A lot of the headlines about this game will focus on Javon Ringer. And that’s cool. He was an absolute workhorse again today and racked up a second straight 200-yard game, this time against a BCS conference-quality foe (insert joke here about Notre Dame and the BCS, but they’re clearly a notch up from EMU).
And here’s hoping the apparent ankle injury Ringer suffered in the 4th quarter isn’t a serious one (he managed to come back and score a TD after the injury). The count on total offensive/special teams touches is now up to 155 for Ringer and 85 for everyone else. (One minor gripe: I understand the mentality of forcing your will on the opponent on goal line plays, but can we run a play action fake to the tight end once or twice?)
From my perch in the 16th row of the upper deck of Spartan Stadium, though, the key factor in this game was Notre Dame’s passing attack (as predicted here and elsewhere). But it was a fairly complex factor, with three distinct phases during the game:
- To start the game, Notre Dame apparently heard the phrase “run the ball to dictate the game tempo” one too many time and thought it applied to them, rather than MSU. The Irish ran the ball on their first six offensive plays, for a grand total of seven yards. They effectively gave away their first two possessions. Apparently, they came out with a mindset of not taking risks through the air–a bizarre mindset when your passing game is the only advantage you have on paper.
- After running a standard pro-set offense the rest of the first half, with little success, they finally decided to let Clausen take over the game in the third quarter, quickly putting MSU on its heels. They drove most of the field using a 5-receiver formation MSU didn’t seem to have an answer for (note: blitzing a linebacker/safety doesn’t work when the QB is throwing off a three-step drop). Unfortunately for the Irish, they gave the ball away on a fumble in MSU territory. Following a three-and-out, in which they strangely went away from the 5-receiver formation, they went back to the five-receiver set on the next possession and proceed to score their only touchdown. At this point, we Spartan faithful could smell another MSU collapse.
- But the MSU secondary managed to hold when it mattered. Our cornerbacks looked vulnerable at times during the game, as Notre Dame attacked the sidelines to avoid Otis Wiley, but they did the job in the end. In the two drives following Notre Dame’s touchdown, they held Clausen to just 5-13 on passing attempts. (Let’s not talk about the missed tackle on 3rd and 17, OK?) Given that MSU never got a great pass rush on Clausen (I believe all three of MSU’s sacks were coverage sacks), the secondary performed pretty darn well today.
On offense, MSU stuck to its game plan, and that was enough to win. Following up on the pregame post by Rakes of Mallow, I took a look at what MSU did on first down in this game (look, some actual statistical analysis of a football game from the Spartans Weblog!):
- There were 28 first down plays for MSU. They ran the ball 21 times and passed it 7 times. That’s right in line with their pass-run ratio coming into the game.
- Notre Dame did a pretty good job containing Ringer on first down. On the 21 rushing plays, MSU gained 96 yards (4.6 yards per attempt). But they gave up four or more yards (a good measure of success on first down) on only 8 of those 21 plays.
- Hoyer was just 3-7 on first down passes. But one of those three completions was a big one–28 yards to Mark Dell on the first play after Notre Dame closed to within six points.
MSU found enough ways to overcome short runs on first down–which will be a key against tougher Big Ten defenses. Hoyer still looked a little erratic today on shorter throws, but he showed some moxie in driving the team down for the field goal to extend the lead to nine. And the offensive line eventually wore down the Notre Dame defense, opening up the hole for the 63-yard run by Ringer (on a second down play) to effectively end the game.
I think this was exactly the kind of win Mark Dantonio wanted. My only concern is the degree to which Charlie Weiss gave him an assist by foregoing a more aggressive passing attack early. And the three turnovers by the Irish certainly helped–although one of those turnovers was a pure Otis Wiley creation.
Any day you get to spend a sunny afternoon watching the Spartans beat the Irish in person is a good one. I was pleasantly surprised that a high percentage of fans (90%+ by my estimate) participated in the “White Out.” Seemed like a much higher percentage than in previous years. Felt a little bit like Happy Valley.
Coffee Talk: So how’d this attempt at an actual football game recap go? What’d I miss? What encourages/concerns you most about this team going into Big Ten play?
Postscript: Some basketball news for what is purportedly a basketball blog: Eric Lacy reports that Draymond Green was impressive in the morning pick-up games with Spartan hoops alumni. Green has lost 30 pounds since last year. He was listed at 6’6″, 230 in high school. At 6’6″, 200, he may be in a good position to become Raymar Morgan’s primary back-up at the 4 spot.