October 18, 2008

Testy Dantonio said all the right things

EAST LANSING - Would you call what took place at Spartan Stadium Saturday an example of Michigan State getting exposed?

Yeah, something like.

Exposed as a fraud? No.

Exposed as a poor team? No.

Exposed as a pretender? Kind of. For now. They were beaten soundly in what amounted to a separation game between the three-time defending Big Ten champ, Ohio State, and a program that is a year-and-a-half into a rebuilding process.

Was Ohio State exposed a little bit too? I would say yes. Exposed as still having many of the ingredients that create championships. Ingredients that many of us thought they lacked this year.

Ohio State was exposed as having the ability to show rapid, marked improvement just days after an unsightly 16-3 victory against Purdue. Exposed as having the ability to turn it on when it matters. Again.

Some Spartan observes thought Michigan State might be way ahead of schedule in Mark Dantonio's rebuilding job, and possibly ready to contend for a Big Ten title this year. This optimism was borne out of the Spartans' solid, simple recipe for success during a six-game winning streak of playing timely defense, running the ball well, and limiting mistakes, and sometimes avoiding mistakes all together. It didn't seem like that should be difficult to reproduce against Ohio State.

Dantonio was asked earlier in the week whether he felt the Spartans could handle the back-patting that they were receiving, and whether they could remain focused in the first showdown game of the Dantonio era.

Dantonio said his players were grounded and they would have no trouble keeping their heads out of the clouds. I agree with him to a point. I don't think MSU played poorly because they got full of themselves. But I do not think psychology was MSU's friend on this day. It seemed to me that the Spartans were almost too jacked up, too geeked, too expectant of a life-changing afternoon. I think this caused MSU to come out of their fundamentals a little bit on a few game-changing plays.

It wasn't like Brandon Long to leave his gap and lose outside containment on a pair of Terrelle Pryor zone read option keepers, one of which went for 32 yards on a tone-setting play on the opening drive, and another got loose for a 31-yard touchdown.

Long is a good player and he has had a nice handful of highlight reel plays this year. But it looked like he got sucked in too far, hunting for Beanie Wells, hungry to make a big play to help the Spartans beat his home-state Buckeyes. He got away from the scheme, and it cost MSU a couple of plays.

"The defensive end didn't take the guy in the first time, he should have stayed square," Dantonio said. "But that's all football stuff, it's schematic things. We had a guy in position to make the play and he didn't make the play. They ran the play four or five times and he was out the gate probably two. I think he scrambled one other time."

Otis Wiley came out of his fundamental framework when an Ohio State WR got behind him for a 56-yard pass to the 1-yard line. Wiley rotated over to cover the WR while MSU's short-side cornerback blitzed on the play. That's what Wiley was supposed to do. But he wasn't perfect with his technique.

Wiley took blame for that play in the post-game press conference. He's the type of guy who can cover a WR on a go route. Maybe it's not something you won't to ask him to do play after play. But he can get it done. However, he made a false step on this play, and it basically cost MSU seven points.

Meanwhile, Ohio State came into this game having given up more sacks than any team in the Big Ten. Pryor had been guilty of holding the ball too long in recent games, seemingly a quart low on decisiveness. And the Ohio State offensive line was terrible against Purdue.

In the last two games, Pryor had been 0-for-3 on deep passes, sometimes missing miserably. But here in East Lansing, Pryor was laser-sharp on his first opportunity to go deep, just as Wiley happened to get beat deep. And when MSU blitzed the Big Ten's worst pass protection, on this play and many others, the maligned Buckeye offensive front held firm.

The point is this: Ohio State showed once again the ability to make overnight improvement. That's why they've been a champion. Champions fix their problems.

On Tuesday, Dantonio said MSU needed to play close to perfect. However, the Spartans didn't come close. Instead, Ohio State did.

"Things came together for them today," Dantonio said. "They had zero turnovers. I didn't see very many mistakes by them offensively or defensively. They tackled in space and they got the ball out."

Said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi: "Someone asked me before the game what my biggest fear was, and it was that they would click."

They clicked.

Throw in a Keshawn Martin fumble that was returned 44 yards to the MSU 17-yard line, and you're helping a team that doesn't need any help. Martin had caught a pass, made a little wiggle, and gotten to the OSU 39-yard line when an Ohio State defensive back knocked the ball loose. The score was 7-0 at the time.

But the Buckeyes flexed enough muscle for everyone to realize that although MSU gave them help, they didn't need it. They had a 6-yard TD called back, moved back 15 yards, and scored again despite a first-and-goal situation at the 21. That made it 14-0.

On the scoring play, a backside Ohio State WR snuck behind MSU's row of safeties, a simple recognition error on behalf of the Spartan secondary, which had been outstanding in the red zone all season. On that third-and-seven TD pass, the play-side defensive end Trevor Anderson momentarily had Pryor hemmed in as Pryor tried to carry out a counter-boot fake. But Anderson lost containment, which gave Pryor a little extra time to find the WR in the back of the end zone.

Did Anderson fail on that play because of Pryor's talent and elusiveness? Talent is undoubtedly a big factor. But what we're left wondering today is how much of the problem was self-induced? How much is correctable? How much will clear up as Dantonio's program matures?

"The object of playing top teams in your conference is to measure up," Dantonio said. "We did not measure up today. We are a work in progress. We are in year two. It's a disappointment because we weren't in the game. That's why it's a disappointment. We have to do better and we will."

I've heard some people being a little grumpy about starting QB Brian Hoyer. But Hoyer was one of the few guys who didn't make a major mistake during the early 28-0 flurry. Don't blame him.

MSU didn't lose the game solely because of the plays mentioned above, but they were indicative, in my opinion, of some Spartans playing outside of themselves just a little bit, just enough to expose their chin to the team that still has the best knockout punch in the league.


I ran my theory past some of the MSU players, asking them if there was a chance that they were a little over-eager, too hyped up, and perhaps this led to some fundamental breakdowns in things like punt coverage, pass coverage, tackling.

No. They all said no. And they know more about football than I do.

"There is no such thing as being too geeked up for a football game," Wiley said.

So maybe the credit goes to the opponent, being better than most of us expected they would be, harder to tackle and cover than they've shown in recent games.

And we were reminded that Michigan State is a pretty good team only when the Spartans play with sharpness and don't make mistakes. The same can be said of 90 percent of the teams around the country. The reason we bring it up is because the Spartans have shown the ability to actually play mistake-free football, or something close to it, for long stretches this season. Something we haven't seen around here since the late 1990s.

Some teams can battle through mistakes and still explode and make comebacks. But few can do it and recover against an Ohio State. When MSU was down 21-0 and then 28-0, the Spartans obviously needed to go to the air in hopes of any comeback. Air defense happens to be the one thing Ohio State has done exceptionally well all season. Checkmate.


Dantonio called the victory over Iowa a "program win." Last week, he called the Northwestern victory a "team win."

He was asked what this thing was.

"It's a loss," he said, stopping short with a pregnant pause. Then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "You want me to expand on that? Five turnovers. It's a loss. Missed tackles, it's a loss."

Michigan State has a 24-hour rule. Players and coaches are given 24 hours, win or lose, to get over Saturday's game, every week. Then work resumes on Monday.

Dantonio seemed like he only needed a 24-minute rule on this day. He seemed eager to get back to work and begin making amends.

"Inability to tackle, turnovers and we lost a very good opportunity to make an impact on this country, maybe," he said. "The most important thing to me is how we're going to refocus and play next week.

"Is it a program loss? It's not a program loss. If we lose the next six this could be pointed to as a program loss. But we lost the football game, we are a 6-2 team, we need to move on, and I'm getting testy so I can't stand up here much longer."

If you are a Spartan fan, smarting from this bet-wetting, there isn't much to feel good about. But at least the head coach said all of the right things afterward.

He was asked if it's good that Michigan State has Michigan next on the schedule, and that possibility that facing the Wolverines could help MSU snap back into focus after a bad performance.

"Yeah, I think it helps," Dantonio said. "You certainly can't go flat on anybody. This is a tough conference. We have the meat of our conference coming right down through this stretch. People will watch to see how we respond."

He slowed down and repeated that line more slowly for emphasis.

"People will watch to see how we respond," he said. "And it's important that we respond getting ready to play, and we will."

Note the phrase: It's important we respond getting ready to play.

He means in practice. And he's looking forward to testing them.

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