Fee Fi Foe Film: Michigan State
This Fee Fi Foe Film is brought to you by the word 'derp'. No, not because of any particular derp-worthy Michigan State moments, but because I spent much of the day yesterday breaking down the MSU-OSU game (in which it was near-impossible to learn anything about the Spartan defense against such a pathetic offense), then found a far-more-relevant torrent of the Notre Dame game right as I was about to go to bed. I tried to include as many relevant bits from the ND game as possible, but I mostly just had time to look at Notre Dame scoring plays and didn't get too much context.
Okay, and this post is also brought to you by the word 'derp' because it largely consists of "highlights" from the MSU-OSU game. You got me there. Moving on...
Will do, Clint. Here's the...offense?
Oh, good, I was right (and totally stealing Brian's schtick).
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Hybrid.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? MANBALL. Shorthanded offensive line or no, MSU tries to run it down your throat with gap blocking. Yes, there is power, though they seem to run it with about the same effectiveness as Michigan.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Kirk Cousins is semi-mobile but doesn't utilize his legs very often. I'll give him a 3.5.
Dangerman: B.J. Cunningham (WR #3)
OVERVIEW: Against Ohio State, the Spartans tended to play from under center on first and second down before moving to the shotgun in third-down or obvious passing situations. A couple drives were run almost exclusively from the shotgun, but these mostly came in two-minute situations. State stayed relatively vanilla when it came to playcalling—from under center, you could expect mostly runs, while out of the shotgun they didn't muster a successful run play (and only called two, both draws that were stuffed at the line).
I have seen the argument put out there that MSU's offensive line isn't getting enough credit and they actually ran the ball decently against Ohio State. Sorry, but I just don't see it. State's running backs combined to average just 3.1 yards per carry on 27 attempts, mostly due to the fact that the O-line missed several assignments and couldn't open up a crease in the defensive line—it's not like Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker suddenly got terrible. Against Notre Dame, the backs averaged—oh, hey—3.1 yards per carry. I see a trend, and that trend is a crappy running game.
The passing game is more efficient, in large part due to the exploits of Cunningham. At first glance, it seems like State does a solid job of protecting Cousins, allowing just one sack per game this season, but that is somewhat deceptive—MSU rolls their pocket on nearly every passing play to keep Cousins out of danger, and the line still manages to allow pressure. Their offensive line just isn't very good, you guys.
For the rest of the offensive breakdown plus a long look at the defense, hit the jump.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: The Spartans ran out of one particular formation so many times I had to mash together several plays into one video. Expect to see this look a lot on early downs—the Spartans come out in an Ace (one-back) twins formation with a tight end on the opposite side of the receivers and an H-back that always splits out wide, then motions into the backfield to create an unbalanced formation to the side of the tight end. That was probably totally confusing, but you'll get the hang of it in the video:
As you can see, MSU runs a variety of plays out of this look. We see an iso to the weakside (coaches/those-in-the-know, please correct me on my terminology) on the first play, then a couple off-tackle runs to the strong side. An interesting note there: On the first (weakside) play, the motioning H-back settles behind the strongside guard, while on the off-tackle runs he stops his motion outside the tight end, which could tip off the play.
State also ran a failed halfback screen, actually lining up in the gun and using wideout and former QB Keith Nichol as the motion man, and their way of keeping the defense honest against the run was to hit Keshawn Martin (lined up behind Cunningham in a stack) on a quick bubble screen. They also had one quick slant, but that was the only play from this formation in which they threw remotely downfield. State ran this formation around ten times, getting their most successful runs out of it, but I'm hoping the coaches notice—and I assume they will, being far smarter football men than I—that the H-back often indicates which way the play is going.
MSU will also run power, especially out of two- and three-TE formations (yes, that's three tight ends). While the Spartans weren't particularly successful with those against OSU, Le'Veon Bell did have one very nice run where he cut back into the backside A gap and picked up a nice gain. However, Ohio State was pretty badly misaligned on that play, shifting their linebackers heavily to the strong side, and while Matt Millen (hurr derp Millen derp) praises Cousins for taking advantage with an audible to the power, I think it would have made more sense to run directly at the weak side instead of making Bell cut back.
To give an example of how much Cousins and the Spartans trust B.J. Cunningham, the best receiver Michigan will face in their Big Ten schedule, check out MSU's only touchdown against the Buckeyes:
MSU lines up with three tight ends, keeps the pair on the strong side in to block, rolls Cousins to that side, and have just two men running routes—Cunningham and tight end Dion Sims, who does a really poor job of finding open space once the play breaks down, though he was open initially on the crossing route. Because of the rollout and the max protection, Cousins is able to set his feet, direct Cunningham toward the open space in the secondary, and chuck one up for a touchdown.
This should be a game where we really see Michigan's safeties get tested—on plays where Cousins has this kind of time, they must be able to locate Cunningham (State's only real downfield threat) and be ready to make a play on the ball. Even better, just blanketing Cunningham and leaving it up to State's other receivers—who have been thoroughly underwhelming thus far—would be quite nice. On the play above, there's no excuse not to have at least two defenders right near Cunningham with only one other receiver running a route.
- As stated above, MSU's non-Cunningham receivers haven't done much of anything this year. Martin, State's slot ninja, is second on the team with 19 receptions for just 177 yards, most of those coming on quick screens. Next on the list in both categories is Keith Nichol, who has all of nine catches for 138 yards. Martin still scares me a bit, because he can really make things happen if he finds open space, but Nichol just doesn't look very good—he doesn't run great routes, is used like another tight end (running mostly underneath routes, not stretching the field vertically), has a tough time getting off the line against press coverage, and doesn't adjust well to the ball. Shut down Cunningham—no easy task—and Michigan should have the Spartan passing game well under control.
- Ohio State played a surprising amount of soft coverage—their secondary is not a vintage Buckeye secondary—and Michigan State took advantage with several quick-hitting hitch and slant routes, as well as a few screens to Martin. I'm not sure this will be as relevant against Michigan—though Mattison had the corners playing well off the line early in the season, they've been pressing up a lot more as the year has wore on, and the trio of Countess, Floyd, and Gordon have shown that they can defend those short routes well and make the quick tackle or pass breakup.
- Despite having what seems like an endless depth chart of tight ends, State barely utilized them in the passing game, completing just two passes for 13 yards to TEs against OSU. I think this is a matter of necessity, as the offensive line needs all the help they can get, so State has been keeping their tight ends in to block. State did throw an ill-advised fade to Dion Sims that was intercepted when they could've iced the game with a field goal, and Linthicum was targeted a couple times without coming up with a catch, but at this point it seems like they're forced to stay in and help protect.
- Though the Spartans almost exclusively gap block on runs from under center, they attempted a couple inside zones from the shotgun, likely as an attempt to prove that they could do more than just roll out and throw quick passes when they're not under center. This didn't really work, since those runs were stuffed at the line.
- Just in case you think I'm ragging on the offensive line for no reason, there was one play in which State left in seven men to block on a shotgun pass, yet somehow two of the four OSU defenders rushing the QB—including an unblocked defensive end—got to Cousins quickly and forced him to get rid of it early. While the DE wasn't impeded until he steamrolled the poor running back tasked with blitz pickup, the tight end, tackle, and guard from that side of the field ALL blocked the defensive tackle. These guys not only get beat one-on-one, but they're missing a lot of assignments.
Long-winded? Indeed, and my apologies. Thanks to the ineptitude of Ohio State's offense, the defensive section will be far more brief.
Base Set? 4-3, and at least against OSU they stayed in their base set unless the Buckeyes brought out four receivers, which was rare. In that case, MSU brought on a nickelback. I'm not sure if this was because they didn't at all respect the arms of Messrs. Miller and Bauserman or that's just how they play. A quick glance at the Notre Dame tape makes me believe it's the former, surprisingly.
Man or zone coverage? Enough of a mix that I didn't notice a heavy lean one way or the other. Again, tough to judge against OSU.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? In other words, rush three or bring a bunch of blitzes? MSU really likes to blitz linebacker Max Bullough, who lived in the Ohio State backfield for most of that game. Definitely more Greg than GERG, though State also has enough trust in their D-line to rush four and drop into a cover 3, as you'll see later.
Dangerman: Jerel Worthy (DT #99)
OVERVIEW: The Spartans currently boast the number one defense in the country in terms of yards allowed per game (173.4), and they're second in both pass yardage (109.4) and efficiency (83.4) and third against the run (64.0). Caveats? Oh, yes, they apply. So far State has faced Youngstown State (FCS), Florida Atlantic (#118 total offense), Central Michigan (#87), Notre Dame (#20), and Ohio State (#103). Take a guess which team beat Michigan State his year?
That said, MSU actually did a solid job of shutting down Notre Dame despite giving up 31 points—seven of those came on a kickoff return for a touchdown, and the Spartans held the Irish to just 6.2 yards per pass and 3.6 yards per rush, though Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray managed a combined 4.8 yards per carry (more on that later). This is the best defense Michigan has seen this year, even if they aren't actually the top unit in the country. The combination of Jerel Worthy in the middle and William Gholston coming off the edge is somewhat terrifying.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: One play that Notre Dame had repeated success with against MSU was the draw out of the shotgun, which bodes well for Michigan. Here's another montage, which includes a heavy dose of TGDCD, a play Al Borges has introduced this year, much to the delight of M fans tired of seeing other teams use it against us so successfully:
Okay, so that touchdown never would have occurred anywhere except Notre Dame Stadium, as the refs missed a blatant hold on Worthy that allowed Wood to find a cutback lane. Still, Michigan State gets pretty aggressive with their front seven, and this is one way to counter that has worked for the one team to actually move the ball on the Spartans. It's also something Michigan can do, though Wood is better at this point than any back on Michigan's roster.
Tommy Rees, however, is no Denard Robinson. We'll see if MSU decides to stay aggressive against Shoelace or backs off out of crippling fear, which may make it more difficult to run QB draws and the like, though that should open up the defense in other facets. If MSU stays aggressive and brings the blitz, they'll play man behind it, and you could see something like this:
Jump balls to Junior Hemingway, ahoy! I'm pretty sure I ask for this every game, but I'll be damned if it isn't the most effective pass play in Michigan's arsenal right now.
- An issue over the years with MSU has been their ability to jump the snap count, and Jerel Worthy did that to great effect against Ohio State, even tackling Braxton Miller before he could hand the ball off on what would've been an iso out of the I-form. Now that Michigan doesn't have a first-year starting quarterback for the first time since Chad Henne, they should be able to mix up the snap count, and they'll have to in order to avoid Worthy wreaking havok in the backfield. Worthy might do that anyway—he's incredibly quick off the ball and has Martin-esque strength. The hype is justified.
- William Gholston has really come into his own at defensive end. There were a couple plays in which OSU intentionally left Gholston unblocked and ran away from him, only to have him chase the play down from the backside for a minimal gain. He's also developing into a very good pass rusher, and his 6'7", 280-pound frame allows him to knock down passes and generally disrupt the quarterback's ability to see his receivers and find a good throwing lane.
- It's tough to judge the MSU secondary based on watching them face the OSU Derp Duo and a couple plays against Notre Dame, but they seem pretty sound apart from the occasional bust by a safety. On this play, in which Braxton Miller actually completes a pass well beyond ten yards(!), it's tough to tell whether the safety blows the play—as Matt Millen claims—or if Michigan State was playing a cover 3 and the linebackers didn't get deep enough drops. I'm leaning towards the latter, but I also despise Matt Millen in a way that clouds my judgment.