September 12, 2012

41 Mid-Week Hot Reads

EAST LANSING - Michigan State coaches made it clear last week that no wide receiver was safe from losing his role.

What we didn't realize was that this was kind of the case on the offensive line as well, especially offensive tackle.

Starting left tackle Dan France struggled in the opener against Boise State; right tackle Fou Fonoti did not have one of his better games in pass protection, either.

By design, France took a seat midway through the first quarter during Saturday's victory at Central Michigan. Fonoti moved from right tackle to left tackle. Skyler Burkland came off the bench and played right tackle for the first time since going down with a knee injury last year at Notre Dame.

France was back at his old post a series later.

France isn't necessarily in danger of losing his job. Directly or indirectly, a message was sent that Spartan coaches expected sharper play on the offensive front from some of those who currently hold starting jobs. Moreover, MSU wanted to take some steps in reestablishing some depth and versatility at offensive tackle.

"Skyler Burkland is back full‑time and he throws another dimension into who we play on our offensive line because he has been a starter here," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. "That's a positive thing for us. We can move some different people around."

Burkland played extensively in the fourth quarter as the Spartans cleared their bench in a blowout situation.

How did Burkland look?

"Rusty, but good," said Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten. "He's got it in him. He is one of those that could plug in at any time, any day."

Said Dantonio: "We have eight guys that have started for us in the last two years.  We've got some different ways we can look at that."

Staten is quick to point out that it wasn't just offensive tackles who were substandard in the season opener against Boise State.

"I don't think the entire offensive line played the way we wanted them to in the first game," Staten said after Tuesday's practice. "Maybe it was opening-night jitters. Maybe we were too revved up. You have to have a controlled violence in there. You can't be too amped; you can't be too low. There is a certain medium you have to hit. Whatever it was, we did not play as a whole, from tackle to tackle across the board. Ask any of them and they'll tell you that.

"Second week we played better. Third week we have to continue to play better because if you don't get better every play, every series, every game then you are doomed to fail."

41 Hot Reads, coming out of game two, heading into game three:

1. Specifically on Dan France, I liked two of his key blocks inside the 10-yard line in the first quarter at Central Michigan.

On the first one, a 7-yard run by Le'Veon Bell to the 1-yard line, France was quick and tough as part of a "tackle pull" play, leading into the right A-gap on second-and-goal. That's not a play that MSU runs very often, but France looked athletic and physical on this one. Bell scored one play later.

Later in the first quarter, Bell ran to France's side on an outside zone for a 7-yard TD run. France did a technically-sound job in getting his helmet across the face of the play-side defensive end, controlling the gap, hooking him and sealing him inside, allowing Bell to get outside.

In pass protection, France moved well. During one

France wasn't exactly playing against The Steel Curtain last Saturday, but if was good for him to get some positive vibes going again. He's a proven player who has the capacity to have a good junior year. He has a massive job this weekend, going against Notre Dame's mammoth defensive ends.

2. I don't think MSU will see defensive linemen like Notre Dame's d-line all season. In case you haven't seen them, it's not just the usual coachspeak with Dantonio and Staten offer complimentary words about d-end Kapron Lewis-Moore, nose guard Louis Nix and d-end Stephen Tuitt.

"Every one of those son of a guns is 300-plus pounds, and they're strong," Staten said. "And if you get your pads up, they are going to bend you over and run through you. It's a tremendous challenge and our guys know that and they are preparing accordingly."

ND linebacker Prince Shembo is quick, strong, aggressive when taking on blocks, and athletic when closing.

Shembo will play up like a LB in a 3-4, or down like a d-end in a 4-3. ND will rotate between even and odd fronts.

"He (Shembo) is very strong," Staten said. "They are strong across the board. He is a big player, but also fast. They have a LOT of very good athletes on that side of the ball."

Last year, MSU finished its season with a terrific final exam against Georgia's big, strong, athletic defensive line - which included jet-fast outside linebackers.

This year, in my opinion, MSU's blockers are facing a final exam of sorts in week three.

"This is is the top defense we've faced, one of the top ones we'll face all year," Staten said. "They say the biggest improvement is from game one to game two, and we saw that with our offensive line," Staten said. "I'm hoping it's also from game two to game three."

3. I liked the way MSU adjusted to Central Michigan's surprise array of blitzes on Saturday. CMU came with several "zero" blitzes, meaning they rushed the backfield while leaving no safety playing in the deep middle.

"They did a lot of things we did not see on film," Staten said. "We had to adjust on the sidelines after that first series, and talked about what was going on, made some adjustments of certain individuals out there, how we would work that into our pass blocking schemes. And after that, very few hits on Maxwell and once again no sacks."

Individually, CMU's defensive front seven didn't offer a lot of problems for MSU's blockers. But collectively, they tried to bring more men than MSU had blockers. MSU had to solve some puzzles. It turned out to be an excellent little quiz in terms of communication and adaptation for MSU's blockers, including tight ends and blocking backs.

4. When shaking hands at midfield after the game, MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell jokingly told CMU head coach and former Spartan assistant and quarterback Dan Enos, "Coach, why don't you run a few more blitzes?"

Enos smiled and said, "Just trying to get by."

CMU didn't have the personnel on defense to stand up to MSU's ground-and-pound style and their play action. So CMU set out to flood the gaps, bring pressure at Maxwell, force fast decisions and let the dice roll where they may.

Nice quiz.

5. Sticking with o-line development, sophomore Michael Dennis was the first left tackle off the bench when mop-up time began. He has moved ahead of Henry Conway on the depth chart.

Staten says Dennis starting to blossom a little bit, which is good to see because offensive tackle is one of the thinnest areas on a talent-rich roster.

Dennis isn't ready to play winning football against a Notre Dame right now. But he's taking steps toward possibly becoming functional in the near future.

6. As Paul Konyndyk pointed out on the V-Cast, MSU's No. 10 ranking is the highest the Spartans have been ranked heading into a Notre Dame game since 1979.

MSU vs. Notre Dame is always a fun, colorful, big deal - especially for Spartan fans. This year, the vibe is just a little more electric.

Every year, Notre Dame fans, media and even coaches and players say they enter the season thinking National Championship. They don't have a conference race to point to. Until they lose their first game, they continue to think 1988 is possible. I have no problem with that. Good for them.

It's been a long time since ND was an elite national player, but if they win this game against Michigan State, then I think they'll have the goods to win their next four and go to Oklahoma at 7-0.

ND has a long way to go before the rest of the country considers them a legitimate national title contender. Meanwhile, is it too soon to talk about MSU in that regard? If ND can go into each season thinking National Championship until their first loss, then why shouldn't MSU? Especially this year.

MSU is ranked No. 5 in SI.com's most recent national power rankings. That doesn't mean a whole lot, but MSU is starting to creep into the conversation as, among other things, the Big Ten's only hope of crashing the BCS party.

MSU has to make a ton of improvement before they will have the capability of going unscathed over the course of several weeks. But think about your friends in Ann Arbor. If they started the season 3-0 with victories over Boise State and Notre Dame, you know full well they would be bellowing about their national championship chances.

So why shouldn't MSU, heading into this game against Notre Dame?

Because we're not that delusional, first of all.

Beat Notre Dame while showing development in the ground game. Hold serve against Eastern Michigan. Smooth out the rough spots between Maxwell and the receiving corps. And then knock off Ohio State, and we'll resume this discussion.

Till then, they all count one, in my book.

7. My favorite defensive play of the game last weekend: Johnny Adams' interception. CMU tried to test him with a smash-seven route combo. Adams read the combo, cut off the smash and carried his footwork deeper down the sideline to intercept the seven route.

When you have a guy with Adams' knowledge, experience, quickness and ability to finish a theft like that, it's like playing with 12 men on the field when seeing a route combo such as the smash-seven.

He did the same thing against Notre Dame on the same route combo two years ago in the "Little Giants" game.

In the smash-seven, the offense thinks it can get a quarters-coverage corner to stop and squat on the short smash route to the flat area. Then the seven (deep out route) is designed to hit the dead area along the sideline, deeper than the corner.

But Adams had the smash covered while watching the QB's eyes, and expertly sank deeper, knowing what the offense was trying to do.

8. Best quote after practice on Tuesday night also belonged to Adams.

Q: What do you remember about the Little Giants play?

Adams: "I didn't see it. I don't remember it."

Adams was with his defensive teammates and coaches, preparing for overtime when Little Giants was completed.

Well, what does Adams think of the Little Giants highlights?

"I've never really seen them," he said.

You'll have to excuse Mr. Adams. He has the proverbial short memory of a cornerback. He's always focusing on the next play.

Things To Like:

9. We already know a few things about Larry Caper. He's a good, explosive No. 2 RB. But I learned a little something about Nick Hill when he exploded around the right side on an outside zone run in the second half. He got low, turned the corner and hit another gear in darting for the flag in what appeared for a moment to be a 12-yard TD run. He stepped out of bounds at the 2, and the play was called back due to a penalty, but I was impressed with that gear. He put his head down and was willing to take whatever kind of collision the Chippewas could give him. Very quick and courageous. He flashed some RPMs. I think we'll see some "plus" runs out of him in the near future.

10. I like the comfort level Maxwell is starting to get with some of those out routes to the wide side of the field. You need a hose to be able to gun it across the field before the defense can get there. Kirk Cousins could do it. Brian Hoyer could do it with even a little more steam. Maxwell has the steam too, and he connected with Keith Mumphery on a couple of pretty ones at CMU.

11. I like the way MSU reduces risk when taking a deep shot. On the out-and-up to DeAnthony Arnett, the Spartans kept eight in to pass protect, and sent out only Arnett and Tony Lippett on a first-and-10 near midfield.

CMU had been blitzing a lot. Keeping two TEs and a RB in for extra protection guaranteed time for the pump to sell the double-move. Maxwell could relax and pinpoint it.

MSU continues to do more max pro (maximum protection) under second-year o-coordinator Dan Roushar[db]. MSU didn't do it very much in the previous years. As I've stated before, all 15 kill shots on the QB vs Alabama in the 2011 bowl game were done with only a five-man protection. I think it's good to have a comfort level in throwing out max pro from time to time. And if you have a strong-armed, pocket QB and a WR or two who can sell a deep route or a double move, it can become a headache for a defense, something they have to burn time preparing for. Lloyd Carr's Michigan teams used to go deep behind max-pro at least once a half. Good teams.

12. Nice play by Williamson on third-and-10 pass break up, arriving full tilt to short crossing route.

13. Speaking of kick coverage, MSU is expected to have one of its best back and active this weekend in [db]TyQuan Hammock. He was not on the dress list for MSU's last three games - the Outback Bowl, the Boise State game and the CMU game. But he was back on the official depth chart that was handed out to media on Tuesday as a second-string Mike linebacker. I doubt that he will be a contributor at that position this weekend, but they might get good use out of him on the coverage teams. I can't help but think that perhaps that 90-yard punt return against Georgia wouldn't have broken out of there if Hammock had made the trip south with the team and been downfield for coverage on that one.

14. Redshirt freshman Shilique Calhoun showed his big man wheels on a fourth-and-10 QB pressure during an incompletion late in the second quarter. The CMU right guard was a half beat late in identifying whom to block. That's too late for 'Lique. He can haul.

Needs Improvement

15. Timing on the short-side out route to Mumphery versus a blitz in the first half. Mumphery seemed to be a little late with his cut and Maxwell might have been a little early with the throw. The third-and-nine pass fell incomplete.

It's that type of play that Dantonio and Maxwell are talking about when mentioning that the timing between the QB and some of his receivers needs to improve.

Blocking And Tackling

16. Credit Fonoti with a nice block on a third-and-four pitch to Bell on MSU's first TD drive. Fonoti executed a "fold" block as a front-side pull, finding a LB and finishing him with a sharp cut block. So many times of the last 15 games, we've seen the athletic Fonoti get out front on a pull, move quickly, rumble and charge downfield but not find and finish a block. This time he did by going low. Looked good. That'll work.

In the past when Fonoti got out front and didn't finish anyone it was sometimes due to the RB not setting up the block properly. Now they are getting that thing in order a bit better.

17. Niko Palazeti with a nice lead block on weak side lead/isolation for a gain of 8 late in the first quarter. Palazeti was a killer on outside linebackers in the tap-out drive at the end of the Boise State game last week. This one was a little less physical and a little more huggy, maybe because the target was a nimble safety rather than a big linebacker. Either way, he got the job done.

18. As for the Lawrence Thomas spectacle at fullback, this thing is no Fridge feel-good gimmick. This guy is a mass mover. He was making a dent as a lead blocker, and he was getting there quick and eager. He's going to be a factor in the offense this year.

19. Were you still watching when CMU converted a third-and-17 in the third quarter? This one is a negative against MSU. MSU had a guy there, but didn't finish the play.

The scheme: MSU dropped Isaiah Lewis to the deep middle, as they often do in a number of nickel coverages. This time, it worked like a Tampa-2. Darqueze Dennard stayed in the flat and let the WR go, indicating cover-two. With Lewis in the middle, it gave Kurtis Drummond more leeway to get wide to the sideline and close over the top to close the "cover-two window."

Drummond got there, and went high for the ball, but collisioned Dennard more so than the receiver. MSU had it covered, and was in position for a heavy-contact break-up, but the CMU receiver went high and did a Houdini job in catching it.

That'll be a teaching point. Need the hit and pass break-up. MSU's defensive coaches are perfectionists. The players were in position to end that threat emphatically, but let CMU off the hook.

Drummond, by the way, is listed as a co-No. 1 at free safety this week, along with Jairus Jones.

R.J. Williamson, who had another strong game as part of the nickel defense, is now listed at No. 2 at strong safety, behind Lewis.

20. The best thing about RJ Williamson's nice tackle in punt coverage in the second half is the way he got wide to maintain leverage prior to the catch. Veteran play by a freshman. MSU erred in lane discipline for an instant in a very similar situation during the long punt return versus Georgia in the bowl game. Williamson wasn't about to repeat that mistake.

Other Stuff

21. I saw this one wrong the first time: The opening-play deep shot to Keith Mumphery. We all thought Maxwell overthrew him. He did. And there probably was a reason - Mumphery was covered, and on one else was open. Mumphery ran a slant-and-go. The soft coverage of Mumphery's man made him less susceptible to bite on the slant sell.

Not open. Throw it over everyone's head. I like it. It still serves the purpose of stretching the defense a little bit.

22. MSU followers might have been a little bothered by the "move those chains!" carnival barker public address guy at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. I didn't mind him. I've heard similar at Northwestern. This was cute and fun, like a minor league baseball game. I thought the atmosphere was fresh and entertaining, something new for in-state college football.

23. I thought touchdown cannons for college football games were allowed only in confederate states.

24. Kalamazoo's Waldo Stadium, and the surrounding area, will be even better for the next stop on the Celebrate The State tour, in 2015. Terrific town. I might be inclined to overnight in Kalamazoo for that one. Reserve me a table and a Two-Hearted under the pike at Bell's. (23. And a special thanks to Miss Van Stratt for cruise directing my debut at Bell's a couple of years ago, after the MSU-WMU baseball game in Kalamazoo a couple of years ago).

25. The happiest guy when Kyler Elsworth recovered that fumble early in the fourth quarter: Max Bullough. Bullough has been talking up Elsworth whenever answering questions in the offseason about LB depth. Max wore a big smile when Elsworth got back to the sideline after that turnover.

26. Maybe Dion Sims runs faster than he looks. On his TD catch against CMU, he ran a short out route, got twisted up with some DBs, and then he had open space to run untouched for about 15 yards. A CMU cornerback didn't have a chance to catch him, but the CB gave it his all in trying to close the distance during a 10-yard match sprint ... and he didn't really close the distance on Sims. Sims was rumbling and ambling and didn't look nimble, but that corner didn't really gain on him. Sims was moving pretty well.

27. Tony Lippett almost always seems to make one defender miss as a run-after-the-catch threat at WR. He may not be an ultra speed burner, but he's crafty.

28. I once counted 80 CMU cheerleaders in the south red zone during a TV break. Most I've ever seen. Shiny, happy people.

29. Credit Mike Sadler with handling an extremely high snap from Taybor Pepper on the field goal at the end of the first half, which made it 24-0 at the break.

Things You Might Not Have Noticed

30. Something You May Not Have Noticed: Good coverage by Max Bullough and Jairus Jones in man-to-man on tight ends trying to get deep when CMU threw a play-action pass on third-and-one at midfield early in the second quarter.

CMU came in with heavy personnel. MSU responded by sending the goal-line defense in (five d-linemen and three DBs).

CMU faked the run and tried to zip some tight ends deep down the field, but the tight ends got hung up on the line of scrimmage a little bit and then Bullough and Jones identified them and picked them up in rare deep man-to-man duty. (They weren't real deep, but the tight ends were trying to get deep.) They were covered and the QB threw to a third TE on a short out for first down yardage.

CMU "moved those chains!" on the play, but good accountability by Bullough and Jones prevented the element of surprise from going for a big gainer, as was CMU's hope and design.

31. Midway through the second quarter, on a first-and-10, MSU shifted into a 3-4. Yes, the 3-4 that we in the media asked about countless times during spring and August of 2010, due to rumors. We saw it for a snap or two in the game vs. Florida Atlantic at Ford Field, but not much after that.

On this occasion in Mount Pleasant, MSU moved Marcus Rush to inside linebacker for the play, next to Bullough.

The defensive ends reduced inward as part of a conventional 30 look. This put William Gholston over an offensive tackle rather than the tight end on the strong side.

At the snap, Gholston slanted a gap farther inside and pressed the A-gap, Jerel Worthy's old home. MSU has been stunting Gholston inside quite a bit more this year, perhaps in an attempt to manufacture more interior push, to help make up for Worthy's absence.

As for MSU's flavor of 30 on this snap, the Spartans didn't go with a two-gap, physical type of 30 front like a Georgia, Notre Dame, Alabama or Boise State. MSU tried to get upfield, penetrate the gaps and create problems with quickness.

CMU happened to have a good play call on, with the front side guard pulling, getting out quickly to block Rush at the LB level. CMU also did a good job of getting the motioning H-back to pick up blitzing CB Johnny Adams. The run play got outside to the safety level for a gain of 11.

CMU didn't have enough to compete with MSU overall on Saturday. But CMU's offensive line and blocking schemes were Big Ten-caliber, in my opinion.

32. CMU popped off gains of 11 and 9 on a pair of weakside leads during a nice little drive midway through the game. I warned about their weakside leads in the Spartan Plus Pre-Snap Read, and CMU didn't let me down.

CMU ran those weakside leads out of unbalanced look.

On one of them, Denicos Allen allowed himself to get swallowed up by CMU's fine LT Eric Fisher and lost control of the outside gap. 

On the other gainer, Tyler Hoover gave up some movement while double-teamed. He subbed out on the very next play.

MSU made an adjustment to the unbalanced look at halftime. The first time they saw it in the second half MSU played it straight up with their base "over" look, regardless of the exaggerated strength of the formation to the unbalanced side. CMU ran power to the weak side on this occasion, and MSU stuffed it. 

The first couple of times MSU responded to the unbalanced line by shifting way over to it, moving the three-tech DT out practically to d-end, and d-end way out to the tight end, etc.  In order to keep some manpower on the weak side, Denicos had to come up to the line of scrimmage. That's where Fisher swallowed him up.

In the second half, MSU played it straight, and this enabled Denicos to stay back at the LB level, so he wouldn't get caught up in the phone booth with Fisher. 

Denicos can battle just fine up at the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher, but you don't want him engaging, reading and reacting and trying to hold a gap at close distance against a guy like Fisher. 

A week earlier, MSU lined up against Boise's unbalanced lines with the way-over look, and it turned out okay. They did it again against CMU and CMU had success back to the weak side.

CMU runs a good weak side lead, with Fisher kicking a guy out, and the guard crashing a guy in, and their excellent FB hitting the isolated LB in the hole. And their RB Tipton has good vision and acceleration, and we saw. Iowa could use Tipton. Iowa could use that CMU offensive line.

Curmudgeon Central

33. I would like to see [Marcus Rush get loose on a pass rush. He's working hard, looks quick on the take-off, executing his moves, but he hasn't gotten home yet.

34. I liked DT Anthony Rashad White against a double-team on the first play of the second half. He is tough against double-teams, which is essential for your three-tech against ground-oriented teams.

That's cute and all, but I'd like to see Mr. White have a party on the other side of the line of scrimmage here and there, like he did against Georgia in the bowl game.

MSU was expected to lack that kind of DT penetration without Jerel Worthy this year. I thought there was a chance that Mr. White had some surprises in store in that area. It's in him. Let's see it.

35. Also White freelanced out of his gap on that lead draw for Tipton that got loose for a gain of 23 midway through the third quarter. White was in the B-gap as a three-tech, and decided to swim inside to the A to try to make a play. But that was Max's gap. Tipton has good vision and acceleration and when you have two guys in one gap, your defense might as well have 10 on the field. 23 yards. Teaching point.

Telling Figures

  • 35: Rushing yards by Wisconsin vs Oregon State. Quality control, my friends. Quality control. It left when those coached fled to Pittsburgh.

  • 4-of-15 for 30 yards with a safety and an INT. That was the stat line for Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez in the second half of the Huskers' loss at UCLA.

  • 99. That's the number of yards Northwestern allowed on defense in the second half of its victory over Vanderbilt. Solid.

  • 27. That's the number of carries by Ohio State QB Braxton Miller against Central Florida. His rushing totals and highlights looked cute against CFU. But that number of rush attempts is not a good thing for the Buckeyes, and old school Ohio State fans know it. Miller is an excellent runner, but he isn't built like Terrelle Pryor, Vince Young, Tim Tebow, the type of horses needed to run the show with that much work in that type of offense. And Miller has been kind of brittle in the past. They need to evolve on offense, and quickly, but I don't think they will.

  • 280. The number of yards allowed after contact by Nebraska versus UCLA.

    Extra Point

    41. You can officially call Missouri an SEC school now. Why? Because I saw several thousand adult male Missouri fans waving pom-pons during their game against Georgia. The SEC: Where Grown Men Wave Pom-Pons.


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