Sorry in advance that my posts tend to ramble, big-time, but it's the offseason and there is just no joy for another month.I should preface this post with the qualifier that I adore what Coach Dantonio has done with our program, and I steadfastly believe he has not yet taken this team as high as it can go. It's that very topic, in light of the vast disappointment of last season, that I want to discuss.
When reading the Q&A Chris did with Hammer & Rails regarding the Purdue matchup, one of the first things mentioned is that new Boilermaker coach Darell Hazell is, like our own Coach Dantonio, a former assistant of Ohio State's Jim Tressel. I started wondering about the long-term compatibility of the hire because, as I understand it, Purdue fans rightfully take great pride in their team's history of prolific passing attacks. But Hazell, being a Tressel disciple, has already shown in his short time as a head coach at Kent State that he prefers a dominant two-back ground game, with a personal emphasis on special teams. As I idly pondered whether, if his first few seasons go badly, Purdue fans might lose patience with him and agitate for a return to what the school has historically done well, the well-known features of Tresselball came to mind.
First, always an outstanding defense. The best of Tressel's defenses were masterminded by Dantonio himself, and were, if anything, better than the excellent defenses we're now fielding, and were studded with future NFL players. Second, equally sound special teams, usually marked by some of the most athletic return men in the country. Third, a buttoned-up, conservative offensive philosophy to which the big mistake- the INT or fumble returned for a TD- was absolutely anathema. The gameplan was thus run-oriented, relying on elite offensive lines and immensely talented backs to play as safe as possible while still grinding the opponent down.
The natural consequence of Tresselball is that OSU sometimes played in games that were closer on the scoreboard than the disparity in talent on the field. That's not to say they didn't have more than their fair share of blowout wins- I'll never forget that hideous 2008 game with Beanie Wells, Pryor, Laurinaitis, and Jenkins all on the same team- but they also allowed far more teams to linger around within striking distance than should have been the case with the number of future pros they had littered at all positions.
Dantonio has, in every meaningful way, modeled his approach to the game after Tresselball. He has always been a defensively-minded coach, our special teams are typically solid, and our preferred offensive style is based on the power run game. Some adjustments have, of course, been necessary. MSU does not pull the same caliber of recruit that OSU does, so more careful scouting of undervalued recruits was a big part of the initial classes (Cousins, Martin, Bell), and still is to a lesser extent (Jack Conklin). MSU, as Chris has repeatedly and correctly noted, has raised its talent floor, in that our least-well-regarded recruits are now considered to be substantially better than they once were. However, there's no doubt that we are, at best, the 4th largest power in the Midwest, and our head-to-head recruiting results against Michigan, OSU and ND continue to reflect that.
When we hired Jim Bollman away from Purdue, it sort of brought everything full circle, and to me indicated that after the train wreck that was 2012, Dantonio was doubling down on Tresselball. Since the Bollman hire has made it clear that we will not be deviating from our version of Dantonioball as long as Coach D is in charge, I think it's fair to ask: can schools that are not OSU achieve the same level of success with that system that Tressel himself did? We've proven that it's possible to construct an early-to-mid-00s OSU caliber defense without the Heyward-Hawk-Jenkins types of individual talent. In fact, Narduzzi's innovation and scheming may even make our defenses better than the ones Dantonio himself assembled.
Offensively, it's much less clear that we can consistently assemble and run a Tresselball offense without getting very fortunate in the development of our guys and accumulating substantial experience and chemistry- meaning, in short, that we might not be able to field a competitive offense every year, or even most years. The additional factor of #AMSUOLHG has prevented us from ever, under Dantonio, assembling the kind of offensive line necessary to run Tresselball properly. To his credit, through his first several seasons, Dantonio often compensated with outstanding development of skill position players and timely use of trick plays.
Still, were he to be totally honest, I think Coach D would acknowledge that, after 6 full seasons, we aren't where we could be; our last Rose Bowl appearance still happened before I was born, fergodsakes. Coach D has said on numerous occasions that this offseason has been about finding the inches. The nagging concern I have is that those missing inches might just be the difference between the talent level Tressel's OSU had and the one we have.
In closing, let me repeat that of course Dantonio understands how to construct a football program much, much better than I do. I'm not suggesting we go Air Raid or spread option, because we don't have the players or coaches to do that and it would mean a really, really painful transition on offense that I don't want to experience. But until we've actually climbed the mountain, I'll be anxious about whether we may be using the wrong system to do so. And God knows I don't want to ever see what our offense puked up last season from guys wearing our uniforms.