By: Will Burchfield
Mark Dantonio wasn’t hiding from the truth at his Tuesday press conference.
For one, enough with the “coach talk.” This weekend’s clash between Michigan State and Michigan is on a different level, no matter how it’s posed by anyone else.
And with the big game looming, the Spartans have some areas of concern.
They have to get their ground game back on track, especially against a daunting Michigan defense, and they have to improve their coverage on kickoffs. Check those boxes, and they’ll have a chance of upsetting the undefeated Wolverines at the Big House.
Michigan-Michigan State has long been a rivalry decided by the run. That augured well for this year’s Spartans until last week. After averaging over 220 rushing yards over the first three games, Michigan State ran for just 88 yards on 40 carries in a narrow win over Iowa.
In fact, take away quarterback Brian Lewerke’s 42 yards, and the Spartans accrued just 46 yards on the ground and average of 1.7 yards per attempt. The leading trio of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London ran 24 times for a paltry 40 yards.
Dantonio acknowledged the historical importance of the running game within the rivalry, and then added, “Obviously, very concerned.”
“You want to try and make things work, you want to stay balanced,” he said. “I think that’s what we want to do, especially down the road. Got to get our tailbacks going, our running game going a little bit better.”
It won’t be easy versus Michigan. Led by a dynamic front seven, the Wolverines have the best run defense in the Big 10, holding opponents under 70 rushing yards per game. The Spartans will have to be firing on all cylinders to buck the trend.
“Everything has to work in sync, and if four out of the five guys are getting the job done on the offensive line, that’s not going to be good because you need the fifth. If the fullback or tight end is not in sync with it, that’s a problem. If the running back is not seeing the vision on a cutback, that’s a problem. There’s a lot of different reasons for things not occurring and not going as planned,” said Dantonio.
Buoyed by their performance over the first three weeks, the Spartans still have the fourth best rushing offense in the Big 10 — one slot above the Wolverines. They’ll lean on that success entering Saturday’s game.
“The main focus,” said Dantonio, “is that we have done it before. We need to continue to just find ways to do it. Iowa has been a difficult team to run against, traditionally, and you saw that again on Saturday night. But it all worked out and we won the football game, so that’s the bottom line. But I’m concerned about it, no doubt.”
The coach’s other concern revolves around special teams — or, more specifically, Brett Scanlon, who handles the team’s kickoffs. Scanlon’s tendency to kick short line drives has led to Michigan State yielding an average of 24.2 yards on returns, the worst mark in the Big 10.
“I want to have faith in our kicker, but he’s got to get the ball up and he’s got to have a little bit better hang time. That is a concern, as well,” Dantonio said.
He acknowledged some of the problems have been coverage-related, and called for a more “systematic approach” in this department.
“But you’ve got to find ways. We’ve got to have a better kickoff, better hang time — probably better hang time rather than so much into the end zone, but we’ll work towards it,” said Dantonio. “We have a couple of guys working there, too, but I’d like to keep Scanlon in there.”
Scanlon, a senior, has been the Spartans’ kickoff specialist from the start of the season. Redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin, the team’s place kicker, is Scanlon’s backup.
Dantonio can perhaps rest easier knowing that Michigan hasn’t been dangerous on kickoff returns. But Donovan Peoples-Jones, who has shined as a punt returner, could be a threat if given the chance.