Rock-Paper-Scissors: Why MSU Needs a New Defensive Coordinator

Way back in the halcyon days of 2007, I discovered the joy of schaedenfreude on the internets. Most notably, there was one blog in particular that was sooooo shaken by its team's loss to a I-AA opponent that the blog's proprietor took everything down in favor of pictures of kittens. I poked around in the archives (once the site was back up) and discovered that despite rampant Michigan homerism and occasional manic-depressiveness, this particular blog featured the finest writing, humor, and (especially) analysis to be found. Nothing could hold a candle to the mgoblog.

Brian, being the genius that he is, was able to take a complicated subject (game theory) and make it simple to understand, while at the same time adding humor for illustrative purposes. And I still have imprinted (as have most mgoblog fans) his words on former U-M offensive coordinator Mike Debord's playcalling strategy:

When Mike Debord plays rock-paper-scissors, he always picks rock.

Rock totally beats scissors. Why would anyone pick anything else? Sure, occasionally someone will throw his own rock, but this is Michigan. We can out-execute their rock. And there are rumors of this thing called "paper". Apparently it beats rock, which seems darned unsporting, but Mike Debord will believe that when Mike Debord sees it. We can probably out-execute paper, too. Some people will hypothesize that the potential existence of paper warrants the occasional scissors throw, but only three things can happen when you throw scissors and two of them are bad. The idea of throwing "paper" is to be regarded with naught but scorn. Oooh, a Snickers bar! Mike Debord likes Snickers and will let pet monkey Bonzo call a series as he enjoys a candy bar.

Hey, Bonzo scored a touchdown. Now we're ahead. Let's go back to rock. Rock beats scissors.

Rock, rock. Definitely rock. Rock. Judge Wapner's on at ten.

Well, it appears that MSU has its own version of Mike Debord: Pat Narduzzi. As my unindicted co-conspirator DrDetroit pointed out recently, MSU's defensive game plan is monotonous, unimaginative, and fails to adjust to cover its own shortcomings in talent -- and as a result is shredded by above-average offenses.

It's as though Narduzzi has become convinced that offenses will only throw "rock", so he only throws "paper", except on obvious passing downs like 3rd and long where he throws "scissors". But when he throws "scissors", he fails to disguise that he is going to throw "scissors". While he and his opponent are counting to three, Narduzzi has two fingers out of his fist in a V and mutters "scissors comin atcha!" before he throws "scissors".

We have seen this two games in a row and will definitely see it again, most notably with Michigan. Modern no-huddle offenses are lining up quickly not necessarily to keep the defense off balance, but to have time to read the defensive scheme and adjust. Quarterback lifts his foot / claps / waves / whatever the trigger signal is. MSU blitzers walk up to the line or show blitz off the corners. Offense looks up, reads the pending blitz or rotation (after all, we just showed it to them), looks to sideline for audible (or in a more recent trend, adjusts hot read or receiver route), then runs play. Blitz is stuffed, or play is changed to take advantage of blitz (screen, draw, quick slant, etc.) The offense knows when "scissors" is coming and quickly adjusts to throw "rock". Then MSU goes back to "paper", "paper", "paper".

When I was a kid (this was back in the day of only 3 network channels on TV plus WKBD Channel 50, no internet, no cell phones, and you only knew what was printed in the Detroit Free Press ["Freep" to you young whippersnappers]) we would play rock-paper-scissors when we got bored, which was frequently. One time my brother threw "dynamite": a fist with thumb sticking out as the fuse. See, "dynamite" changed the power balance of the game, because it could beat two of the three other items: the fire from the lit fuse would burn "paper", and the explosion would blow up "rock". The only thing that could beat "dynamite" was "scissors", because "scissors" would cut the lit fuse preventing the "dynamite" from exploding.

Creative offenses these days are throwing not only "dynamite", but many other things as well. Here's mgoblog again, correctly giddy at what appears to be the full implementation of the RichRod crazy ninja offense at Michigan:

Rodriguez only tolerates predictability insofar as he has to, and operates his offense as a coherent suite of plays that you have to guess right on lest you get gashed. This is not "rock rock rock," it's "rock, scissors, rock, rock, paper, scissors, candle, rock, wait what candle(?) oops you scored a touchdown."

So. Offenses have adjusted, and adjusted quickly. The history of sports (real sports, now, not those sports where a draw is a favorable outcome (cough*soccer*cough)) matches that of warfare: offense always wins. No matter how one tries to improve defense, the offense will always adapt and overcome, while becoming even more lethal in the process. The concept of "defense" then becomes a focus on ways to slow the opponent down, to make them pay more than they are willing to in order to achieve their goal. In football, the skill of a defense is measured in its ability to force the opponent's offense to make more mistakes than your offense does against the opponent's defense. The way to do that is through deception (disguising coverages) and achieving local numerical superiority (7 or 8 rushers against 5 blockers; or, if that's not working, 7 defenders against 5 receivers). An Army acquaintance of mine once told me, "if you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck". Too often this year MSU's defense has found itself trying merely to achieve a "fair fight" instead of making it as unfair (in their favor) as possible. Narduzzi keeps throwing "paper" even though it's obviously not sufficient.

If Michigan State has any hope in competing at a higher level, then all the infrastructure and foundations need to be laid. Mental toughness, winning attitude, discipline, recruiting better players, loyalty. But it is time that Dantonio started realizing that other teams are going to throw "candle", "dynamite", "avalanche", "killer bees", and who knows what else, and that MSU's defense needs learn how to throw "candle snuffer", "bucket of water", "hidden fire extinguisher", and "bulldozer tank with flamethrower mounted in turret". And the only way to learn those things, I fear, is to find a new defensive coordinator, because Narduzzi hasn't shown himself imaginative enough to even come up with those things, much less throw them in a game.

This is a FanPost, written by a member of the TOC community. It does not represent the official positions of The Only Colors, Inc.--largely because we have no official positions.