Michigan State Football: Play-calling needs instant improvement


After another satisfying — yet nerve-wracking — victory over Michigan, in which the Spartan Dawgs appeared to regain their swagger on defense, Michigan State football remains in contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

However, this game continued a disheartening trend of bizarre decisions being made by the coaching staff in all phases of the game. Enough has been mentioned about the struggles of the defense and special teams — although the decision to start Tyler O’Connor resulted in even worse punt coverage than before — but the offense is also guilty of questionable decisions.

After the 2014 offense proved to be one of the most dynamic in program history, many fans expected the 2015 group to be equally explosive.

Led by Connor Cook and a handful of experienced receivers, the passing game was expected to carry the team until a running back separated himself from the group. Not to mention, this year’s offensive line was considered one of the best in program history before even playing a snap. Of course, three injuries later, the anticipated starting five has only played one complete game together.

The biggest complaint most Spartan fans have with the offense is the play-calling, which once again surfaced during the Michigan game.

With an injury-laden offensive line going up against one of the best defenses in the nation, one would assume the Spartans would attack the Wolverines with a variety of looks aimed at confusing their opponents. Instead, Michigan State continued its trend of lining up in a heavy formation and running the ball on first down.

Sep 12, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans wide receiver R.J. Shelton (12) runs the ball against the Oregon Ducks during the 2nd half of a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 31-28. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

A surprise to no one, this frequently resulted in second-and-longs, putting added pressure on Cook and the receivers.

I was glad to see that Dave Warner mixed in some play action passes on first down, however there needs to be more of that. When fans sitting in the stadium or in their living room know what play is coming, it is safe to assume the defense does as well.

I would never advocate for abandoning the running game; I appreciate the fact that Michigan State is one of the few remaining teams that send out a fullback and tight end to bully opposing defenses repeatedly.

However, when they continue to send out multiple tight ends and a fullback, opposing defenses have been stacking the box and L.J. Scott and Co. have struggled to find even the smallest holes to run through. This was very evident in the Michigan game, as the Spartans finished with a measly 58 yards on 33 carries, as none of the running backs could break off a long run.

It was refreshing to see the Spartans call the jet sweep less frequently than normal because that play is very difficult to execute against good defenses. On a third-and-short, the coaches did call for a jet sweep-esque play to Aaron Burbridge that struggled to get back to the line of scrimmage as several Wolverines beat him to the short side of the field.

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Moving forward, potentially with a hampered offensive line, Connor Cook may be forced to throw more often than usual. If that is the case, the Spartan offense must find a second go-to receiver. Burbridge played a spectacular game against one of the better corners in the nation, however it seemed that Cook fell in love with locking in on back shoulder fades all game.

RJ Shelton is emerging as a great receiving threat, evidenced by a great toe-tap reception along the sideline, but he does not get nearly half the looks Burbridge does.

Like the running game, seeing these plays repeatedly on film will allow secondaries to hone in on Burbridge, making those completions even more difficult than they already are. It will be interesting to see if Coach Warner gives Cook more opportunities to air it out if the run game continues to struggle.

Against Michigan, Cook demonstrated why many people consider him a first-round draft pick. It’s time for the Spartan offense to realize that as well. If the running game is stymied, hopefully the offense will abandon the usual off-tackle runs and allow Cook to win the game for the team.

Next: Top 5 excuses used by Michigan fans for loss to MSU

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