It will be quite some time before MSU sees the Megaphone Trophy again. Notre Dame took it back in 2011, and after Saturday's 17-13 Irish win, the teams won't play each other until 2016 at the earliest. The break comes as Notre Dame has its first three-game winning streak in the series since 1994.
It was MSU's first game against a legitimate opponent and a chance to get a gauge on this team. The results were what we expected. The defense is as good as advertised, while the offense is equally as bad. But the questions about the offense have moved from the players to the coaches.
MSU nearly won a game we had expected to be a loss for months, but it's the way they lost that was so discouraging heading into a bye week.
First, looking back at the keys to the game.
Protect the quarterback: Just one sack and three quarterback hurries given up. I was pleasantly surprised by MSU's offensive line, especially considering Donovan Clark was starting and Travis Jackson was out.
Turnovers: Just one, and it may have been the turning point. With the MSU offense moving the ball down the field in a 10-10 tie, MSU called a WR reverse pass with R. J. Shelton. Being a true freshman, Shelton didn't know any better, probably couldn't read a coverage and threw into triple coverage. The pass was intercepted. It didn't lead to points, but it broke rare momentum for MSU's offense.
Pressure gets to Tommy Rees:. Zero sacks and just one quarterback hurry. MSU's blitzes weren't getting there, allowing Rees to sit back. MSU got just as much pressure when they rushed four as when they blitzes. It certainly seemed like MSU didn't blitz as much as they normally do, but it turned out to be the right thing, as Rees was 14-for-34 passing.
For Notre Dame:
Hit big passing plays: Notre Dame's offensive gameplan was basically to just chuck it up against single coverage on the outside, something I didn't think most teams would have the guts to do. The result was a lot of all or nothing plays. The Irish hit some plays, missed some and also got four pass interference penalties. Many of which were questionable. (More on that below).
Stop the run: MSU averaged 3.4 yards per rush, but Jeremy Langford was at 4.9. Notre Dame probably liked seeing other backs in the game.
Run the ball: Nothing. Notre Dame averaged 2.6 yards per rush. They got some key runs in the fourth quarter — a touchdown and game-clinching first down — but that was it.
Now, looking back at MSU on all sides of the ball:
This balanced stuff isn't going to work. MSU has a running back who can do some things in Langford and a quarterback who can run (and not throw well). Cook finished 16-for-32 for 135 yards and a touchdown. That's a lot of passes. MSU finished with one fewer rush than pass.
Cook missed a number of throws. He's almost always too high, and that's because his footwork is awful. His timing with receivers was also way off. A number of throws were made before the receivers were ready. But that's expected with him. What I don't understand is wanting a QB who creates and then not trying to create anything with him.
At times, MSU actually moved the ball on the ground, but then they would call something like the Wildcat (which has never worked), some pass plays or that idiotic reverse pass with Shelton. The Shelton pass was preceded by a 5-yard Langford rush, a 2-yard Cook completion and an 11-yard Langford run. The previous drive was a 15-play drive that went 75 yards, relied on the running game and resulted in a field goal (It ended because of Wildcat and then two pass calls).
Instead of trying to catch the opponent off-guard with a trick and putting a true freshman in a bad spot, why not keep going with what was working? Every time something gets going, someone messes it up.
There were something like four or five drops. Two — a slant to Keith Mumphrey and screen to Nick Hill— were terrible drops. The others were typically on bad throws, but you need to make those catches if you want to win. Macgarrett Kings (4 catches, 33 yards, 1 TD) remains the only somewhat-reliable target. Aaron Burbridge (4 catches, 20 yards) was running terrible routes, but Cook kept throwing to him in key situations.
Cook completing 50 percent of his passes (not counting drops) isn't terrible, but it's the passes by other players that were questionable. Cook went 11-for-17 in the second half (for not huge chunks, but still), and he was actually 10-for-13 at one point, before completing one of his final four passes and then getting pulled for Maxwell. Cook was 4-for-5 in the half before they decided to let Shelton throw the ball.
On the ground, people kept asking why Langford wasn't getting more carries. He had 14 rushes for 68 yards, and just one carry in the fourth quarter. Nick Hill had one fewer carry and half the yards. Sure, he was alright on the touchdown drive, but Langford is the one offensive weapon who was consistently making some plays. He has to be used more.
I was surprised MSU didn't use more option, sweeps or reverses with Cook. Again, the offensive line was actually getting quite a bit of push, but MSU didn't take advantage by running the ball more. Screen plays don't work with this team, but the play designs were bland and generally easy to defend.
MSU's longest pass play was 19 yards. The longest run was 11 yards. Zero explosiveness again. That's what happens when you're not throwing past the first-down marker. MSU scored one touchdown in four red zone opportunities. That's not going to work.
And then the decision to go with Andrew Maxwell at the end. There are no words for that. Dantonio said the coaches want to go with him. I mentioned I wanted MSU to run hurry-up with Maxwell because he performed better in those situations, but I didn't mean at the end of the game when he hadn't played in two weeks.
Andrew Maxwell on the last MSU possession in 1 possession games: 8/16, 60 yards, 3.75 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT. Why coaches? Why u do dis? Whyyyyy?— Heck Dorland (@HeckAtTOC) September 22, 2013
If you're Cook, where is your head at? He was the quarterback. Then he gets pulled for the most important drive. Now we go into the bye week questioning everything again. I just did not understand that at all.
MSU quarterback Connor Cook was surprised he didn't go out for last drive, thought coaches had more faith in him. Told he's still No 1 QB...— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) September 21, 2013
I don't understand how your first year quarterback is ever supposed to get experience in close, late game, situations if you take him out.— Heck Dorland (@HeckAtTOC) September 21, 2013
Cook is the quarterback. We're a third of the way through the season. Switching quarterbacks should be done with. Especially when it comes to the final freaking drive of the game.
The offense returned to the form we've seen all too often: Bad routes, bad drops, bad throws and confusing play-calling. Why is Langford not getting more carries? What happened to getting the tight ends involved? Why can no one still get open downfield? Why not call more designed runs for Cook? You can actually run the ball with this offense. Do it.
MSU run game this year averages 4.6 YPC. MSU pass game averages 4.5 YPA. Why pass 46% of the time? Shoot, why pass *20%* of the time?— Heck Dorland (@HeckAtTOC) September 21, 2013
In all the preview Q&As I did, I kept saying Rees would get some shots downfield, and some big plays would be what gave Notre Dame the victory. I have to say I didn't expect Brian Kelly and Rees to just throw fade after fade after fade after fade. All things considered, with MSU corners consistently being attacked on islands, they didn't perform poorly.
So we have to talk about the four pass interference penalties. Some of them were terrible, but there were also some not called that should have been. In the end, Notre Dame had 14 first downs, and about half of them came by MSU penalty. Every Notre Dame scoring drive included either a pass interference or holding on the defensive backs.
It was clear what Dantonio, a former DBs coach, thought about that when asked if he'd seen so many interference penalties.
"I've been coaching 30 plus years. No, never," he said in his presser. "I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."
Pat Narduzzi's opinion was also noted.
S/O to the 2 the best corners in the country. @TWaynes_15 @DDennard_31 The best there is!!!!!!! #spartandawgs— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzMSU) September 22, 2013
In the end, Notre Dame finished with 224 total yards and 4.2 yards per pass attempt. I don't expect other teams to just chuck it on every play (though they might be smart to). The defense gave up 17 points. That's a plenty fine performance.
The worry comes with the pass rush, which never got there, as noted above. MSU didn't blitz as much as I expected, and it might have been because the blitz wasn't getting there.
Right off the bat, Matt Macksood blocks a punt and you think MSU is in business. Then Kevin Muma misses his second chip-shot field goal of the season, and you knew it was going be a long day. Muma did not attempt a kick after that, other than kickoffs. The redshirt on Michael Geiger was burned. He made a 25-yard and 42-yard field goal and an extra point, putting the Geiger Counter at 7.
The coaches weren't putting up with mistakes. Nick Hill fumbled kickoff, and we didn't see him back there again. Other than that, Mike Sadler had five punts, averaging 41.4 yards and putting one inside the 20. Kings makes people nervous catching punts overhand.
Had Cook remained in the game for the final drive and flamed out, it would have just been viewed as another bad offensive performance. But putting Maxwell in there and then seeing him flailing was a cherry on top of a terrible performance and left the sourest of tastes.
I don't know. Somehow, I see MSU put up 254 yards of offense and felt somewhat optimistic. Maybe that's how bad things are. Finish in the red zone and things look a little better.
The keys to a successful running game are there. They're just not being used properly. We've said it a million times, MSU's offense just needs to be below average. I mean, MSU only lost by four in Cook's first road start against a talented defense and a team coming off a national championship appearance.
But the problem was that it was more of the same. Again. No one has any confidence what pieces are there on offense can be used properly, and the coaches clearly don't have any faith in the players. MSU should have won this game. It didn't because the offense wasn't put in good situations, and some questionable penalties put Notre Dame's offense in good situations.
MSU's last six losses are all by four points or fewer. The offense was supposed to be different. It's not, and it's not all on the players.
A third of the season is in the books and MSU heads into a bye week before traveling to Iowa for the Big Ten opener. Do you have any confidence that the offense will be any different in two weeks? You shouldn't. There are a few pieces, but they're not being utilized. MSU is what it is, and it's not a very good team. The defense will keep every game close. Wins and losses will be determined if MSU's offense can make that extra play or two that makes the difference. Expect a lot of similar games and similar frustration for the rest of the season.
This was a terrible recap, I know. It's just hard to say the same thing every week.