Michigan State’s loss to Maryland featured a number of frustrating and disappointing moments. All too often the Spartans looked inexperienced, under skilled, and had poor execution. While the players made mistakes that led to the loss, there were a few prime examples of coaching undermining even the best efforts of the players.
While it’s cliché to say that players win games and coaches lose games, the examples listed below go beyond that. These were signs of a coaching staff struggling to make good decisions and put their players in positions to succeed.
Here is a run down of 5 examples of true coaching malpractice, and to balance it out two positives at the end.
A Fair Catch on the 15-Yard Line
Michigan State started the game receiving the kick off. It’s not a good sign when the first on-field action is a red flag. The kick returning moved up to field a short kick about the 15 yard line, despite having the back line of blockers surrounding him and no Maryland player within 5 yards, a fair catch was called.
This was shocking. A short kick like that should have been an opportunity for Michigan State’s young speedy core of kick returners to start the game out aggressively. Instead, a decision was made on field that had to have been coached into the player. That type of poor guidance fit with a game where the special teams were atrocious from start to finish.
Up Tempo Offense After First Downs
Please stop the up tempo first down possessions. Michigan State clearly wants to “press the advantage” after every first down and has the offense running to the ball, lining up and snapping with urgency to get another play moving. This is not working, and is in fact hurting Michigan State.
Up tempo approaches can be great. If it keeps a defense off balance, or locks a defense into a personnel grouping that is vulnerable (see next point for more on that), an offense can really thrive going up tempo. In some cases tempo even helps an offense get into rhythm. For Michigan State is consistently is doing the opposite.
Noah Kim is still adjusting to running the offense and making live game reads. The shell shock from the Washington loss didn’t look like it wore off until late in the first quarter against Maryland. Yet, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson repeatedly forced Kim to scramble drill from a positive play into his next play without getting set.
Worse than the issues with Kim are the lack of complimentary football. The way to play the high powered offense of Washington - and the slightly less high powered Maryland - is to keep their offense off the field. Going up tempo and wasting the ability to burn the clock puts more pressure on the defense, not less.
But back to the offensive side of the ball. Kim is NOT confident enough yet to transition play to play and his reads of the defense demonstrate that. The interception on the first offensive series was a prime example, it put Kim rushing his reads and mechanics and firing a terrible interception. That’s bad play calling. That’s a coach not understanding his personnel (more on THAT below as well). And simply put, it’s coaching malpractice.
Substitution on the Goal Line
On an early Maryland’s touchdown drive the defense was starting to show the fight that would hold up for the last 60% of the game. Maryland was on the 4 yard line driving in, Michigan state’s defense stopped a run play, and the ball ended up on the 1 yard line. While Maryland lined up on the ball - not even with that much urgency - Michigan State’s defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton called for a personnel swap that saw at least two substitutions.
Instead of Michigan State calling time out while players scrambled on and off the field, Maryland snapped the ball and the easiest penalty call of the day was made. Referees had their choice of players offsides or too many on the field. This is one of the clearest examples of coaching malpractice I’ve seen in a long while.
Michigan State was already in a goal line defensive package on the previous play. If they truly felt it was crucial to swap out 2 or more defenders on the next play, call a timeout. There was NEVER a chance Michigan State players would make it off or on the field from the 1 yard line. By rule, these players had to sprint at least 20 yards to get back to the bench area, or they could be called for a penalty. I played high school football more years ago than I’d like to admit and I know that. A million dollar plus coordinator for a Big Ten program should never make this mistake.
A Flea Flicker in the 4th Quarter
Jay Johnson is killing this team. I could spend hours pontificating on the ways he is making this team worse every week. From a predictably terrible call on 4th and 1 yard to the endzone, to the up-tempo offense (already covered), to multiple route combinations that resulted in 2+ receivers within 5 yards of each other, Jay Johnson appears to be auditioning for a job teaching high school math. All of those examples pale in comparison to the first play he ran with Kaitin Houser: A flea flicker.
Please stop with the flea flickers. This return to backyard football was fun when Michigan State popped a few touchdowns because defenses were terrified of Kenneth Walker, III. Since then, it’s just become an overly predictable waste of a play. Calling it on Houser’s first possession of the game is a criminally bad idea. Johnson seems to have no idea how to get QBs comfortable and into a rhythm. He consistently fails to get Noah Kim into a rhythm and calls plays that require too much of an inexperienced QB. Doing it on Houser’s first play against a first team defense screams willful incompetence.
Playing Sam Leavitt is a decision that everyone on the coaching staff should be questioned about. Lame answers about wanting to get the true freshman 90 seconds of game experience should be balanced against protecting one of his four games he can play without burning his red shirt. If the coaches are interested to see Leavitt play against Big Ten competition then give him a series (or more) against a Big Ten’s first team. Garbage time against backups gives almost no indication of future success (see Damien Terry, potential Noah Kim, etc. etc).
If the move was to engage Leavitt before he considers transferring out, then they needed to do it with more than 90-seconds of garbage time that burned a full game of potential play. If I were Leavitt, I would refuse to play in more than 4-games this season - even if my intention was to stay at Michigan State. Michigan State just shrunk that window to three games. Every single coach needs to look in the mirror and reflect on that.
To end this on a more positive note, there were two small coaching decisions that are worth being positive about.
Michigan State is using QB sneaks! For anyone reading this that is not a long time Spartan fan, this may seem obvious. Anyone that has sat through Jay Johnson’s refusal to put the QB under center and run a standard short yard play this is improvement. Who knows if this is Johnson finally buckling to reality, or some odd change that Mel Tucker blocked and acting head coach Harlon Barnett changed. Either way, it’s a relief to see one element of the offense done rationally.
Aggressive Game Decisions
Interim coaches have nothing to lose, and it looks like Harlon Barnett is embracing this. The second offensive drive of the game against Maryland was defined by aggressive decisions. Going for it on 4th down from your own 38 yard line was gutsy. It showed faith in an offense that needs some confidence. Going for it on 4th and goal on the 1-yard line was a similar gutsy call. The second call didn’t work out as MSU got stuffed (see above complaints about Jay Johnson). It still looked like the right call as Michigan State’s defense did not look capable enough to keep up with Maryland’s offense through field goals. In hindsight though the points would have been nice.
Similarly, going for it on 4th and 18 with less than 15 seconds left in the first half was aggressive and the right call. That would have been an impossible field goal, for not a lot of benefit down 21-3. MSU called a play that would have converted the first down and it landed incomplete. Yes, they were saved by a face mask penalty which led to another shot at the end zone (dropped) and a field goal attempt (blocked) but still a nice approach by Barnett to be aggressive.
On balance, going for two after the first touchdown of the half was aggressive but maybe not as good of an idea. If Barnett’s message for his team is they will always be aggressive this fits with it. If the team understands that and isn’t deflated by a 2-pt conversion failure. In a team that needs any spark, it feels like a gutsy move that should be supported.
Barnett took this aggressive approach throughout the game, going for it on 4th and 2 on Michigan State’s own 29 yard line in the 4th quarter is another.
On a team with play calling coordinators it can sometimes be difficult to see the immediate impact of a head coach on the field. The commitment to aggressive choices seems to be the first truly defining trait of the Barnett coaching era.
Michigan State showed some positives in the loss to Maryland. Chief among them a potentially improving defense helped by improved choices by defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. It will take the players and the coaches to salvage this season into something respectable.