Oh dear. That was terrible, wasn’t it? Like some sort of Lovecraftian nightmare born of burning mattresses and Faygo. But give credit where credit’s due: that was not only the best defense we’ve seen this year, it’s the best we’ve seen since Alabama in 2012 and easily the best of Mark Dantonio’s tenure at Michigan State. Those guys were all really good and all knew exactly where to be on nearly every play. We were overmatched, the way they used to be overmatched against us.
That 2012 win is starting to look a bit like the stray years when they’d beat us, back in days before Cthulu cursed us with endless transition.
What We Learned About Ourselves
Most of the griping has focused on the offense, and our seemingly endless series of drives in the opposite direction. Yes, that was bad. But I’d like to suggest—again—that our defense shares the blame for our underwhelming performance to a larger degree than most people seem to think.
I’ve complained about us not covering the middle of the field before, but the MSU game just made it even clearer: we cannot cover the middle of the field. As in, ever. Not even when we drop 7 or 8 guys into coverage. Especially when we drop 7 or 8 guys into coverage.
Some of this is personnel-based. Both our middle linebackers and our safeties are missing assignments, and I hate to single guys out, but Joe Bolden has been particularly bad in pass coverage. But at this point we’ve seen everyone feast on our soft belly—from Akron’s subpar receivers to Indiana’s good ones, from Minnesota’s and PSU’s average TEs (Maxxxxxx!) to basically anyone with a green jersey who is both eligible to catch passes and has not been smearing butter on their hands between plays. At this point, you have to conclude that the problem isn’t just a lack of talent, but also very much schematic. As in, why the hell are we still using a scheme that our inexperienced defense can’t really run?
Granted, spread/up-tempo and MANBALL MAX PROTECT teams present different challenges. Statistically, we’re worse against spread/up-tempo. And theoretically speaking, MANBALL MAX PROTECT plays to our strength, i.e. stopping the inside run game. Be that as it may, it just so happens that our offense has also been much better against spread/up-tempo teams’ defenses, and should continue to be as we move on toe Nebraska and Northwestern. The teams on our schedule who play MANBALL MAX PROTECT generally play better defense, and so we can’t rely as heavily on our offense to win these games for us.
This is exactly why I find our passive, “bend-but-don’t-break” defensive strategy so frustrating. We may not have a defense on par with MSU, but as Seth noted after the PSU game, we perform better against MANBALL MAX PROTECT offenses when we bring pressure. We are horrible when we let opposing QBs sit back and brew a pot of tea. Yet we keep on doing it, and they keep on making completions over the middle. MSU was just the latest and most painful edition of this sad panda story.
(Making matters worse, MSU could very well have scored more points than they did, had their receivers not dropped so many catchable balls. All this against what had hitherto been considered a pretty terrible offense.)
Yes, but FIRE BORGES!
Well, I wish I could say otherwise, because I find the haterade offensive more than a bit annoying. But the offense, after two weeks preparation, was worse than ever. We did manage to move the ball somewhat in the first half…until, that is, Dantonio and Narduzzi figured out that they could just send the house every down and there was nothing our terrible offensive line and unconvincing-play-action-based-scheme could do about it. Some of the problem, again, was personnel-based—our offensive line is and remains a tire fire. And MSU has the best defense we’ve played and will play this year. Nothing we put out there was going to look great, and the past two years provide evidence that neither under-center nor shotgun formations are going to produce a lot of points against MSU.
But this was the pits. The contrast between our O-line and their D-line has never been starker. Even usually reliable Lewan spent the day missing assignments and picking up unnecessary penalties. And goddamn it—as ineffective as our shotgun formations were, at least Gardner could see the rush coming and go backwards less often. I’ll have nightmares about negative yardage for weeks.
The bad news is that we’ve now eliminated Storm of Swords as well, making Game of Thrones the unlikely top category. We also now have a problem, since there are only two books remaining for five distinct outcomes, none of which are impossible anymore. I guess should have added The Hedge Knight and some other crappy tie-in. I was, like a lot of people, unrealistically optimistic before the season began.
The good news is that we won’t see another defense like that in the regular season, and probably not in a bowl game either. We also won’t likely see a defense like that in East Lansing next year, given turnover. But we will see Iowa, a team that is a rough approximation, or at least the philosophical kin, of MSU. And we play them on the road, in a place where we usually lose. I’m feeling less and less confident about that one.
How This Affects the Math
This was my mid-season algorithm:
5.00 + 2(.67) + .60 + 2(.40) + .25 = 7.98
Replace Indiana (.67) with a win (1.00) and MSU (.40) with a loss and you get:
6.00 + .67 +.60 + .40 + .25 = 7.92
As you can see, going 1 for 2 with Indiana and MSU doesn’t really affect the model. But, to be honest, I see some reasons to tinker.
Given not only our struggles with PSU and MSU on the road, but also how we struggled against PSU and MSU, I see us having similar troubles at Iowa. Downgraded to sub-tossup (.40).
The other two pre-Ohio matchups, Nebraska and Northwestern, feel less scary. We should move the ball easily on both. We will, however, have some trouble stopping them from doing the same. But Nebraska is at home, minus Martinez, and Northwestern is in some sort of death spiral. Nebraska stays at tossup-plus (.60) and Northwestern, which is kind of a road game, gets upgraded to tossup (.50).
And then there’s Ohio. Nothing’s changed there—we still have a puncher’s chance (.25), given the crappiness of their secondary and the fact that we play them in Ann Arbor. We can win this one, if everything aligns for us and doesn’t align for them. Weirder things have happened, after all. Then again, weirder things don’t happen very often.
Take those changes into account and you get:
6(1.00) + 2(0.00) + 0.40 + 0.60 + 0.50 + 0.25 = 7.75 wins.
Eh...not so different. Still predicts a 7-9 win season, with 8 wins more likely than 7, but 7 more likely than 9.
(Updated) Song of Ice and Fire Scenarios
1. A Clash of Kings.
Scenario: Non-stop action and death dealing! Our offensive line grows up quickly, and the move from experience to talent proves fundamental to a revitalized ground game, while Devin Gardner gets enough pass protection to tear up the Big 10’s mostly mediocre defenses. Meanwhile, we hold serve on run defense and even improve against the pass, which is enough to stymie the few good offenses we face. We stare down an invasion from Stannis Baratheon Urban Meyer and repel him with our wildfire defense and an epic flanking movement passing offense.
Record: 12-0. We run the table and get to the Big 10 Championship Game, where we probably face Ohio for the second time in a week. A BCS bowl is a lock.
Probability: P = .05. Essentially, this would be our equivalent of what Notre Dame did last year, and would require a similar amount of luck and collapsing of the once-scary opponents (in our case Ohio and Sparty, in their case Oklahoma and USC). The Clash of Kings scenario is more likely than running the table was in 2012, but still not exactly likely. Ohio is going to be good, and though we can certainly beat them, Sparty is always fired up against us and especially when playing at home. Plus there’s uncertainty tied to the rest of the road games—are we talented, experienced and lucky enough to not blow any of them and still beat all the rivals? Maybe, but probably not. P=.00.
FIRST UPDATE: Eliminated. We don’t have a “revitalized ground game” and our pass defense is terrible.
2. A Storm of Swords
Scenario: We go red wedding on the Big 10 but get caught with our pants down in the toilet at one inopportune moment. Everything else from scenario #1 still applies.
Record: 11-1. We either run the table up to The Game or beat Ohio and lose to one of the other likely candidates. We probably get a Big 10 Championship Game out of it, though that would depend on the others; either way we still get our best regular season since 1997.
Probability: P = .15. Okay, now we’re talking plausible-ish! Of course, all the disclaimers for scenario #1 apply here as well, with the caveat that we’re allowed our one bad day. That automatically makes it more likely, as even Alabama has had that over the past two years. Unfortunately, I see too many question marks on the roster to really get behind this scenario: an inexperienced interior O-line, no clear sense of whether we’ll get a pass rush, questions of whether Countess, Fitz and Ryan can return to form after rehabbing from serious injuries, etc. While I do expect these things to turn out well, when the entirety of the season is considered, they may not manifest positively in each and every game. FIRST UPDATE: P=.01. Still technically possible, but as Brian likes to say, CUMONG MAN. See above.
SECOND UPDATE: Eliminated. CUMONG MAN.
3. A Game of Thrones
Scenario: Taut. Gripping. Tantalizing yet never delivering that crucial victory. We are generally awesome, and kick some ass in the Whispering Wood The Game/Conquest of the Juggalos, but run into a few roadblocks on the way.
Record: 10-2. Likely losses = 1 of Sparty/Ohio and 1 more from your “tossups,” “likely-buts” and ND. Whether we win the Legends Division in its final year depends on whom we lose to and how they do over the course of the season. Just like it did in 2011.
Probability: P = .30. Though the rational part of my brain is a bit more conservative, the enthusiastic, emotional fan part feels as if this is the way things will play out. It just keeps repeating “schedule, schedule, the schedule is faaaavorable” until I believe it’s more true than “roster, roster, the roster is inexpeeerienced.” FIRST UPDATE: P=.10. This could happen. I mean, it’s not likely, but the whole scenario was predicated on 1 loss against Sparty/Ohio and 1 from the tossup category, which included PSU. A guy can dream, right?
SECOND UPDATE: P=.01. Sure. Mabye toothfairy is real too.
4. A Feast for Crows
Scenario: A mostly enjoyable ride that ultimately doesn’t live up to hopes and expectations.
Record: 9-3. I’d guess this means we lose ¾ out of the “likely-but” and “tossup” games. An early loss to ND (considering we don’t have Ryan and will be working out experience issues on the O-line) is not out of the realm of possibility either.
Probability: P = .35. Unfortunately, but not too unfortunately, the math suggests this is the most likely scenario, slightly beating out the more palatable 10-2 (since both of the estimates produce predicted win totals under 10). It would still constitute a bit of progress from 2012, though. That’s good. But it will probably produce a cavalcade of obnoxious “I told you so” columns from everyone’s “favorite” Freep columnist that evince a total disregard for logic and rationality. That’s bad.
P=.20. Very much still in the running, but has gone from the center point of the probability distribution to the right slope. We’d have to win all the games we should win (Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa) and one of the ones we’re not in good position for at the moment (Sparty, Northwestern or Ohio). Doable, but remember--we almost lost back-to-back games against Akron and UCONN.
SECOND UPDATE: P=.19. Everything else said in the first update remains true, in large part thanks to Northwestern's steady decline, hence why I haven't crossed it out.
5. A Dance with Dragons
Scenario: Where are we going? Why is this Quentyn Martell section [insert player] injury rehab taking so long to resolve? Why is this Jon Snow/Danaerys storyline offense so boring and listless?
or lower [let’s say 7-5 even though I didn’t do that at the time] Things just don’t go as planned. Maybe that’s due to an injury, or maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs. Probability: .15. Last year we went 8-4 in the regular season, having played eventual national champion Alabama (away), eventual runner-up Notre Dame (away), eventual undefeated Ohio (away) and a decent-ish Nebraska team (away) after losing Denard and not, apparently, wanting to put Devin in. The idea that we’ll do the same or worse when there’s no Alabama, a crappier Notre Dame at home, Nebraska at home and Ohio at home strikes me as unlikely. But it isn’t impossible to imagine either, especially considering our lack of depth at key positions cough quarterback cough.
P=.50. The offense is boring and listless, unless you count "not knowing if we will run the plays that usually get us yards, or go with the plays that almost always end in TFLs" as excitement. The whole “maybe something just doesn’t work on offense and we don’t have Denard to bail us out with his legs” thing is half right, because Devin does just fine with his legs. Too bad our coaches think we play in Tuscaloosa and have 8 years of oversigned, 4/5 star-rich recruiting classes to work with.
SECOND UPDATE: P=.45. Well, since I've separated out 7-5, this goes down, but it had to happen so don't shoot me. The offense is boring and listless, unless you count "not knowing if we will run the plays that usually get us yards, or go with the plays that almost always end in TFLs" as excitement. We're just good enough to beat all the teams we should beat, and none of the ones we aren't. Too bad our coaches think we play in Tuscaloosa and have 8 years of oversigned, 4/5 star-rich recruiting classes to work with.
6. The Hedge Knight
Scenario: Have you ever heard of this? It's a fairly bad story about some characters who Aegon Targaryen mentions a few times while delusional. I read it in 2010. I think we played in a bowl game that year, but I can't remember how it turned out.
Record: 7-5. Third-rate garbage time-waster.
Probability: .30. Blech.
6. George R. R. Martin’s Secret Viserys/Joffrey Slash Fiction
Scenario: It’s 2009 again, yo!
or 5-7. We go 1-5 or 0-6 over the last stretch. Someone on the staff gets fired.
Probability: .10. Yes, we have to entertain this possibility now.*
The Long Game
Okay, by now you are familiar with my thoughts about this year--disappointing. But there are reasons to be optimistic about the long-term health of the program. We are 6-2 right now, and young as hell. Sure those losses are frustrating, and better gameplanning might have produced a win over PSU and a less embarrassing loss to MSU. But structurally we are not a great team. We are too young, too inexperienced and our coaching staff is focused on creating structural advantages rather than schematic ones. It's disappointing that we can't do both, but you don't always need to--at least on both sides of the ball. Both Alabama and Stanford play disciplined, smart defense and pair that with solid-plus offenses. They are now fixtures in the top 10. This is what we are aiming for, and by the way recruiting is going, we will arrive there in 2 years. I know everyone wants to be good now--I do too--and this doesn't take away from the disappointment many of us feel at the moment.
But it's not worth getting carried away. Hoke is safe through 2015. Mattison is also safe through 2015, in part because of how far he's brought us from the GERGian depths and in part because the defense is even younger and less experienced than the offense, overall. Funk is also probably not as terrible an OL coach as many of you assume, and will likely be back next year.
As for Borges...well, I don't know. He may end up reproducing his success from UCLA and Auburn here once all the pieces are in place, and this style of offense does succeed in many places. That said, I think it's clear that he wasn't the right OC hire for this transition period. The question is: what do Hoke and Brandon do now? A move to the NFL wouldn't completely surprise me. Nor would retaining him and seeing if he can finish the job.
Either way, I'm just trying to make it to 2015 with my sanity intact.