Spartans Championship hopes ride upon the shoulders of Brad Salem and Jim Bollman

Picture courtesy of Michigan State University

The Spartans Championship hopes for the foreseeable future will ride upon the shoulders of Brad Salem (the Spartans new Offensive Coordinator) and Jim Bollman (the Spartans new Offensive Line Coach), and based upon recent results of the Spartans Offense, they have a tall ladder to climb.

When we look closely at the Spartans Offense and Defense, it’s a tale of two platoons…and if they aren’t marching in opposite directions, then they are certainly trending in opposite directions.

Let’s take a look at both…

A look at the Spartans Offense:

Mark Dantonio didn’t need a remedial course in Offensive Football to understand his Offensive Platoon was marching in the wrong direction, and 3 months ago he realigned his entire Offensive Coaching Staff with a plan to correct course.

Last season, the Spartans Offense struggled through one of the most abysmal campaigns in the Spartans storied football history. The NCAA tracks the performance of 130 Division 1 schools and the Spartans finished the 2018 season ranked #114 Rushing…#116 Total Offense…#125 Scoring…and #126 Passing Efficiency, and that means the Spartans Offense finished in the bottom 15% of 130 Division 1 schools in 4 “key” Offensive categories.

When we look at it from another perspective, when measured in Big Ten conference games, the Spartans ranked #14 Rushing…#13 Total Offense…#13 Scoring…and #13 Passing Efficiency out of just 14 Big Ten teams. That means the Spartans Rushing Offense ranked “dead last” in the Big Ten when measured in Big Ten competition, and only Rutgers ranked worse in the categories of Total Offense…Scoring Offense…and Passing Efficiency and needless to say, you can’t win Championships with those measurables, and Rutgers is the wrong company to keep.

Was 2018 simply an anomaly? Absolutely not…

Injuries played a part in the Spartans dismal Offensive campaign (we all understand that) but injuries alone can’t masquerade that the Spartans Offense has been in a precipitous nosedive ever since 2014. As friendly reminder, in 2014, the Spartans Offense ranked a respectable #11 nationally, posting an average of 500 Yards and 43 Points per game. Yet since 2014 the Offense has sunk to unimaginable lows, bottoming out at #116 in 2018, averaging just 342 Yards and 18.7 points per game. Take a look at the swoon:

  • 2014…#11
  • 2015…#73
  • 2016…#75
  • 2017…#91
  • 2018…#116

It can’t be any clearer, the Spartans Offense has been marching in reverse since 2014…

This may come as a surprise to some, but the Spartans Offense has never ranked within the Top 10 nationally during the Mark Dantonio era…and it has only ranked within the Top 25 just once (#11 ranking in 2014). So, an inability to consistently crack the Top 25 Offensively is not a good sign because it suggests the Offense is unable to “consistently” move the football against the best Defenses. If a team hopes to compete for National Titles they must consistently rank in the Top 25.

It’s a simple premise, isn’t it?: if a team can’t move the football, then they can’t “move the chains”, and if they can’t “move the chains”, then they can’t score, and if they can’t score consistently, then they can’t win consistently. It puts all the pressure upon the Defense.

For example, in 2016,  the Spartans Offense ranked #75 in the nation (the lower 50%) and averaged just 24 Points per game, which ranked #104 in the nation (the bottom 20%), and the results were indisputable: the Spartans posted a miserable 3-9 won/lost record.

Of course, last season the Spartans Offense ranked #116 in the nation (the bottom 15%) and averaged just 18.7 Points per game, which ranked #125 in the nation (the bottom 4%…or 96% of Division 1 schools ranked better) and the results were indisputable: the Spartans posted a dismal 7-6 won/lost record, even though the Defense had an exceptional season, yielding just 17 Points per game.

And here is a nightmare scenario for any Defense. In the final 4 games of last season, the Spartans Defense posted heroic numbers, yielding an meager average of just 92 Yards Rushing…162 Yards Passing…or an average of just 254 Yards, while yielding just 13 Points per game, yet sadly, that great Defensive effort was essentially wasted inasmuch as the Spartans posted just 1 win and 3 losses in those 4 games and here is “why”: the Spartans Offense scored a total of just 32 points in the final 4 games, or an abysmal average of just 8 points per game, and that put all the pressure on the Spartan Defense to essentially hold opponents scoreless, or suffer a loss.

I trust that was a “tipping point” for Mark Dantonio and thereafter he realigned the entire Offensive Coaching staff, and from my perspective, the inability to move the football puts a microscopic focus upon the Offensive Line and its inability to control the Line of Scrimmage.

Offensive Line needs a major overhaul:

While we think of the Spartans historically as a ground pounding offensive machine, yet since 2007 the Spartans Rushing Offense has never ranked better than #19 in the country, and that was 2014 when it averaged a respectable 235 Yards per game. However, since 2014, the Rushing Offense has never ranked better than #62, and of course, last season the Rushing Offense sank to a dismal #114 in the nation (the bottom 12%), averaging a meager 125 Yards per game: that’s a decline of more than 100 Yards per game since 2014.

In fact, this may also come as a surprise to some, but since 2007, the average national ranking of the Spartans Rushing Offense is a dismal #67 (the lower 50% in the country) and that’s an ominous indicator that the Offensive Line is not controlling the Line of Scrimmage.

The Spartans Defense has stood tall…

While the Offense has been less than dominant since 2011, on the other hand, the Spartan Defense has stood tall when the Offense swooned.

While the Spartans Offense has never ranked in the Top 10 nationally during the Mark Dantonio era, on the other hand the Spartans Defense has ranked in the Top 10 six times in the past 8 seasons alone, and immediately below are the national rankings for the Spartans Defense, year by year:

  • 2011…#6
  • 2012..#4
  • 2013…#2
  • 2014…#8
  • 2015…#26
  • 2016…#32
  • 2017…#7
  • 2018…#10

Of course, it all starts up front…

Spartans “Front 7” deserves special recognition:

The Line of Scrimmage is where games are won or lost, and by every measure, the Spartans “Front 7” has consistently controlled the Line of Scrimmage.

The Rushing Defense has ranked within the Top 10 in six of the past eight seasons as well, including two #1 rankings, and Spartan faithful can thank Defensive Line Coach, Ron Burton who came to the staff in 2013, along with Linebacker Coach, Mike Tressel for shaping one of the most consistent “Front 7’s” in the country.

In fact, in the past 8 seasons, the Spartans Rushing Defense has ranked outside the Top 10 just twice, and that includes 2015 when the Rushing Defense still ranked a respectable #11.

In 2018 Mike Tressel was appointed sole Defensive Coordinator and he made an immediate and positive impact. In addition, Chuck Bullough was added to the staff in 2018 as Defensive End Coach, and thereafter, an already good “Front 7” became Championship caliber. To illustrate the consistency of the Spartans “Front 7”, immediately below are national rankings for Rushing Defense since 2011:

  • 2011…#9
  • 2012…#8
  • 2013…#2
  • 2014…#1
  • 2015…#11
  • 2016…#51
  • 2017…#2
  • 2018…#1

As you can see from the preceding rankings, the Spartans Rushing Defense fell to an “unlikely” #51 ranking in 2016, yet it would be fair to say, that was a Defensive anomaly of unusual proportions, due in great part to off field legal drama and a fractured locker room, but to their credit, the Defensive Coaching Staff quickly corrected course, reset the compass and the Rushing Defense finished #2 and #1 respectively the next two season.

Defense can’t do it alone:

While the Spartans Defense has been exceptionally consistent since 2011, they can’t do it alone.

If the Spartans hope to hang a Championship banner in the near term, they need to turn around an Offense that has been trending in the wrong direction since 2014, culminating in one of the most abysmal Offensive campaigns in the Spartans storied football history in 2018. Of course, Mark Dantonio is betting his Offensive realignment will correct course…and I guess we’re about to see.

To correct course, the Spartans Offensive hopes will ride primarily upon the shoulders of Brad Salem as Offensive Coordinator, as well as Jim Bollman as Offensive Line Coach, but their challenge is huge.

As an historical perspective, Brad Salem was head Coach at Augustana University from 2005 to 2009 and he helped turn around a losing program, yet in Brad Salem’s two best seasons as Head Coach, his Offense averaged just 387 Yards per game for a two year record of 16-8 (67%). Good but not Great. It is often said, the two most challenging jobs in college football are Offensive Coordinator and Defensive Coordinator. So can Brad Salem deploy an Offensive scheme complemented by exceptional Offensive “play calling” that will enable the Offense to correct course? We’re about to see…

And of course, success on Offense starts up front by controlling the Line of Scrimmage, and that includes setting the tempo by establishing the run, so we might argue that Jim Bollman (Offensive Line Coach) will carry the biggest burden in reshaping the Spartans Offensive success. Fine tuning the Blocking Choreography along the Offensive Line is also amongst the most challenging jobs in college football.

Looking back, Jim Bollman was Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach at “The Ohio State University” from 2001 to 2011 (the Jim Tressel era). In 11 seasons overseeing the Buckeye Offense as well as the Offensive Line, the Buckeyes averaged 370 Yards per game including 183 Yards Rushing. Good but not Great. Solid if not dominant. Yet the Buckeyes made enough plays to win 7 Big Ten titles, 6 Bowl victories and a National Title during Jim Bollman’s tenure.

So, can Jim Bollman find enough resources within the Spartans roster to build a dominant Offensive Line, and reestablish a ground pounding Rushing Offense? We’re about to see…

At the bottom line, the Spring game raised more questions than it answered:

Last season, the Top 10 Offenses in the country all averaged more than 500 Yards per game, including Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma, yet I’m uncertain the Spartans revamped Offense needs to compile 500 Yards of Offense to win their next Big Ten title because they are complemented by a Championship caliber, “lock down” Defense that yielded just 17 Points per game in 2018.

Yet I think the Spartans Offense must rise to the level whereby they are consistently posting 100 Yards more than their Defense is yielding, and that means an Offense that consistently compiles 425 to 450 Yards and 35 Points per game, which would provide a bit of a cushion for their Defense. To put that into perspective, 425 Yards of Offensive production is not heroic. In fact, 425 Yards per game would have ranked #40 in the nation last season, which is the top 30 percentile: good but not great…solid but not dominant.

As for progress, the Spring Game didn’t tell us much, and frankly if we were searching for Offensive improvement, the Spring Game raised more questions than it answered.

After 40 minutes of football whereby the Spartan Offense played the Spartan Defense, and whereby the Offense possessed the football for 40 minutes (considerably more than a regular season game), the Offense posted just 26 points which is hardly an improvement from 2018 when they averaged just 18.7 Points per game.

Granted it was a Spring Game, and granted there were nuances in clock management, but by all measures the Spring Game was not a shining moment for the Spartans Offense given they only posted 108 Yards Rushing, which fell below their “woeful” average of 124 Yards Rushing in 2018 that ranked #114 in the land. Moreover the Offense committed 4 turnovers including two fumbles and two Interceptions.

Of course, a major problem in recent years has been inconsistent run blocking, and if we were looking for improvement along the Offensive Line, we didn’t see it, inasmuch as 5 different Running Backs got chances to “carry the mail” in the Spring Game, yet 5 Running Backs combined for just 108 Yards Rushing, and not a single Running Back averaged more than 3.3 Yards per attempt…and 3.3 Yards per attempt won’t “move the chains”.

We might argue there is some solace given the Offense was pitted against the Spartan Defense, the #1 Rushing Defense in the land in 2018, yielding just 78 Yards Rushing per game…yet I’m unsure that’s much solace.

Nevertheless, Brad Salem and Jim Bollman have been given the “keys” to the Spartans Offense, and that means they have the opportunity to reshape the Offense…and looking at recent history, that’s a tall ladder to climb.

Let’s hope they find success.