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Tresselball Reborn: Michigan State’s Risk/Reward Balancing Act Against Notre Dame

Michigan State v Notre Dame
Coach says I’m supposed to give you this.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Now in his 10th season at Michigan State, and having achieved great success in that period, it’s no secret from whence MSU head coach Mark Dantonio derives the core of his game-management philosophy.

That would be the guru of modern conservative playcalling, one James Patrick Tressel, for whom Dantonio was once a defensive coordinator. If Dantonio’s reverent quotes about The Vest aren’t enough of an indication, his extension of jobs to other former Tressel assistants and the results on the field should be.

Most recently, this approach to playcalling and game management manifested itself within the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium. Anyone who watched the game probably assumes I’m about to complain about the shell MSU retreated into offensively in the 4th quarter, choosing to hold on for dear life to a large-but-quickly-shriveling lead rather than going for the kill, and certainly, we’ll get to that. But in the spirit of a recap, let’s first see how we got to that point.

Michigan State’s first two offensive drives in this game went for a combined 20 plays, covering a total of 80 yards in 9 minutes and 41 seconds, but yielding zero points. These drives ended in two ways which are infuriating to detractors of the Tresselball style: a punt from the Notre Dame 39 yard line, and an interception on a tipped ball on the 9th play of the second drive. Sure, no pick-six, blocked field goal, or scoop and score was given up, but there’s still a goose egg on the scoreboard.

What becomes apparent on the following drive is that Mark Dantonio merely waits for his moments. After forcing Notre Dame to go 3-and-out, MSU did the same themselves when good fortune struck: on the punt, the rolling ball hit a Domer and was recovered by MSU. The first play MSU dialed up was a strike for the endzone, which itself would have been an interception if not for a brilliant play from Donnie Corley.

Aha! Against a vulnerable opposing secondary, MSU finally pushed the ball downfield after smashing ineffectually against a wall for the entire first quarter, and was rewarded with a touchdown. Does this not justify scrapping the conservative, incremental approach?

Apparently not, because the next MSU drive went like so:

- LJ Scott run for 4 yards

- Prescott Line run for 3 yards

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to Josiah Price for 23 yards (1st down)

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to Donnie Corley for 11 yards (1st down)

- Tyler O’Connor run for 6 yards

- LJ Scott run for 13 yards (1st down)

- LJ Scott run for 1 yard

- RJ Shelton run for 4 yards

- Tyler O’Connor run for 6 yards (1st down)

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to Donnie Corley for 11 yards (first down)

A quick interruption: at this point, Notre Dame takes a timeout. MSU has moved 82 yards since the drive started. The same play calls which ground out 2 or 3 yards in the first quarter are now going for 5 or 6, with longer gains mixed in.

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to RJ Shelton for 10 yards (touchdown)*

*This counts as a pass, but was the sort of pop pass/fly sweep that basically seems designed to get the QB in on that sweet yardage action.

After halftime, the teams traded ineffective opening drives before MSU went on another touchdown odyssey over 10 plays, 75 yards, and almost 5 minutes. The longest play on that one was a pass interference call on the defense; 8 of the 10 plays were runs. And, at least for a while, this looked like the drive that broke Notre Dame’s will.

The ensuing four drives, beginning with Notre Dame possessing, went interception-touchdown-punt-touchdown. That last one was on a 73-yard run from Gerald Holmes which inspired two things to happen that completely inverted the direction of the game: Notre Dame abandoned the run and set its sights downfield, and MSU entered a truly loathsome ball-protection mode just a bit too early.

Notre Dame broke MSU’s run of 36 straight points with a touchdown near the end of the 3rd quarter to make it 36-14. MSU got the ball back and resumed its incremental movement: 5 yard pass, 1 yard run, 6 yard run, 3 yard run, and - critically - ended the 3rd quarter with a run for a loss of 2.

So now it’s 3rd and 9, with the entire 4th quarter to play, and though a few of the South Bend faithful bailed after Holmes went the distance, most of the 80,000 plus are still there, and they’re rowdy, but it feels tenuous: the guy behind me in the stands tells his lady friend, "if they hold them on this drive, we should stay, otherwise there won’t be much point," and he seems to have the measure of the crowd in this sentiment. Convert this 3rd down, put any more points on the board, and the white flag just might run up the flagpole.

- Tyler O’Connor run for 6 yards

It may be unfair and even unwise to expect Mark Dantonio to break character too forcefully in a situation like that. After all, his defense mostly neutered Notre Dame’s potent playmakers for most of 3 quarters.

There were 2 variables which perhaps should have carried a bit more weight in deciding when to try and just let the air out of the ball, though.

First, the Irish TD drive covered 65 yards in 65 seconds, once Brian Kelly accepted that the balanced game plan had failed and ordered Deshone Kizer to the air.

Second, MSU’s pass rush withdrew the assistance of its deep and versatile linebacking corps, mostly opting to play coverage and leave the pass rush to a defensive line that looks, thus far, like the weakest unit on the entire team.

The problem, as I uneasily realized looking up at 15:00 still left on the clock, is that a ball-control, clock-killing strategy only works if you have the ball. Against an opponent that needs very little time to move down the field, trusting a pass rush which can’t get home and a secondary that still isn’t quite up to holding its coverage as long as that first fact makes necessary will let your opponent score very quickly indeed. And so:

- Tyler O’Connor run for 6 yards

leads to

- Punt

- Touchdown

- Punt

- Touchdown

- Punt

Another quick note: it’s now down to a one-score game, in case you lost track, and now Notre Dame is getting the ball back with 4:18 still on the clock, after its last three drives, all resulting in touchdowns, took 1:05, 2:23, and 1:45 off the clock.

- Punt.

That’s not a glitch. On its last possession, Notre Dame threw incomplete on first down, got 6 yards on second, and finally succumbed to an untimely sack on third down.

With 3:37 left, Brian Kelly decided he knew Mark Dantonio well enough to beat him, and punted the ball back to an offense which had amassed 34 total yards on its preceding 3 drives, assuming he could rely on Dantonio’s conservative playcalling and the two timeouts in his own pocket to get the ball back with enough time for Kizer to add to the list of implausible Notre Dame Stadium comebacks.

- LJ Scott run for 2 yards

- LJ Scott run for 1 yard

- Timeout Notre Dame

Aw, heck. He was right, wasn’t he.

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to Donnie Corley for 28 yards

Or perhaps he miscalculated.

- Gerald Holmes run for 5 yards

- Timeout Notre Dame

- Gerald Holmes run for 2 yards

Or perhaps not. The window is still open for his purple face to crawl through if Dantonio lets him-

- Tyler O’Connor pass complete to RJ Shelton for 23 yards

- Team run for loss of 2 yards

- End of game

After 10 years of watching his teams, I hadn’t learned a thing about the man. I spent most of the 4th quarter panicking that I was seeing another collapse for the ages, worried that Dantonio’s ingrained risk aversion would cost him and by extension me. Ironically enough, that same impression about what Dantonio would do tricked his opponent into giving him the ball back one last time. And then he broke tendency, as x-and-o analysts say you should with at least some frequency. So perhaps the former assistant learned something from his old mentor’s mistakes, after all.