Why did Mark Dantonio, Michigan State abandon effective run game?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State running back Connor Heyward (11) rushed for 80 yards against Nebraska, but didn't get many rushing attempts in the fourth quarter.

East Lansing — Through three quarters on Saturday at Nebraska, the Michigan State offense had gained 141 yards rushing on 32 carries.

It didn’t amount to an amazing yards-per-carry average, but the 4.4 yards per pop the Spartans were getting amounted to a successful day on the ground in 2018. It was exactly the sort of performance they’d been seeking for most of the season one coach Mark Dantonio has based his offense around.

As Dantonio has said this season, when the Spartans run the ball 40 times a game, it usually results in a victory, regardless of how many yards were gained.

So, as Michigan State entered the fourth quarter with a 6-0 lead, it seemed the 40-carry mark would be hit with no problem. Instead, the Spartans ran the ball five more times over the final 15 minutes and gained just 12 total yards. The official rushing stats are listed as six carries for 2 yards, though the extra “carry” was a sack of quarterback Rocky Lombardi that lost 10 yards.

Coupled with running the ball only 18 times the week before in a loss to Ohio State, it’s hard to understand the shift from the idea of running the ball first. One week after the MSU-OSU game, Maryland put up 339 yards rushing against the Buckeyes.

More: Mark Dantonio looking for 'response' from Michigan State players

However, Dantonio said that in the rhythm of the game, he’s not keeping track of whether the offense is balanced.

“Yeah, when you look back at it, you look at things like that and say, ‘Wish we could have done this and wish we could have done that,’” Dantonio said. “But you know, I don't have an answer for you. I wish, yeah. I'm not counting in that point in time. I'm trying to listen and move the football and do everything I can do on this side as a head coach to try and give our players an opportunity to win.”

In other words, the idea to move away from the run lies on the man calling the plays, and that is co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. At least, that’s the way it usually goes. However, after the game, Dantonio said the decision to go to the air was his.

“I felt like we needed to throw the football,” Dantonio said Saturday. “We had one timeout left, so we weren’t gonna be able to stop the clock. It wasn’t like we were gashing and running the football, either.

“I made that decision.”

Which takes us to the fourth quarter in Nebraska.

The final quarter began in the middle of a Michigan State drive that ended with a field goal, giving the Spartans a 6-0 lead. Nebraska answered with a field goal of its own to cut the margin to 6-3, and from there, Michigan State hardly ran the ball again.

With 11:01 to play, the Spartans opened a drive from their 28 with a 2-yard run and followed that with a pass. That play resulted in Lombardi’s sack and fumble that helped the Cornhuskers tie the game at 6 with another field goal. On Michigan State’s next drive — the score was tied at 6 with 8:07 to play and the ball at the MSU 25 — La’Darius Jefferson gained 1 yard on first down followed by two incomplete passes and a punt.

After Nebraska took a 9-6 lead, Michigan State got the ball at its 25 with 5:13 to play, and after four passes was forced to punt. Its final drive began at it 38 with 3:52 to play. The Spartans got nine plays off and just one was a run.

Of the final 20 plays — from the time Nebraska first scored — Michigan State ran the ball three times, threw it 15 and punted twice.

“I can't turn the clock back,” Dantonio said.

No, he can’t. But he can dictate where the offense goes moving forward. As Michigan State (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) prepares to host Rutgers (1-10, 0-8) on Saturday, many fans and detractors are screaming for staff changes, something Dantonio hasn’t been inclined to do in his 12 seasons leading the Spartans.

That might happen in the offseason, though odds are long there will be any significant changes.

As for what took place in the loss at Nebraska, Dantonio focused much of his attention on the final drive when the Spartans threw the final five plays, not including picking up a first down on a pass interference call against the Huskers.

“Usually, I've said on occasion, I've said, ‘Hey, we've got two downs here; we've got two downs here, run it,’” Dantonio said. “But on third down, on the last third down, I was busy trying to figure out, can he make the field goal from that depth?

“So, we didn't know whether we were going to go for it on fourth down or not go for it on fourth down, because I didn't have an answer on that; the answer was slow and coming. So, with third-and-4, it's a high-percentage pass down for most teams, and so we throw it, and it was dropped. I mean, it was, you know, it was dropped, so execution.”

That third-down play, from the Nebraska 29, was dropped by Laress Nelson, a play that would have gained enough yardage for a first down. On fourth down, a pass to tight end Matt Sokol was broken up as the Spartans opted not to attempt a potential game-tying field goal.

“We had some drops,” Dantonio said. “I think we make those catches, I don't think we're talking about it.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Near the bottom

Where Michigan State ranks nationally in offensive categories (among 129 FBS teams):

Scoring: 20.3 points (120th)

Rushing: 120.6 yards (117th)

Passing: 225.4 yards (72nd)

Total offense: 346.0 yards (113th)

Rutgers at Michigan State

Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Rutgers 1-10, 0-8 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-5, 4-4

Line: Michigan State by 27