Can the Spartans regain their footing and make a run for the Big Ten Championship?

November is the month when Champions earn their stripes, but the Spartan commenced November with a loss.

Yet, for the first 8 weeks of the season the Spartans were darlings of the college football world by posting an unblemished 8-0 record, exceeding all expectations, and in so doing, the Spartans became a college football sensation.

In fact, the Spartans were so highly regarded they were rewarded with the esteemed position of #3 in the first College Football Playoff ranking of 2021 and that was clearly a “Badge of Honor”.

But November is the month when Champions earn their stripes, and sadly, the Spartans commenced November with a 40-29 loss at Purdue, which means the Spartans are 0-1 to start the most important month of the season.

Of course the Spartans lofty ranking in the CFP was also short lived and now there are just 3 regular season games to play with virtually no margin for error.

Can the Spartans regain their footing and make a run?


The Achilles Heel:

Of course, the Achilles Heel for the Spartans all season has been a porous Pass Defense which currently ranks “dead last” amongst 130 D-1 Schools yielding an “eye glazing” average of 327 Passing Yards per games.

In fact, the porous Pass Defense is responsible for opponents scoring 15 TD’s via the airways which is another dubious benchmark because only 18 schools in the country (when measured against 130 D-1 schools) have yielded more Passing TD’s.

Overall, the Spartans Defense has yielded 21 Touchdowns total, while 15 (or 71%) have come via the Passing lanes.

Of course, Purdue embarrassed the Spartans by posting 536 Yards Passing including 3 Passing TD’s. Purdue ripped through the Spartan Defense with receptions of 53 Yards…46 Yards…and 39 Yards, two of which were Touchdowns and everyone’s recollection was a sense of Purdue slicing a “hot knife through butter”.

But whether you are a Spartan fan or not, let’s agree to agree…the Spartans (or any football team for that matter) cannot yield more than 300 Yards Passing per game and expect to win a Championship of any kind, and at this writing, the Spartans have yielded more than 300 Yards to Miami (388)…Michigan (406)…Western Kentucky (488)…and Purdue (536).

Those 4 teams combined to complete 155 of 227 passes (68%) for more than 1800 Yards, while the Spartans have yielded nearly 1000 Yards Passing over the past two games to Michigan and Purdue.

To say the Spartans were fortunate to remain unbeaten while deploying “the worst” Pass Defense in the land, would be a grand understatement.

Yet the Spartans found success over the first 8 games with solid Offense and Special Teams, but they will need more than fancy magic produced by Payton Thorne, Kenneth Walker III and/or the Offensive and Special Teams genius of Jayden Reed over the next 3 games.

The Spartans will need their Pass Defense to do its job against some of the more talented passing teams in the Big Ten, including Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State.


Describing the indescribable:

Through the first 8 games there were plenty of Spartan Beat Writers and Pundits who tried to defend the Spartans porous Pass Defense, by describing it as “bend but don’t break”.

But I would describe the Spartans porous Pass Defense as 60 minutes of problematic “Prevent Defense”. After all, it would be fair to say “Prevent Defense” usually describes death by a zillion paper cuts, or death by a series of short passes.

In fact, if we wanted to be blunt, we could also refer to the term “bend but don’t break” as an excuse for not being able to “lock down” opposing Pass Offenses!

A Pass Defense that “bends but doesn’t break” may in fact not break, but it will always bend and yield an abundance of short passes that move the chains, and here is the basic script…

  • Throw five and out at the sideline (stop the clock)
  • Throw five across the middle between the Linebackers & Safeties (1st Down, stop the clock, move the chains)
  • Repeat

The “Prevent” usually allows an opposing Offense to control the tempo, up to and including “bleeding the clock” as well.

Sooner or later, Defensive coverage in the “bend but don’t break” scheme gets greedy, coverage breaks down and a Touchdown ensues.

I have also heard excuses from Spartan Beat Writers citing a lack of experience amongst the Spartans Defensive Backs (a small measure of correctness), but the Spartans Pass Defense isn’t suffering due to lack of athleticism or speed (after all we heard how blessed the Spartans were recruiting via the Transfer Portal).

Justifying the worst Pass Defense in the land due to a lack of experience is simply another excuse that removes accountability from the coaching staff.

We can give Defensive players a measure of consideration for some lack of experience, yet the real problem is schematic that is yielding an average of 300 Passing Yards per game.

In other words, opposing Offensive Coordinators are exploiting Harlon Barnett’s coverage and Barnett’s Defensive players are simply out of position, and that is how opposing Offenses are able to carve up the Spartans Pass Defense for more than 300 yards per game.

To underscore that point, Jeff Brohm, Purdue’s Head Football Coach is acknowledged to be one of the better Offensive minds in all of college football. Yet, Jeff Brohm didn’t need a cutting edge play to embarrass the Spartans Pass Defense because Brohm adopted a High School play he saw on “YouTube”, and that Touchdown gave Purdue a 21-7 lead late in the 2nd Qtr.

Think about that? A high school play adopted from YouTube?

Brohm described that play in his post-game Press Conference, so let’s review:

As you recall, Quarterback, Aidan O’Commell handed the ball to Jackson Anthrop, who flipped the football to Milton Wright, who in turn lateraled back to O’connell, who then threw a short screen pass to Jackson Anthrop who cut a swath across the football field for a 39 Yard Touchdown.

All teams are susceptible to “Trickeration” but this play was especially troublesome.

After all, Anthrop Jackson is a 5th Year Redshirt Senior, a journeyman Receiver with good but not great speed. Over his career, Anthrop has compiled modest career stats (in fact, he scored just 1 receiving TD in 2021 prior to playing the Spartans).

Yet after catching a “short screen” Anthrop (with good but not blazing speed) outran every single Spartan Defensive Back, all of whom were woefully out of position.

It would be fair to say the Spartan Defensive Backs failed to stay assignment sound.  But perhaps more troublesome is the possibility the Defensive Backs followed their assignment cues yet the defensive scheme was flawed?

Needless to say, we don’t know exactly what happened on that play, but we do know the Spartan Pass Defense yielded a 39 Yard TD to a journeyman receiver with modest speed with just 4:50 remaining in the 1st Half that rendered a 21-7 lead in favor of Purdue and the  Spartans never fully recovered.

That Touchdown, and the manner in how it was executed, gave momentum to Purdue and put the Spartans in an emotional hole on the road

Of course, it was not a shining moment for Scottie Hazelton and Harlon Barnett!


At the Bottom Line (can the Spartans regain their footing?):

The next 3 games are a critical..

One loss does not a season make, but with just 3 games remaining, there is virtually no margin for error. This Saturday the Spartans play Maryland (5-4) at Spartan Stadium, followed by Ohio State (8-1) on the road on Nov 20, and conclude the season Nov 27 by hosting Penn State (6-3) at Spartan Stadium.

Each of those opponents have the wherewithal to pitch the football all over the yard, and it would be fair to speculate their game plans will assuredly test the Spartans porous Pass Defense in every conceivable way.

After all, Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State deploy quite efficient Pass Offenses:

  • Maryland’s Pass Offense is ranked #16 in the land (#3 Big Ten)  by way of averaging 309 Yards per game.
  • Ohio State’s Pass Offense is ranked #6 in the land (#1 Big Ten) by way of averaging 353 Yards per game
  • Penn State’s Pass Offense is ranked #33 in the land (#4 Big Ten)  by way of averaging 267 Yards per game,

And each of the remaining opponents is averaging more than 27 Points per game, so Scottie Hazelton and Harlon Barnett need to study more film and correct course, after all it is an unmitigated embarrassment that Hazelton and Barnett are overseeing “the worst” Pass Defense in the land.

If they don’t get it fixed (and fast) they will pay a huge price in the last 3 games and all of the good will earned over the first 8 wins, will be lost.

Let’s hope they get it fixed!


Thank you for reading.