EAST LANSING - A few seconds after Mark Dantonio's rant at Saturday's post-game press conference, I turned to Outback Bowl rep Brad Keller who was seated nearby and said "Classic. That was classic." Is MSU's run blocking going to approach the level that most thought the Spartans would achieve this season? Did they make progress against Eastern Michigan? I personally haven't taken a close look at the game replay so I'm not sure about individual and collective progress against a poor defense, but I suspect the first step toward achieving a dominant run game is gaining the respect of opposing safeties with a competent downfield air game. In other words, stop dropping passes.
I thought it was one of Dantonio's better press conference moments. It was certainly one we'll remember; hence the word classic.
Some media members have ripped Dantonio for being petty and bitter in the moments following Michigan State's spotty 23-7 victory over Eastern Michigan, but I thought his three-minute press conference was both funny, serious and revealing.
"Press conferences aren't usually this good," I said to Mr. Keller, who is also a long-time follower of this web site.
Keller sensed this occasion was kind of special. The victory wasn't a landmark. But Dantonio's reaction was. We have never seen him this bothered, this dissatisfied after a victory.
Dantonio is 25-6 at Michigan State since 2010. But the Spartans will not continue to win at that rate if they do not fix their problems, and soon.
I found it humorous to watch a normally congenial Dantonio blurt out short, bothered answers to fair questions.
It wouldn't have been funny for Michigan State fans if the Spartans had lost by 16 instead of winning by 16. But with a 3-1 record, ranked in the Top 20 and still needing tons of improvement to begin living up to that Top 20 billing, Dantonio acted pretty much the way I think MSU fans would want him to act. He's ticked off and tired of waiting for loose-end areas to get tightened up. He's as frustrated as you are. He has a pulse. At least he's not slapping himself.
Next week, Michigan State will face 4-0 Ohio State. Dantonio will be in an evil mood every minute up till kickoff. That's what MSU fans should want.
Rather than a coach telling us how he felt after a rickety performance, we were able to see how he felt.
He was terse with his answers, cranky and curt. He struck me as a guy increasingly bent on trying to get this team - which now can only be described as "under-achieving" - to start achieving.
Was there a question or two from the media that sparked Dantonio's rudeness? Sure. Should the questioners feel offended? No.
I've been offended by the best, in Nick Saban. I know when to be offended. This wasn't one of those times.
We could have asked Dantonio what two plus two equals and he would have been mean and short about the answer.
He wasn't mad at the questions. He's mad at the team, mad at the situation, angry with the continued dropped passes, dropped punts, dropped interceptions. The season is 25 percent over, and he can't afford any more slippage. The situation is urgent.
I came out of this press conference with fewer quotes than usual, but there was more substance in his tone during this short press conference than I've seen from a season's worth of past press conferences.
The Book Is Simple
The book on Michigan State was clear and simple for Eastern Michigan: Sell out as many defenders as possible to stop the run. Accept the tradeoff of leaving yourself weak in pass defense until Michigan State proves it can take advantage of it. On Saturday, the Spartans couldn't capitalize - at least not with their wide outs. MSU had to lean on tailback Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims again to pull the cart toward victory.
That was enough against a winless Mid-American Conference team which ranks among the nation's worst in ground defense. But it won't be enough in the weeks ahead.
When asked what Michigan State can do to solve the loaded-box problem, Dantonio responded with a simple recipe:
"Well, what you have to do to improve it is catch the ball," Dantonio said. "Throw and catch. Protect, throw and catch.
"There is nothing wrong with the route. The route's there, and the ball is thrown there. You've got to catch the football."
The Spartans dropped seven or eight or nine passes last week against Notre Dame, depending on your definition. Catch those passes and the Spartans likely would have had a chance to win in the final minutes against the Irish.
Michigan State dropped four or five passes in the first half against Eastern Michigan, and trailed 7-3 at halftime.
This week, starting flanker Bennie Fowler not only failed to come up with a catchable ball near the goal line in the first half, he also fumbled a screen pass, which led to Eastern Michigan's lone touchdown. Fair or unfair, he was part of a negative 11-point swing in this game. This coming one week after his costly drop in the end zone against Notre Dame.
Fowler has more experience and probably more ability than any receiver on the roster. He continually earns the starting job in practice, but at some point the coaches will have to start giving many of his reps to others. The problem is that the semi-experimental portion of the season is over. MSU's inconsistent offense won't be able to afford dropped passes against Ohio State.
This week, new faces got in on the problem. Highly-touted freshman Aaron Burbridge dropped a pass on third-and-medium on MSU's second drive of the game. Ballyhooed transfer DeAnthony Arnett dropped one on a first-and-10 pass during a three-and-out series midway through the first half.
There were others who dropped passes, including [db]Keith Mumphery[db], the one receiver who seemed to make progress last week. On Saturday, Mumphery was the first to drop a pass. And the problem soon went viral, yet again. No one is immune. Even Dion Sims, who became the go-to guy in the victory over Boise State and in the second-half of this game against Eastern Michigan, dropped a pass on third-and-two in the first half.
Dantonio didn't mention the guilty players by name. He doesn't have to. But he also isn't hiding from the fact that they are at the top of the list of problems that is holding this team back.
"I hate to lay it out there like that but that's just the way it is," Dantonio said. "why skip around? Tell it like it is."
The Other Problem
It was difficult to tell whether Dantonio was more bothered by the dropped passes or the lack of fire and emotion on the sidelines from the beginning. When Dantonio took over as head coach, one of the first things he challenged his team to improve on between games one, two and three was becoming more vocal, supportive and involved on the sideline, from the starters to the deepest reserves.
It was easy to get that group of guys from 2007 to show more fire. They were tired of losing. They liked Dantonio's new message and responded to it.
These guys on the 2012 team have some championship rings, some trophies. Dantonio said in the off-season it was important to fight complacency in the program. He believed the fact that the Spartans hadn't reached Pasadena would and should be enough to keep this year's team acutely motivated and focused. But he has found them to be bit groggy, foggy and maybe even spoiled.
Dropping a pass? That irks Dantonio. But he also knows that the players aren't trying to drop passes. The drops anger the players too.
But this part about being listless and sleepy on the sidelines, one week after being humbled by Notre Dame 20-3, is just heresy in the Dantonio program. At least it used to be.
So now Dantonio is looking for ways to dial enthusiasm and focus back to 2007, when every snap, catch, block and tackle was viewed as an opportunity, not a burden.
"We need to bring our emotion every day," Dantonio said.
That's simple enough. That doesn't cost anything. It should be automatic.
But it hasn't been. And that's just the first thing that is different about this year's team, but it also should be the easiest thing to correct.
"Emotion was not there in the first half, and consequently we were flat," Dantonio said.
What About The Boos?
As the Spartans trotted off the field at halftime, there were boos. I watched the game from the stands, for only the second time since 1993, and I would estimate that maybe 10 to 15 percent of the fans booed. It was not a great majority, but enough to be heard. It's easy to hear a boo.
"It bothered some players," said junior Max Bullough. "But it served as a reminder that the only people that matter are the ones here in the football room."
I do not condone booing of college athletes. But maybe it helped this team take on an us-against-the-world mentality that helped the Spartans limit their mistakes in the second half.
Did it hurt recruiting in the process? It certainly didn't help send visiting prospects home feeling great about the support players receive in East Lansing.
Fans pay a lot of money for tickets and I suppose they have the right to boo, but they also need to understand all of the ramifications.
On this occasion, maybe the fans helped provide a kick to the pants. The Spartans weren't perfect in the second half, but they were better. This game was tight and unsteady through three quarters. It seemed the Spartans were always just one mistake away from getting in trouble so deep that their sputtering offense wouldn't be capable of making up for it.
We can second guess play calls, route combinations, blocking schemes. But Dantonio again reduces the problems down to Pop Warner simplicity.
"In my estimation, players make plays," Dantonio said. "Plays don't make players. Players make plays."
And that kicked off a volley of questions and answers that felt more like a beer commercial than a press conference.
"Do you come away from this game with any more clarity on the receiving corps?," a reporter asked.
"Did you?," Dantonio asked.
"OK. Next question."
Stop right there. That question was asked by Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. Rexrode is the fairest, most respected reporter on the Michigan State beat. I am sure that Dantonio respects Rexrode and understood the question. I guarantee that Dantonio was not mad at Rexrode, but is mad at the situation, the wide receiver situation and it manifested itself with short responses to good, fair questions.
Rexrode wasn't bothered by the exchange. But others seemed to want to paint the entire press conference as a badguy-coach/goodguy-reporter confrontation. I don't see it that way. I think Dantonio just wants to shake up the present situation, externally, internally, all-ternally.
He said during his pre-game radio show that the team was eager to get back on the field, and wanted to play on Monday if they had been allowed. That's what he thought. But then came the listlessness, and with it, Dantonio is probably left wondering just how well he actually knows this team.
Q: How surprising was the lack of emotion considering last weekend?
"It was surprising," Dantonio said. "Next question."
Q: Does your offense need to play better to be effective next week against Ohio State?
"Yes," Dantonio said. "Next question."
Q: Are these drops affecting Andrew Maxwell's performance?
"I would say it is, because the ball doesn't advance," Dantonio said. "Next question."
Q: William Gholston didn't play until the second half, why was that?
"He was in and out of practice this week so we made that decision," Dantonio said.
Q: Was that because of an injury?
"I don't talk about injuries," he said. "Next question."
Q: Dion Sims and Le'Veon Bell, how big they were today?
"They were big," Dantonio said. "Next question.
"I'm just loving all these questions because they're great ones. Go ahead."
Stop right there. With that comment, was Dantonio insinuating that these were dumb questions? I didn't take it that way. I thought he was relishing the chance to illustrate Michigan State's problems and plusses on the most uncomplicated terms.
Former Indiana, Vanderbilt and LSU head coach Gerry DiNardo pointed out a couple of weeks ago that coaches sometimes utilize press conference as an alternative means of talking to their players. Does Dantonio want his players to see the video clips of this press conference? Did he have that in the back of his mind when he was staging this memorable exchange? I wouldn't doubt it.
And DiNardo, by the way, applauded Dantonio's press conference. It takes a formerly embattled coach to understand a currently inflamed one.
Q: Is it a tough decision to put Le'Veon Bell at punt returner considering how much work he gets?
"Not when you (Nick Hill) dropped the punt the time before," he said. "Next question."
There were no other questions.
But there are plenty of questions surrounding this team as it enters Big Ten play.
Is MSU's defense going to remain strong throughout the Big Ten season? I think so. MSU will stop the run, as long as the defense isn't thrown back on the field over and over, in bad field position situations, due to three-and-outs on offense, spurred by dropped passes. (Improved field exchanges by the punt team would help, too).
In MSU's two most recent losses, last week against Notre Dame and last season against Nebraska, we saw MSU's defense eventually wear out and give up late-game yardage due largely to the offense not possession the ball or moving it.
Catch passes, and it will help the defense.
That being said, we are seeing opposing receivers get open deep on a weekly basis, more so than in the past two seasons. It happened two or three times on Saturday, and two or three times last week. This has been one of the bigger surprises of the year. MSU needs to get that problem squared away, and they have the proven players to do it, and as good a group of defensive backs coaches as there is in the country.
Is the problem with dropped passes caused partly by the thrower, or the route running?
I suppose these areas might be a problem on some of them, but not the majority.
We can confuse ourselves with some of these difficult-to-measure elements of the passing game, but I think most of it comes down to the backyard basics that Dantonio touched upon. Just catch the ball.
Of course that includes the difficult ones too. That's what we've come to expect to over the past two years of B.J. Cunningham bail outs.
Fowler was asked about his drop near the goal line after Saturday's game. "It was a catchable ball," he said.
A difficult catch? Kind of. A defender was there. And that's what we need to remember about last week's drops against Notre Dame, too. On five or six of the passes that we may count as drops, a Notre Dame statistician may very well chart those same plays as pass break-ups due to solid defensive plays.
Getting better separation would help. On Saturday, Dantonio said the routes were fine. Has that always been the case? Consider it a work in progress that needs more progress.
Secondly, the ball needs to be delivered on time and accurate. I would rate Maxwell as being above average in these areas, although he would admit to not being perfect. He could stand to improve, which shouldn't be a surprise just four games into his job as the starting quarterback.
"We need to be more consistent in what we're doing and execute better, and that's from a standpoint basically all around our football team," Dantonio said.
But he seems most bothered by the drops, and I don't blame him.
Is MSU going to fix the dropped pass problem? Hell if I know. Hell if Dantonio knows. And that's probably what bothers Dantonio the most. Coaches are control freaks, and this is an area that coaches cannot control. They can control who gets in the game, but shuffling the lineup hasn't cured the drop virus.
I can look at matchups and put together a fairly solid thesis as to what is likely to happen if Player A tries to block Player B, or how well a particular run scheme might work against a particular defensive front. But when it comes to guessing whether or not Receiver A and Receiver B are going to come out of their dropped-pass slump, I have no answers for that one. And until Michigan State solves the dropped pass problem, the negative domino effect is almost sure to follow.
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