Short Yardage Struggles Might Be One Tweak From Being Solved

Short Yardage Struggles Might Be One Tweak From Being Solved

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Short Yardage Struggles Might Be One Tweak From Being Solved

Michigan State’s short yardage and red zone struggles might be one, simple tweak away from being addressed and, possibly, solved. Mark Dantonio is probably thinking about this.

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There has been a fair amount of focus on a specific element of Michigan State’s struggles to power through on short yardage situations, particularly in the red zone.

Tyler Higby has caught a healthy dose of attention from the experts due to a couple of plays where he was beaten by Arizona State’s nose tackle, Renell Wren, in the 16-13 loss to the Sun Devils.

Before we go any further, can we stop and pay some serious respect to Renell Wren’s family for having the same last name with the same spelling as Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose, Wren?

I’ve conducted a lot of research and many Hollywood insiders have confirmed that the original draft of the Footloose screenplay had the lead character named Louis.

But, as the creative process went through its evolution, one of the studio heads applied his craft expertly and said during a meeting that took place about a third of the way through production of the film,

“You know – while I appreciate the intention to demonstrate a unique sophistication of our lead through the use of the name ‘Louis,’ I think we can really do a few things with a different name. Stop and envision his name as being ‘Wren’ instead of ‘Louis.’  Go ahead – close your eyes and really think about the other characters referring to him as ‘Wren’………………………………It works, right? It conveys a bit of a mysterious dynamic doesn’t it? If I close my own eyes and think of our lead as ‘Wren,’ I’m struck by an otherness that his image creates.  And that maintains the sophistication element of the goals we’re trying to achieve with this character, right?  But doesn’t a unique and potentially-never-heard-before name like ‘Wren’ really create some additional intrigue and a desire to know the deeper experiences this character has had that have led him to this moment in his life?”

And so he became ‘Wren’ after that meeting that changed so much for so many people who were moved by the motion picture and Bacon’s portrayal of Wren, in particular.

Having said all of that, Arizona State’s Renell Wren really did get the best of Tyler Higby on the two plays that are being examined by the experts out there.

The two plays were:

  • 3rd and 1 early in the second quarter as Michigan State was working to take control of the game, Brian Lewerke was stopped short on a quarterback sneak by Wren who blew over and past Higby.

Michigan State settled for a field goal after it was looking like a touchdown would go a long way towards establishing control for the Spartans.

  • 3rd and short in the red zone in the 3rd quarter.  Higby was, again, beaten by Wren. Wren pushed Higby onto his back, it caused confusion in the backfield as Lewerke handed off to Connor Heyward, and the play went for a 3-yard loss.

Again, the Spartans settled for a field goal.

The bad part of these two moments – they might have kept Michigan State from taking full control of a game that was certainly winnable.

The good part of these two moments – someone who might look at life from a glass-half-full-of-Green-Ale perspective might say, “Look – Michigan State was two plays away from not only taking control of the game but possibly winning comfortably and if all that’s needed is a switch of personnel, the coaches will see that and handle things accordingly….”

As we’ve said since the frustrating loss, no game is ever won or lost on one or two plays.

Over four quarters, these two plays were part of a night where the Michigan State rushing attack piled up a grand total of 63 yards.

Whether Rennel Wren blows past Tyler Higby or not, 63 yards on the ground isn’t going to win games for Michigan State.

And the defense – for the second straight week – allowed more than 300 yards through the air.

But, if we’re going to look at the two plays where Kevin Bacon blew past and over Higby, let’s acknowledge that if either or both of those plays had gone the way they were supposed to, we’d all probably be talking about a 2-0 Spartan team that’s got plenty to work on but also plenty to be confident about.

Let’s take a moment to obnoxiously and without any credibility or real psychiatric perspective psychoanalyze the decision made by Mark Dantonio to put Tyler Higby into the starting center role in the first place.

Since Higby is sitting on the hot seat right now, how about we remind everyone of some of what this guy has done over the previous few seasons as a Spartan.  From his bio page on the official Michigan State Football site –

  • Fourth-year player will once again be a significant contributor on the offensive line in 2018 for the Spartans.
  • Can play any position on the offensive line.
  • Has played in 22 career games, including 13 starts at left guard (six in 2016, seven in 2017).
  • Played in all 13 games in 2017 with seven starts at left guard.
  • Ranked third on the offensive line with nine dominators and tied for third with 37.5 knockdowns in 2017.
  • Played 743 snaps in 2017, fourth most among Spartan offensive linemen and sixth most overall on offense.
  • Played in all 77 snaps in win over Indiana in 2017, logging three knockdowns, including one dominator.
  • Was in on all 69 snaps of Minnesota game in 2017, logging 2.5 knockdowns.
  • Played in all 64 snaps vs. Michigan in 2017, posting six knockdowns, including one dominator.

I don’t know precisely what a “dominator” is but I’m assuming it’s sort of a measurement type of thing the Spartan football program has that might be comparable to what my pals and I have always referred to as an “Exquisite Luminary” when one of us has achieved employee of the month status at any of our jobs.

What those stats and information should convey is that Tyler Higby has a lot of experience playing winning football for Michigan State.

Higby has been out on the field in every situation and he’s contributed – substantially – to Michigan State’s success during his time as a Spartan, particularly in 2017.

Everyone should know that SpartansWire thinks the entire Allen family should be knighted as Spartan royalty due to the assembly line of star players the family has sent to Michigan State.

And we’re confident that Matt Allen will be the next in that line of Allen brothers to be a part of many Spartan victories.

But – and with nothing but respect for Allen – here are Allen’s bona fides as they appear on the official Michigan State Football site –

  • Played a total of 48 snaps in 11 games to earn his first letter in 2017
  • Academic All-Big Ten selection in 2017
  • Saw action against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
  • Played 11 snaps in the regular-season finale at Rutgers in 2017.
  • Made Spartan debut in season opener vs. Bowling Green and played 25 snaps against the Falcons.
  • Was one of 10 Spartans (along with Tyler Higby) to help volunteer with the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts during the bye weekend (Sept. 15-17, 2017) in Houston.

It’s not at all hard to see what Mark Dantonio was doing when he made the decision to go with Higby at center to start the 2018 season.

And it’s not all that reasonable to critique the decision Dantonio made.

Dantonio went with overall experience in choosing Higby to anchor the line at center – and it’s likely that he considered the possibility that Allen may eventually work his way into the starting role through this season as he gains more experience.

Higby can – and should – be a vital part of the offensive line all season.

He’s versatile and can play winning football.

Center is not his natural position.

And Arizona State’s Kevin Bacon is a hell of a good nose tackle.

Dantonio knew he was in a position where he was counting on a guy who isn’t a natural center while another, younger, far less experienced guy needed some more time to develop.

Perhaps now is the time for Dantonio and Mark Staten to be forced to consider that Allen has developed enough and he and Higby can both contribute by playing the positions they’re most comfortable with.

Perhaps this one, relatively simple tweak helps the offensive line gel sooner than maybe some of us have been thinking since the 16-13 loss to the Sun Devils.

We’re going to talk out of both sides of our mouth here and say that if the two plays where Bacon beat Higby had gone the other way and Higby managed to handle Bacon, Michigan State probably wins the game.

Good effort out of Higby – as always.

Might even HE let out a bit of a sigh of relief if he can slip into a guard spot and have Matt Allen apply his expertise at center and let the offensive line try that approach on for size?

Mark Dantonio and Mark Staten are examining all of this with slightly more expertise than I am right now – and I’m going to venture to guess that they’re going to want to put the players out there that give the Spartans the best chance to win football games……

 

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