EAST LANSING - Judging by the comments of head coach Mark Dantonio and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, the Michigan State coaches were even more disgusted in watching film of last Saturday's 31-13 loss to Notre Dame than Spartan fans were while watching the loss on TV.
At noon on Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Dantonio proclaimed Michigan State's renewed determination to "pound the ball."
"When you say, 'Are you going to change your offense, or do this or that?' I know we can throw the football," Dantonio said. " Most people know we can throw the football. But we have to run the football to be successful."
Why would people assume that Michigan State might look to become more of a finesse-oriented offensive attack?
One, because the Spartans lost two offensive line starters to injury on Saturday, and a key second-stringer went down with an injury last week.
Two, because the Spartans showed a propensity to experiment with major changes to the offense at Notre Dame, mostly with poor results.
But scratch that last part about major changes. Michigan State is newly committed to establishing blunt-force offense via the ground game in a conventional manner. There will be no finesse. No funny business. Just conventional gridiron warfare congruent with the way the Spartans went about things in the first four years and two games of the Dantonio era prior to Saturday's loss in South Bend.
After practice on Tuesday evening, Roushar criticized his decision to develop and implement surprising use of an an exaggeratedly unbalanced line on the opening two possessions of the game, and a Wildcat component that was added in the third quarter.
"I look back and I'm frustrated with myself and the gameplan that I set forth," Roushar said. "We just have to come back and get better. I have to give them (Notre Dame) credit, but I also look at what we did. They did a good job. But I didn't give our guys a chance.
"We just have to get better. We have to get better at what we're doing and what we do.
"I go back to Saturday and we got into some different things and tried some different things, and that's not who we are. Those things still exist and we have to mix them in there, but at the end of the day we just have to get better at what we do and I have to get better at what I do.
"Like the unbalanced, the Wildcat. You look back at it and we didn't get much out of it and it was in some critical situations. You look back and you say, 'Gosh, you'd like to have those things back.' But you don't get that opportunity. So we will go back and be who we are."
Kick It Off
Michigan State attempted three running plays out of the exaggerated unbalanced formation in its first two possessions, netting gains of 2, 1 and 1 yards. These failures led to a pair of early third-and-eights on MSU's first two possessions, and two early punts.
The unbalanced formation deployed one offensive lineman (actually a tight end) to the left of center Blake Treadwell, and five offensive linemen to the right of Treadwell.
Notre Dame barely hesitated when seeing the exotic formation, and lined up with its nose guard not over the ball, as he normally would do, but instead in the middle of the MSU line. The rest of the Irish defense lined up accordingly, unfazed and possibly unsurprised. The Spartans used the unbalanced formation at times in the April Green-White Game, which was televised by the Big Ten Network. It's unclear whether Notre Dame used that television broadcast for scouting purposes, but it sure seemed that way.
When asked if he was surprised by Notre Dame's seamless reaction to the unbalanced formation, Roushar said: "Yeah, I was surprised. Really, they had an excellent plan considering what they had done, versus what they did against us. So I have to give their staff a lot of credit.
"We saw some things formationally in that, and they adjusted very well. Things that we didn't expect. But we didn't execute well enough and I should have stayed out of it after a while."
Instead, Roushar went ahead with the use of trick plays out of the unbalanced series.
Later in the game, Michigan State popped off passes of 11 yards (to Dion Sims) and 21 yards (to Todd Anderson) on counter throws out of the unbalanced look, but those gainers weren't enough to justify the Spartans' decision to limit use of their usual base offense on this day.
"So much of our run game early in the game was unbalanced, and it's very foreign," Roushar said. "We've done it, we've worked on it throughout training camp and I thought it would be a great situation because we had seen how they lined up to it, and they made some good adjustments to it, and we just didn't execute well enough. This game is still about blocking people, and we have to block them better, we have to run the football better and I have to call it better."
In the third quarter, MSU attempted two more snaps out of an unbalanced configuration, this time with a running back taking the snap in a Wildcat formation. An end around handoff to Keshawn Martin on a second-and-eight resulted in a loss.
A few plays later, on first-and-10, a reverse to Kirk Cousins, for the purpose of looking deep to B.J. Cunningham, was blown up by cornerback pressure on Cousins. This resulted in a loss of 11 yards and stalled a drive, this time with the Spartans already down 28-10.
Inside zone runs, and 'power O' ground plays have been the basis of MSU's running game in the Dantonio era. But MSU attempted only 10 of these conventional, core offense run plays against the Irish.
"You end up throwing the ball 26 or 27 times down the stretch, and we lost our balance and played from behind, and we are not built that way," Roushar said.
MSU didn't attempt its first 'power O' of the day until the first play of its fourth possession, when down 14-3.
"I looked at the first half, and we got into the unbalanced and ran the ball out of that, and didn't have much success with it, and then when we got back into what we do in the second half, we started with a 5-yard run, a 4-yard run, and those kind of things, and that's more of who we are and that's who we were last year, and (we) got away from it," Roushar said.
However, after starting the second half with gains of 5 and 4 yards on inside zone runs, the Spartans didn't stay on the ground for a critical third-and-one. Instead, the Spartans threw a deep incompletion and had to punt, still trailing 21-10, soon to be 28-10.
That play call was one of the more scrutinized of the game, on MSU Internet message boards.
Roushar explains his rationale:
"We had set that formation with that exact personnel and that exact motion a number of times this season," he said. "I knew that we were going to get that particular blitz. We had been running a lot of off tackle play into that and I thought it was a great opportunity to take that shot. We turned the five technique loose and gave pressure to our quarterback. Had we not, I think we were going to split them and go down the field. I took a shot, I was trying to be aggressive and at the end of the day it didn't work out, so I have to look at what I called and at the end of the day we have to do a better job of executing what is called."
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