Imagine that the MSU coaching staff had a crystal ball and had known right off the bat that Kirk Cousins was the guy they wanted as the starting QB when the season started. To date, MSU quarterbacks have thrown 300 total passes: 224 by Cousins, 76 by Nichol. What if all 300 had been thrown by Cousins? (And, yes, I realize you also have to imagine Cousins didn't sprain his ankle against Michigan; just play along for now.)
Here are Cousins' actual year-to-date passing stats, along with extrapolated numbers based on 300 passing attempts:
Now let's look at how the second line of numbers compares with the other top Big Ten quarterbacks. (Note that selecting the "top Big Ten quarterbacks" at this point is a fairly arbitrary exercise, which is part of the point I'll get to in a moment.)
Daryll Clark is the only other quaterback in the conference who can match the passing numbers Cousins' performance would translate to in full-time play. And Clark, like most other Big Ten quarterbacks, is putting up his numbers in the context of having a functioning running game. Kirk Cousins is playing quarterback at an all-conference level despite that the fact that opposing defenses know that MSU offers almost no threat of rushing the ball successfully.
The point of this exercise is not to somehow claim Mark Dantonio should have known Cousins was the choice at quarterback two months ago. (I, for one, was leaning the other way at that point.) The point is that he should recognize how good a player Cousins is right now. He's, at worst, the second best quarterback in the conference and, given that there's no running back or wide receiver having a breakout year, you could make a pretty strong argument he's the single most effective offensive weapon in the league.
So what do we do when our backs are against the wall? We take the ball out of his hands:
- Keith Nichol is inserted into the game following a series on which Cousins manufactured a highlight-reel TD pass, resulting in a three-and-out that's followed by a Minnesota scoring drive.
- Five straight unsuccessful running plays are called on goal-to-go plays, despite overwhelming evidence that the offensive line cannot create the surge necessary to convert short-yardage situations on the ground (see: Michigan State-Iowa, October 24, 2009; Michigan State-Northwestern, October 17, 2009; etc.). And when a passing play is finally called, it's a play that has a defender almost in Cousins' lap before he even turns to throw. [Correction: Four running plays in six goal-to-go attempts--for a total of one negative yard--with the two passing plays coming on the 3rd-down attempts, when the defense would be clearly expecting it.]
I simply cannot understand the thought process that went behind putting Nichol in the game. If you're up a score or two, fine. But why would you do anything to interrupt your momentum after you've scored a huge touchdown to close an almost-instantaneous 14-point deficit to start the game into just a 4-point gap?
And why not give Cousins one or two shots on the goal line to drop back in a spread formation and throw a quick pass to a receiver in one-on-one coverage? Can the odds of success really be any lower than what the team has seen with the "we're a power running team, darn it all" approach Mark Dantonio and Don Treadwell have stuck with all season?
Now I realize that last night's loss was a function of a multitude of both freakish and nonfreakish factors. Among them:
- A simply horrific overturn of a Minnesota fumble by the replay official. (It sure seems like you have to have possession of the ball to catch it, turn your body, and take two steps--without any obvious bobbling.)
- A simply bizarre play in which a bobbled pass off a vicious hit seems to have some sort of homing device built into it that caused it to jump straight up into the arms of a Gopher player streaking toward the end zone.
- An MSU secondary that simply couldn't make plays on the ball, even when they were in position to do so.
But here's the thing: None of those factors are controllable. The first two certainly aren't. The third is something you'd think that the coaching staff could rectify at some point over a four-month season, but if it hasn't happened by now, it probably isn't going to.
Short-circuiting your own offense by refusing to play to your clearly-identifiable strength is controllable.
And that means last night's loss is on Mark Dantonio.
There's a risk of overreacting here, of course. I'm writing this less than 12 hours after the game ended. But I think it has to be said: Dantonio's stubbornness is costing this team games. I still firmly think he's the right man to be MSU's head coach. He's gotten a team that still has almost no elite-level talent very close to contending for a Big Ten title in two consecutive seasons. And that's what makes this all so frustrating. With a few relatively minor strategic changes--most particularly some offensive creativity on the goal line--MSU could very well be waking up to a 5-1 Big Ten record, tied atop the conference standings, this morning.
As it is, the Pizza!Pizza! Bowl, and the extra month of practice that comes with it, now looks pretty attractive. If the team can achieve that result, Mark Dantonio will have gotten the team to a bowl game in each of his first three seasons as head coach, which is no small feat in the context of the modern Michigan State football program. But, if he's ever going to get the team to the bowl game we last visited January 1, 1988, he simply has to show more ability to adapt than he has this season.
P.S. To his credit, Dantonio took the blame for the loss last night:
We were outcoached and they had their guys ready to play. We came up here thinking we were ready, but obviously we were not.
But, given that the strategic mistakes we're talking about are the same thing the coaching staff has been doing all year, that statement rings a little hollow. Dantonio and his staff have three (maybe four) games left this season to show whether or not they can make the changes that seem so frustratingly obvious to outside observers.