Spartan Football, what is the compass heading?

Preface: This has been an historic week, and due to the circumstances, my Blog is a bit longer than normal inasmuch as I am putting forth my opinions on each of the following topics:

  • National Rankings
  • What are the expectations of Spartan stakeholders?
  • Rutgers game day adjustments (or lack thereof)
  • Rutgers taps into the transfer portal, but where were the Spartans?
  • Michigan is looking past the Spartans (demonstrating their disrespect)
  • Summary, At the bottom line

You know the talking points, so I hope to keep your attention throughout, so let’s get started.

Spartans ranked #107 in the country (how does that make you feel?):

Each week, USA Today ranks every D-1 School from 1 thru 127, and this week the Spartans are ranked a dreadful #107.

If you are a Spartan stakeholder, how does that make you feel?

The USA Today poll is part metrics and part judgement, but it would be hard to challenge it’s relative accuracy, after all Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia were ranked 1 thru 4 respectively, while Michigan was ranked #8…Wisconsin was ranked #13…while Penn State was ranked #25. So, whether you agree with the Spartans specific numeric ranking or not, nevertheless you mustn’t take it for granted.

We shouldn’t be too surprised with a #107 ranking because the Spartans were ranked #81 by USA Today in the preseason poll, but most Spartans dismissed that ranking as delusional and out of touch.

But reality has set in. After a dreadful  loss to Rutgers, a team which had lost 21 consecutive Big Ten games, the pollsters lowered their expectations even further. So, whether the Spartans were ranked #81 (preseason) or #107 (after the first game), the ranking is essentially an unspoken message that USA Today doesn’t have confidence in the Spartans coaching staff or its ability to turn the ship around.

When I was a boy in Junior High and High School, I would eagerly look forward to the Monday papers to check the Spartans rankings in the Top 25. So, a ranking of #107 in 2020 is beyond my comprehension, and unquestionably the Spartans lowest ranking in history.

But, to put that dismal ranking into “head scratching” perspective, USA Today ranks a litany of non-Power 5 schools ahead of the Spartans, including Liberty (#28)…Appalachian State (#37)…San Diego State (coached by Brady Hoke, #59)…Central Michigan (#90)…Western Michigan (#92)…and Eastern Michigan (#104).

Think about that? Eastern Michigan is ranked #104 while the Spartans are ranked #107. How does that make you feel?

Curiously, I don’t hear Spartan stakeholders speaking up so I can only surmise they have calmly accepted this new normal?

If Spartan stakeholders don’t demand excellence, they won’t get excellence.

Let’s be honest, the Board of Trustees, the President, the AD and the Coaching staff are all accountable for ensuring Michigan State fields a football team deserving of national respect, yet a ranking of #107 is the antithesis of national respect: and to be candid, it’s a national embarrassment.

Is anyone paying attention in East Lansing? I am certain the late and legendary John Hannah would shudder with anger at being ranked #107.

After all, if John Hannah and Biggie Munn could start from scratch and build a program that would win (or share) 6 National Titles in 15 years, then the current administration should be held accountable for ensuring the Spartans consistently field a Top 25 team, yet losing to Rutgers is not a good omen and it’s certainly not a good place to start for a new coaching staff.

Where is the outrage?

Have Spartan stakeholders accepted a new normal? That wouldn’t happen at Alabama, or Clemson, or Oklahoma, or Oregon, and it certainly doesn’t happen at Ohio State or Wisconsin…and even Michigan is unaccepting of rankings outside the Top 25, just ask former coaches Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, or ask former AD, Bill Martin, or former AD, Dave Brandon! All of whom were shown the door for finishing outside the Top 25

Today, just 5 days after losing to Rutgers, I have heard all manner of excuses such as: the Pandemic put the program in a hole; there wasn’t enough time to prepare; Coaches were unfamiliar with player personnel, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc….and yet the Pandemic didn’t stop Greg Schiano, Rutgers first year coach from discombobulating the Spartans!

Regardless of the Pandemic, let’s talk about game day adjustments:

Let’s remember, Rutgers had lost 21 consecutive Big Ten games and their Defense was amongst the worst in the country last year, yet last Saturday, Rutgers inexperienced “Front 7” dominated the Spartans Offensive Line.

But let’s give credit where credit is deserved: Greg Schiano had a strategy.

Schiano knew he had less talent, and to balance the disparity, he was determined to cause mayhem along the Line of Scrimmage and so he deployed his Nose Tackle on an angle in the “A Gap” with the intention of discombobulating the blocking assignments.

It’s a nuanced technique that was first deployed in the mid 60’s when there was a so called “Middle Guard”, yet it is still deployed some 50 years later, albeit, not frequently. At any measure, Rutgers Nose Tackle set the tempo: the Spartans blocking choreography was totally disrupted and Rutgers got penetration at the Line of Scrimmage. Exhibit A: the Spartans only gained 44 Yards Rushing in the 1st Half on 22 attempts, or just 2.0 Yards per attempt.

Assuredly, the Spartan Coaching staff would make adjustments at Half Time wouldn’t they?

Unless I was watching a different game, not once did Offensive Coaches adjust. Of course, halftime adjustments can be challenging, but it’s an adjustment that can easily be made with experienced linemen, and the Spartans have ample experience along its Offensive Line.

Yet, in a game of chess, Greg Schiano kept his Nose Tackle mobile, aligning his NT on either side of the Spartans Center at times, at different down and distances, in irregular frequency, and havoc ensued. It’s understandable the Spartan Coaches were caught off guard at the start of the game, but when no adjustments were made in the 2nd Half, we have to ask: “why”?

Who is in charge of Game Charts, and Quality Control?

With no adjustments being made (at least from what I could tell), it enabled Rutgers “Front 7” to cause even more mayhem in the 2nd Half: Exhibit B. Rutgers yielded just 18 Yards Rushing in the 2nd Half on 16 attempts.

At the end of the day, Greg Schiano out schemed the Spartans!

Let’s remember, Greg Schiano inherited a team that yielded more than 200 Yards Rushing per game last season, yet in the first game of 2020, Schiano managed to stop the Spartans cold and yielded just 60 ‘net’ Rushing Yards for the entire game on 38 attempts for a dismal 1.6 Yards per attempt and he did it with decidedly less talent.

The Spartans Offensive Line needed help from their coaching staff, but where were the adjustments to help the Offensive Line?

Rutgers taps the transfer portal, but where were the Spartans?:

While the Pandemic raged in the summer, Greg Schiano didn’t sit idle, he tapped the transfer portal.

To his credit, Schiano went to the transfer portal and pulled in 10 highly regarded transfers from across the country, including 6 prominent transfers from the Big Ten, most of whom played a major role in beating the Spartans. Immediately below is a list of transfers that Rutgers acquired from prominent Big Ten schools, including 2 from Ohio State, and one each from Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin:

  • Noah Vedral, QB from Nebraska
  • Aaron Cruickshank, WR from Wisconsin (a WR with blazing speed)
  • Malik Barrow, D-End from Ohio State
  • Michael Dwumfour, D-Tackle from Michigan
  • Mayan Ahanotu, D-Tackle from Minnesota
  • Brendon White, Safety from Ohio State

These players didn’t just put on the Rutgers uniform, rather they played a prominent role in beating the Spartans, and even though Greg Schiano inherited an inferior roster, nevertheless he demonstrated his resourcefulness and bolstered his opening day roster through the transfer portal.

But if you are a Spartan partisan, you must ask, why weren’t the Spartans active in the transfer portal Sweepstakes?

Michigan is looking past the Spartans (the ultimate disrespect):

As we look forward to Saturdays game at Ann Arbor, the odds makers have installed Michigan as prohibitive 25 point favorites, which means the Spartans are historic 25 point underdogs!

If you are a Spartan stakeholder, how does that make you feel?

Let that sink in. Michigan is a 25 point favorite, which is also the largest point spread in history, and it’s based in part upon Michigan’s impressive 49-24 victory on the road at Minnesota, along with the Spartans dreadful 38-27 home loss to Rutgers.

At any measure, Michigan players aren’t talking, Jim Harbaugh isn’t boasting, and it would be fair to say Michigan is looking past the Spartans and looking forward to their game one week later on November 7, at unbeaten Indiana. Let’s make this clear, dismissing the Spartans is the ultimate disrespect.

Think back to Mark Dantonio’s first game against Michigan in 2007 when pre game and postgame talk was bulletin board worthy.

Michigan lost their first two games of 2007, including an opening game loss to Appalachian State followed by a loss to Oregon, but then Michigan went on a 7-0 run and entered the game against Michigan State with a 7-2 record.

On the other hand, the Spartans won their first 4 games, including victories over Pitt and Notre Dame, but then they went 1-4, including 4 narrow Big Ten losses: a 3 point loss at Wisconsin, an OT loss to Northwestern, a narrow 7 point loss at Ohio State, and a 2OT loss at Iowa.

Let’s be honest, Mark Dantonio inherited a “train wreck” from John L. Smith, but the Spartans were 5-4 and brimming with confidence going into the Michigan game, and Mark Dantonio was a threat, and Michigan could feel it.

As the game unfolded, it was a battle in the trenches, and the Spartans led 24-14 with just 7:40 remaining. It looked like Mark Dantonio would post a victory in the first meeting. But Michigan came from behind in the final minutes and posted a 28-24 victory even though the Spartans dominated the ground game by posting an impressive 191 Yards Rushing vs just 100 Yards Rushing for Michigan. Yet in a postgame interview, Michigan Running Back, Mike Hart mocked the Spartans and referred to the Spartans as “Little Brothers”.

Mark Dantonio bristled and fired back.

In a postgame Press Conference, Mark Dantonio said, in so many words, “…Mike Hart better check himself: they can mock us all they want, but it’s not over, it’ll never be over, it’s just getting started…”, and those prophetic words were etched in history.

Mark Dantonio’s words were a rallying cry and every Spartan got on the Victory Train. The Spartans went on to win the next 4 games vs Michigan, and 7 of the next 8, including a victory in the legendary 2015 game whereby the Spartans scored as the clock ticked Zero to post a 27-23 victory leaving 100,000 Michigan partisans bewildered. If we dial back the calendar to the start of the 2015 season, Jim Harbaugh referred to the Spartans as the “Big Boys on the block”.

But that was then, and this is now and all of the momentum built by Mark Dantonio has quietly slipped away.

The Spartans are now a prohibitive 25 point underdog going into Saturday’s game, and Michigan is looking past the Spartans to Indiana, and if you are a Spartan stakeholder, that should make you angry.

Where is the rallying cry ?

At the bottom line (what is the compass heading of Spartan Football?):

 If I interpret fans and media correctly, it sounds like they want to give the Spartans a Mulligan for losing to Rutgers, but just like golf, a Mulligan only masks bigger problems.

Rather than giving the Spartans a Mulligan, Spartan stakeholders should ask, what is the compass heading? Is it pointed north?

The loss to Rutgers was an incredible opportunity to post a victory and take advantage of the momentum built by Mark Dantonio, but a loss raises more questions than it answers.

Let’s remember, Mark Dantonio took over a wobbly team that lost its last 4 games the preceding season, and yet Mark Dantonio won his first 4 games and managed to post a solid record of 7-6 with victories over Pitt, Notre Dame and Penn State.

Unfortunately, Michigan State has always been referred to as a “sleeping giant” for its inability to win consistently. Let’s remember, from 1975 to the start of the Mark Dantonio era, the Spartans posted an uninspiring record of 174-177-7. Of course, that’s what happens when decision makers include a list of disinterested Presidents, a roster of short term AD’s, and 7 different coaches with 7 different coaching philosophies all of which erased any advantages normally associated with organizational continuity.

Yet, Mark Dantonio reset the compass and compiled a winning record of 114-57. MD set a solid foundation, but as we commence 2020, the Spartans are a befuddling 0-1, lost their first opening home game in 21 seasons, and the alarm sirens are deafening because the Spartans are ranked #107 by USA Today, and installed as 25 Point underdogs to Michigan.

I hope there isn’t a Spartan on the planet that finds comfort with a #107 ranking or take for granted that the Spartans have been installed as 25 point underdogs.

But if the Spartans intend to correct course, they need a plan.

Let’s remember, accountability resides at multiple levels including the Board of Trustees, the President, the AD, and the Coaching Staff and they are all responsible for putting forth a Championship program, after all, football is the straw that stirs the donation drink, and if they didn’t craft a plan before, then they need to craft a plan now!

Yet, can anyone explain the Identity of Spartan Football 2020? What is the goal of  installing a 4-2-5 alignment as a base Defense? What is the Offensive strategy, when it looks like the same deployment as 2019? What is the Recruiting philosophy? I don’t know, but I can tell you the identify of Wisconsin Football.

When Barry Alvarez was hired in 1990 he was given the challenge of resurrecting a moribund program. He started by acknowledging that University of Wisconsin was not in the mainstream of college football recruiting in the likeness of the final Top 10 of 1990, which included Miami, Notre Dame, Auburn, Florida State, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee, USC & Clemson, 6 of which were below the Mason-Dixon line.

Alvarez also knew it would be hard to toss the ball around the yard in Big Ten climes from mid-October thru the end of the season, and one more caveat, Alvarez knew it would be a challenge to recruit a bounty of skilled players to UW, so Alvarez formulated a plan to “build the trenches”.

Alvarez set about to create a pipeline of Offensive & Defensive Linemen, and Alvarez further ensured that UW would recruit at least one ground pounding Running Back in each recruiting class, and for the past 25 years, Wisconsin has ranked amongst the leaders in Rushing Offense, Total Defense, and Bowl appearances, and to that point, UW has been to more Big Ten Championship games than any other Big Ten team.

In almost any kind of weather, Wisconsin pounds their opponents into submission at the Line of Scrimmage.

As far back as 1990, Barry Alvarez crafted a coherent plan to achieve success at Wisconsin and that plan is still in play 30 years later.

But what is the Spartans plan for success? One thing I can say without equivocation, in terms of endowments, facilities, recruiting reputation and so on, there is no reason in the world that Spartan Football should ever take a backseat to Wisconsin Football. But Wisconsin and their AD have a well-crafted plan, but what is the Spartans plan?

In closing, if you read through the preceding 2600 words then you can tell I am troubled by the loss to Rutgers, so I am letting my voice be heard.

I am not whispering behind closed doors or tip toeing around the subject. My words are in public. I write a Blog that is distributed amongst hundreds of former Spartan players, coaches and administrators, and I am putting my voice on paper, but it’s up to Spartan Stakeholders to determine if they want “excellence” or if they are content with mediocrity.

In either case, we only get what we ask for, and if we don’t demand excellence, we won’t get excellence! The future is in your hands!


Thank you for reading.