October 7, 2012

Halftime rally yields Tai Jones as 'star' on rise

There wasn't one particular speech from one particular person that helped spur the Spartans at halftime, Saturday against Indiana.

Instead it was a common collective of poise and direction, and Mark Dantonio enjoyed the results.

Michigan State dominated Indiana in the second half, holding the Hoosiers to just 37 yards and two first downs after halftime, en route to a 31-27 victory.

Coaches and players chalked it up to a few schematic adjustments, and a more determined sense of purpose when trailing 27-14 at halftime.

"I felt (it was) a group of people," Dantonio said, when asked which players stepped forward the most at halftime. "There was some confirmation about what we were going to try to do.

"There wasn't a lot of yelling and screaming and things like that, and guys going off on other people or blaming. It was 'This is what has to happen. We're 13 points down. We get the ball. We need to get back in the game. We are one score away from being back in the game. There is no need to panic, but you need to do your job. And we have a chance to make a statement here. One way or another, we're going to make a statement.'

"There were no ifs. Either we were going to bounce back, or we were going down. Either way, there was a statement to be made."

It wasn't exactly one for the Gipper. Indiana (2-3) seems improved over last year, when the Hoosiers had one of the slowest, worst defenses in recent Big Ten history. Indiana isn't good or anything. This is still an Indiana team that is 1-22 in its last 23 Big Ten games. But the Hoosiers have become a good enough, representative conference opponent this year to the point that if you play like dog crap at their place, they can beat you.

MSU didn't celebrate as if they had won an Olympic gold medal. But they felt they passed a good test of their resolve, and grew as group.

"It starts with belief and it starts with everybody in this locker room believing that we had to fight and that it was going to happen for us if we just keep battling, keep battling," said junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "So we came in at halftime and there was no sense of panic, no sense of, 'We can't get this done.' I think everybody looked and themselves and said there were plays to be made."

No one apologized for feeling good about coming back to beat an Indiana program that has been down for so long. Fans and media might not have a great deal of respect for Indiana, but the Spartans do, and they felt a sense of accomplishment.
"I have said all along, there are no easy wins in this day and age," Dantonio said. "Indiana is a team that was running a play every :12 seconds, and we had a lot of guys go down in the game and they were down legitimately.

"I can't say enough about our football team. We just kept playing, persevering and this was an opportunity to regroup and make a statement. You do these things and I think it's a lesson in life."

And, in the process, the season still has life.

"We're a 4-2 football team right now and we're still heading where we want to go," said junior linebacker Max Bullough. "We keep saying that nothing is going to be easy, but it seems like that's what it's going to be like this week. Every week is a challenge."

Dantonio said: "We came in at halftime and made some adjustments obviously, but I think more important than anything we regrouped as a football team. We had to make a statement and I thought our players did an outstanding job coming together at halftime and coming back out and playing and it still wasn't easy."

What Really Changed?

In terms of x's and o's, the Spartans set out to correct the problems they were having against Indiana's spread offense - specifically the Hoosiers' bubble pass action to the slot area.

"In the first half we got beat on some bubbles and some bubble-goes, and a jailbreak, and a jailbreak-go," Dantonio said. "The big story I think is the defense came out in the second half and played great, shutting them out in them out in the second half. They were the difference in the game.

"In the second half we got much better pressure, stopped the run, stopped the pass and things took care of themselves and we got a lot more opportunities."

Early in the first half, Indiana established success with quick bubble screens to the three-WR side of the formation. That play puts stress on MSU's 'star' (slot-area) linebacker. MSU gameplans to keep two safeties deep in their base defense against all offenses.

With both safeties deep, the 'star' linebacker (Chris Norman) has to be the first man to the scene on bubble screens, while also maintaining an interior gap assignment in run defense.

Indiana capitalized on Norman leaning heavy toward the run in the early going, springing some bubble screens outside.

This caused MSU's safeties and corners to bite up to help. From there, Indiana could fake the bubble and go deep.

Indiana did the same with the jailbreak screen, which is the inverse of the bubble. (With the bubble screen, the ball is thrown to a near receiver with the outside receivers blocking inward. In the jailbreak screen, the pass is thrown to the outside receiver with the inside receivers blocking outward).

Jones Makes Major Impact

MSU replaced Norman (6-1, 233, Sr.) with Taiwan Jones (6-3, 230, Soph.), who plays a bit bigger and stronger than Norman. Jones was a wrecking ball in busting through blocker interference and bouncing the receiver. Jones' impact on the bubble allowed MSU defensive backs to play more honestly in the back, leaving them less-susceptible to pump-and-go concepts.

Indiana had the ball only five times in the second half. Jones made major plays against bubble screens in thwarting the second, fourth and fifth of those drives.

  • On Indiana's second drive of the second half, Jones messed things up for a second-and-six bubble screen when he drove the bubble blocker into the receiver and spilled the play. He and R.J. Williamson combined on the tackle.

    Indiana punted two plays later.

  • Two drives later, Jones blew up a bubble screen to RB Tevin Coleman for a loss of five on first-and-10.

    Indiana punted three snaps later, as the first in a series of three straight three-and-outs.

  • On Indiana's final drive, Jones lit up slot WR Shane Wynn with a heavy hit and no gain on second-and-five.

    Indiana punted two snaps later and never possessed the ball again.

    "Taiwan is a great athlete and we are going to play the guys that make plays," Dantonio said. "So, you get on the field and you make plays, you stay on the field. It's pretty much that simple."

    Jones, of New Baltimore (Mich.) Anchor Bay High School, was the only member of the 2011 recruiting class to see action as a true freshman last season.

    "Taiwan has always been a guy that has been in the mix," Dantonio said. "He has been repping at the Sam, repping at the 'star.' He gets reps.

    "Last week against Ohio State we said, 'On the third series, you're going in. Every third series, you're going in.' So he played in there and he is getting more comfortable."

    Dantonio indicated that Jones is becoming a legitimate threat to compete for Norman's starting job at 'star' linebacker. Norman is having the best year of his career, but Jones' impact was undeniable on Saturday.

    "We will look at the field and evaluate it," Dantonio said. "How he played and all that, we'll make a decision on that.

    "He got an opportunity to play and he played well out in space. That is something that he does well, play the bubble. So a lot of times we use guys relative to what we see. We don't argue with results. We are going to play the guys that give us the best chance to win on Saturday; I don't care what, senior, captain, I don't care what. This is no disrespect to anybody. We are just going to do that because that's the fair thing to do."

    Calm And Calculated

    Michigan State's calm, cohesive halftime locker room yielded a confident, knowledgeable feeling heading into the second half.

    "It was really just seeing what they were doing," Williamson said of Indiana. "In the second half they normally don't change up their gameplan. We came in and made some minor adjustments and decided to go out there and execute each and every down.

    "It was really just a matter of adjusting to that bubble. It seemed like they were running it every play and it was just a matter of a couple of inches and a couple of yards to get closer to the play and once we see it the safety just comes down and makes that play."

    Indiana's fast-snap tempo bothered the Spartans in the first half.

    "It was pretty fast," said Williamson, who saw extended playing time due to minor injuries to Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond. "In practice, we practice fast tempo but it is nothing compared to the game when you're actually out there."

    "That's what's tough with Indiana," said Max Bullough, "how fast they go and the kind of plays they run on the perimeter."

    Williamson had a career-high nine tackles, tying with Bullough for the team lead on Saturday.

    "As the game went on, we adjusted well to it," Williamson said.

    "They didn't do much different in the second half in terms of plays," Bullough said. "We were more used to the tempo and knew what we could expect out there.

    "Once we become comfortable with what the offense is doing, I think that's when we are at our best," Bullough said.

    Now more than ever, the "we" on defense includes Jones and Williamson as young players making a case for larger roles.

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