It's a bye week, so let's take a look at a game that may tell us something about the two most important games on the schedule. This is a little like evaluating a spring game—is OSU's defensive line rampant or is MSU's offensive line mewling?—but there are Things that can be Learned.
To the knowledgemobile!
Michigan State Offense vs Ohio State Defense
Andrew Maxwell is a lot better than his stats give him credit for. In this one he had 269 yards and a touchdown on 42 attempts, which is a mediocre-to-poor 6.4 YPA. But it's not his fault. Every negative thing you've heard about the MSU wide receiver corps is true, and then some. They drop balls. They can't get separation. They drop some more balls. They're not particularly big targets. Etc.
Maxwell himself is a dart-thrower who handles pressure well. He laid in three twenty-yard corner routes perfectly, and what did he get from them?
Bupkis. At no point did anyone have an inch of separation.That happened twice in the first half and when Maxwell managed to thread the tiniest of needles in the second half, Fowler was separated from the ball. Fowler has now been displaced by Aaron Burbridge because obviously.
Burbridge must be running routes so wrong they're backwards in practice. DeAnthony Arnett, too.
Anyway, Maxwell had time and was deadly accurate in this game. Good play from the OSU secondary and awful awful awful WR play held his numbers down, as they have every game this year. With a few more games under his belt, Maxwell will not be a huge step down from Kirk Cousins when the time comes.
Is Jonathan Hankins immense or is MSU's offensive line a shambles? Both, probably. Here's Hankins destroying the surest thing on the Michigan State line, senior multi-year starter Chris MacDonald:
Hankins destroying the right tackle:
OSU flips Hankins between three DL spots (everything but WDE); in this game they played him exclusively at three-tech, where he owned. A very large part of MSU's anemic rushing output (LeVeon Bell had 45 yards on 17 carries) was Hankins demanding doubles all day, or blowing up plays when he was not doubled.
/shakes fist at Rich Rodriguez and Archie Collins
As for the MSU OL, it's getting kind of shambling. Maxwell had time to throw in the second half when MSU abandoned the ground game and turned into Oklahoma State lite, but OSU's edge rush guys aren't great. WDE Nathan Williams is Frank Clark but more responsible, and it's basically down to Garrett Goebel and John Simon to get to the QB since it's not in Hankins' job description to do so. In this game Simon was quiet.
Point shambles. With nine minutes left in the game, MSU faced a fourth and one. They've got Le'Veon Bell. They passed. I thought this was defensible.
Le'Veon Bell is still terrifying. OSU bottled him up by forcing him to do things in the backfield, which robs him of his momentum and takes away the YAC that turns three yard runs into five. MSU does lack an alternative this year. Nick Hill is just a guy, and Larry Caper has been almost totally marginalized. Without Baker the Spartans don't have the option of attacking the edges as much as they did last year—welcome news for Michigan.
Ohio State's secondary is athletic and dumb. Keith Mumphery rumblestumbled for a 29 yard touchdown when…
- Orhian Johnson dragged way out of position on a run fake to the opposite side of the field he couldn't do anything about anyway.
- Orhian Johnson missed a tackle.
- Christian Bryant tried the old Cato June shoulder-block, which Mumphery bounced off of.
- Travis Howard tried to strip the ball instead of tackling.
- Etienne Sabino tried to strip the ball instead of tackling.
- ALL OF THE STRIPPING
- NONE OF THE TACKLING
It's something to behold:
Try to imagine Kovacs doing what Christian Bryant does here if you want your head to explode due to logic error.
On the other hand, MSU corner routes were obliterated by Johnson getting over and the corner being underneath, as mentioned above under the Maxwell bit.
OSU's corners got flagged a lot in this game. They're aggressive and will gamble on the flag instead of playing passively and hoping things go right for them. If refereeing is home-field biased this is not so good for M.
Here's what happens when pattern matching goes awry. Pattern matching is nouveau zone coverage in which the guy you're in man-to-man on is determined after the snap. It's what Alabama uses, what a lot of the NFL uses… it's the in thing. Now offensive coordinators are trying to beat it, and here's the first instance I've seen* of a route clearly predicated on the idea the opponent is pattern matching.
MSU WR Bennie Fowler will run an out and up, which happens all the time on the outside. It's not something that common in the slot, at least in my experience. Johnson is checking him because if the #2 WR goes vertical, that's his guy. Once he breaks to the out he thinks "not my problem" and starts looking for a post or crossing route from the other side of the field. As soon as Johnson looks away, the WR does go vertical (this is clear only on the replay):
Big third down conversion because MSU messed with Johnson's key. RPS +2.
*[I'm sure this has been going on for a few years now; this is just the first one that was like "ohhhhh I get it."]
MSU has a screen I remember and hate. They're running it a little differently, but if you remember Michigan's matchups with Wisconsin about a decade ago you probably remember their middle TE screen that invariably picked up 15 yards. MSU is running a variation of that with Bell where instead of looping the ball over someone the QB just zips it to the RB quickly before the DE can collapse back inside. I want to call it a "zip screen" or something because the main advantage it has is being super quick relative to other screens. Por ejemplo:
That's the screen that you thought "ohhhh lucky" on in the Boise game when a DE almost intercepted it, BTW.
OSU will leave big holes in their zone occasionally. MSU's sporadic success in their passing game came largely when big gaping holes sprung in OSU's zone coverage, like here:
Also, Dion Sims is a horse of a tight end. That's a full ten yards after contact.
Here a simple snag package gets Mumphery open for a big gain:
That's a very large hole off a corner blitz; wonder if someone (Shazier most likely) busted there.
Where is the pressure? Despite MSU abandoning the run almost entirely in the second half, OSU was unable to generate much pressure.Williams will run at you fast if you don't get a block on him but he's not an elite pass rusher by any stretch of the imagination. He's just a guy.
More worrying for Ohio State (and Michigan) was Simon's almost total lack of impact. I've seen him beast up in a couple games this year, but not against MSU. I swear, if MSU can cobble together an OL that can fend off Michigan again this year I'm going to have a fit. Another fit. Fitty fit fit.
In an effort to expand my ninja skills beyond the realm of recruiting, we (okay, Brian) decided I should do a weekly feature breaking down down film from the previous game (and potentially other games, as well) of Michigan's upcoming opponent. That feature is, at least temporarily, titled Fee Fi Foe Film, and today I attempt to draw conclusions about San Diego State based on an 11-minute highlight film produced by their vanquished opponent from last week, Washington State.
Normally, I'll have a full torrent at the ready and get into deeper detail about tendencies as well as specific plays, but unfortunately there wasn't one available this week. Instead, here's what I was working with, and I'll use clips from the following video to look at a few areas where I think Michigan can exploit the Aztec defense (as well as one clip of Ronnie Hillman, just for objectivity's sake and as a reminder that we should all be scared of Ronnie Hillman):
After watching 11 minutes worth of highlights put together by the other team, there are a couple areas where I think Michigan can attack the San Diego State 3-3-5 defense, and luckily for the Wolverines these advantages appear to fall right into their offensive wheelhouse. All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, as you must remember I'm using (1) a highlight reel, and (2) a highlight reel put together by the other team showing their best plays of the day. This shouldn't be an issue in the future when I'm using full-game torrents to put these together.
QB O NOES: WE HAZ IT? The first clip displays a recurring weakness for SDSU, and that's the throw right up the seam—this time off of play-action—which seems to set up more QB O NOES for Denard:
As you can see, Washington State operated from out of the spread, and here the play-action handoff either froze the safety for the split-second required to beat him deep or he's just slow—unfortunately, it's impossible to tell from this camera angle. Either way, it appears Michigan can take advantage of SDSU's safety play in this area of the field, as later in the game WSU connected for another touchdown on the same route, this time just without the play-action.
We've seen Al Borges work in the 'Denard take a jab-step, suck in entire defense, throw to wide-open receiver up the seam' play to relative effectiveness when Robinson puts the pass on target, and I expect that play will be utilized with success this week. If there's a game for Roy Roundtree to revert to last year's form, I think this is it, though the Aztecs's inability to handle speed up the seam may open up the opportunity for Jeremy Gallon to continue his breakout season in style.
RUNNING AGAINST THE 3-3-5: BANNER DAY FOR MOLK AND LEWAN? Two WSU running plays out of the shotgun bode well for Michigan's chances of great success against Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense. While the Aztecs have a fair amount of experience on their defensive line, starting two seniors and a sophomore, neither defensive end weighs more than 245 pounds and their starting nose tackle, Jerome Long, is 6'5", 285. On this particular play, Long—wearing #94, lined up directly over the center—gets blasted out of the hole:
While David Molk has had his troubles against bigger defensive tackles when not working his zone-blocking magic, he should have success here regardless of how Borges decides to utilize his offensive line. If Washington State's center, whom Phil Steele tells me is not among the top 44 in the country (Molk is #2), can open up lanes like that, Molk is in for a good day.
Meanwhile, the pint-sized defensive ends may be in even bigger trouble against Taylor Lewan. Watch as the left defensive end on this play gets completely sealed off from the outside, allowing the Cougar running back to gain the edge and scamper for a first down:
I'm guessing SDSU's rather tiny defensive ends will be trying so hard not to become the next contestant on "Donkey Rides With Taylor Lewan" that throwing in a couple runs off the edge will keep them off-balance and allow for plays like the above to occur. Obviously, Michigan also has a luxury that Washington State does not, and that is Denard Robinson—the QB stretch could work quite well against the Aztecs if their ends can't maintain control of the edge.
PAGING JUNIOR HEMINGWAY: YOU ARE WANTED ON THE POST. On this next clip, you'll see that San Diego State—much like the Michigan teams of GERG—stays in their base defense with what appears to be their base personnel even when faced with a four-receiver look. In this case, WSU picks up a blitz out of the 3-3-5 and the quarterback hits the post in a post/flat combo on the wide side of the field for a relatively easy first-down pickup:
With Junior Hemingway's ability to gain position on just about any defensive back and box them out for the ball, I think he can have a big day when faced with man-to-man coverage on the outside like in the above play. It's a quick, easy read for Denard and a throw he's shown the ability to make (mostly last year, admittedly), though we'll have to see how aggressive SDSU gets with the blitz when faced with the paralyzing fear of Shoelace running wild if they can't get to him in a hurry
THE TUNNEL SCREEN FINALLY WORKS? I know Brian has ranted about Borges's use of the tunnel screen instead of the bubble (which theoretically should give the receiver more room to work with if executed properly off the zone-read fake), and I'm in agreement with him, but then I saw this highlight clip and realized maybe Borges was simply preparing for the team he coached last year:
Running the 3-3-5 necessitates bringing some extra pressure beyond the defensive line, unless you're GERG and have no idea how to run the damn thing, but there are obviously ways to counter the blitz. In this case, SDSU shifts their line to the short side of the field, where the running back is lined up, and brings all three of their linebackers without dropping any linemen into coverage. There are still five defensive backs in coverage on the play, but the safeties covering the slot receivers play far off their man, and this really opens up space for the tunnel screen. If Borges catches SDSU on a similar play, this is another way Roundtree or Gallon could rip off a big one.
For the record, I still think Michigan should re-incorporate the bubble screen, which should also work well against a six-man blitz with loose coverage against the slot, but this shows that the tunnel screen the Wolverines have been running could finally have some success.
RONNIE HILLMAN IS GOOD. Your reminder that running back Ronnie Hillman—who already has 497 yards and eight touchdowns on 77 carries this season (and though he beat up on Cal Poly in the opener, he also had 191 yards and four TDs last week)—should be your main point of concern if you're worried about an Aztec upset:
Jordan Kovacs would probably come up and make that tackle in the secondary, but that's only if he can catch Hillman first, and if Hillman can reach the second level that quickly and he's on the opposide side of the field as Kovacs, I'm skeptical that will happen. This is going to be a huge test for the outside linebackers (presumably Jake Ryan and Brandin Hawthorne—Cam Gordon is not in shape to start quite yet, according to Brady Hoke). Keep Hillman from getting to the outside and breaking off big runs, and I think Michigan wins this game handily. Allow Hillman to get the edge with regularity—something that has been an issue for Michigan so far this year, and Hillman may be every bit as good as Notre Dame's Cierre Wood—and this one could be uncomfortably close.
While I'm guessing next week's form of this post will look quite different, presuming I have a full game tape to look at, I'm still very much open to suggestions as to how to improve this feature. Let me know if you'd like to see anything added to these posts, and I'll do my best to incorporate some suggestions into the Minnesota Fee Fi Foe Film.
Side note: usefulness of this may be depressed since Dan Mullen's probably gone from Mississippi State in the next few days, but whateva.
In late September, Mississippi State was coming off consecutive losses to Auburn and LSU when they faced Georgia. With only a win against inept Memphis to their credit, no one expected much, but Georgia had just lost to South Carolina and Arkansas and only had a win against Louisiana Lafeyette to their credit, so no one expected much out of the opponent either. AJ Green was in the fourth and final game of his suspension for selling his bowl jersey.
Mississippi State won 24-12 despite getting outgained by sixty; in a mini-Denard performance Chris Relf was 9 of 14 for two touchdowns and had 109 yards on the ground on 20 carries. Items and observations follow.
Brutally Inadvertent Honesty
"The importance of this game cannot be understated."
I think you just did, actually.
This Is Not The Michigan Offense
It's the spread but it's closer to Auburn's than Michigan's. Amongst Michigan opponents the closest comparison is Illinois. Michigan almost never uses presnap motion. At WVU Rodriguez would occasionally pull a slot receiver into the backfield or motion one out back into the slot, but at Michigan even that's been eliminated. About the only guy moving before the snap is Vincent Smith on his occasional head starts out into the flat to threaten screen. Meanwhile Michigan hasn't run more than a couple true option plays in three years.
Mississippi State uses a ton of motion and runs a ton of option. Here's MSU's first touchdown, a triple option that sees an end-around fake lead into a triple option look with both a shovel and pitch. Georgia makes it easy by not covering the pitch guy:
Shades of Michigan against Illinois.
That motion and reliance on the option is not what Michigan does. MSU rarely runs straight up zone plays of any variety, possibly because their offensive line can't handle it. They compensate by optioning guys off. This means a steady defense ready to execute the proverbial assignment football can erase the best bits of the MSU offense and force Relf into a bunch of uncomfortable situations—Bulldog QBs combined to throw five interceptions against LSU and even Kentucky forced him into a 7 of 17 day. This does not describe Michigan at all, obviously.
Dan Mullen: Pretty Smart
On Mississippi State's next drive they try it again and get stuffed:
On second and eight Mullen dials up a play perfectly constructed for the situation. He flips the option, changes the formation, and goes after the guy who just shot up on the pitch:
He's suckered in after getting chewed out by his DC on the sideline, allowing Chad Bumphis a vast amount of room on the outside since the outside WR ran the safety off. If the option works, it works; if it doesn't you're likely to have your best WR open for a big chunk. This is not the kind of stuff you can do every play—you are inherently limited by your players—but that's an example of a smart offensive coach exploiting a hole he expects will be there after you adjust.
Mississippi State is a team almost totally devoid of talent on offense and has been for a million years, and Dan Mullen has dragged them to around average.
Chris Relf: Hoss, Highly Variable Thrower
Relf is more Tebow/Newton than Robinson. They used power:
He's 240 with good speed but not much in the way of quicks. Meanwhile, his throws are erratic, some well off target, some either horrible decisions he got lucky on or gorgeous back-shoulder fades:
Which is that? If we're talking about a team trying to man up Crab against Texas Tech, it's the latter. We aren't, we're talking about a 56% passer on a team that throws 30% of the time. So… could go either way. He's got some Denard in him, throwing zingers that end up high or low:
Note that "cannot be understated" guy follows that up with "Bumphis took a cheerleader into the hedges." Someone put Chris Martin in a box and ship this guy to Chicago.
This was mentioned earlier today but good Lord, Manny Diaz is one guy you should take seriously when he does the defensive coordinator thing and talks about being very aggressive. When Mississippi State calls a play they're usually sending at least one and most of the time two; occasionally they will show blitz and check when the opponent checks but against Georgia that just resulted in crappy zone coverage and lots of time for Aaron Murray to shred it.
Their cornerbacks are not very good. This is a ball you can make a play on or maybe intercept but this guy does the full Todd Howard:
That sets up Georgia in scoring position, at which point Mississippi State eats up consecutive runs with maniacal run blitzes…
…manically blitzes Aaron Murray on third and twelve, maniacally tackles the obvious RB screen after ten yards, and then watches maniacally from the sidelines as Mark Richt limply sends in the field goal team.
They don't have an obvious standout player other than Pernell McPhee, a JUCO from Pahokee Michigan had a brief, predictably fruitless dalliance with a couple years ago. He's quick and disruptive. The rest of the guys seem to know their assignments and get in the right spots. They don't have to beat blocks much because MSU moves around so much and attacks vertically, which will lead to plays on which guys get shoved out of big holes. Could be dangerous against Denard; not so much Georgia's extremely mediocre set of tailbacks.
Their safeties are thumping tacklers and very solid, or at least were in this game. Georgia lost an all but sure touchdown when Ealey was separated from the ball at the one yard line:
On other plays those overhang guys came up well and tackled without a hint of disastrous long runs.
That play above also shows a distinct vulnerability to seam routes—MSU will often keep those safeties way back—that should see Michigan tight ends and Roy Roundtree have a productive day as long as they catch the damn ball.