An Article Recollecting What Happened Two Years Ago at Michigan Stadium
Oct 3rd, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

Describing the indescribable: Voices behind Big House mayhem


by Matt Charboneau and Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News, 8:25 a.m. EDT, October 27, 2016


Jim Harbaugh let the clock wind down to 10 seconds before calling a timeout on fourth down with Michigan leading Michigan State, 23-21.

Sean McDonough, calling the game for ESPN, said the Wolverines needed to be cautious.

“Make sure the (punt) snap is on the target,” McDonough said.

Analyst Chris Spielman added his assessment.

“Tell your punter to one-step it, get it out.   Don’t take your normal steps.   One-step it, get it out, he said.

And then …

“Whoa! He has trouble with the snap!” McDonough yelled, his voice cracking as he described the play.

Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap, and Michigan State backup defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson returned it for a touchdown and a 27-23 victory.

As Watts-Jackson plunged into the end zone, Michigan’s Jake Butt lunged toward him in a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable.

“Whoa!” Michigan State radio analyst Jason Strayhorn breathlessly yelled.   “Are you kidding me?   Are you kidding me?   Are you kidding me?!”

Jim Brandstatter, on the Michigan radio play-by-play, was equally as stunned.

“He fumbled the ball!   No time left.   You’ve got to be kidding me.   That, you could not write.   I don’t know what to say.”

It’s a moment that will forever live in the minds of those who were there, those who watched, and those who listened.

And for those whose job it was to tell the story.

Each had a unique perspective about the play.

Sean McDonough

McDonough was named lead play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s Monday Night Football this season.   He covered Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball for CBS before moving to ABC/ESPN in 2000 where he has covered college football, basketball and hockey and the NHL.

“As much as Michigan looked like it was going to win, I’m proud we never said it’s a win.   We referenced, ‘If it stays this way’ and put in perspective what a win would mean under Harbaugh.   Spielman talked about the scenarios before the punt.

“It was just shocking.   People ask me all the time about the call and my voice breaking and what do you do at that point?   You don’t think about it.   You don’t think about, ‘This is a good play so I better scream like a 12-year-old.’   Good play-by-play people respond instinctively.   You go with it mentally, physically, emotionally.   First of all, you don’t have time to think, secondly, you don’t have time to anticipate.   You have 30 seconds to think about every wacky thing that might happen, and you certainly don’t think that wouldn’t happen.

“I’m a big believer in there’s nothing you can say that’s better than the pictures and the sound.   All you can do is distract from or ruin what should be a great moment if you’re talking over something that does not need a caption.   We didn’t talk for close to a minute.

“It’s one of the things I love the most about what we do.   If you’re lucky enough, you end up at a place and a moment like that, and you get one chance like that.   It’s there and there forever.   It’s like playing or coaching or officiating—it’s there.   Big plays like that, either you get it right or you don’t.

“I remember thinking after the game, ‘What happened to my voice?’   The good news is, I think I have hit puberty since then.   I’m now shaving which is very exciting.   It was bizarroland.   It was such an unexpected shocking dramatic play, I hope my high-pitched squealing added to it.   At the beginning I was, I don’t want to say embarrassed by it, but I’ve had so much great response to that.

“The magnitude of the moment, it would be hard-pressed to say I had seen an ending like that.   You walk out of there and you’re in disbelief like everyone else and you’re hoping you did it justice.   You’re around long enough you hope to be in those types of situations a few times.   I feel very fortunate to have been there.   For the Michigan people, I’m sure they didn’t think that was the right time.   That’s the benefit of not being affiliated with either team.   I did not care who won or lost.   I didn’t have the rooting-interest part of me at work.   If you did, it would be hard to focus.   I’d be hard-pressed to remember anything else from that game, except the ending.   It’s one of those plays, it will be remembered forever.”

George Blaha

Blaha has been calling Michigan State football for nearly four decades and has been on hand for some of the most memorable games in school history.   The 2014 inductee into the Michigan Broadcasting Hall of Fame is also in his 40th season as the play-by-play voice for the Pistons.

“I’ve seen my share of blocked punts for starters and you can’t do these games for as long as I have and not see some crazy things happen.   And they’ve happened to the Spartans and they’ve happened to the other guys.   So I knew I had a ringside seat.   It happened right underneath us and I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if they can block this thing?’   And then I looked and see there is nobody back, they’re coming after ‘em, which they should.   And Michigan had gunners and I thought, ‘Well you know, it looks to me like it’s the more numbers in Spartan jerseys than there are in Wolverine jerseys.   Who knows?’

“I mean, I thought to myself before the snap it was gonna have to be perfect that’s why I went crazy when I saw it was bad.   It wasn’t a good snap.   It wasn’t a horrible snap but it was not a good snap and they needed, under those circumstances, just about a perfect snap and they didn’t get it.   And Blake O’Neill, who in my opinion was the reason Michigan was ahead in the game, he kept pinning the Spartans back all day.   (Michigan State) had outgained Michigan and out-first downed them 2 to 1.   The poor kid suddenly was flooded with Spartans in his face and, including, and I thought it was appropriate as I look back on it, I didn’t know at the time who was in his face, but it was Grayson Miller and Matt Morrissey, two legacy kids.

“I was not unprepared for a blocked punt.  I thought that was about the only thing that could happen here to turn this the other way and it’s happened before, let’s see what happens now.   It was bedlam after that.   Absolute bedlam.   I thought it was Jalen Watts-Jackson but I had to look down on my sheet just to be sure because you want whoever did it to get proper credit and it was Jalen and good for him.   He paid for it dearly and had to recoup from his hip injury but he’s a Spartan hero for the rest of his life.”

Jim Brandstatter

Brandstatter, who played offensive line at Michigan between 1969-71, handles radio play-by-play for the school and is an analyst on Lions radio broadcasts.   He also hosts the Inside Michigan Football television show and the Inside Michigan Football radio show with coach Jim Harbaugh.

“It happened so fast, you just react.   My position is, your training takes over.   All I remember thinking ahead of time, ‘They’re going to block it.   Make sure you get the kick off.’   They had nobody deep.   He gets this away, it’s over.   I didn’t say that because (Michigan State) brought everybody up.   I went ‘Well they better max protect and get this off.’

“Like every play-by-play announcer, everything was up for grabs and at that point, that’s when your training takes over.   I called the play, I was accurate, but I didn’t get the name of Jalen Watts-Jackson who recovered it and scored.   I said, ‘10, five, touchdown Michigan State.   And they’ve won the football game.’   Twenty seconds later I got his name.

“And then I paused.   You let the crowd tell the story.   After a few seconds, I said, you can’t write this stuff.   Dan didn’t say anything for another 10 seconds.   He finally said, ‘I’m just taking some time to process what I just saw.’   Both of us looked at each other.   You’ve got to play 60 minutes and this was a perfect example.   Both of us sat there and looked at each other.

“I’ve got to finish the game.   I’ve been through the Hail Marys, but 99 out of 100 times this doesn’t happen.   When we beat Indiana in ‘79, that wasn’t going to happen, but that happened on the good side for us.   All the stars were in the right alignment and the moon was in the right position and Aquarius was inside Leo and it happened.   The only thing I would say now, that play will not have any bearing on anything that happens this year.   Michigan has revenge of eight years on their minds.   That one play doesn’t make it different.”

Chris Spielman

Spielman, the former Pro Bowl selection who played 11 seasons in the NFL including the Lions, has become a fixture in football broadcasting.   He began as an NFL studio analyst with Fox Sports Net in 1999, then spent 14 years as a college football analyst with ESPN before moving this year to join Fox’s NFL coverage.

“I just remember the setup.   The one thing I thought, I remember making a comment that he should one step it, catch it and one step and get rid of it.   Being trained as a player for so many years, you always expect the unexpected.

“The guy who was the MVP of the broadcast was the spotter for the kid who recovered the ball.   He did a great job, and Sean was on top of it with genuine emotion that makes the ending of that game so special.   Sean was really good, and I followed his lead.

“You don’t want to talk over something like that.   The pictures can speak way louder than what we had to say.   I was really proud of that whole crew for how we handled that play.   It was producer Bo Garrett and Mike Schwab, the director.   It was a once-in-a-lifetime ending, and it was one of those moments you never want to get flat-footed, and we didn’t.”

Jason Strayhorn

Strayhorn was an offensive lineman at Michigan State and started 24 consecutive games at center between 1997-98, earning first-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior.   He is in his 11th season with the Spartans Sports Network, the first seven as a sideline reporter.

“So 10 seconds left and we had no one deep at all. And I’m thinking, ‘OK, so they’re gonna kick the ball.’   And I’m thinking about Hail Mary, I’m thinking about Connor Cook getting back in the game, how much time can we get, can we get close enough within striking distance for a Hail Mary?   That’s all I was thinking about.   I wasn’t thinking about a blocked punt whatsoever.   But then I looked and I noticed they had gunners, which was odd.   I’m like, ‘Why do they have gunners, there’s nobody deep?’

“And then when he bobbled it, George hit the, ‘Bad snap!’   And I’m like, ‘Whoa!”   The ball’s in the air and it’s one of those moments where you’re just like, ‘Am I really seeing this?’   And Jalen Watts-Jackson gets the ball and all I’m thinking is, ‘Oh God, he’s gonna run out of bounds or he’s gonna get tackled.   He’s gonna fumble the ball.   What’s gonna happen?   He’s not gonna make it to the goal line.’   And then just watching him navigate through all that traffic and Butt coming and tackles him, but he crossed the goal line clearly.   That was why my reaction was so ridiculous.

“Yeah, it was raw emotion.   The guy who’s screaming ‘Oh my God!’ that is not me.   That’s (statistician) Larry Sernick.   People think that’s me going off mike, they think that was me going ‘Whoa!   Oh my God,’ like me doing both. I’m like, ‘No, no, no.   I wasn’t going that crazy.’   But I was nuts.   I was out of my mind.   There’s no doubt about it.”

Doug Karsch

Karsch is the longtime sideline reporter for Michigan radio broadcasts.   He also is co-host of Karsch & Anderson on 97.1 The Ticket.

“Every game, regardless of what’s going on, if it looks like they’re going to win, I set up a sideline interview before the game ends.   (Michigan associate athletic director Dave) Ablauf was behind the bench and we were discussing who we were going to talk to if Michigan won.   Todd McShay, the television sideline reporter, Ablauf and I were sorting out who we would talk to, and by the time we got that figured out, Michigan was lining up to punt.

“I had to decide where to go.   I went to the end to where they were punting, about the 25-yard line on the Michigan sideline.   Just as I got down there, they snapped the ball, and I absolutely had no view of it.   I saw there was no punt, and there was commotion on the sideline.   I looked at the scoreboard to see Jalen Watts-Jackson carrying the ball into the end zone.

“Now, we’re not doing an interview.   Then, my job is to go into the locker room.   I usually get three interviews.   It’s a given that if they lose a game, it will take a while.   I waited probably an hour, and if I recall correctly I got one player, maybe two, but not three.   I’ve been in some depressed locker rooms.   I’ve been in the locker room after Appalachian State — that was anger, this was shock.”

Keith Nichol

Nichol was a quarterback and wide receiver at Michigan State, his biggest moment coming in 2011 when he caught a touchdown pass on the final play to beat Wisconsin.   Now a financial representative in Troy, Nichol is in his second season as the sideline reporter for the Spartan Sports Network.

“I was on the sideline at the 40-yard line because I need to get one of the coaches for the postgame interview.   So I was trying to get behind one of them and I’m thinking about what I’m gonna say and the whole deal.   When I was looking out on the field I was thinking about everything that would have to happen in the next 10 seconds.   It could be a block that we had to jump on right away or a block that we’re scooping and scoring.   If they get the punt off, I said the game is done because by the time the ball hits the ground and it rolls and that’s 10 seconds gone right there, so when we blocked the snap I’m immediately looking for flags, looking up at the scoreboard to see if time’s ticking down.   It was getting really close at the end, I remember thinking but once he crossed the line I tried to see if there were any flags and then I threw my headset up like I was one of the coaches and started rushing the team like I was part of the team and throwing stuff around.   Then I’m getting yelled at by the press box to get interviews and stuff with everybody and I’m like, ‘Nobody wants to talk to us right now.’   But it was just the most euphoric feeling, like I had against Wisconsin.   It was an incredible feeling.

“I ran out to about the 20-yard line before I said ‘I’m a grown man I’m not part of the team and I had to pull myself together.   I didn’t dive on the pile. Could you imagine seeing that?”

Dan Dierdorf

Dierdorf was an All-American offensive lineman at Michigan in 1970.   He has been inducted into the college and pro football Halls of Fame.   After he retired, he was a television broadcaster and worked 12 seasons as an analyst for ABC’s Monday Night Football and 15 years as part of the NFL on CBS.   He has been color analyst for Michigan football since 2014.

“First and foremost, I’m a professional announcer.   It’s what I do, done all my life since I retired.   When a play like that happens, it is the play-by-play man’s responsibility to deliver the goods.   It’s his call.   It’s his job to call it and it’s my job to stay out of the way.   Factor in I wouldn’t have said anything right away anyway, but factor in the fact I was stunned.

“When I did network television for 30 years, I know a lot of viewers find this hard to believe, but I didn’t care who won or who lost.   I wanted it to be 35-35 in the fourth quarter, I wanted a competitive game with viewers watching and not turning to The Price is Right.

“For the first time in my life, I do care.   Sometimes I care too much, because I’ve got deep feelings for my university.   When that play happened, A. I was stunned and B. my heart was just broken for the Michigan players and everyone in the stadium.   I didn’t say anything for a while.   I said something like, ’I can’t believe what I just saw.’   There’s no analysis necessary there.   We got into it later. I will admit, my TV instincts kicked in there.  In TV you always lay out on a moment like that.   The director is cutting to all the shots.   I may have laid out for five seconds too long but old habits are hard to break.

“In hindsight, 10 things had to happen for Michigan State to score on that play, and it’s so rare when all 10 of them happen.   Of all players for that ball to go to, it goes to the guy who catches it perfectly in full stride heading to the end zone.   It really was one of those plays that the cosmos aligned.   You just don’t see it where everything that Michigan State needed for that to happen, happened.   It’s a once-in-a-generation play.   They don’t come along like that very often.   The fact it was against your arch rival, it was the old saying, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

“I felt so bad for Blake O’Neill, who when that was over, I was so proud how he handled that.   He’s obviously a hell of a kid.   It was textbook the way he handled that.   He took it like it like a man.   I admired that.

“The big picture, plays like that are really good for college football.   I’m sorry it happened, I’m devastated it happened but if you take two steps back and look at the big picture, it’s great for the game when something [like] that happens.   Plays like that make people love college football.   We took one for the team.   I just wish it would not have happened on my watch.”

Mike Schwab

Schwab was ESPN’s director for the network’s broadcast of the game.

“At that point, you’re reacting.   Funny thing that happened, we’re obviously anticipating a Michigan win.   Our hand-held (camera) guy on the sideline, he has lined up a great shot of Coach Harbaugh, but security moved in because they expected the fans to storm of the field and didn’t want them to trip on the cord.   We’re changing the assignments in the moment which made it chaotic.

“So now they’re coming out, about to snap the ball, camera 6 is out, we’re changing assignments.   You have to get Harbaugh.   Now.  When the touchdown happened, I was kind of like, I’m not sure what we have here, because your instincts take over.   We got the overhead shot of Jalen Watts-Jackson in the end zone with a frame camera there and it was obvious this kid is hurting and can’t get up.

“I was satisfied (with the broadcast) for two reasons.   If that punt had gone off, Michigan wins, I thought we had a really good telecast.   I was happy A to Z with how we covered it.   I’m a perfectionist.   I wish we had shown O’Neill, the punter.   We never got to him in the moment.   I wish we had the Harbaugh shot I know we could have had.   When I separate myself and look at it again, I’m very happy.  Speils, just before the snap, talking about the rugby-style punter, he nailed that.   And for Sean in the moment to get Jalen Watts-Jackson’s name, that’s really, really good.

“For a play that ends a game, that’s the top of the list for me.”

Will Tieman

Tieman is the Spartan Sports Network broadcast host.

“I stayed on the field as long as we could and I still had to get in (the locker room for postgame interviews).   So I’m getting all the stuff, I’m checking everything.   And the Paul Bunyan Trophy is a big deal.   I think that symbolizes a lot of good stuff.   So it’s me and a couple guys and they come get it.   It goes.   Paul’s gone.   It sits right in the middle of the locker room and the loser has to make sure it’s next door when the team shows.

“So I’m in there getting ready for the postgame and they come and get Paul.   I said to (producer) Wendy (Hart), ‘By the way, where are we in this game?’   She goes, ‘There’s about 10 seconds left and they’re gonna punt.’   I go, ‘They’re gonna punt?’   ‘Yeah.’   And then from there, when she hits the mute button to talk to me I don’t hear the guys (in the booth), I only hear her.   All I hear is screaming and yelling and things like, ‘Oh my God.   We got the ball.   Oh my God.   I think we won.’ And I’m screaming back, ‘What is going on?’   I had no idea.

“Except in the middle of her screaming, Paul came back.   It came back.   I’m looking and there’s a security person and a manager-type guy, I don’t know who it was, but I look at those two and it was crazy.   We start laughing and then we started crying we were so happy.   And when you think about it the most exciting postgame locker room we’ve ever done, everybody I talked to saw the play but me.   I did not see the play until we were long off the air, because there are no monitors there.   Now I’ve heard the replays, I know what happened, but I didn’t see it.   I saw it at home.”

An Autopsy of the 2017 Notre Dame Game
Sep 28th, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

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Spartan offensive inefficiency and Domer efficiency stood out foremost in this game.   Compared to a benchmark 14-15 yards per point and ~.4 points per play, MSU averaged 27.6 yds for each scored point and .21 pts/play [PPP] — both bad.   The Irish averages were 11.5 yds/point and .52 PPP — both above average.   But there was plenty of hidden yardage in this game — usually against MSU.   In checking drive yardage sums, Notre Dame got 60 extra yards to MSU’s negative two.   Chalk that up to penalties.

Both teams were flagged a lot in this game, but MSU had three extra flags enforced for an extra 32 penalty yards.   The media has noted MSU’s three offensive holding penalties.   But I think defensive penalties were more significant.   Ordinarily, one might expect each team to get one or two first downs by penalty.   In this game, MSU got three by penalty — and the Domers got four.   (Not as many as the seven they got in the 2013 game, but certainly helpful.)

MSU had five drives of over 70 yards — scoring points on only two of them.   But it was not penalties that killed the long Spartan drives that led to their total yards advantage.   One was snuffed by the LJ Scott fumble that was called a fumble on the field and not reversed by review.   The second drive ended with six plays inside the Irish 10-yard line — but no points.   (Being down 25 points in the 4th quarter prohibited a field goal try.)   (Taking four minutes to run those goal-line plays, I might add, was an additional waste.)   And the last drive of the game — aided by a Domer personal foul — enabled Lewerke to spike the ball at the Domer 18 with two seconds left.   I do not grok why he did not take a shot at the end zone afterward; not doing so wasted yet another hurry-up scenario and ensured a 20-point loss.   But hey — between the 25s, the offense was great!

To give Lewerke his due, the final two drives chewed up 153 yards on 16 plays in under three minutes — and one of them did end in a TD.   Notre Dame had come into the game allowing only 27% on final-down conversions; the Spartans converted 63%.    Overall, the Spartans gained an extra yard per pass and yard/rush more than what the Irish D had been yielding.   There is much hope for the Spartan O.   But, again, it simply needed to turbo-charge earlier.

Correction: In an earlier Comment, I reported Lewerke’s yards/throw against Notre Dame as 6.5.   That was the team average.   Lewerke averaged 6.7 yds/throw last Saturday.  89C regrets the error.

(Because of the Spartan fumbles’ spots (one a touchback, the other on the MSU 24) and an Irish on-side kick recovery, the Domers did not have to drive as far as MSU to be productive.   The average Domer drive ended up closer to the goal line than the average Spartan drive — by five yards/drive.)

It is true that the D was shredded by the Domer wide receivers — and did not significantly contain Wimbush on the ground.   Notre Dame had been unremarkable [42%] in converting third downs, but converted 57% vs. the Spartans.   MSU did nothing to slow the Irish’s typical ability to get to the red zone and score TDs up close.   What MSU did do was (mostly) contain the starting Irish RBs — and stifled the third-stringer, who got the most carries.   MSU got twice as many rushing tackles for loss on the Irish as their previous foes had averaged.

The Irish had been averaging 28 pts/game off of turnovers, while yielding only two pts/game.   With that in mind, the 21 points off of turnovers MSU ceded (and none scored) does not look so bad.   But that does not excuse the Spartan turnovers.   Nor does it excuse the D for giving up a five play, 80-yards TD drive after LJ Scott lost the football.

No one man was especially disruptive for the defenses — and overall, the disruption ratios were unremarkable.   MSU defended only one of Wimbush’s 20 passes.   The Domers defended 7.5% of MSU’s passes (cf. their 10.5% {PBU + INT} rate coming in to the game).   I lack reliable data to set a baseline on QB hurries in Notre Dame games.   I can say that MSU protected Lewerke (with Lewerke’s help) as well last Saturday as it did vs the MAC opponents (i.e., pretty well); and that MSU pressured Wimbush as well as it pressured the MAC QBs (i.e., pretty well).

Although MSU’s D got a three-and-out after the on-side kick, Newsome pinned MSU at its seven-yard line — the third of his punts downed inside the 20.   MSU’s Hartbarger had none of those last Saturday — and two touchbacks to Newsome’s one.   And while Hartbarger had more net punting yards than Newsome, the hidden yardage of one of Jake’s touchbacks ultimately led to MSU needing 87 yards on a drive where it got 81.

Stewart and Welch had pretty good turns at returning kicks, but not as good as the Irish returned kicks on MSU.   Nothing truly alarming here — C.J. Sanders has three career KR TDs, so things could have been worse — but MSU should not just say “Darius Phillips” and carry on as though there is nothing on which to improve.

ND at MSU – What Did We Learn?
Sep 24th, 2017 by Jeffrey Lubeck

Late in the 4th quarter of the football game between Notre Dame and MSU, the Spartans have the ball 1st and goal inside the five.  As the result of lackluster play and confusion MSU comes away with no points. Broadcast announcer Gus Johnson summed up the situation quickly, “with MSU it is a comedy of errors.”

From my vantage point, the game played out like a Shakespeare or Greek tragedy. As JustABum keenly observed in a comment on the previous post, Notre Dame zeroed in on MSU’s flaws and exposed them to full advantage.  The result; a flogging on the national stage.

Correct or mitigate the implication of the flaws and MSU wins this game – possibly even handily.  However after a full-off season, a spring practice season, a summer preseason camp, and three regular season games MSU has not figured out how to correct, hide, or protect against its biggest flaws.

What did I learn from yesterday’s outing?

  1. Protect the the ball as if your life depended on it – MSU is a winner.
  2. Have the mental awareness and presence of mind to avoid needless personal fouls – MSU is a winner.
  3. With brutal honesty, identify and correct (or mitigate) the biggest flaws of every member in the program and element of the playbook. Start with the biggest flaws and work your way down – MSU is a winner.
  4. If MSU accomplishes none of the above; 2017 will result in a 3-9 or 4-8 kind of season.  For each material improvement add more games to the W column, and 2017 will reveal that MSU is a winner on the football field.
ND at MSU College Football – Game Thread
Sep 23rd, 2017 by Jeffrey Lubeck

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (better known as South Niles Community College – SNCC) take on the Spartans of Michigan State in East Lansing, MI.  The game will be broadcast on national television on Fox. Gus Johnson, analyst Joel Klatt and, sideline reporter Jenny Taft will call the action from Spartan Stadium starting at 8:00 PM ET.

TUS Predictive Analytics Group (TPAG) says there is an 84% chance of TUS Membership complaining about the T.V. coverage before the kickoff.

A heart-warming story – completely missed by the Fake News – will occur on Saturday night.  The Dotard brothers, Escutcheon and Rocket, compete against each other for the first time. The Michigan natives were orphaned at an early age when their parents Kim and Jong were killed during a quality assurance testing exercise at the Un plant on the north shore of Portage Lake.  The boys grew up in a foster care home on Portage Lake.  “We were so fortunate to live in such a beautiful setting”, says Rocket. “The people were wonderful to us, especially the crazy guy who would scream and throw a green brick at the T.V.”, adds Escutcheon.  “But then again, that logo on the brick and the crazy guy convinced me MSU was going to be the place for me.  What good fortune!”

More Preliminaries on the 2017 Notre Dame Game (and Game Thread?)
Sep 23rd, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

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First, some grist from press conferences:
* Notre Dame guys are downright gabby in their press conferences!   Kelly held another one on Tuesday, and identified Chris Frey as an inside linebacker in his statement.   (To be sure, I do not know who the ILBs are in MSU’s 3-4, but I would think he would be better as the 3-4 SLB than Bullough or Shane Jones.   I would put one of the latter alongside Bachie.)   I get the impression that he thinks MSU runs a 4-4-3.

For the most part, he seemed to imply that MSU was back to its post-2010 norm (“Extremely disciplined, hard-nosed, play to the echo of the whistle…”) — and spun the Spartan O line as a further improvement (“physical, strong, it’s what you would expect, but even more from my eye, much more athletic”).   But schematically, he appeared to throw the gauntlet down at the Spartan defense: “I think if teams are feeling as though playing man-to-man and turning their back on the quarterback is the way they want to defend us, [Wimbush is] going to run a lot.”   Whether Wimbush — with better supporting O linemen than WMU’s QB had — can rack up an uncomfortable amount of rushing yards on MSU will be a part of Dantonio’s “next challenge” for Coach D’s team.   (Additionally, a reporter noted that Wimbush had a ~73% completion rate in high school; if Wimbush grows sufficiently familiar with his receivers by tonight to hit them well, that also could make a difference in the game’s outcome.   The guy has a cannon; once he can set his verniers quickly enough, he is going to make some teams pay dearly.)

(Returning to press vs. zone coverage: Kelly said that Wimbush’s errors were “overthrows” — and he thinks those errors were due to hurrying his throws.   It seems to me that, if MSU can get consistent pressure on Wimbush, there are opportunities to pick passes off with more of a cushion than we would usually condone.

(That may be a big “if”.   Notre Dame is allowing a sack rate of less than 5% (I think the average is ~6.8%), and defending FBS sack leader Harold Landry did not even harry (hurry) Wimbush last week.)

Kelly seemed almost to boast about his tight ends as receivers.   There is some justification for that — but, again, that is partially because the wide receivers have not been really productive.   Look #80 and #86 [Mack & Smythe — both on the Mackey Watch List] to get nearly as many receiving yards as #6 and #15 [St. Brown & Smith].

* Coach Tressel sounds concerned about the Irish O line’s experience and “length” (the starters average 6’5″, 315  lbs.).   The left side contains a 2016 2nd-team All-American (McGlinchey, OT) and a consensus preseason All-American guard (Q. Nelson).   (While center Mustipher is on the Rimington list, he is no Brian Allen.)

* MSU has rotated Kevin Jarvis, Jordan Reid, and Matt Allen into the O line — although they may not contribute often in most games.   The O line will face a simplified defense from 2016 that seems effective against the run.   “They’re just long guys who play with good length and all with good motors,” Brian Allen said of the Irish front seven.   “You can’t take a play off or they’re gonna be in there causing havoc.”   Notre Dame will probably sack Lewerke at some point, but I will be concerned if the Irish get more than two sacks.

* Assistant Head Coach/O-Line Mark Staten put some numbers on Dantonio’s concern about C-gap blocking: “Our tight ends are going to have to face 6-4, 6-5, 295-pound guys every play.”   He “see[s] a lot of athleticism” in the Irish defense

* Staten had two notable reminiscences on Wednesday.   One was on his many trips to Notre Dame games growing up: “I cheered for good football, but one year I had all the pennants from all the other teams they played and they were all in my room because I’d just buy the other pennant.”

The other was on 2010’s “Little Giants” play.   “[Domer LB] Manti Te’o said, ‘We saw the wing go up and talk to the holder,’ because Le’Veon [Bell] was on the field at the time and didn’t get the communication from the sideline.   He got it so quickly that he was like, “Wait, it’s fourth-and-14, that can’t be happening.”   He actually went back, and that’s why they tackled him and the guy that never caught the ball at practice, Charlie [Gantt], ends up making the catch….   [QB coach Brad] Salem was in his first year, maybe his second year here, and he said, ‘Did he call it? Did he call “Little Giants”?’ and I just go, ‘Yeah…’ (laughing)   It’s funny, because he brings that story up to me and I don’t even remember that part of that.   The head coach asks, ‘Is it going to work?’ and you have to say, ‘Yeah Coach, it’s going to work.’   It’s fourth-and-14 you just don’t know if this play is going to work, so hopefully it does (laughing)….    [Holder Aaron] Bates, cool as a cucumber, that’s why he’s an AD now.   He calmly looked to his next read and off it went.”


Sundries and “prediction”:
* Although I think it is a bad idea to count on running against the Spartans, I should probably say something about the Irish ground game.   Josh Adams [#33], his backup [Dexter Williams; #2], and Wimbush have a combined career average of ~6.6 yds/rush.   Adams reached 2000 career rushing yards on fewer carries than any Domer in history — taking the record away from noted Yooper (and Ronald Reagan character) George Gipp.

“Official Kick-Time for the Michigan State vs Notre Dame is 8:12pm- with potential for a 5 minute slide to 8:17pm due to length of 1st game.”

* Safety Grayson Miller was listed as “questionable” for tonight’s game as of Thursday afternoon.

* MSU has, so far, outscored BGSU & WMU, 63-24.   A group of four teams [NW; Idaho; South Dakota; USC] has outscored BGSU & WMU, 159-102.   The early-and-mercilessly-stretched implications are that MSU’s O might score only 2/3 of the points expected from an “average” team — but that the D will allow only 1/3 of the points allowed by an “average” team.   A similar analysis of [Temple; Georgia; BC] suggests that Notre Dame allows ~80 of the points scored by an “average” team — but scores ~180% of the points allowed by an “average” team.

* MSU has a mixed record after bye weeks — but this positive is {afaik} a TUS Exclusive: After a bye week, Dantonio’s Spartans have been underdogs only twice [@IA, 2013; @ Ndme, 2016].   They won both times by an average margin of ~10 points.

* Notre Dame has a very good kicker that will keep them in the game.   I think it will come down to passing and pass defense; unless there are multiple Spartan giveaways, they should win a close game.   After hardly any stat analysis and a bit of Green Kool-Aid, I set my median prediction at Spartans 21, Domers 16.


A Few Preliminary Thoughts on the 2017 Notre Dame Game
Sep 21st, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

(With apologies to anyone whose items I am repeating — as I have not read the last Post’s Comments in a few days.)

* During the Boston College game, Irish Illustrated’s PeteSampson Tweeted:
“Brandon Wimbush’s four rushing touchdowns the most for a Notre Dame player since Allen Pinkett in ’84.”

* Wimbush rushed for 207 yards vs. BC Eagles — a Domer QB record.   He and Josh Adams (229 y) are the first duo in Domer history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game.   (On Tuesday, Coach D called Adams “special…   [h]e’s been able to break tackles and get in the end zone.”)

* Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly implied at his Sunday press conference that his team — apart from missing some wide receivers — is healthy.   He left the impression that he does not expect MSU to rely on Lewerke’s legs as much as it has so far.   While conceding that “he is extremely agile, athletic, and somebody that you have to defend” (with, depending on “down and distance,” a so-called spy), Kelly seems to think that both the Spartans and Irish will try to pass better than hitherto as a necessity to build toward possible Playoff selection.

Irish blocking is apparently strong most of the time.   Kelly thinks their pass protection is “excellent”.   “[W]e’ve got to coach it better, we’ve got to catch better, and we’ve got to be more accurate,” Kelly stated.   “Receivers have got to make some tough catches, and we’ve got to put Brandon in a position where we’re featuring the things that he does well.”   He also sees red-zone run blocking as such a strength that the Irish rush despite defenses’ obvious stacking against it.   Apparently, the Domers went 12-for-12 in scroing red-zone TDs vs. Temple and BC.   Will they score rushing TDs on MSU?   It is possible.   But they would be the first team to score a TD vs. the 2017 Spartans.   And since MSU has only allowed one red-zone chance by a foe per game so far, I reckon the Irish will not get anything close to six tries.

While not Spartanesque, the Irish defense has done enough to win games — and has at least one playmaker.   “[CB Sean Crawford] is always around the ball,” Kelly said.   “He’s very alert.   He’s got a sense of the game, and it puts him always in good position.”   The red-shirt sophomore — a teammate of MSU’s Dowell brothers at Cleveland’s St. Edward High School — has been out with injuries for two years, but grabbed two INTs and a fumble vs. the Eagles last weekend.

Kelly remains displeased with tackling technique.   But the Irish defense does have six takeaways through three games — and Kelly credits Mike Elko.   “[W]hen we come into practice every single day, you would get bored watching our defense because we work on stripping, we work on fumble recoveries, we work on trying to get the ball out, and so it’s a systematic kind of development of that mindset within our defense to take the football away, and he does a great job with it.   He’s been successful at every stop of the way in terms of taking the football away, and you build it through repetition….”   Some Members might think that this is an example of psy-ops on Kelly’s part, given MSU’s rash of having fumbles forced upon them.   Everyone practices stripping the ball; we should not believe Notre Dame now does it better than BGSU does.   That all may be true — and I am <I>very</I> sympathetic to the idea that Kelly is blowing smoke.   Still, I think MSU’s ability to avoid giveaways is now magnified as a key to winning a marquee game.

(Through 118 plays and 14 assorted returns, MSU has yet to force a fumble.   Apart from that, and more consistent receiver coverage, there is not much upon which the Dawgs need to improve that has been exposed by its MAC opponents.   Dantonio seemed to imply that he is discontent with MSU’s perimeter tackling — but since I have not seen the games, I leave it to other Members to weigh in on that.)

* Dantonio went into some detail with Notre Dame’s defense — particularly its front.   “Active.   Big.   They are going to try to control the c-gap [immediate ouside the O-tackle]…   [I]f you can control the C-gap and you can control the nose tackle position…that’s when it’s the toughest to run the football…   They want to put a big guy over the [Spartan] tight end…   You’ve got to win that individual battle.

“So they are active.   Their linebackers play downhill…   You don’t see a lot of people running the ball very effectively against them and they have not given up a lot of points.   So it’s tough.”

Also on Tuesday, center Brian Allen identified safety blitzes as a tactic Notre Dame uses more than most teams — then went on to describe the significance of this rivalry to him.   “[M]y first game here in Spartan Stadium was actually the Little Giants game — Sept. 18, 2010 — so seven years ago yesterday. I was on the sidelines for the pre-game and then in the stands for the touchdown….   That was my first real college football experience….   Back then this is where the old locker room was and the trailer so it was pretty cool being in there and watching those guys celebrate.   Some of the great Spartans like Greg Jones and Max Bullough, having those guys in there and being able to see that as a 14-year-old kid was pretty amazing.”

* Chris Frey revealed two interrelated emphases for the D.  One was for front-seven guys to engage two Domers so that a Spartan would be free to make a tackle.   (It is refreshing, as a former high-school D-tackle, to hear a linebacker say this.   If one LB could do that every play, no rusher would get five yards without breaking two or more tackles.)   The other is a Domer staple: “They have a few plays that we have really been working on with the double pullers, we call them trucks, so they’re going to come out with those plays and we just have to be able to stop them and I think we can.”      “[T]hey are one of the best run offenses in the nation so it’s going to be a big head-to-head battle and we’re excited to take it on….   [W]e’re just excited to show what we can do against a team like that; an offensive line like that, and a good running back.”

* But to get back to Dantonio: He also had a chance to talk about outreach Tuesday.   “You know, 10 guys went down to Houston and they did some great things….   [W]e’ll bring in a group of people from an elementary school to practice [September 19]…   …[the players] will again have an opportunity to spend some time and make a difference in people’s lives.”

* MSU has not beaten the Irish in Spartan Stadium since 2010.   Since these programs will not host each other again until at least 2026, I feel that V4MSU Saturday is more important than for most games.   (A win would virtually guarantee the longest-ever Spartan possession, in years, of the Megaphone Trophy.)

I say that as a fan.   It is Coach D’s position, in coaching his players, that “this is just another game in that regard”.   But I give Dantonio the benefit of doubt; many of his guys will be in a nocturnal big-stadium playing scenario for their first time, and that might stoke fires to the point where more would distract from execution.   And he has a field general in Frey that sees this rivalry as “very personal”.

It is tempting to conclude Byron Bullough is somewhere in between.   He was named game captain for what will be his generation’s last game against his grandfather’s team.   “I’ve got posters of Notre Dame and Michigan State all around the house so it is extra,” he summarized, “but at the end of the day we’re just trying to go 3-0.”

From either perspective, it would be a big surprise to see MSU’s players come out anything less than fired up for this game.

An (Exhaustive) Look Back at the 2017 Western Michigan Game
Sep 15th, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

{To go directly to Comments, click here}

I begin with some quotes from the official MSU sports website.   As usual, I comment throughout — and apologize to those whose insights I repeat without due credit:

“Brian Lewerke ran for a career-high 81 yards, the most by a Spartan quarterback since Drew Stanton had 83 against Purdue in Nov. 4, 2006.”   [He said he scrambled less, and ran more by desgn, than last week.]   “Lewerke scored his first career rushing touchdown on a 61-yard run in the first quarter, the longest TD run by a Spartan quarterback since Charlie Baggett on Oct. 27, 1973 vs. Purdue . . . it tied the longest rush by a Spartan QB since Damon Dowdell also had a 61-yard run against Wisconsin on Nov. 13, 2004 . . . the last time a Spartan QB had a longer run was Bobby McAllister at Purdue (70 yards) on Nov. 5, 1988 . . . Lewerke became the first Spartan QB to record two rushing TDs in a single game since Drew Stanton in 2006 against Eastern Michigan (Sept. 9).”   [Lewerke and Stanton’s similarities should bother the superstitious: Both had freshman-year leg injuries — and, as Stanton did, Lewerke will play as a sophomore at Michigan in the evening.   (I assume Members remember what happened in 2004.)   Beyond superstition, though, I do not recall Stanton having Lewerke’s top gear!]

“Michigan State rushed for 296 yards, the most by the Spartans in a single game since they ran for 330 yards at Indiana on Oct. 18, 2014.   …   MSU had four sacks, the most in a single game for the Spartans since Sept. 26, 2015, against Central Michigan.”

There was plenty to quote, and evoke, from the post-game presser:
* Quoting Mark Dantonio: “(Phillips) didn’t break stride. It was just to the house. Obviously, somebody got blocked in there. You’ve got to kick to people. We could’ve squibbed it there. That was my decision to kick it deep. We’ve got to be better in that regard.”   [Just because Coach D is the best man for his job does not mean he does not set his players up to fail now and then.   In case I have not said this before, let me be clear now:  Like Moses and the Promised Land, Coach Mark Dantonio will never lead Michigan State to a National Championship.   Phillips did the same thing to a veteran Dantonio team — and he expected better results with underclassmen?!?!   The more I think about this, the more disgusted I grow.   Best to move on.]

(Dantonio also misused some stats in his post-game press conference, but since he did not abuse them as badly as at least one Usual Suspect did after the game (and, I imagine,after some booze), I spare the specifics here.)

* Defensive Coordinator Harlon Barnett is pleased.   “We made some tweaks in the things that we do,” he said.   He thinks opponents had found “ways to do certain things against us that we were doing for years.   So we had to change some things up to help us be more effective and — we did, and our guys are executing….   [W]e tackled OK early and then we got better as the game went on.”   He surprised me by understating his young players’ prospects for continuing improvement: “[As] long as they don’t get cocky with it and just stay and remain confident, then we’ll be okay.”

* WR Darrell Stewart is my kind of humorist: “I guess my new nickname is going to be ‘Goal Lne Stew’, because it seems like I can get to the end zone, but I just can’t score the ball….   [A]s I got closer and closer, I just felt my body going down to the ground and I was like, `no not again’,”   he said of a 46-yard rush that ended on the 1-yard line.   (Ironically, he was tackled by Trishton Jackson’s brother, Obbie.)   Last week, he was stopped on the 2-, 7-, and 12-yard lines — one-third of his offensive gains — in BGSU territory.   Lots of close for no cigars.

And yet: “If I get zero touchdowns for the whole season, as long as the team gets into good situations and we’re winning, I mean that’s why we’re here,” Stewart clarified.   “It’s about getting the team into good situations where we can win so we can all enjoy and celebrate.”

* As GoSt8Go mentioned, WMU’s Tim Lester elaborated on the Bronco running game.   Lester also compared it with MSU’s.   “[I]f we’re able to get push, which we were able to do against USC, if we get push and you allow your running back to catch it and take two or three steps before he makes his decision,you’re dangerous…   Today, when our double teams weren’t moving their big interior, which makes those running backs have to get [the ball] and make their decision right now. You hope they’re right, but you literally get [the ball] and there’s a [Spartan] standing right there….   Same way with [MSU].   When L.J. [Scott] was running, there were a couple times he got [the ball] and had to make a decision right now, and we had him.   But if he got it going straight, and then the running lanes triple as soon as [MSU got] any push….   Bellamy had a good game on the edges because [MSU] was so focused on not letting us run down straight ahead….”   [I predicted that a Bronco would do that.   Bellamy had 67 yards on 12 carries — but remember that he had 102 yards on nine carries vs. USC.   Franklin gained 36 yards on six carries and never lost yards in E.L.; WMU probably should have went to him more.]

“[MSU was] daring us to throw it,” he continued.   “We knew in their defensive scheme we could get [Wassink to complete] quick easy [passes]…   When you add eight and nine into the box with those safeties, you’re never going to get any kind of release unless you hit one over the top of them.”   (Barnett (“We stressed stopping the run all week long”) seemed to confirm Lester’s assessment.)

* Lester also elaborated on WMU’s recognition of a passed Spartan.   “You know [former WMU QB] Zach [Terrell] won the Mike Sadler Award, gosh I think that was January…   I got to go accept and so I started doing research on it. Zach was training for the combine and Zach knew him and we just learned more and more about him and what he stood for, and he stood for everything I wanted our kids to stand for.   Zach and I talked about what we could do and so we thought honoring him by putting his number on our helmet last February.   We kind of announced it at the banquet we were at when I accepted the award for Zach, and [Karen Sadler] came last night and she came to the hotel to thank the guys for honoring her son who was a great student, great athlete, great person in the community which is what we are striving for.”

* Injuries often affect games.   (And, sometimes, seasons.)   After this game, Lester effectively asserted that losing safety Justin Tranquill and DE Eric Assoua during the game was like losing WMU’s defensive play-caller and the one guy that was pressing Lewerke, respectively.   Tranquill led the Broncos in tackling Trojans and was on pace for ~15 tackles vs. MSU, but was injured after five tackles.   (Versus USC, Assoua had two tackles for loss.)   I think Tranquill might have prevented a Spartan TD at some point by combining better pre-snap alignments and personally shortening some longer MSU gains, but WMU needed better offense (and/or more improbable events) to put the outcome in any doubt.

“I think our defense gained some confidence,” was Lester’s main positive from the game.   That — and the appearance that the scoring O of South Dakota (which just played BGSU) is about as good as MSU’s scoring O — should give pause and inspire a little head-scratching (especially for those of us that thought the MSU O would be better than the D).

* Wassink effectively said that his offense was too vanilla against MSU.   It used deception to good success against USC — and after the BGSU game it should have been obvious to Lester that his team was not going to move the ball well without more deep shots and some (plural) trick plays.   (Look for lesser opponents to try more of that — along with jet sweeps — in October and November.)   I think it would have been better if WMU had challenged MSU more in those respects.   It might have meant a closer score, but it would not have led to a loss — and the steeper learning curve forced upon the young defenders then would have made for a more productive bye week.   (This D has been neither seriously challenged nor burned by mistakes.   Personal experience tells me that that will catch up with an inexperienced squad eventually.

(The good news is that the O, by that time, should be able to make up for it.)

Next, a few items derived from reading  Detroit Free Press and TUS on Sunday morning:
* LB Brandon Randle played at DE this week and scored a sack from that position.   MSU is rotating five DTs and six DEs, according to Chris Solari.   This will pay off handsomely as injuries inevitably increase.   But some offense <I>should</I> be able to gouge MSU in mid-substitution at some point.   I wonder how much snow Jeff will get before then…

* Solari: “MSU had about 20 [football] players sign up for [Harvey] relief effort through Athletes in Action, and they are expected to leave [for Houston] [yesterday] and return next Sunday.”   He quotes Dantonio: “We’re gonna give them off the weekend so they have an opportunity to do that, but it’s a volunteer basis….   It wasn’t something that we were going to sit out there and announce….”

* MSU’s defense seems much better, at face value, than USC’s defense (especially vs. the run).   The Broncos’ offense scored 24 points vs. USC — and none vs. MSU.   Stanford — presumably a decent team — also scored 24 points on USC.

But football also relies on offense.   It is too bad Hunter Rison was not strong enough to hang onto the ball even with both hands, but the reality is that USC’s offense did not let WMU score on it.   The Trojans, moreover, racked up 49 points of offense to MSU 28 vs. WMU.   (Unless this has become a Wolverine website, NCAA football games run for at least 60 game minutes.)   That 24-point differential favoring MSU on D is thus more than offset by the 28-point effective differential favoring USC on O.   Furthermore, it seems that, with Stanford up next, USC was looking past WMU.   It it were not, then we would have to conclude that Stanford and WMU are almost equally good teams (they both lost by 18 points in somewhat high-scoring games to the Trojans).

I think USC would most likely beat MSU this month — but as things seem now, I like State’s chances against them in a bowl game.

* While I was not concerned about a Bronco comeback in the fourth quarter, they admittedly were moving the ball quickly enough during its final drive to score a touchdown with over 1:20 to spare.   They have guys capable of recovering (and perhaps advancing) an on-side kick.   While three improbable things would have had to happen  in the final three minutes in order to tie the score at 28-28, the permutation seems not much more improbable than what MSU fans were worried about near the end of the 2010 PSU game — or what we hoped would happen last year vs. Michigan.

And what would my ego be like if I avoided self-criticism?:
“This game promises to be the closest in the series since 2003 (26-21) — especially if WMU can run on State half as well as it did on USC and exploit some young Spartan substitutes on trick plays.”   [116 yards is less than half of 263 yards — and USC, per rush, averaged only about half of what MSU did.   Ultimately, too little.  The only trick play I recall was on 4th down & ball game, down 14 points — too little, too weak, and far too late.]

“Franklin is the most seasoned receiver and might get a couple of first downs via air today.”   [Nope.]   “None of the WRs strike me as air-mail threats…”   [WMU caught more passes for fewer yards vs. MSU vis-a-vis USC.]

“Expect MSU to barely win time of possession this week.”   [I was thinking 31-32 minutes.   MSU had the ball for nearly 33 — but only because of the fourth quarter.   WSU actually won ToP in the first half, so whether possession time affected the result is moot.]

“WMU’s punter/holder appears to be about as good as Hartbarger in overall placement (albeit less of a boomer).”   [Hartbarger’s long was only 47 yards; Mitchell had three for 50+.   Both had two punts inside the 10-yard line, but Mitchell also had a touchback — and one of Jake’s was spotted at the four yard line.   Presumably, Jake avoided giving Phillips a chance, and that affected field position a little.   (N.b.: He now has three spotted inside the ten this year.)]

“Vegas implies a 29-22 outcome, but my hunch is that Dantonio will allow LJ Scott to fumble…”   [To be addressed shortly.]   …I go (if I must) with Spartans 30, Broncos 27.   [The bettors and I were close enough on Spartan points.   WMU’s tempo was merely average by B1G — allowing MSU to sub at will.   If USC did that, it did not help — but it helped MSU kill drives.   I expected Bronco field goals before the fourth quarter; for 55 minutes, the shortest opportunity for their freshman kicker would have needed 58 yards.   Besides that, I was off by one TD; even allowing for WMU’s unidimensionality, the D improved from a good first game to an extraordinary extent.]

Against BGSU, LJ Scott had 16 touches for 38 yards.   Against WMU, he got 21 touches for 111 yards — and two TDs.   My hunch — that Scott’s fumbling was something he could not avoid after shoulder surgeries — was wrong.   (For one day, at least.)   But why, then, was he so careless with the ball before?   Apologists will say he had a bad day.   Did he not already have his bad day last year vs. Wisconsin?   He said he is turning pro in the spring; does he think NFL scouts will ignore what happens in noon-kickoff games?   Typical B1G backs fumble less than 1% of the time (including those on bad teams); Scott was slightly over that last year and to reach that threshold this season he cannot fumble again.

I think Dantonio’s giving him another (meaning one) chance was the right thing to do.   This time it went okay, and might only get better with time.   I hope LJ does well.   I hope he does well after he leaves MSU even if does not do well henceforth at MSU.   But I cannot praise LJ’s (or Hunter Rison’s) “redemption” in this game without feeling that the bar has been lowered.

Now to game stats not fully covered above.   First, a few more comparisons to USC’s performance vs. WMU: * Both big-time programs were -1 on turnover margin vs. the Broncos.
* Both scored a TD every time the WMU red zone was reached.
* WMU passed for a lousy 4.1 yds/throw vs. USC — but an abysmal 2.9 yds/throw vs. MSU.
* USC had a sack rate of only 4%; MSU’s was 13%.   (I use 6.8% as an “average” benchmark.)
* Darius Phillips vs. USC: 188 yds, one TD.   Phillips vs. MSU: 248 yds, two TDs.

* If a team converts a fourth-down play, its third-down conversion percentage becomes invalid as a statistical tool.   Third-down defense is also rendered statistically invalid if it surrenders a fourth-down try.   These corollaries should be as obvious as the fresh set of downs (or touchdown) that ensue with, e.g., Little Giants or Hey Diddle Diddle.   To accurately describe a set of downs that includes a fourth-down conversion, one must use what I call final-down (or omega-down) conversion percentage.   Without going through the mathematical proof (which is easy enough for Members to derive themselves), the resulting formula adds the successful third-down and fourth-down tries together and divides that sum by a number that happens to equal the number of total third-down tries.   (Note that, if no 4th-down tries succeed, final-down conversion %age = 3rd-down conversion %age.)

As it applies to WMU’s offense, MSU allowed only 27% final-down conversions — whereas USC allowed 36%.   Relative to WMU’s D, MSU converted 53% of its final downs — whereas USC converted 64%.   (I now use a 49% benchmark for both O and D.)

* While it is safe to say USC has a generally stronger passing attack than MSU, MSU did score a passing touchdown on WMU (albeit with a tailback).   USC did not.

Unlike USC (and this is where my comparisons with the Trojans cease), MSU did not even pretend to be balanced: The Spartans rushed 70% of the time.   They averaged 6 yds/rush — but only because Lewerke & Stewart combined for 151 yds on 12 carries(!).   Scott, Holmes, & London combined for an average 4.4 yds/rush — which was MSU’s 2016 average.   (LJ got the majority of carries and averaged 4.8 yds/rush.   He was the Spartan tailback that scored the pass reception; good on him!)

Lewerke’s yards per {rush or pass} were nearly 8.1 — even better than last week.   At 7.7 yds/throw, he was a little above average.   There was only one “explosive” pass — a Felton Davis 25-yd reception — but the fact that four of his five receivers (Davis, Stewart, Sokol, Rison) averaged 10+ yds/catch is impressive at face value.   And then there is Darrell Stewart.   His kickoff returns improved vs. WMU.   But on offense he was a phenomenal 103 yards on six touches.   The Spartans should have been able to get to the red zone four times instead of three.   But 21 points from three trips is indistinguishable from an average 21.2 pts per four trips on the scoreboard.

MSU’s 6.5 yds/play exceeded the benchmark (5.7) matched vs. BGSU.   But the caveat that WMU seems to allow yardage and points more easily than most teams applies to Spartans both together and individually.

I give WMU’s D benefit of doubt with sacks.   I would have expected four or five QB hurries with a sack or two given MSU’s number of passes.   Only two QBHs (along with two sacks) implies to me that the combination of protection and evasion was pretty good for MSU.   The sum of the S-Dawgs’ sacks and QBHs [4+4] is about right for WMU’s pass attempts.   (Five sacks and 12 hurries through two games will be good if it can be sustained while blitzing a little less often.)

MSU allowed WMU only 3.1 yds/play.   It allowed a presumably less mobile BGSU 3.9 yds/play.   How much of that was due to State’s box-loading strategy against a team that cannot pass is unclear, but it is hard to dismiss the thought that the D improved at least as much as the O did.   (Although the presence of two DBs among the three leading tacklers is counterintuative.   More safety blitzes than last week?)

Someone else will have to explain where the credit/fault lies with Darius Phillips defending four of Lewerke’s 21 passes.   An extra bad throw?   An extra receiver’s mistake?   Or just Phillips?   For its part, MSU’s pass disruption at the receiving end was about average.

No one on D was half as good as Phillips — who also notched a tackle for loss and forced a fumble.   (And scored with it).   Willekes was the most disruptive Spartan again (one TFL and two QBHs).   Both teams had disruption rates of ~23%.   That this is bit on the high side for two MAC defenses is a little concerning, but fumbles forced against MSU accounts for nearly all of the excess drama.

Spartan kickoffs were too shallow.   Laress Nelson had a 15-yard punt return.   Although Jake H.’s punts averaged ~10 feet shorter than usual, Darius Phillips — who averaged 11.7 yds/punt reurn last year — got no chances to advance a punt.   (Like Ben Green said about the defense: “I’ll take it”.)

Excluding the fumble and kickoff returns, starting drive positions were about equal on average — and averaged near the offenses’ 25-yard line.   Strangely, the offenses both averaged ~5.5 plays per drive.   One major difference, of course, was that MSU doubled WMU on yardage — and attempted four fewer fourth-down tries.   It seemed like third downs were long for WMU and much shorter for MSU.   But MSU stopped WMU well on short-yardage conversions, too.

(WMU somehow had two fewer multi-play drives than MSU.   Which reminds me: Why did WMU, down 14-0 at midfield, not try a Hail Mary to end the first half?   Was Lester as stupid in L.A. as he was in E.L.?   How much money would it take to get him to coach the rest of MSU’s opponents this year?…)

MSU remains a low-penalty operation.   Might this (if it holds against stiffer competition) translate to strong road-trip discipline for this youth-heavy team?   At stake: Beating Michigan; competing with OSU; not blowing the other road games, which should all be wins if the Spartans do beat the Gulos.   (#unhatchedchickens)

ANNND FINALLY(!!):  Although MSU played fewer guys than in the BGSU game, it looks like RB Connor Heyward — the tenth true freshman so far this year — had his redshirt burned.

Western Michigan Game Post [September 9, 2017]
Sep 9th, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

I am about six days behind in my MSU and TUS reading, but think it is time for this Post to materialize.   I have a lot of things to say in the Comments.   The game should be on BTN at 1330 MDT.   GO GREEN!

MSU versus Bowling Green – Game Thread
Sep 2nd, 2017 by Jeffrey Lubeck

Michigan State takes on Bowling Green in College Football at 1PM (EDT).

The level of energy on TUS is about the lowest ever.  The fact that pre-game reports, prognostication and, analysis are absent are solid indicators.

With a litany of question marks following a stupefying 2016 season, MSU Football under the Dantonio Administration is in what seems to be un-chartered territory.

Give us your prediction for today’s game.


Like My Previous Post, But With a National Scope (and Some Spartan-Gulo Clickbait)
Aug 16th, 2017 by 89 Chemistry

Click here to jump to the Comments.   Click here to access my previous Post, which explains the validity of quadrennials in understanding and comparing program histories.   What “1/4 conv.” means is explained in the 2nd – 4th paragraphs under the first graph therein.


Last time, we saw that State did not fall from the top 20% (quintile) of quadrennial-basis B1G programs — but that it will probably sink into the middle tier if it does not perform up to Dantonio-era par.   Similar unpublished results showed the Spartans to be the nation’s sixth-best program during 2012-2015.   The answer to “How now?” (i.e., for 2013-2016) is detailed below.

The recent history (and hypothetical near future) of the top quintile of FBS programs during 2013-16 are displayed in the first four graphs.   These graphs are mostly split into regions; here, first, are MSU and its pretty-good neighbors:

The top quintile’s threshold is 33 wins.   Five B1G programs (OHSU; WI; MISU; IA; and NE (on the fourth graph)) are among these 26 programs.   I see three sine waves here, but consider only one (Iowa) predictive long term.   Louisville could stay in this group if Bobby Petrino can keep his job — whereas Missouri looks to be in free fall.   My guess is that the Irish will appear to stabilize under Brian Kelly — if he can keep his job with 8- and 9-win seasons.

The next group could be called the Interior Deep South because of the rise of Magnolia State teams and the disappearance of Florida (temporary) and South Carolina (indefinite).   (If USA Today predictions prove true, the Spartans will shadow SC’s decline, with a two-year delay.):

The Egg Bowl coaches seem to have done things right; they should be able to stay somewhat close to their apparent Iowa-like ceilings.   LSU has the talent pool to stabilize, but its perennially elite days are probably over.   And Auburn, while too erratic to join the near-elites, should at least not descend to Bielema-Hog levels.

“Elite” and “near-elite” are arbitrarily defined as 40+ adjusted wins and 38-39 adjusted wins, respectively, per quadrennial.

The third graph had some interesting alternative names because of its schools’ tight north-south alignment:

Before looking ahead, I want to say some things about the past.   Two of the 26 top-quintile programs have had more impressive rises than MSU; one, Baylor, is on this graph.   For some serious perspective, consider the left-most point on Baylor’s curve, at y = 16.   That is equivalent to the worst quadrennial in MSU’s history (1980-1983).   As bad as MSU fans have thought things are at times, they have never been as bad as for four B1G programs since 2000 — nor as bad as for respected programs Stanford and Washington recently (see below).

(Nor was MSU football ever any worse, in terms of four-year winning percentage, than Michigan from 1934-1937.)

Looking ahead, Nebraska will probably drop to an 8-5 program for the next couple of years, while the Cowboys and Aggies should stabilize.   Expect TCU’s curve to cast away its early struggles as a power-conference team and get to near-elite status soon.   (Recently near-elite Kansas State could nudge above the 33-win threshold this year.)

Minimizing clutter on the southeastern graph forced exclusion of two ACC programs.   They appear here, with the pretty-good western programs (and MSU):

At least three interesting tales are behind these curves.   To get the most unpleasant out of the way first, consider Stanford from {2005-08} to {2009-12}.   That rise is attributable to Harbaugh and his recruiting.   That, by itself, demonstrates that journalists’ and analysts’ expectations accompanying his hire at Michigan were not necessarily based on hype, Blue Walliness, and/or ratings-grab cynicism.   Those expecting the Gulos to go .500 overall and lose to State by two TDs per game over the next two years are, I think, going to be bitterly disappointed.

Second, look at Oregon, 2011-14.   It was the first program not named “Alabama” to reach the 48-win threshold in recent years.   This, too, is an uncomfortable lesson: In two years (including a 9-4 campaign), the erstwhile second-best program in the nation (by these metrics) is now tied for 11th.

Third, consider USC’s curve.   Before I lost ten months of work, I was preparing recruiting-class analysis to accompany these graphs (in 2016).   (I did get to put forth such work for the B1G.)   Based on an early observation, my plan was to begin the narrative of such a national-scope project like this:

“Imagine that football recruiting-class rankings correlated perfectly with winning and losing.   In such a world, a 14-0 Alabama and a 14-0 USC would play every year for the National Title — and the Trojans would beat the Tide 75% of the time.”

In other words: USC’s curve should, under that ideal, be off the chart!   Now, let me be clear: Recruiting rankings give people (including reporters and analysts), on average, a better sense of how teams will do in the future than the ignorance of such information.   But even if we allow for uncertainties, the difference between gridiron potential and results in downtown L.A. since 2008 make guys like RichRod and Charlie Weis look good.

On the other hand, a team on which almost everyone is a four- or five-star should have winning seasons while sleepwalking with fentanyl patches on — and that is (figuratively) what USC has done.   It has a great chance of re-joining the near-elites before Washington reaches that level.   Look for Utah to plateau after crossing the 35-win line  — and for the Ducks to dip below it.

No Group-of-Five programs are currently among the top quintile.   Northern Illinois was, in 2012-2015.   Boise State was an elite program in 2009-2012; its datum then would have been about where Stanford’s is today.   With a 10-win season in 2017, it would edge up to where Utah is today.   However, the cut-off for the FBS’s top quintile during 2013-16 might be different in 2014-17.

The foregoing has shown that the Spartans would have been a decent perennial competitor in any region despite 2016.    Would MSU be a national power if it continued to have four-year stints like 2013-2016?   I think the final graph indicates as much:


At the risk of repeating myself: There is Saban’s Alabama, and then there is everyone else.   Imagine 2015 for MSU if it had gone the same except for a close loss in the Cotton Bowl.   That still would have been an objectively “off” year for the Tide.   With another CFP Title, its curve will exceed this graph’s scale.   The Buckeyes — if they are as good as their pre-season ranking — can keep pace with ‘Bama in 2017 and cross the 50-win line for 2014-17.   (One Primary Suspect predicted in 2012 that Urban Meyer’s OSU wins would be vacated by the end of 2017.   He has not been proven wrong yet, buuuutt — well, hurry up NCAA!)

Over at least the past century, the best Spartan quadrennial was 1950-1953 — Clarence Munn’s final four years.  They went 35-2 — equivalent to y = 49 on my graphs.   I have not looked at the Gulos’ Crisler or Yost eras.   But since 1950, the best Michigan quadrennial was 1970-1974 — equivalent to only 45 adjusted wins.

Clemson — elite for years despite contrary opinions — is now, with AL and OHSU, an ultra-elite program (i.e., averaging at least 12 wins per year).   Its curve should plateau until 2016-2019 or so.   Jimbo Fisher got the Seminoles to those heights first, but I expect their curve to continue falling, albeit gently.   Note FLSU’s current tally at y = 46.   Last August, that is where I anticipated MSU would be now…

For technical reasons (explained with other adjustments), the right side of Oklahoma’s curve underestimates its program strength.   It should now be at y = 43, and should remain in that vicinity for the immediate future (depending on Bob Stoops — and whomever might replace him).   Look for Wisconsin to continue its solid improvement and — if it can keep its not-Bielema coach — plateau near Oklahoma.   And Stanford should stabilize.

If I am right (and I would gladly settle for batting .667), then none of the eight currently-elite programs will fall from elite status.   That leaves two near-elites.   Georgia’s curve should pause in its decline; whether it holds its place will depend on teams like Florida and Tennessee.

Michigan State curve will decline — because MSU is not going to win more than 12 games this season.   Media and casino consensus now suggests MSU will win about six regular-season games.   If that and predictions for other teams hold true (I am using USA Today for convenience), then MSU will remain above only one (Missouri) of the other 25 current top-quintile teams for the 2014-2017 quadrennial.   And since there are other, up-and-coming, MSU’s days as a Top 25 quadrennial-basis program are probably about to end.


The rest is optional reading.   Addressing minor and/or technical matters:

Adjustments are more rigorous here than in the July 31 Post.   No adjustments were made for teams playing in the PAC, Big Ten, or B-XII.   Half of a win per year was added to teams playing in the SEC and to Notre Dame.   Subtractions were assessed for teams playing in the ACC [-.25 wins/yr]; American Conference [-1.5 wins/yr]; Big East [-.75 wins/year]; C-USA [-2.25 wins/yr]; MAC [-2.25 wins/yr]; Mountain West [-2 wins/yr]; Sunbelt [-2.5 wins/yr]; and WAC [-2.25 wins/yr].   Besides the Irish, the only other Independents I thought worth considering were BYU and Navy.   Their adjustments, as independent teams, were -1 win/yr.   Primary sources for the derivation of those adjustments included final Massey Composite Rankings and Jeff Sagarin’s end-of-season strengths of schedules.

Subsequent adjustments will be added for independents that would likely have won a conference championship game from 2011 onward, but did not have a chance to play in one; and for the best team of a league that does/did not have conference title games since 2011.   Had such adjustments been included in these graphs, one win would have been added to the quadrennials for: OKSU & TCU [quadrennials including 2011]; Notre Dame and Louisville [2012]; Baylor [2013]; TCU [2014]; and OK [2015 & 2016].

Note that a presumed standard uncertainty of only 5% means that plus or minus two wins per quadrennial is statistically meaningless; although we are sometimes prone to split hairs, we should remember that one cannot really determine how good a football team is unless it plays ~100 games per year.   Adjustments are essential, though, to avoid conclusions like, e.g., Northern Illinois was as good or better a program than MSU circa 2013.

Finally, I considered names like “Tornado-Alley” or “Hundredth-Meridian” for the programs in the third graph.   But I think Tornado Alley includes enough of Missouri to have forced its inclusion (rather than filling out the first graph) — and I thought a longitudinal reference would have been too obscure.

It would also have been technically inaccurate, as none of those six programs reside on the 100th meridian.   All six, however, reside between the 96th and 98th meridians — too striking a coincidence for me to pass up grouping together.  Since the midpoint of the contiguous U.S. is also close to the 98th parallel, “Central Heartland” (as distinguished from the eastern heartland that includes Michigan) won out.

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