckman, so I'll take the Huskers, 45-38.

Jesse: I think these are both fair and I'll take both Iowa and Nebraska as well. Until further notice, MSU really does need to prove it can move the ball with some authority and they are probably going to play one of the best defenses they have seen all season. It doesn't help that Iowa is slowly building a reliable pulse on offense as well. I think something like 13-6 as a final score. While I don't mind defense, this might turn ugly.

In stark contrast, I see Nebraska actually pulling away late against the Illini. The key for the Huskers will be having a legitimate offensive gameplan - hopefully - and a home crowd who knows the stakes. Let's say something like 38-24. I really think this will be close for far too long, however. The Big Ten really is a wide ranging conference these days... Let's hope we see both our teams move more towards the middle than the extremes.

To some of you, it may seem a little indulgent for fans of a pair of 3-1 teams, with the losses coming to real, live football teams (Notre Dame still qualifies as that, right?), to be complaining about their squad only being half excellent. But man, outside of Ohio State and sort of Wisconsin and Northwestern, our conference is a fistful of dirty rags on a mound of hot garbage. This season, it won't take much to run off 9 or 10 wins, or even to make a push for a BCS bid. MSU and Nebraska have the schedule and the talent to do it. To see such futility on a single side of the ball, while the other is raring to go, is frustrating to say the least.