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Surveying the wreckage at Michigan State

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The Spartans came apart at the seams in 2016, what’s next for Dantonio’s program?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Around this time a year ago I expressed some doubts about the future of Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State program. They were just coming off Dantonio’s second Big 10 title and a playoff appearance that featured an understandable drubbing at the hands of Alabama. However, there were a few indicators that suggested that Sparty’s time in the sun was about to come to a close.

Here was a key problem I identified for the Spartans in that article:

Their aggressive, 4-3 Over defense with press-quarters coverage and three-deep/two-under zone blitzes was a thorn in everyone’s side for several years but it was largely built around offensive weaknesses that are not shared by modern spread offenses.

In the 2016 season the Spartans were looking at replacing QB Connor Cook and five or so starters on defense. However, they were also facing a Big 10 conference that was adding another spread offense at State College and getting further along into the Harbaugh v Meyer era. That context begged the question of whether there’d be breathing room for Michigan State.

Sure enough, the Spartans completely collapsed.

This was essentially the equivalent of a dam bursting. The departure of Connor Cook crushed the offense but the result on that side of the ball wasn’t too much worse than what the Spartans’ are accustomed to, particularly from years when they are recovering from the loss of a QB.

What happened on defense was more damaging as injuries combined with an ineffective secondary to transform the “no fly zone” into friendly skies. This wasn’t totally shocking given the structural issues with the Spartan approaches to coverage, but the depth of the fall was still stark. Perhaps even more surprising was the struggles of the run defense, which took several losses to injury up front and needed until the end of the year to really find their footing.

By the end of the year they were back up to their normal stands up front thanks mostly to the emergence of young DL such as DE Robert Bowers, DT Mike Panasiuk, and NT Raequan Williams.

Ohio State hit them some but struggled to score while the Nittany Lion run game was largely erased. However, the Buckeyes won thanks to Sparty ineptitude on offense while the Lions won via their spread passing game which absolutely shredded the Spartan secondary.

The problem against Penn State was the typical Michigan State struggle, namely their aggressive approach on defense writing checks that their secondary couldn’t cash. The major way that the Nittany Lion passing attack burned them was on play-action, both in throwing quick routes on off coverage played by inexperienced DBs...

...as well as with traditional vertical routes in which the Spartan DBs were simply over-matched:

This is the classic dilemma for the Spartan defense, in which the design of their defense depends on a corner (especially one on the boundary) being able to play over the top of a route against play-action without help inside or underneath.

Their boundary safety here is keying off the H-back and helping on crossing routes over the middle while their free safety is playing over the slot. The corners are on islands and against players like Chris Godwin that was a bit much for the 2016 crew.

It wasn’t just the young cornerbacks that were roasted either, veteran strong safety Montae Nicholson and veteran corner Darian Hicks were also on the receiving end of some Trace McSorley bombs en route to his 376 yard, four TD day.

They’ve adjusted their system somewhat to make them less vulnerable to easy spread plays, like the classic zone/bubble RPO (run/pass option), but they still put a lot on their secondary in terms of playing in space and making open field tackles. Their defense can’t maintain its early-decade standards without truly great play from the back end.

Heading into 2017 and beyond

The Spartans have quite a lot to figure out heading into 2017. One issue is the off the field issues that dented the program and cost them a few key players. That aside though, the Sparty defense found some true playmakers down the stretch in the aforementioned DL, in LB Chris Frey (who led the team in tackles), and in space-backer Andrew Dowell.

The Spartans didn’t have a single pass-rusher in 2016 that managed more than 2.5 sacks, which is bloody horrendous, but the bigger issue is poor coverage that prevented any pressures from having a chance of getting home.

They’ll probably be strong up front next year, they virtually always are because they teach their system exceptionally well and it’s designed to allow aggressiveness at the point of attack, but the big question is on the back end. Here’s their prospective 2017 secondary (including their space-backer position):

There’s not a ton of experience here at any of these positions. The play-making spots at Sam linebacker and strong safety are going to need a lot more then what the Spartans got a year ago while the three crucial positions of field and boundary cornerback and free safety are likely to be filled by unproven young players.

Vayante Copeland has long been seen as a potential answer at one corner spot but he’s endured injuries nearly every season. Grayson Miller was solid down the stretch but has iffy quickness for erasing mistakes by himself or others. It’s possible that the Spartans will endure another tough season trying to rebuild their secondary to its 2012-13 heights.

Meanwhile they’re facing an even stiffer challenge from the Big 10’s quarterbacks and passing games heading into 2017. Just within their own eastern division, Penn State returns quarterback Trace McSorley, Ohio State brings J.T. Barrett back for another go, and hated rival Michigan has Wilton Speight back.

McSorley and Speight both did a fair amount of damage throwing on the Sparty secondary a year ago, Ohio State is looking to add more of a passing dimension with recent offensive hires, and the Spartans will also face Notre Dame who will have an RPO-heavy spread offense in tow.

Beyond the off the field issues that are plaguing Michigan State, the question remains of whether they’ll be able to rebuild their pass defense to allow their aggressive scheme to work against the increasingly potent opponents on the schedule. The prognosis is grim and it appears that the window has indeed closed on more championships coming to Lansing, MI.