October 7, 2012

Team Notes: Signs of progress in trenches?

Michigan State didn't make much progress with its running game against Indiana on Saturday, but the Spartans left town feeling good about grinding out enough inches when it counted.

The Spartans netted 120 yards rushing, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry against an Indiana team that allowed 394 yards rushing to Northwestern's spread option a week ago.

But Michigan State was three-for-three on fourth-and-short situations, each of which was crucial to victory:

Inside The Plays

  • Situation: Trailing 27-14 in the opening drive of the second half, MSU faced fourth-and-one at the Indiana 34-yard line.

    The Play: Le'Veon Bell squirted through for a gain of 1, behind a pulling Chris McDonald on a 'power.' But Bell did most of the work, feeling initial contact prior to first-down yardage.

    The Result: MSU gained a three more yards in the next three plays and kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 27-17.

  • Situation: Trailing 27-17 with less than 8:00 to play, MSU faced fourth-and-one at the 2-yard line.

    The Play: MSU ran 'power' again, with McDonald pulling. However, center Ethan Ruhland and play-side tight end Derek Hoebing each allowed penetration. McDonald's pulling alley to the play side was obstructed by Ruhland being walked backward into the backfield. But Bell managed to bang through contact and extend himself inside the 1-yard line to pick up fourth-down yardage.

    The Result: Bell scored on a 1-yard TD run two plays later to cut the lead to 27-24 with 7:49 remaining.

  • The Situation: Leading 31-27 with :54 seconds remaining, MSU faced fourth-and-inches at the Indiana 8-yard line. MSU needed a first down in order to run out the rest of the game clock.

    The Play: Rather than trying 'power' again, this time MSU went with straight wedge blocking. Surprisingly, Indiana stayed with four down linemen rather than checking in with five or six down linemen in a goal-line defense.

    With only four down linemen, MSU's Ruhland and McDonald were able to double-team the nose guard, drive him off the ball and create room for Bell to pick up first-down yardage easily. Also, Hoebing and right tackle Skyler Burkland double-teamed the play-side defensive end and drove him back.


    MSU was wise to go for it on fourth-and-inches in the final minute for these reasons:

    1. Kicking a field goal would do little good, extending a 4-point lead to 7 and giving Indiana the ball back. Indiana needed a TD anyway, whether the Hoosiers were down 4 or 7. The only thing a field goal would have ensured for MSU was a chance for overtime if Indiana scored in the final minute and chose not to go for two.

    2. Statistically, MSU would have had a better chance of preventing a go-ahead 88-yard TD drive if the Spartans had failed to pick up the first down, than a game-tying TD drive if MSU had been tasked with kicking off after a field goal.

    3. Excrement can happen when attempting a field goal.

    "I was here with Purdue a couple of years ago," Dantonio said, in reference to Michigan State's blown 11-point lead at Ross Ade Stadium in 1997 in the final two minutes, fueled by a blocked field goal by Roosevelt Colvin and return for TD, followed by a successful onside kick and subsequent game-winning TD for the Boilermakers. Vegas odds maker Roxy Roxborough reported that odds were more than 12,000 to 1 for Purdue to execute those plays and win when trailing by 11 with two minutes to go. But MSU found a way to bring those odds to life in 1997, and Dantonio - still bearing scars from that day - didn't want to roll those dice again.

    "If you have that much to go for a first down and the game is on the line, you've got to be able to get the inches," Dantonio said. "I didn't want to give them the ball back. I just felt like, we need a challenge. We need to challenge ourselves. That's what we did, and we got 'em, by inches, we got 'em."

    The first two fourth-down conversions were not decisive triumphs at the line of scrimmage. But Dantonio was encouraged by the fact that MSU ran the ball well on its last two drives.
    One play prior to Bennie Fowler's go-ahead TD receiver, Bell gained 16 on a 'power' draw out of the shot gun, again behind McDonald.

    On MSU's game-cinching drive, the Spartans' Bell carried for net gains of 1, 9, -1, 3, 4, 3, 6, 0 and 1 to ice the game.

    + Not exactly a tour de force, but credit Jack Allen with an excellent block on Indiana's standout defensive tackle Adam Replogle on a weakside zone lead for the gain of 8.

    + Credit McDonald and Skyler Burkland for opening backside daylight for Bell on the gain of 6, setting up third-and-inches. Credit Bell with the vision to find that daylight to the right when the play was designed to go to the left.

    + Credit Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett and Andrew Gleichert with good blocks in a bunch formation on a toss to the bunch side on third-and-4 at the 22-yard line with 3:08 to play. Huge play. Very good, aggressive, hungry, physical block by Fowler on that one. It was perhaps the best block by a Spartan wide receiver all year.

    On the negative side:

    - McDonald allowed penetration on the play that went for -1.

    - Allen allowed penetration on the 'power' play to his side on third-and-1 which went for no gain in the final minute.

    MSU mixed in a play-action pass to jumbo fullback Lawrence Thomas for a gain of 12 on second-and-11 midway through the drive.

    "It was a great statement for our offense that we were able to run the football when they knew we were going to run the football," Dantonio said. "Great catch by LT. Big catch. Great play call, good catch in the flat and then Le'Veon carried it from there.

    "Le'Veon getting the first downs, pushing hard at the end, those were huge plays for us. We did not want to give them the ball back obviously."

    Mixed Results For Retooled O-Line

    Overall, blocking was average to mediocre on many of Bell's clutch carries. Bell had to work through contact without much daylight on several occasions.

    "We have to knock people off the ball more effectively," said Dantonio, visibly dissatisfied with run game operation. "As the season goes on, we need to find some answers. Every game is different."
    Indiana came forth with eight in the box on a frequent basis, but not as often and pronounced as Ohio State and Eastern Michigan in recent weeks.

    Allen, who started the first five games of the year at left guard, moved to center for the outset of this game. He replaed Travis Jackson, who was lost for the year last week with a broken leg.

    Blake Treadwell started at left guard, making his first start since last year's game at Notre Dame. He was lost for the remainder of the 2011 season to a knee injury, that day.

    Treadwell struggled against Indiana. He allowed a third-down sack on MSU's second possession.

    After that, MSU moved Allen back to left guard and inserted Ruhland at center. Ruhland finished last week's game at center after Jackson went down.

    "We retooled the offensive line and didn't work quite as well as we wanted it to," Dantonio said. "I think Blake is still hindered a little bit by his injury. We have Ethan Ruhland back at center.

    "We did what we had to do and I'm exhausted but we did what we have to do."

    Hidden Turning Point

    Credit Max Bullough with two of the bigger plays of the game in helping turn momentum and allow MSU to fight off the ropes when the Spartans seemed close to being knocked out.

    Trailing 24-14 and having allowed Indiana to recover an onside kick late in the second quarter, the Spartans were on the cusp of going down 31-14 as the Hoosiers had second-and-goal at the 2. But Bullough bowed up and helped change the course of the game.

    + On second-and-goal at the 2, Bullough hit the RB with a tackle for loss in finishing a middle run blitz.

    + On third-and-goal at the 3, Bullough got off the left guard, jumped a gap and made the tackle after a gain of 1.

    Indiana called time out and considered going for it, but instead kicked a field goal to make it 27-14 at halftime.

    "Really the difference in the game was stopping them at the end of the first half and them deciding to kick a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down," Dantonio said.

    Problem Area I

    Michigan State had only one dropped pass this week, a reduction of the self-destructive ways that plagued the Spartans in the first five games of the year.

    Aaron Burbridge, who otherwise had a breakthrough game, was guilty of what looked like a critical drop when he let a slant pass on third-and-five slip through his hands with 4:59 left in the third quarter and Michigan State down 27-17.

    But personal fouls eclipsed dropped passes in becoming Michigan State's most damaging mode of self destruction on this night. MSU was called for six 15-yard penalties in the first half. Taiwan Jones, Kyler Elsworth, Keith Mumphery, Darqueze Dennard, Denzel Drone and Paul Lang committed the penalties.

    Three of those penalties gave Indiana new life for scoring drives, leading directly to 13 points. A fourth provided great field position.

    Jones was whistled for a late hit at the end of a play in the first quarter. Instead of third-and-eight at the MSU 38-yard line, the penalty gave Indiana first-and-10 at the MSU 21. This led to a Hoosier field goal and a 10-0 lead.

    Dennard roughed the punter in the first quarter. This gave new life to an Indiana drive late in the first quarter, leading to a TD and a 17-0 lead .

    Drone was called for a personal foul after an Indiana TD. The 15-yard penalty on the kickoff led to Indiana's successful on-side kick. Indiana kicked a field goal on that drive to go up 27-14

    Elworth was called for a hand to the face on punt coverage.

    Mumphery was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, turning fourth-and-five into fourth-and-20. But punter Mike Sadler bailed him out with a 53-yard punt.

    Lang was called for an illegal block, a questionable call at best. But MSU battled back from first-and-24 with passes of 16 yards to Burbridge and 19 to Mumphery. This keyed a TD drive which cut the lead to 17-7.

    Dantonio became increasingly irate with the penalties, culminating with Mumphery and Drone getting stern lectures.

    "Could you see I was angry?" Dantonio said after the game, managing a smile. "We had 105 yards of penalties at halftime, and ended up with 115."


    As for the onside kick, MSU did not do enough to anticipate the ploy. MSU did not insert its hands team into the game. MSU had only five men on the first line of the kick return team, allowing ample room for an Indiana pop-up kick from the 50-yard line.

    An on-side kick from the 50 was obviously a calculated risk favoring the kicking team. If Indiana hadn't recovered, the worst-possible scenario was for the Spartans to begin its drive from somewhere inside its own 40. Indiana happily took that risk, recovered, and nearly took a major step at putting the game away at 31-14 late in the first half.

    Problem Area 2

    Johnny Adams, who is having the roughest season of his career, suffered through what was quite possibly his shakiest game of the season.

    He wasn't involved in allowing a deep TD, as was the case in games against Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and Ohio State. Against Indiana, Adams allowed deep passes on two occasions while allowing inside releases. He also was flagged for a deep pass interference in the end zone.

    Notes & Quotes

  • Dion Sims, MSU's leading receiver on the season, was lost to an ankle injury in the first quarter.

  • Taiwan Jones, on what Dantonio said to the team when he gathered them for a heated pep talk after the first quarter:
    "He said we have to get it together, look at the crowd, look at the scoreboard, we have to do better and play harder, we're embarrassing ourselves."

  • Andrew Maxwell, on what he told Bennie Fowler after Fowler's go-ahead, 36-yard TD reception.
    "I just told him, 'I'm so proud of you.' He wants the ball when the game is on the line and he did something with it."
    "I said at the press conference on Tuesday, 'Don't expect this to be the last of Bennie Fowler. Don't expect him to lay down.' That's something that Bennie can do. He can use his size and use his speed to make somebody miss and get in the end zone."

  • Offensive line coach Mark Staten: "The message is it happens to anybody at any time and you can either continue to go and get your stuff going or you can get beaten any given Saturday. We will respond. I know that they will take this to heart, they will look at it, they will self examine and we have to come back ready to play a good Iowa team next week."

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