The Spartans look to get back on track by welcoming Eastern Michigan to town. Mike Hart isn't available to the media, but Carter Adler from Eagle Totem was nice enough to answer some questions for us again. In case you missed our preseason Q&A, here it is.
1. Through training camp and now three games, what has surprised you most about the Eagles since we last talked?
My god, they're awful.
Especially the offense.
This was supposed to be a veteran offense. Players who accounted for 50 of the 60 offensive line starts last year returned, and that was a solid offensive line that really excelled at run-blocking. The top two running backs returned -- three if you count Alex Gillett, and since he led the team in rushing yards, I think you have to. The quarterback, who started 27 games before this season, and who was statistically the nation's top passer over a several-game span late last year (I think it was three or four games from late October into the first part of November), returned. The starting tight end returned and was named to the pre-season watchlist for the John Mackey Award, and they guy behind him was looking pretty good too.
Even the defense, despite the lost players, should have carried forward some of last year's success, with three starting linebackers (one of whom was the team's leading tackler last year), two starting defensive linemen, and both starting cornerbacks returning, including several pre-season All-MAC selections.
So far this year, the team has just looked awful. They've looked lost, confused, out-played, out-hustled, and out-coached. They look like no one told them that the season has started, no one clued them in that these games count.
2. EMU is allowing more than 300 yards per game on the ground. What's been the biggest problem with the run defense?
At this point, I'm going back to the position I took in 2010, which is that the defense's biggest problem is the offense. Too many three-and-outs and too many turnovers keep putting the defense right back on the field, often with a short field to defend. Let's be honest, we expected EMU's defense to take a step back -- almost all of last year's seniors were on that side of the ball -- but there's just no good reason for it to be as bad as it is. It does seem like they're still shuffling around the personnel, in particular trying to find the best group to play together on the defensive line, and I do still have hopes that they'll get this straightened out enough to be competitive in the MAC.
3. What are three keys to the game against MSU?
1. EMU needs sustained offensive drives, not three-and-outs and definitely not turnovers. This goes to the heart of what's been Ron English's offensive philosophy for the past three years. The short explanation is that, as the (almost always) underdog, an opponent is likely to -- but not assured of -- outscore EMU a little bit on each possession. To win games, EMU needs to hit those outliers in which they outscore the opponent. The law of small numbers says that you have a better chance of getting an outlier result with a smaller sample size.
To put it another way, EMU needs to flip a coin and get heads at least 75% of the time. If you flip the coin just four times, you have about a 1/3 chance of getting three or four heads flips, but as you continue to flip more and more, the chance of getting such an outlier diminish. So EMU's offensive strategy for the past few seasons was to try to diminish the total possessions in each game by keeping the clock moving (which means a run-first offense), having long drives (which means an offense that can steadily chew its way down the field at 3 to 5 yards per play, rather than an explosive offense that scores in just a few big plays), and a bend-but-don't-break defense that lets the opponent move the ball but keeps the clock moving and doesn't give up big plays.
2. EMU needs playmakers to make plays. Well, duh. But as we saw last week when Pudge Cotton scored a touchdown off an interception, made the tackle on the next play, and recovered a fumble on the play after that, setting up an EMU field goal, even in a team sport like football, outstanding individual play makes a difference. (See also: Braylon Edwards against Michigan State in 2004).
3. EMU needs to just keep cool and play their game. (And, by "their game", see point 1 above). I still think this team has a fair bit of potential, but right now it seems like a lot of guys are trying to do too much, and as a result they're not doing the most important things. For example, Alex Gillett (I hate to pick on him like this, but he's a senior quarterback, which makes him the face of the team), who can -- and did, last year -- kill teams with his feet (and that keeps the clock running and fits in with the game philosophy I mentioned above), now seems to be trying to find an open receiver, even when there isn't one (ahem, six interceptions) and even when he's got room to run in front of him.
I'm guessing that this is at least partially coaching, because the staff indicated in the offseason that they were looking for more of a passing game, but if so, it's created a square peg-round hole issue, and that's a problem the coaches need to fix. If they're committed to this style of offense, they should probably give the backup quarterbacks, Tyler Benz and Mark Iannotti, another look, and if they're committed to Gillett (and I wouldn't blame them if they were; he is, after all, a senior quarterback heading into his 31st start), they should probably do a better job of fitting the offense to his strengths.
If it sounds like I'm putting a lot of this on the coaches, particularly the offensive coaches, particularly the offensive play-calling, it's because I am.
4.EMU has turned the ball over seven times already. If they take better care of the ball, can this still be a good season for the Eagles?
It's actually worse than that. Gillett has turned the ball over seven times by himself; the team as a whole has nine turnovers (six interceptions and three fumbles lost). As I mentioned above, this hurts EMU doubly because it not only often puts opponents in good field position but also because it increases the total number of possessions. Taking better care of the ball will be necessary, but is not sufficient for EMU to have a good season.
5. Give me a score prediction and why
In my preview, I predicted 42-10, and I guess I'll stand by that. I'm not totally sold on Michigan State's offense (compared to what's going to be asked of them throughout the season), but I'm definitely not sold on what EMU is going to field on either side of the ball. My justification for that score was:
Looking at their common opponent (Notre Dame), we can guess that Purdue may have a more potent offense than Michigan State (although that was also a particularly bad game for the Spartans), so that suggests that they'll score something less than the 54 points managed by the Boilermakers. However, I also think the Spartans have a better defense than Purdue, which suggests that EMU may score less than the 16 they managed last weekend. I'll predict a final score of 42-10, with EMU's touchdown coming late in the game to make the final score look more respectable than the game really will be.
Thanks again to Carter for answering our questions, and make sure you check out Eagle Totem for everything on EMU.