The Cover Four Posts

I thought maybe it had. The last month had suggested maybe that it had. It has not.

After getting nailed for back to back return touchdowns (one on a kickoff and one on a punt) in the Western Michigan and Oregon games, Michigan State had noticeably improved their coverage units in the 4 games between the Oregon and Michigan contests. Against Air Force, Central Michigan, Rutgers and Purdue the Spartans conceded:

-260 kick return yards on 17 tries (15.3 per KR attempt)

-and negative one yard on just two total punt return attempts

Other things were still going wrong on special teams (Geiger still couldn’t hit FGs, and the Spartan’s kicking portion of punting was suddenly a mess [maybe this explains the two returns…]), but this thing was now going right.

Enter Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was always going to present a stiffer challenge to the Spartans than previous return men, but it was hoped not like this.

Welp.

Following a Spartan touchdown to knot the game up at seven apiece, Peppers rips up the sideline for a 49 yard return that sets up an eventual mid-range Michigan field goal. Nicholson who is again the fastest Spartan down the field and seems to be encouraged to fly in there and make the returner think twice, does not. Miller goes the wrong direction to prevent a cutback leaving not enough Spartan defenders to stop the Wolverine blockers. This is well blocked and a hat is put on every hat so to speak, forcing Cox to run this play down on the sideline from the other side of the field.

Right before the half, Peppers then grabs 34 yards on a low-hangtime punt from Tyler O’Conner that reaches the return man’s hands long before any of O’Connor’s gunners can get close.  Peppers turns the corner and goes up the sideline, setting up the Wolverines with a golden chance to add to their 3 point lead, in Spartan territory, an opportunity they thankfully declined.

Finally, with the Spartans backed up deep, Peppers fields a weak punt on the run on Michigan State’s side of the field, evades the miserable angles of the two nearby Spartans who had a shot at him, maybe(?) benefits from a block in the back, then darts 16 yards upfield to set up a second mid-range field goal that gives the Wolverines their final three points of the game.

In total, he accounted for 129 return yards in just six returns (good for 21.5 yards of field position per) with teammate Jehu Chesson grabbing a 25 yard return of his own (and also nearly catastrophically fumbling a squib kick).

In a game where they needed to choke off every point, the Spartan kick coverage units set-up six Michigan points, and probably should’ve conceded more had their defense not held up the Wolverine offense, after each of the three breakdowns. After close calls against Oregon and Purdue, this finally seemed like the game where a crucial special teams mistake might sink an otherwise good performance, and it so nearly was.

Compounding issues on kick-offs, less than one out of every five kick-offs is going out for a touchback, giving opponents plenty of opportunities to test Michigan State’s coverage unit.

While most future returners will lack the skills of Peppers, this is an issue once more. Indiana’s kick-return unit is nothing special, but punt returner Mitchell Paige returned one punt for a touchdown earlier this season against Western Kentucky.

Read More Kick coverage has not turned the corner

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The way that this game ended was wild enough that the headline is a point worth reiterating. Yes, the final play wouldn’t unfold quite that same way if you reran it a million times, which is why we watch sports, and make snide remarks at those who leave their seats early only to miss great, improbable endings. But even before Watts Happened, Michigan State had:

-out-gained Michigan by a net of 1.4 yards per play (total offensive yards look even worse for the Wolverines, but are less meaningful for obvious reasons)

-like their opponents, not committed a turnover, despite running 14 more offensive plays

-been flagged for half as many penalties for 26 fewer penalty yards

It’s true, that if you, for example, add Michigan and MSU’s kick return and punt return yardage, Michigan flips ever so slightly into the lead per play, gaining 5.9 yards compared to MSU’s 5.7, though this still doesn’t catch the Wolverines up in total yardage.

The point is, through 59 minutes and 50 seconds, the two teams had played a tight contest, deserving of a one possession margin in one direction or the other.

Then, of course, everyone involved can acknowledge that Watts did happen. Michigan’s punter and long-snapper made the Wolverines first real special teams mistake of the game, not connecting on the snap, Michigan’s special teams coaches committed a frankly unnecessary number of gunners (somewhere between three and five dudes depending on when you’re counting?) downfield in the face of a obvious, desperate, 10 man punt block attempt, and then well, you know the rest.

In two of the three phases of the game, MSU had clearly outplayed their in-state rivals on offense-defense by a decent margin, both statistically and via ‘eye-test’, and only a disastrous special teams disparity had preserved the Michigan lead right up until that disparity stopped being so disastrous. It was a close game between two good teams that truly could’ve gone either way, and the team who made the last error ended up losing. The way the final play unfolded was perhaps flukey, as individual plays in individual football games sometimes are. The result was not.

And, really, it was quite an accomplishment for the Spartans! This wasn’t the lousy Wolverine squad of last season, that was expected to be throttled and was. Indeed, a lot of things had set-up nicely for Michigan to finally break their miserable record against Dantonio’s Spartans. The game was at home for them, their team was the healthier of the two, had played much better in the six games prior, and despite not really getting the better of the box-score, had even found themselves in a winning position with handfuls of ticks left on the clock. But they still didn’t get it done. I’d be super salty if I was a UM fan too!

Meanwhile, despite Michigan State still, still, still not having played a complete game from offense to defense to special teams, remain undefeated, have a much needed bye week awaiting if they can slip past a tricksy Indiana game (GAHHHH), and have a chance to send another group of 4th year seniors out, having never lost to Michigan, in 2016. With a 3-0 record in one possession games, the Spartans have surely been surviving by the skin of their teeth, but have gained the opportunity to ‘bank’ their good fortune from the first half of the season with improved play in the second half. The team is palpably talented at most, if not all positions, and if a struggling unit needs to get suddenly hot, I’d rather it be special teams than offense or defense. Finally, The Game, pitting Michigan State against Ohio State, still looks like one of the year’s most important and highly anticipated contests. It remains good to be a Spartan sports fan.

Read More Michigan State played very well, even before the very last play

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2 scores

The Spartans football team, though 6-0, has labored at one point or another with every team they’ve faced this season. Perhaps especially annoying, is that they often manage to just nearly reach that threshold of putting in the back-ups to ice the game away, before letting the other team storm back into making a competitive go of things. Consider, in order:

-a 34-10 lead against Western Michigan is allowed to shrink to 34-24 before a field goal and an interception in the end zone finally halts WMU’s progress

-two separate ten point leads, at 24-14 and 31-21 are wasted necessitating an Oregon overthrow of an open receiver to help preserve the 3 point win on the final drive.

-After going up 35-7 against Air Force MSU gives up 14 uncontested points to end the game, allowing the Falcons to easily move the ball through the air.

-A 17-0 lead against Central Michigan is allowed to slip to 17-10, before two fourth quarter touchdowns polish off the MAC team

-A 21-0 lead against Purdue is reduced all the way down to 24-21, requiring a final defensive stand by the Spartans to win the game

-Another 10 point lead, at 24-14, is wasted away allowing Rutgers to tie the game up at 24 before MSU punched in the winning touchdown in the 4th quarter

The overbearing theme is Michigan State asserting its will on teams, then falling asleep, then waking back up just in time to pull out the W. It is a thus far effective, but heart palpitating strategy. I guessed that Michigan State’s stats with two scores would be bad. They were worse.

2 score yards

There is one team in the Big Ten who allows their opponents to out-gain them while they are up 8 or more points: Michigan State. They have the Big Ten’s worst offense up two scores, at 4.45 yards per play AND the Big Ten’s worst defense in the same situation, giving up 6.42 yards per play on the other side of the ball.

As pictured at the top of this post, they are one of four teams in the Big Ten to have their defense give up more points than their own offense can score, while up 8 or more points, but while Maryland, Penn State, and Indiana have given up a touchdown, or two, or three, on net, Michigan State is down a ridiculous 8 touchdowns worth of points to their opponents in these situations. This analysis doesn’t even include special teams errors!

It’s no wonder nearly every Michigan State game has been close, in situations where you expect your team to shut the game down and cruise to victory Michigan State is palpably and consistently melting down on both sides of the ball, and special teams. What is happening to the cool and collected team that plays well enough to go up two or three scores in the first place, before coughing away all their progress?

I.. don’t know?

The switch to more of a bend-don’t-break defense has played a part, as has the simple slip in play among the Spartans defensive back seven from recent years. On the other side of the ball, the OCs seem worried about letting Cook throw the ball when the team is up, preferring to run the ball at a ratio of about 2:1. And perhaps with reason, when the team is up by eight or more, Cook and the passing game’s completion percentage plummets from the lows 60s to the low 50s. Those frequent 0 yard plays not only stall drives, but they also stop the clock. And if the 2nd half collapses of Michigan State have had a defensible trait, it’s that the opponent is typically left with only enough time for one game winning drive attempt. As the run-heavy offense stalls out, and the defense allows teams to move the ball down the field in short chunks, the clock keeps ticking enough to be the Spartan’s ally.

I certainly don’t think this rapid decline in capabilities when the team gets a comfortable lead is by design, but it seems to have been constructed in such a way to stave off total collapses. That’s the good news.

But this ignores the building concern as Michigan State moves into the part of its schedule where bigger challenges are going to crop up, starting with Michigan this weekend. If no two touchdown lead for the Spartans is safe against the likes of Purdue, how then, can the Spartans be expected to close out more talented opposition? As Oregon has collapsed, Michigan State is again without a marque win to their name at this point in the season season, and a collection of close wins over inferior competition rounds out the resume.

To this point undefeated Michigan State can’t really be trusted with a comfy lead, a trait that will almost certainly spell doom one of these games, if not corrected. The hope, I suppose, is that it really is just a mental thing, and that the proper salve to such a lax attitude is simply increased competition. Could the Spartans really mentally turn-off with a, say, 10 point lead on Michigan this weekend? One would hope not!

But if this is really a season long theme, and not simply a phase (as were the Spartan’s 4th quarter troubles last season, we should remember), a member of the Big Ten will be able to reach up and corral the Spartans, believe it. A so-called ‘killer instinct’ when up is invaluable not only in impressing the playoff committee, but in keeping your starters healthy, getting back-ups game time, and simply avoiding potential upset bids. We’ve already seen the Spartans nearly lose two or three games this season, and lose starters to injuries in games where they probably should have been resting by that point. Something’s gotta give.

Read More With a lead of two scores or more, MSU is almost unbelievably bad

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record

And just the 4th since former head coach Nick Saban left, after the 1999 season.

In 1966, Duffy Daughtery capped off back to back 4-0 starts, without knowing then that the program would go an astounding 30 years before Saban managed the feat again in 1997.

Historically, these sort of starts haven’t actually come around very often for our team, and even in recent history, they’re less frequent than they’ve been for some of our peers. Here’s the list of the Spartan’s starts out of the gates over the last fifty years:

records2

Some other thoughts:

-Obviously most schedules are much lighter now, than they were back in the day. @Western Michigan, Oregon, Air Force, and Central Michigan is no cake-walk, but back in, say, 1989, Michigan State started off with Miami (OH), @ #1 Notre Dame (they lost 13-21), #2 Miami (FL) (they lost 20-26), then @Iowa for a 2-2 start that led to an 8-4 season, but a well-earned 16th ranking in the final AP poll.

-Part of the reason I remember MSU getting clowned on back in the early and mid-2000s, was fast starts followed by Big Ten collapses. But Williams and Smith managed just the one 4-0 start between the two of them in 2005.

-And while you’d expect more given the team’s massive success, somewhat surprising to my recent memory is that this is just the 3rd time Dantonio’s managed the feat in 9 years at the helm (though he also has five 3-1 starts).

-Three years without a single win in the first four games! I’m too young to remember any of those, but I can imagine somewhat based off the 2009 season, and, never again, please.

Michigan State has likely under-preformed its preseason and current polling so far this season, but by virtue of closing out all four games, has remained in literal poll position for the four team playoff at the years end, even potentially after suffering a loss somewhere in the schedule. While the early season losses likely just nudged the Spartans out of the top four picture the last two years, this start (and recent cache)  has likely allowed them the inertia to stay within the top 6 or 8 or so teams after a loss (well, depending on who the upset candidate is). Ohio State, in particular, remains the marquee showdown, but Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota or Wisconsin in the championship game, and even Penn State, have emerged as potential quality pelts for the Spartan’s list of accomplishments, even as Oregon’s value took a devastating hit this last weekend.

If they’d slipped up against any of their four preseason teams, we could likely write off the Spartans for the post-season yet again. But they didn’t, and for the 8th time since 1965, the Spartans enter the final two-thirds of their schedule with blemish, but without knowing defeat.

Read More This is just the sixth 4-0 start for Michigan State football in the last 48 years.

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A common theme so far this season, as true on Saturday as any game, has been the opposing team moving the ball, comfortably, for about 50, 60, even 80 yards before often getting turned back near or within the Spartan 20 yard line.

After converting on 31%, 28%, 31%, and 34% of 3rd downs the last four seasons, opponents are converting on 40% this year, putting the Spartan defense at a lowly 83rd nationally. And after being near or at the top of the Big Ten in offensive plays faced per game, MSU’s defense has slipped to 9th in the Big Ten so far, and 80th nationally. They simply aren’t forcing teams off the field like they used to.

But their scoring defense has remained an acceptable 46th, at about 21 points per game, powered by two factors: a sturdy red-zone defense, and a refusal to give up a ‘super-big’ play.

The common theme to opponent’s offensive drives entering the Spartan’s 20 yard line, is that they are nearly all long and arduous. Just one drive, the garbage time touchdown from Air Force with a few minutes left in the game was fewer than 9 plays long, and 11 of the 13 drives were 75+ yards long:

Red Zone

The bet, without the lock-down secondary of year’s past, is that forcing teams to chain together a dozen plays will eventually lead to a turnover as the field shrinks. And the Spartan’s Defensive Red Zone Percentage is 69%, good for 14th nationally, while they are tied for 28th with a bundle of other teams with 8 defensive turnovers, as opponents have additionally turned the ball over on 4th down conversion tries 7 times in just 12 attempts.

Meanwhile, while their big play metrics in terms of traditional plays over 20 yards are quite bad, they’re still one of 20 teams to have not yet allowed a ‘super-big’ play of 50 or more yards, which is what helps produces all those long arduous drives for opponents.

So far this strategy has proven tenable, if not iron-clad. While the team is certainly not blitz-shy like many bend-don’t-break units, the coverage has been noticeably looser and ‘safety-first’ than in the past years when 1st rounder corner-backs were patrolling the sidelines. This has meant that when the blitzes haven’t gotten home, opposing receivers have often been able to sit down in the pockets of space in MSU’s five man defensive zones for 10, 20, 30 yards through the air at a time. With the team continuing to sell out against stopping the run (with the notable and expected exception of Air Force) opponents have chosen a one-dimensional passing attack (even with Air Force, MSU has faced 137 pass attempts through 4 games, 99th nationally), that has moved them down the field, but not necessarily resulted in scores, as the field shrinks, and they try to go back to the run near the end-zone.

Read More ‘Bend, Don’t Break’ is back, for now.

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penalties

One of the most surprising stats through three weeks of the season, is that the Spartans are getting flagged for just a little under 4 penalties per game, for just under 30 yards of penalty infractions per game. Good for 3rd nationally! That’s surprising, because, for a really long time now, Spartan football teams were nearly always in the back half of the national rankings in this category.

A couple of years ago, I did a short little look at penalty rates for different teams and found that MSU was the type of team that liked to commit lots of little penalties (offsides, false starts, holding) in exchange for riding the edges of the rule book. This season they’ve continued that ethos of staying away from the heavy stuff (one targeting penalty decidedly excepted) but have also managed to drastically cut down on their overall infractions.

After finishing 87th, 77th, 79th, 80th and 88th in penalty yardage per game going back to 2010, averaging about 6 penalties a game for about 60 yards of penalty yardage, the Spartans have slimmed down to 3.7 flags for 26 yards per game, this year.

Is this, taken by itself, something that’s going to win MSU a lot of games they normally wouldn’t? I doubt it. I feel like at some point I did some analysis (that I can’t find at the moment) of whether your team’s winning percentage increased as they drew fewer penalty flags, and found that to flatly not be true. I seem to remember penalty yardage being quite inconsequential and, as anecdotal evidence, as the Spartan’s were racking up all those late 70s and 80s finishes in that category, they were one of the winning-est teams in college football.

But, at the very least, we have a high horse we can sit on from which we may look down on all the other team’s lesser, dirtier, horses, and if, by chance, a situation arises where we really really can’t afford a yellow flag, this might just be the team to stay clear of one.

Read More Michigan State’s penalty flags are down, so far. Way down.

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The saving graces of the Spartan passing defense, whose bog-standard ‘passer rating against’ ranking is an unsettling 89th nationally, have been its pass rush, touched on a few weeks ago, and, as last Saturday showed again, a secondary able to ball-hawk well above most of its peers.

The average secondary this year has made an interception on about 3.1 out of every 100 opposing throws. Through the first three games, Michigan State is picking off 5.1 passes out of every 100 thrown, good for an interception rate of 20th in the nation, tied with S. Florida, and trailing only Illinois and Ohio State in the Big Ten. The nation’s leader in interception rate is currently West Virginia, who’s intercepting a massive 8.7 out of every 100 throws.

Another interesting way to look at your secondary’s interception numbers is to divide their interceptions by the total number of passes they defend (pass breakups + interceptions). In other words, are your guys coming up with more interceptions on contested passes than normal? And MSU scores well here, too. The average secondary this year has picked off 2.3 passes for every 10 they get their hands onto. Michigan State has grabbed an interception on 3.8 out of every 10 defended passes, that’s good for 17th nationally, and trails only Illinois in the Big Ten. The national leaders at the moment are Appalachian State and Texas who are intercepting 6 out of every 10 defended passes.

The questions these two metrics bring are two-fold: are the Spartans just getting lucky here; and can they keep this up, at least until they fix their more routine coverage issues?

The answer to the first question is yeah, probably a bit. At +2 interceptions over what you could expect on average, the Spartans have probably had a fortuitous turnover moment or two through the air so far (pick: the pop-fly interception against Western Michigan, which I believe doinked off a helmet at the line of scrimmage, or either of the picks against Air Force and Oregon where the ball was ripped away from an unsuspecting receiver). But unlike with fumbles, which due to the awkward bounces of the ball almost always zero out to 50/50 propositions over time, there’s somewhat more of a skill element to collecting interceptions, and the Spartan secondary, though awfully green depending on just who’s in the game, doesn’t lack for talent.

As for whether they can keep it up, I’d imagine so, for a couple reasons. The first reason is their pass rush should continue to force most QBs into some very questionable throws. The second reason is that the Big Ten, as per usual, simply lacks outstanding passing attacks. Indiana, putting up big numbers through the air, is the Big Ten’s best, but only 20th nationally by passer rating, while runner-ups Rutgers, and MSU themselves, hover in the 30’s. Finally, while their mentioned rates are above-average, they aren’t shockingly so. Teams like West Virginia, like Texas, can expect to see regression in either of those metrics as more games are factored in, but there’s less room for MSU to drop.

With that said, if the interceptions stop coming with such regularity, I doubt the Spartans can allow teams to move the ball through the air at 8.4 yards a clip, or they’re going to get upset by somebody.

Read More Can interceptions help hold off the secondary’s growing pains?

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Michigan State threw for 227 yards on just 26 attempts, and 4 touchdowns. (that’s good)

Meanwhile, Air Force averaged 7.1 yards per play. (that’s bad)

But they turned the ball over three times, while forcing no turnovers of their own. (that’s good)

But the Spartans only rushed for just 97 yards on 39 carries. (that’s bad)

Though Air Force committed six 15 yard penalties to thwart/extend drives. (that’s good)

But every penalty flag came with a free cup of Frogurt…

I’m not sure I recall the last time MSU played one of these service academy teams, what with the cut-blocking, the undersized players, the flexbone formations, the option pitches, and the gung-ho 3-4 defense. The Spartans won easily, comfortably, yet at the same time had immense difficulty either establishing or stopping the run. So fitting for a sort of scatterbrained game, here are some scattered thoughts:

Run defense

The overall numbers are grim: despite running the ball on a highly predictable 85% of offensive downs, Air Force churned out a super steady 5.5 yards per carry. Sometimes it seemed that fumbles (they coughed up the ball three times, losing two) and chop-block penalties were the only things that truly slowed down their rushing attack.

But one has to wonder just how much of this attack Michigan State is even going to see again this season. The quarterback keepers up the gut out of the I-form, the pitches to a trailing A-back from the triple option, how much is that going to happen again?

Pass defense

Okay, the very first touchdown pass, where Air Force had previously ran the ball something like 43 times and thrown once, like an hour and a half earlier? I can live with. They’d been setting that one play up for like, two quarters. Whatever.

But what was up with their QB still hitting like 4 of his next seven passes for 105 yards or so? Williamson came out with a crucial yoink of a ball in the flat on a late red zone play to basically seal the game away, but even that pass was initially completed, while Air Force hit several other big plays through the air. If a team like Air Force drops back to pass about nine times I expect at least one sack from MSU’s defensive line (they had none) and I definitely don’t expect to see 16.5 yards an attempt.

Pass offense

In a vacuum excellent, but adjusted for sacks and scheme merely very good. Though Cook was sacked three times for 20ish yards he still completed 60%+ of his passes at about 16.5 yards per completion. Burbridge had a career day (WHAT A CATCH), while RJ Shelton looked like a real WR again for the first time in 2015.

But Air Force sold out heavily to stop the run (and all-out blitz Cook), leaving him with moderately difficult throws to often lightly covered receivers. Pass protection was pretty good (the RBs did an especially good job of picking up blitzers on a few of the TD passes), but only pretty good.

Run offense

In a vacuum, terrible. Out of a vacuum, well, still pretty, pretty bad. Adjusted for sacks and for Air Force regularly committing  extra players to sell out against the run, Michigan State’s ~2.5 yards per carry is simply too low for an undersized front seven that Michigan State should have bullied around. And they tried! Throughout the game, instead of taking the nearly free yards through the air, MSU tried to impose its will over and over on the ground, giving London, Scott, and Holmes their chance to wear down the Falcons for a big run and none could do so. After San Jose State avaerage 7.5 yards per carry the week before, ripping off 66 and 42 yard runs, I was hoping for quite a bit more than what the Spartans delivered here.

Special teams

Conceding four Air Force kick-off returns for just 47 total yards (11.8 per) is fantastic! Three punts for 44.3 per, allowing just one return for one yard is very, very good. But Michael Geiger had a field goal blocked to bring him to 12 for his last 21 attempts (57.1%) after starting off his career going 19-21 (90.5%). That’s extremely concerning, to say the least.

Closing out games

Michigan State has been outscored 28-10 in the fourth quarters of games this season, allowing contests in which they were up by 24 points, 10 points, and 28 points at moments in the 3rd quarter to be reduced to margins of 13, 3, and 14 in the final score column. For one thing, Cook has only completed 3-11 passes (27.4%) for 54 yards in 2015’s 4th quarters. The Oregon game proved the team can emerge victorious from a tight engagement, and switching off with a four score lead against weak competition isn’t the worst sin in the world, but it’s worth keeping an eye as we near Big Ten play.

The Big Picture

And really, to a certain extent, you only have to care about not playing your best if others do. And MSU enters the public perception at the beginning of week 4 at #4 in the coaches poll, and #2 (!!!) in the AP poll, its highest ranking since 1966, trailing only division-mate OSU for the top spot. If this season is about #reachinghigher and making the playoffs, the top four is where they want to be, and if a so-so outing against an oddball Air Force squad is deemed good enough, then it’s good enough for me. Michigan State beats the teams they’re supposed to, and that played out once again.

Read More Okay, what to make of that game, then?

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While its kick coverage on punts and kickoffs has sunk to a new low in the first two games of 2015, one could credibly point out that the Spartan’s special teams coverage as of late has never been very good, and, as recently as last year, was pretty awful:

KC issues

The Spartans coverage of punts and kickoffs has been in the top half of the Big Ten exactly once in the last seven years and change, the 2010 campaign that kick-started the last half-decades run of success. They’ve never fielded a unit that cracked even the national top 40 in that time.

So, in one sense, there’s some reason for calm here. As long as the defense and offense are strong enough, Michigan State can compete for Big Ten titles regardless of how lackluster they cover opposing return-men. But that’s not really the right question, as MSU’s aspirations have justifiably moved past their conference crown to the peak of the national stage: the four team playoff.

How have the top ten teams looked in these categories the past few years? It’s not especially encouraging:

2014 KC

-In 2014 most every top ten team was good, or at the least average, at one half of the equation, with Michigan State itself being the notable exception.

2013 KC

-2013 perhaps offers a bit more solace, as Oklahoma was terrible at each aspect and finished 6th (though, perhaps that was over-inflated by a beat down of Alabama in their bowl game) while title game participants Florida State and Auburn each were some of the worst teams in the nation at one kick coverage category or the other.

-But generally, the idea that you can’t give up tons of free special teams yardage to your competition and still be elite is reinforced, as most teams managed to be, at least, not terrible in one of these metrics.

Though there’s plenty of time to turn things around, we already saw Michigan State nearly get nipped by Oregon thanks in part to ugly special teams breakdowns. While the talent disparity between the Spartans and some of the Big Ten bottom dwellers is so great that they can likely get away with a few more of these poor special teams showings in conference play, that won’t necessarily remain true against some of their more evenly matched competition.

The sight of Michigan State’s kick coverage gunners flying down, or across, the field right past the return man is something Mark Snyder and the rest of the staff will likely have to correct, for this team to truly reach higher. They were the outlier in this regard last year, I doubt it happens twice in a row.

Read More How likely is it that kick coverage issues will hold MSU back?

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There was not, overall, a Fancy Dan plan to stopping the Oregon juggernaut that had eventually run over the Spartans in Eugene last season. Presented with the puzzle of the Oregon offense, and the question of how to get more out of their own running game on the other side of the ball, Michigan State appears to have looked at the complex, interlocking, gears for several minutes, then jotted down, What if we just got really really strong? on their otherwise blank notepad.

This newfound strength was in Madre London, who didn’t play in the match-up last season, literally single-handedly hurling a defensive back out of the playing field, to tack another 25 yards onto the end of his early 62 yard run.

This strength was in Monte Nicholson, who didn’t start in Eugene last season, and who got beat by a step down the middle on an early deep passing attempt, but reached up, ripped the ball away while keeping his balance as the receiver crashed to the ground behind him, and then took off 30 yards in the other direction.

The strength was in Malik McDowell, a back-up in last season’s game, on a crucial 4th and goal, pushing the offensive lineman across from him back one step, then another, then another, forcing Oregon’s confused running back to slowly maneuver around his own teammate just to get out of the backfield, before he was swarmed short of the end zone.

The strength was in Aaron Burbridge, credited with 2 catches for 30 yards in the previous year’s match-up, who caught a slant at the twelve, blew past one attempted tackle, spun through a shoulder check at the 3 yard line, then stretched, stretched, stretched across the plane of the goal-line for a TD.

The strength was in LJ Scott, My God, a freshman, rumbling through three separate tackle attempts as he outraced a defensive back into the end zone for what would be the winning score.

The strength was in Michigan State’s offensive line, which did not give up a single sack for the 2nd straight week, and indeed, hardly allowed the Ducks to pressure Cook at all. And the strength was in the Spartan front seven, which, when faced with numerous opportunities for Adams to slither away as Mariota had one year earlier, nearly always rallied back to the ball and hauled him down for a loss or a short gain.

Glaring special teams issues remained from the week before, I guess, kick coverage units don’t respond nearly as effectively to Operation Get Super-Yolked.

But the rest of the team looked the part of the nimble, burly, outfits that have made it to college football’s biggest stage, as if they’d asked themselves over the off-season, What if we just get incredibly strong? Like, as strong as anyone?

Read More Michigan State is strong and fast and good

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