October 4, 2012

Talkback: On Johnny Five & the other side of balance

EAST LANSING - A recap of Mark Dantonio's 7 best quotes from this week and "talkback" thoughts from SpartanMag.com publisher Jim Comparoni.

1. Q.  In the last three games Johnny Adams has given up touchdown passes. Is that a result of offenses going at him specifically in terms of a matchup? Is that maybe a result of having the corners on an island and not getting the pressure? What exactly is it right now? How do you think he's grading out?

DANTONIO:  First of all, we play our corners tight press coverage a lot.  We do that, have from the very beginning.  It isolates them at times.  Most people, a lot of people go into the boundary with their throws.  That's what happened on this particular play.  More throws are thrown to the boundary than to the field.

What I said before, it's a game of inches.  If he stays with the play and doesn't look back for the ball at the end, he stays with the play, reaches with his left hand, plays the ball out of phase, he doesn't have the receiver hip to hip, he'll make that play, at least make the tackle, but make the play on the ball because he's that far from it.

He lost a little bit of composure I think on that particular play, looked back to see what was coming.  Got to be careful when you look back.  Somebody's gaining on you a little bit.  That's a word they use.  Hit him right in stride.  It was a perfect throw.  Hit him right in stride.  10.4 sprinter.  On the wide receiver's release move, (Adams) missed him on the release.  He got a little hands on, but a relatively clean release compared to what he had been doing.

Again, a game of inches.  Went that way.  We were ahead.  Got to be able to make the play.

But I think Johnny is an excellent corner.  He's remained an excellent corner for us.  I think he'll continue to play to a high level.

In this day and age, it's our feeling that you have to play your corners in that capacity to be able to stop all the different things people are doing from a run‑pass standpoint with all the basically single wing, creating different type of runs with their quarterback play.
So it's been effective for us. 

We remain I guess probably one of the top teams in the nation in terms of scoring defense, running defense, whatever.  I haven't looked at the statistics as of late because sometimes you throw those out after a game like this, but we've been successful defensively.  Like I said, sometimes you win by an inch, sometimes you lose by an inch.  We lost that one by an inch, we lost the game by an inch.

**

COMP'S TALKBACK: There is no problem with Johnny Adams. You go swimming, you're going to get wet. You play corner, you're going to give up plays from time to time. Every cornerback in the NFL has given up a TD in college. Adams is still one of the very best in the country, and after this one, he'll be better.

This play is a reminder to Adams, and the rest of the DBs at MSU, to trust their technique, stay with their technique.

Devin Smith had a great release move (as Dantonio said, Adams didn't get enough of a jam on him, compared to how well Adams had been doing earlier). Smith had great speed down the sideline, and received a perfect throw.

All of those things, at worst, should have added up to a catch and tackle at the 20-yard line.

Dantonio's explanation needs to be a lesson for those of us who criticize cornerbacks for not looking back for the ball when it's in the air. Just because the ball is in the air doesn't mean the cornerback should be looking back for it. In the MSU way of teaching - and Dantonio is believed to have put more DBs in the NFL than any active coach in college football - the corner should look back for the ball only if he has drawn even with the WR.

Prevent the touchdown first, and the catch second. If you look back before you're even with the WR, you have a greater propensity to give up the big one. In this case, the big one was the single most damaging play of the day for MSU.

Adams saw first-hand the importance of staying with proper technique in a crisis situation such as this. It serves as a teaching point also for Darqueze Dennard, and reserve corners such as Trae Waynes, Ezra Robinson and Arjen Colquhoun: don't get too proud when a WR gets a step on you. Get back in phase, and at worst, make the tackle, and carry out the technique that the coaches preach.

As for the other two TDs that Adams has "allowed," the first one was the deep freelance throwback shot against Notre Dame. Again, Adams didn't stick to technique. That was a scramble-rules situation. MSU teaches DBs to lock up man-to-man with a receiver if and when a QB begins scrambling. Adams drifted away from his receiver while the QB scrambled to the far side of the field.

Is there a problem with Adams straying away from proper technique too often? Well two times too often is enough to have hurt MSU's chances of victory in those two games. Two times is too much. I suspect it won't be a problem again for the remainder of the season, but damage has been done.

As for the TD in the Eastern Michigan game, Adams wasn't in press coverage for that one. He was bailing as part of cover-three zone. He picked up the WR a few beats into the play, but he wasn't solely responsible for that WR from start to finish. Adams arrived maybe a half step late, and his help from the free safety was even later. Still, Adams arrived to the point that the QB had to deliver the ball perfectly, up and as far away from Adams as possibly while still giving his receiver a chance to make a fantastic, soaring, finger-tip catch.

They still go on the stat sheet as TDs for the opposition, but let the record show that absolutely perfect passes were required to beat Adams by a few inches on each of these. Joe Montana couldn't have placed the passes better.

For the last seven games of the regular season, I still wouldn't trade Johnny Five for any cornerback in the Big Ten.




2. On the performance of the MSU offense last Saturday:

DANTONIO: I thought Andrew Maxwell played very well.  We have to stay more balanced on offense, have to be able to run the football.  (I) have to say why we didn't succeed overall offensively is because we didn't run the football and stay balanced.  Threw the football well enough, had a couple drops, but had zero turnovers, so I thought that was a positive.

**

COMP'S TALKBACK:

Four times, Dantonio mentioned the word "balance" during Tuesday's press conference, and he said that word at least that many times after the game on Saturday.

This isn't purely about the need to run the ball better. MSU's problems running the ball last Saturday aren't solely about the run game. This is STILL about the problems with the pass game.

MSU threw the ball pretty well on Saturday, but not well enough to back the opponent into a two-deep coverage.

MSU's tailbacks rushed for just 44 yards in this game. Ohio State routinely put an extra man in the box to stop Le'Veon Bell. (The extra man being a safety).

I can show you several occasions on film when MSU's five offensive linemen, the fullback and the tight end each blocked their man successfully. That's enough for a RB to find daylight in a conventional seven vs. seven format. When the opponent puts a safety in the box, it becomes seven vs. eight, in favor of the defense. This leaves an unblocked man in the box.

On Saturday, the unblocked man was often the backside linebacker, flying to the ball to cut down Bell. Why was that linebacker able to leave his backside gap and basically be allowed to make the error of over-pursuing? Because a safety was up in the box covering for his gap on the back side.

The extra man in the box changes everything. It not only puts another man in the area to make the tackle, it also allows one of the other seven to play more aggressively.

"I felt like (the Buckeyes) were just making a statement that we weren't running the ball," Bell said. "You can't blame the offensive line, you can't blame anybody. They got too many hats in there to block."

Yes there is someone or something to blame, Le'veon, and it's the play of the wide receivers throughout the season. Ohio State made a calculated risk and said, "We're betting that if we stop the run game cold with a safety in the box, your passing game won't make enough plays to make us pay for it."

And they were right. Receivers were reasonably open, and Maxwell made great (yes great) throws on this day. But too many of them were dropped, again.

Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan also came out of their base defense and sold out to stop the run, with varying degrees of success.

UAB and California had a lot more success running the ball against Ohio State than Michigan State. For one, Ohio State's ability to tackle and get off blocks has greatly improved in the past two or three weeks, unlike any level of improvement that I've seen from any defense I've studied since I began getting serious about this, back in 1998.

Secondly, Ohio State played a two-deep coverage most of the day in those games. Those teams weren't great on offense, but they were balanced. OSU put equal emphasis on stopping the run and the pass when playing those opponents, and the opposing running games had some daylight at times.

OSU's box-loading scheme left only darkness for MSU's ground game on Saturday. Ohio State won't be the last team to change their scheme for the Spartans.

"We have kind of been joking about how teams really alter what they do when they play us," said new starting center Ethan Ruhland.

And opponents are going to keep doing it until Maxwell's receivers make them pay.

Example: Remember the play in which Bennie Fowler went high for a pass and had it slip through his finger tips at the apex of his jump? (It was a first-and-10 at the MSU 45-yard line in the second quarter).

That was precisely the type of play that was open due to the box-loading scheme, and the type of play MSU failed to convert. MSU was in an I-formation for the play and OSU loaded the box with eight. MSU executed a run-action play fake. Fowler was operating against a cornerback with only one safety available to help in a three-deep coverage. This allowed for a big seam between the corner and the safety. Fowler got into the seam. Maxwell's pass could have been a bit lower, but Fowler still has to make that catch at 17 yards. Has to. Someone has to. Repeatedly. Or else the run game won't have a chance.

As for run blocking, Michigan State linemen had trouble with Ohio State's great defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Chris McDonald and Skyler Burkland were each pushed back two or three yards when trying to block him one-on-one on two separate occasions on run plays within MSU's first two drives. From that point on, MSU realized it had to double-team big No. 52.

That thing I mentioned earlier about having seven players to block eight in the box? It became six versus eight due to the need to double-team Hankins.

There is no great shame in having to double-team a guy like Hankins. He'll see that all year. But it does become a major problem when an opponent such as MSU can't scare the Buckeyes with the pass.

I don't see anyone like Hankins remaining on the MSU schedule. I haven't gotten a good look at the Steinkuhler kid for Nebraska yet this year. I doubt that he is as good as Hankins, but MSU's offensive line isn't quite good enough to take on a great interior lineman without double teaming.

Before, during and after MSU plays Nebraska, the Spartans are going to have to take advantage of single-safety-deep secondaries. If the receivers fail, then Bell will continue to pay. He may not pay as heftily as he did against an Ohio State team that had excellent backside flow from linebackers and a great defensive tackle, but he'll pay.




3. On the performance of the MSU defense last Saturday:

DANTONIO: We had a tough first series.  Then the biggest disappointment is when you're leaning on your defense at the end of the game, you have to come up at the end of the game and get a stop.  We didn't get that stop.

We stopped the run. In crunch time we needed to stop it, and we were unable to stop it at the very end of the game.

**

COMP'S TALKBACK: I broke down portions of OSU's final drive on this post at The Underground Bunker message board: https://michiganstate.rivals.com/showmsg.asp?fid=589&mid=158426301&sid=951&tid=158426301&style=1

The bottom line: MSU didn't get overpowered during that series. MSU had different individuals on different plays fail to carry out their responsibilities in basic gap control. This came down to discipline, something that has been a strength for Michigan State in building it defense into a national power and in helping the Spartans spend some time in the Top 10 in recent years. But that discipline left the building in that last drive, and it needs to return on an every-snap basis if this defense is going to help carry the team like we thought it could.




4. Q. Obviously your record is much better when you're able to run the ball.  Are you disappointed in general with how you've been able to run the ball this year?  Do you feel there's still a lot of growth to be made there?  What can you do with the offensive line the way it is?  Where do you think you are with the running game?:

DANTONIO:  I think, first of all, we've run the ball effectively in our three wins.  Le'Veon going into that football game last week was, what, number three or something like that in the country.  So we've run the ball effectively.

Against the two defenses we lost to, Notre Dame and Ohio State, we didn't run it effectively.  We need to be balanced.  We threw the ball better this game.  I thought Maxwell was very solid, as I said.
But to have a complete game, you've got to stay balanced, not turn it over. 

Is it frustrating?  Is that the question?  Yeah.  It's always frustrating when you don't meet your goals or win a football game.  It eats at you and is frustrating.  You recognize the problem and go to work on the problem.

I don't know if I'm giving a great answer to that.  We've got to get our running backs into the secondary.  We got the ball in Le'Veon's hands probably with catches and runs 26 times, I believe, maybe 27.  We have to provide opportunities for him, try to make it work.
But we'll see how we do this weekend.  Continue to push.

**
COMP'S TALKBACK: Well, he didn't quite answer the question. We know the run game hasn't performed well in the two losses, we know it's frustrating. He didn't get deep into what the real problem is. He mentioned balance again, and I think that's the major problem, relating back to the lack of a threatening pass component.

As for the run blocking itself, there weren't a ton of missed assignments on Saturday. I hear that coaches are harping this week on the need to sustain blocks longer and better. That sounds like a start.

In terms of becoming physically powerful enough to have guys that can take on Hankins one-on-one, well, that's not something you can acquire in one week of practice. That comes down to talent and experience. MSU has some of that, but on the inside, they don't really have a guard or center that can stand up to a dominant defensive tackle, like Joel Foreman a year ago. McDonald is good, but he's not quite in that category.

Can the MSU offensive line adequately pave the way for a productive run game this year against quality opponents? Yes, but not if the opponent is permitted to pack the box with an extra man. MSU is squarely in the predicament of needing to set up the run via the pass.




5. You were smiling when you told us about reading about the panic article.  Do you resist the urge to get irritated about that or does six years here tell you that's the way it is here?

DANTONIO:  I think that's the way it is every college program.  It's media hype, Big Ten, wherever they're at.  When you have a football program that has as much following as we do, the people care as much as they do, that's going to happen. 

They're going to get jubilant when you're 2‑0, ranked No. 9 or 10.  If you lost two, you're 3‑2, even if you lost by one point, they're going to be, 'The sky is falling.'

Neither of the two are true.  We'll just push through it.  We've done that before here.  Sometimes tough times require tough people.  That's as a group.

**

COMP'S TALKBACK: I don't sense panic on this team. I didn't sense it when talking with players immediately after the Ohio State game, and didn't when speaking with players on Tuesday. I do believe there is increased resolve to adhere to fundamentals and carry out individual tasks. Coaches refer to this as "buying in."

They're still buying in.

I have questions about leadership. During MSU's winter and spring victory lap after last season's excellence, Dantonio repeatedly mentioned the key ingredients of chemistry and leadership. Coaches talk about the importance of leadership all the time, to the point that many of us dismiss it as hollow coachspeak.

But make no mistake, there is something to this leadership thing. And I don't think MSU is strong, dynamic enough in this area. Maxwell is doing what he can, but he's still new in the role.

Max Bullough is a terrific lead-by-example guy and he can get vocal on the field. But I'm not sure he is the tail-kicker type, in terms of getting in someone's grill when they are operating at only 99 percent effort.

Fou Fonoti and Travis Jackson have the personalities to be leaders. They are both out for the season. McDonald has the credentials to be a leader, and he is trying. Last year, Foreman was the unquestioned bell cow of the bunch.

The receiver group has no leaders. Bennie Fowler was supposed to be that guy, but his season has come unraveled and he unit is a cast of occasional-hit wonders right now. Last year, B.J. Cunningham and KeShawn Martin had all the talent and made most of the plays, but Keith Nichol was the mouthpiece of the bunch, the jumper cable.

Of course Kirk Cousins was one of the best leaders in school history. And if the offense was sputtering just a bit, safety Trenton Robinson was known to break into their meeting room and throw a threatening tantrum, like he did at halftime of one game last year.

Dantonio says tough times require tough people. Tough times also requires some alpha dogs. I'm not sure MSU has that breed this year. In terms of growling at teammates and demanding results, I think Bell and Will Gholston might be the two guys with the best chance to get results at a given moment. Tough times might require them to take the lead.




6. On Aaron Burbridge being elevated to starter status, and the future of Bennie Fowler:

DANTONIO:  He (Burbridge) will start as the third wide receiver for us this week.  I think he needs an opportunity.

He catches the ball well.  Still learning some things.  Has big‑play potential.  We're going to give him that opportunity.  Doesn't mean it will stick, but that's going to happen at the beginning of the game, not at the end.
 
What I want to see from Aaron Burbridge is I want to see him play.  That's really what I want to see him do.  We took the redshirt off him. In fairness to him, he needs to play. I want to see him have the ability to make plays and get that opportunity. I think he's an exciting player.  I think Macgarrett Kings is an exciting player.  We took the redshirt off of them.  By doing that we made a statement they're good enough to do that.  We have to put them in because we have seven tough games coming down the stretch here.

I want to provide that opportunity for him.  Doesn't mean that the opportunity is going to go away for everybody else.  That opportunity has to be afforded for him.  By starting him, we provide him that opportunity.

Benny's role, how will it change?  He won't start as the third wide receiver.  We'll see how it goes, depending on practice.  I believe things always go in cycles.  We provided an opportunity for one, take away a little bit from another.  In the end, the best players will continue to play and resurface.  We'll see how his practice and everything else goes.  Have an opportunity to make a play, you have to make them at some point.

**

COMP'S TALKBACK: Interesting point in that Dantonio said Burbridge will start with a first-string role, but games won't necessarily end that way. He'll have to play his way into a crunch time role.

This thing is so fluid, and so disappointing.

If MSU has the ball at the opponent's 40-yard line, down four points, with :40 seconds to go, and they are bracket-covering Dion Sims, who are you putting in the game at receiver? Who is the primary target? Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett, Aaron Burbridge, Bennie Fowler? DeAnthony Arnett?

We are nearly half way into the season and we still don't know. Replacing last year's receivers was the second biggest task of the season (along with replacing Cousins). MSU has failed miserably in replacing them. And I thought it would be a reload situation.

As I said in the Spartan Plus podcast, I have never been more wrong about a player than I've been with Fowler. I thought he would be a game-breaker this year. He showed terrific potential earlier in his career. Obviously, he has played extremely well in practice too, or else he wouldn't have gotten five solid weeks of failed chances before finally losing his rank.

Not only did MSU lose touchdowns and likely lose games due to Fowler's struggles, MSU also lost opportunities for others to develop while playing time continued to be invested in him.

His struggles remind me a bit of Otis Wiley's mental hurdles during his senior year. Sometimes I wondered just how bad Wiley needed to be a standout football player. He was so well-rounded off the field. Same with Fowler.

Like Wiley, I suspect that Fowler will have one or two strong comeback moments this season, but I doubt that he will get back to being the all-star type of player that I thought he would be. Maybe next year he'll rise up and become a major factor again. Or maybe he'll just become comfortable being the talented guy who comes off the bench. Maybe that's what he needs to be.


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