Pictured: Will Gholston; Not pictured: Will Gholston making a play
I'm apparently a blogger of the self-hating variety, as yesterday I re-watched last weekend's Michigan State-Iowa opposite-of-a-barnburner and even sat through both overtimes. The things I do for you people (and a paycheck, I guess).
You probably know the story from this one; MSU couldn't hold on to two different ten-point leads or muster much of anything on offense, improbably losing to a Hawkeye team that averaged 3.7 yards per play after Andrew Maxwell tossed an interception in the second overtime. While this contest was fun for rivalry purposes, it was absolutely terrible for the game of football.
Let's move on to the breakdown while I still have the will to live.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Largely pro-style. State operates from under center on almost all standard downs, only going to the shotgun when they need to put the ball in the air.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? MSU runs a largely zone-heavy rushing attack, though they'll mix in a heavy dose of POWER and a few isos.
Hurry it up or grind it out? State managed a 42.8% adj. pace last year when they featured an actual passing offense. My guess is that figure will be even lower after this year, becausezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz*criesinsleep*zzzzzzzzzzz.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Andrew Maxwell does not attempt to scramble or really move outside of the pocket. There's a reason for this. Here's a possibly-generous 3.
Dangerman: I was going to save this for the play breakdown, but whateva I do what I want:
That's LeVeon Bell, obviously, who's rushed for 916 yards and eight touchdowns on 200(!) carries this season. No other player on the Spartans has more than 16 carries. I think they call those "bellhorses" or "workcows" but it's early in the morning so I may be wrong here.
Anyway, the above is a prime example of why Bell is so dangerous. He's very adept at seeing the hole in a zone run and cutting to the backside, as he does above, and his combination of power and athleticism often allows him to make State's rather ineffective blocking irrelevant. Watch the center and right guard on that play; they pull off an effective double of the nose guard, but RG #62—Chris McDonald, reputedly their best lineman—fails to get off the block and chip anyone at the second level—you can see him make a desperation dive for MLB James Morris (#44) far after he has any chance to make a block.
But LeVeon Bell is very, very good, and simply adjusts by juking two linebackers out of their shoes and carrying two defensive backs into the end zone. He will make something out of nothing, and that something will be the majority of the MSU offense.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown, including the reincarnation of John L. and more evidence that William Gholston is the most overrated player in the Big Ten, and possibly the country.]
Zook John L. Factor: Mark Dantonio called for a punt on 4th-and-1 from the Iowa 48 while up 10-3 in the third quarter. That one could actually go either way; yes, LeVeon Bell exists, but the game was played in a steady rain and the Spartan defense wasn't ceding much of anything. I say go for it, but Mark Dantonio is the type of guy who drives at five below the speed limit.
Why is this category temporarily named the John L. Factor, then? Because THE KIDS ARE PLAYING THEIR TAILS OFF AND THE COACHES ARE SCREWING IT UP, that's why:
It's worth noting that video was uploaded by ESPN. Well played, WorldWide Leader, and I don't say that often these days.
HenneChart: Andrew Maxwell completed just 12-of-31 passes for 179 yards and an interception, but those numbers were largely the fault of a receiving corps that couldn't find green grass and dropped several catchable balls. While his HenneChart isn't great, it's not terrible, either:
There is a caveat: a rather low percentage of these passes actually went beyond the first-down marker. Maxwell usually had to check down to his safety outlet even on third-and-long—unsurprisingly, MSU converted 6-of-18 third downs—and his longest completion of the day was a two-yard crossing route that Aaron Burbridge YAC'd for 36 more. I only marked one bad read due to Maxwell dumping it off when he had an open receiver downfield, though ESPN's zoom-happy camera work made it difficult to tell if there should have been more. The overtime interception came on a throw to Tacopants, FWIW.
Regardless, expect a lot of passes to go into the flat after Maxwell looks downfield, lets out a deep sigh, and wonders if anyone will ever know that he's actually not a bad quarterback at all.
Michigan State fans are getting riled about up offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, in large part because they think he's too predictable. What say you, brand-spankin'-new formation chart?
Oh. I see.
The details don't make this look any better. The vast majority of those shotgun snaps came on third down or second-and-long. The only shotgun run occurred on a third-and-four when Roushar inserted backup quarterback Connor Cook—a marginally faster human being than Maxwell—and had him run a TOTALLY SNEAKY QB power. It was stuffed for a three-yard loss and the Spartan Stadium boo birds made their presence felt.
Despite Iowa selling out to stop Bell, Roushar didn't call a single screen. He didn't even call any quick-hitting passes even though the MSU receivers couldn't beat Mother Teresa downfield in one-on-one coverage (yes, Mother Teresa is dead, which doesn't affect that sentence one bit). His idea of a trick play was handing off back-to-back end arounds to Keith Mumphery, which combined for 15 yards mostly because Iowa isn't very good at football.
Dan Roushar plays Rock Paper Scissors while wearing a shirt that reads "I'M THROWING ROCK" in block print, then proceeds to throw... rock, of course. He wins when incredulous opponents overthink it, or when he lets LeVeon Bell play RPS for him. LeVeon Bell plays RPS by throwing rock and then punching his opponent in the face, which is rather effective.
In fairness to MSU, their offense is limited by two factors: the receivers can't get open, and the offensive line is obliterated by injuries. Freshman Aaron Burbridge is a bright spot among the receivers; he's very dangerous after the catch, finding a way to turn short passes into first downs. He's still a raw player, however, and dogged a slant route at the goal line to cause an incompletion on what could've easily been a touchdown.
In the absence of the injured Dion Sims, State's 280-pound tight end who led the team in receiving before the Iowa game, there's nobody to threaten the middle of the field. Now-co-starters Paul Lang and Andrew Gleichert have combined to total three catches for 14 yards this season; Lang is a redshirt freshman who was on the 2/3-star borderline as a recruit, while Gleichert's hand is in a cast after breaking his wrist against Indiana.
Sims isn't on the depth chart this week and will either be severely limited by a high ankle sprain or out of the game entirely. Either way, expect State to play from a lot of three-receiver sets, even in the I-form. They ran two and sometimes even three tight ends out a few times against Iowa; when they did, it was an obvious signal for a run. The third TE, Derek Hoebing, is a 270-pound junior whom Scout listed as a TE/OT out of high school.
The offensive line, as stated above, is a mess. They've lost right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson to long-term injuries; left guard Blake Treadwell, listed as a co-starter this week, has also missed extensive time this season. While the line is alright at holding the point of attack on zone runs, they rarely get to the second level, which is probably the biggest reason why Bell is only averaging 4.6 yards per carry this season despite his considerable talents. Pass protection, as you'll see in the play breakdown, is an issue.
State's game plan is obvious: feed Bell, feed him more, and keep feeding him until they get well behind the sticks. At that point, go to the gun and hope somebody gets open downfield. Most of State's deep shots came off play-action, and they were largely ineffective against Iowa. It's likely they'll break out a few more tricks and some misdirection against Michigan, but you'd think they would've tried something different when they were on the verge of losing to the Hawkeyes at home and did not. The criticism of Roushar appears valid.
Hey that's a pretty good pocket you guys I'm going to look downfield and WHY IS IT GETTING SO DARK OH GOD THE WORLD IS CLOSING IN I FEEL SO COLD *dies*:
Seriously, look at that again. Iowa brings five against State's five blockers. No Spartan lineman allows his man to get past him. Four of them end up getting pushed directly into Maxwell, and the fifth is impacted when he falls.
There's no more play breakdown. State's line is bad, mmmkay?
Base Set? 4-3. On short-distance third downs, State broke out a 5-3 with an even front, like so [click to embiggen]:
They usually ran a simple Cover 1 behind this; on this play, Iowa tried a pass to the flat—behind the sticks, natch—which got stuck for no gain.
Man or zone coverage? State is pretty aggressive with their blitzes and usually runs man behind them unless they're doing their version of the Okie package. When they didn't blitz on third down they usually ran what Brian believes is a Cover 4, which is explained in detail here; the corners play aggressive outside coverage that looks like man to the layman (read: me), the safeties read the secondary receivers and either play man or double the outside guys, and the underneath defenders play short zones. It looks like this:
If that's not a Cover 4, please advise in the comments. State runs a lot of that on third down. [EDIT: Yes, it's Cover 4, and there's a fantastic diary on how Pat Narduzzi runs it by user colin that you should go read right now.]
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Definitely more Greg than GERG. State was actually most aggressive with their blitzes on first down, often bringing the dreaded double A-gap to generally wreak havoc. Iowa, with GERG-equivalent Greg Davis at offensive coordinator, insisted on running right at it and succeeded in getting Mark Weisman repeatedly pounded at the line. He later made an adjustment that should've worked for a huge gain that I'll go over in the play breakdown; of course, he only went to it in the fourth quarter and didn't try it again, because offensive GERG.
Dangerman: MLB Max Bullough leads the team with 57 tackles (31 solo) and 5.5 TFL; he's the best linebacker in the conference and one of the top handful in the nation. Bullough is just the right combination of disciplined and aggressive, getting to the hole in a hurry but rarely missing his gap or overrunning a play. He's going to make life difficult for Michigan's interior running game and will haul ass out to the edge, as well.
MSU's defense is probably pretty furious at Roushar and Co. after holding Iowa to 257 yards and 19 points in a 2OT game. The front seven, even without Jerel Worthy, is quite fearsome indeed. Bullough and SAM Denicos Allen cover the field sideline-to-sideline, and WLB Taiwan Jones took the starting job away from senior captain Chris Norman.
On the line, NT Anthony Rashad White doesn't get quite the same level of penetration as Worthy, but he's tough to move at 330 pounds and holds the point of attack well enough to allow the linebackers to come in and clean up. If single-blocked, he's a threat to find his way into the backfield for a TFL. Three-tech James Kittredge made a couple nice plays in the backfield, as well, though at 272 lbs. he also got pushed out of the hole on a few occasions. SDE Marcus Rush is State's best pass-rushing threat off the edge and holds up well against the run.
If there's a weak point on this defense, it's—wait for it—WDE William Gholston, a quarterfinalist for the Lombardi Award based entirely on reputation. He's been benched at times this season for redshirt freshman Joel Heath. There's a reason for this: Gholston can chase plays down from the backside and bat down passes at the line, but if teams run right at him he gets buried regularly (he's the DE at the top of the screen in this clip):
It's possible Gholston got held on the takedown at the end, but he was already sealed and I could've picked four or five other clips where the exact same thing happened. When he gets matched up with Taylor Lewan, the Wolverines need to run right at him.
The defensive backs didn't get tested much by Iowa's vaunted horizontal passing game. Michigan may be able to pick on them, however, as boundary corner Johnny Adams has had a rough go this season after getting considerable offseason hype and field corner Darqueze Dennard should've been victimized on an Iowa play-action that Vandenberg underthrew, still managing to pick up a pass interference. Adams picked up a holding call on a third-down out route; he seems to be losing confidence in his coverage ability and is committing penalties to make up for it. The safeties were sound in coverage and did a good job of coming up in run support.
Michigan may have a tough time finding room to run up the middle against the White/Bullough combo. On the edge, however, I think they can find an advantage, as Gholston doesn't hold up when attacked and Rush weighs just 250 pounds. The Jones/Norman combo at weakside LB may be a weak point as well; on this long run by Weisman, you can see exactly why Norman was benched, as he takes a horrible angle and inexplicably runs right into a block instead of going for the ballcarrier (Norman is lined up over the slot at the bottom of the screen; State does this to limit screens, much like Michigan has done with Jake Ryan):
While the defensive backs are solid, they could be susceptible to play-action, and I'd like to see what Funchess can do up the seam; Iowa didn't test MSU at all in that regard.
MSU got into the backfield all day with that double A-gap blitz, especially on first down, until Iowa decided to finally do something about it. That something was a slip screen to Weisman, and holy moly should it have gone for a 75-yard touchdown:
It looks like Vandenberg was under pressure, but he didn't have that DT in his face until after he'd released the ball. Unfortunately, he still managed to throw it a yard over Weisman's head, and this pass fell incomplete. If the throw is on target Weisman has a full head of steam with three blockers against one linebacker, a wideout already out on the corner at the very top right of the picture (you can see his leg) and a tight already ten yards downfield ready to pick off a safety. The lack of touchdown is entirely on Vandenberg here, and I can't believe it took Greg Davis so long to dial this up (oh wait, I can, because offensive GERG).
Hey, check out what Michigan ran against Illinois last weekend:
Do this again, plz. Preferably before the fourth quarter.
Overall, State has a very tough defense that should keep the game relatively close, at least for a while. However, I'm really not sure how the Spartans score points against a suddenly-stout Wolverine defense. The ten-point Vegas line scares me a bit, but objectively I think it's in the right range.