EAST LANSING - Michigan State had trouble establishing consistency in the running game on Saturday at Northwestern.
Sunday night, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio commented on the shortcomings during his weekly Sunday night briefing.
The Spartans finished with 120 yards in gains at Northwestern, minus 15 yards in losses on two sacks.
Michigan State had to go to the air in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback.
The Spartans amassed 352 yards through the air and netted just 105 on the ground against the Wildcats.
"We wanted to be more balanced," Dantonio said.
The Spartans will need better balance on Saturday at Iowa, which ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in rush defense and total defense.
Michigan State averaged 4.0 yards per carry at Northwestern, aided by a late 25-yard TD burst by Edwin Baker, and a 22-yard TD run by wide receiver Bennie Fowler on an end around in the second quarter. For the most part, however, Michigan State's tailbacks were contained by a Northwestern team that was gashed on the ground in its two previous games by Purdue and Minnesota.
It marked the second straight week that Michigan State had trouble running the ball and had to go to the air to gain control of the game. A week earlier, a much more talented Illinois defense held Michigan State to 93 yards rushing and just 3.0 yards per attempt.
Some Of The Problems
Michigan State's first two possessions at Northwestern ended on third-and-one failures in the run game. On the first stoppage, MSU ran a zone play to the left/strong side. Right guard Chris McDonald missed a reach block on the back side, and the man he was responsible for blocking rallied down the line to make the stop. Tight end Charlie Gantt was rolled up by low contact from the play-side cornerback, creating a log jam on the edge for the MSU ball carrier.
On the second stoppage, MSU ran a zone play to the left/weak side. Michigan State's left guard Joel Foreman and center John Stipek secured their blocks, but running back Le'Veon Bell didn't have the vision and tough, one-cut decisiveness that he showed earlier in the year and was stopped for no gain.
On other occasions in the first half, Northwestern surprised Michigan State with an "over" defense, moving the three-technique defensive tackle to the tight end side. Northwestern had consistently been an "under" defense earlier in the year.
"I said all along that (Northwestern defensive coordinator) Mike Hankwitz does a great job," Dantonio said. "They were up there.
"They over-compensated a couple of times where we were running the football, and their players played hard and they played downhill."
In addition to the surprise "over" look, Northwestern sometimes kept the strongside linebacker head-up with the tight end. This is an uncommon mix. This 5-2 look with the Sam LB on the TE is usually reserved only for "under" defenses. But Northwestern mixed the 5-2 with an "over." This can leave a defense a little light on the weak side, but stacked on the strong side.
"And also I think they were moving the front toward motion or toward 83 (Gantt)," Dantonio said.
MSU caught onto this tendency and capitalized with Fowler's 22-yard TD run. On that play, MSU shifted Gantt from the backfield to left tight end, which is the side of the line where Northwestern's three-technique defensive tackle was deployed.
On Fowler's TD run, MSU ran play action to the strong side, creating more defensive flow in that direction, and sprung Fowler back the other way on the end around. Fowler received a lead block from pulling Foreman and cruised untouched to the end zone, cutting Northwestern's lead to 17-7.
However, MSU was unable to fully establish ground dominance with tailback runs.
Due to the early third-and-one stoppages, creating three-and-out possessions for the Spartans, and an Edwin Baker fumble on MSU's third possession, and Northwestern's ability to possess the ball, Spartan tailbacks combined for only 12 carries in the first half.
"We didn't get Le'Veon out (with a long run)," Dantonio said. "Edwin broke the one at the end. You'd like to see a little more consistency there but we were playing from behind for a while so you start to change a little bit too."
Baker's late burst gave him 70 yards on 10 carries.
The Spartans had two receivers with more than 100 yards in catches on Saturday. Dell had nine catches for 109 yards and Cunningham had eight catches for 113. Nichol added four catches for 51 yards.
"Early on, we were considered a team that was going to run the ball for success," Dantonio said during Sunday night's briefing. "I think that has changed a little bit, but we've been saying all along that we are balanced. And when we have to throw the football, we are very, very capable. We have great receivers. When we have to run it, we've got talented players there to do. That's what's gotten us to 8-0, both aspects."
Fowler's TD run and clutch reception on the punt fake marked his first major contributions as a Spartan.
"He is very, very capable," Dantonio said of the 6-foot-1, 206-pound redshirt freshman from Detroit Country Day. "Big, fast. He's a redshirt freshman. He will be a very good player for us. He had two huge plays.
"As far as Mark Dell, he has been consistent all year long and had big catches all day long, a big touchdown catch and some other catches.
"These guys continue to play and when they have an opportunity to make a play, they make it."
Junior Keshawn Martin suffered what appeared to be an Achilles tendon injury in the first quarter. He iced the tendon in the first half and didn't return to the game.
Dantonio smilingly refused to give a medical update on Martin, Sunday night.
"We don't talk about the personnel stuff," Dantonio said.
For the best analysis of Michigan State football trends and schemes, subscribe to Spartan Magazine by calling 1 800 732 6532.