How will the Spartans handle success after beating Northwestern?

After 5 games, we still don’t know what to expect when the Spartans take the field.

Let’s take a brief look back…

The Spartans commenced the season by losing to Rutgers, led by Rutgers first year head coach 27-38; then a week later, the Spartans went on the road to post a 27-24 victory as a double digit underdog at Michigan.

Unfortunately, the Michigan victory was short lived and the Spartans got hammered on the road at Iowa 7-49. Then the Spartans got shutout at home and lost to Indiana 0-24.

The game at Maryland was cancelled due to Coronavirus protocol, yet after an extra week to prepare, the Spartans beat highly ranked Northwestern 29-20 at Spartan Stadium.

So, how will the Spartans handle success after beating Northwestern?

Frankly, we don’t know because after 5 games, there is no measure of consistency. The Spartans record is 2-3, with two victories coming by an average of 6 points, offset by losing 3 games by an average of 25.6 points, so those facts underscore an incredible lack of consistency, and it also underscores the incredible amount of work that lies ahead.

If the Spartans hope to close this season on an upward trajectory and compete for Championships in the future (and let’s hope Championships are the goal) then the Spartans have to find some measure of consistency and that starts by controlling the Line of Scrimmage and let’s remember, the Spartans Offense is still amongst the worst in the country, averaging just 18 Points per game.


Rushing Offense:

The most striking improvement vs Northwestern was the Spartans ability to run with the football.

The Spartans Offensive Line recognized Northwestern’s Defensive sets, adjusted blocking assignments as needed, and posted nearly 200 Yards Rushing at a “tick” more than 4 Yards per attempt. The Rushing Offense took immense pressure off the Passing Offense.

Nevertheless, the Rushing Offense has only posted one Rushing TD so far this season, and in spite of Rushing for nearly 200 Yards vs Northwestern, the Rushing Offense still ranks “dead last” in the Big Ten at 2.7 Yards per attempt, which means the Spartans are the only Big Ten team averaging less than 3.0 Yards per Rushing attempt, and that meager production is a recipe for losing.

It’s worth remembering, in 3 losses, the Spartans Rushing Offense posted a grand total of 179 Yards, or less than 60 Yards Rushing per game. So an increase from 60 Yards Rushing per game to nearly 200 Yards Rushing vs Northwestern is an incredible improvement, but can the Spartans sustain their new found success?

The Spartans will get to test their Rushing consistency vs unbeaten Ohio State this weekend at Spartan Stadium.

It’s no surprise that Ohio State is efficient in all phases of football (Offense, Defense, Special Teams), and Ohio State’s Rushing Defense is no exception. In fact, their Rushing Defense ranks #11 in the land, and #2 Big Ten yielding a “tick” less than 100 Yards per game.

So, if the Spartans can find success running for 180-200 Yards vs Ohio State then we can draw the conclusion that the Spartans are well on their way to solving one of the biggest problems facing their Offense over the past 5 years, namely an inability to consistently run the football.

Of course, Ohio State is a 23 Point favorite, so the odds that the Spartans can “catch lightning in a bottle” and beat Ohio State at Spartan Stadium are slim, yet the Spartans need to show some measure of progress, some measure of consistency, some measure of improvement under their new coaching staff.

In that regard, a solid day Rushing vs Ohio State, say 180 to 200 Yards is the measuring stick we should all be looking for.

Yet, if the Spartans fall back to 60 Yards Rushing or less, similar to their 3 losses vs Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana, then we can draw the counter conclusion that the Spartans Offense is still incapable of controlling the Line of Scrimmage, which means consistency is still missing, and that’s a major problem.

So, all eyes will be upon the Spartans Rushing Offense to demonstrate they can compete against Ohio State.


At the bottom line (measuring success)

How should Spartan stakeholders measure success?

We are all aware of the challenges faced by the Spartans first year coaching staff, especially in the year of Coronavirus, you know: late hire, late start, late getting to meet players, no spring practice, no Spring Game, Big Ten season cancelled, Big Ten season resumed, testing protocols, etc, etc, etc.

Yet, it troubles me that virtually every day we read from the pen of Spartan Beat Writers about the problems facing the Spartans first year coaching staff even though it’s 10 months after a coaching change was implemented. It’s as if the season comes with unsolicited conditions and provisions. But, let’s remember, College Football is a results oriented business, and overcoming adversity is the “tag line” that accompanies every college football coach.

We should note there were nearly 20, D-1 programs which executed coaching changes in the offseason, so each and every one of those schools is playing under the leadership of first year coaching staffs, and each face unique challenges of their own.

That includes Power 5 schools with first year coaching staffs which have managed to post .500 records or better, such as Boston College (6-4); Colorado (3-0); Missouri (4-3); Ole Miss (4-4); Washington (3-0) to name a few. Those schools represent the ACC, PAC 12 and SEC.

It also includes highly regarded Group of 5 schools with first year coaching staffs which have managed to post .500 records or better as well, such as Appalachian State (8-2); Florida Atlantic (5-1); and San Diego State (3-3).

But perhaps the most important coaching change is Colorado.

Let’s remember, Mel Tucker was hired at Michigan State on February 11, while the school from which he departed, namely Colorado, didn’t hire their next Head Football Coach until February 23, and yet Colorado has managed to post a 3-0 record with victories vs UCLA, Stanford and San Diego State.

And to underscore Colorado’s modest measure of success, a critical organizational issue that flies under the radar is the fact Colorado players have been forced to adjust to 3 different coaching administrations in just 3 years. Meanwhile, Karl Dorrell, Colorado’s new Head Football Coach inherited a football team that posted three consecutive losing seasons.

So, this is college football and it’s a results oriented business and that means it comes with expectations in exchange for agreed upon compensation, and I hope the expectations amongst Spartan stakeholders includes nothing less than Big Ten Championships.

Mel Tucker and his coaching staff will get ample opportunity to recruit their players, implement their system etc, but we need to hear more about how the coaching staff intends to improve the Offense, improve Blocking techniques, we need to hear more about helping the Offense better understand opposing Defensive sets and so on.

Meanwhile we need to hear less about player ultimatums, such as “who wants to play…who wants to stay…who’s on the fence…and who wants to go”; and we need to hear less about changing the culture and identifying players who are unwilling to adapt. From my perspective, that conversation belongs in the Locker Room and not in the media.

If players “don’t want to be here” then the Transfer Portal will become self-evident, and that’s all that needs to be said.

The Spartans new coaching staff have an opportunity to demonstrate meaningful progress when they host Ohio State this Saturday.

No one expects the Spartans to “make magic” or “perform heroics” but we do expect meaningful improvement in the fundamentals, namely that the Spartans Rushing Offense has been coached to recognize Ohio State Defensive sets, and that the Offensive Line can hold their own vs Ohio State’s impressive Defense.

The Spartans are 2-3 yet they only have three more games to post a .500 record. Can the Spartans win 2 of the final 3 games? We’ll see…

But in the future, once the coaching staff gets settled, then the expectations must become commensurate with Top 15 compensation, and that means anything north of 9 wins is acceptable, while anything less than 9 wins won’t pass muster. Those measurements are essentially the Iowa, Wisconsin measurement model.

In the interim, let’s hope we see a measure of consistency accompanied by incremental improvement, starting with Ohio State.

Thank you for reading, and I always welcome your comments and opinions.