Fee Fi Foe Film: Michigan State Defense

Submitted by Ace on October 4th, 2017 at 4:01 PM

QBs missing wide open bombs vs. MSU: still a thing

There are the numbers, and then there's the eye test. By the former, Michigan State's defense has had a remarkable bounceback from last year's disaster; they're 16th in defense S&P+, fourth in rushing success rate, and have avoided giving up the big passing plays that were so common last year.

By the latter, well, this still isn't a classic Mark Dantonio defense. I've caught at least parts of every MSU game this season; in each game, they've narrowly avoided getting hit over the top with multiple big pass plays. State is still trying to figure out who to start in the secondary. Depth is thin. Walk-ons are starting.

While this team does appear ahead of last year's squad, there are holes to exploit. I rewatched MSU's loss to Notre Dame and combed through last week's win over Iowa to prepare for this post.

Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

We used MSU's official depth chart, which held true for the first three games but should be taken with a grain of salt this week. Against Iowa, Demetrius Cooper started at SDE over Dillon Alexander, Justin Layne opened at field corner instead Josh Butler, and David Dowell took Matt Morrissey's place at free safety. MSU rotated quite a bit all around; true freshman Trey Person also got a series or two at free safety.

Base Set? 4-3 even. They'll stick with their base personnel in almost all situations. Iowa went empty a few times in this game, and while they did so with RBs and TEs on the field, that's usually what Michigan does too. MSU stayed with their base; in this screencap, the OLBs are lined up over the slots and a safety is head-up over one of the WRs to the near side:

This doesn't project to change against Michigan.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Man or zone coverage? You know the drill. Michigan State is a Cover 4 team, which usually means both safeties are hanging around 8-10 yards off the line of scrimmage while the corners play press man on the outside. While it's technically a zone, it functions more like man coverage.

State mixed in some one-high looks and played some un-Spartan softer zones against Notre Dame, which had the threat of a mobile quarterback. They adjusted after getting burned for a walk-in QB draw touchdown because ND spread them out and nobody was looking into the backfield:

They were consistently in C4 against Iowa, which doesn't have a dual threat QB.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? MSU isn't as balls-to-the-wall as they used to be, especially on standard downs, but they'll still bring plenty of pressure, especially through the A-gaps. They showed a lot of okie fronts on obvious passing downs against Iowa with some very aggressive safety alignments:

This serves two purposes: it gets pressure on the QB while allowing MSU to drop some of their front into coverage, and it forces the QB to get the ball out early before the defensive backs can get beat. On this play, Iowa had a receiver get a step deep, but Nathan Stanley's pass ended up out of bounds because he couldn't step into the throw.

Dangerman: Sophomore middle linebacker Joe Bachie has emerged as the heart of the MSU defense this season. He leads the team in tackles, TFLs, and run stuffs. He looks impressive on tape, too, making quick reads and taking direct angles to the ball. He's a strong read-and-react player; he's also effective as a blitzer, as shown here when he fires through the A-gap and works his way through two linemen for a run stop:

That was one of 3.5 TFLs for Bachie against Iowa; he recorded a sack by simply powering through an attempted blitz pickup by Akrum Wadley. He's going to get talked up a lot as a proverbial lunch-pail guy because he's going to be involved in a lot of plays. And he's white, you see.

MSU is strong up the gut in general. I had Seth designate NT Raequan Williams as the other dangerman and by the time I was finished going through the Iowa game I regretted not adding DT Mike Panasiuk to the list as well. These two controlled the point of attack, neutralizing Iowa's run game. They also did more than just keep the linebackers clean; watch #99 (Williams, the near-side DT) use his hands to fend off a lineman, stretch the play out, and ultimately disengage to make the tackle:

Iowa pretty much had to shelve the zone stretch after Williams and Panasiuk wrecked a couple. While they both have a bigger impact against the run than the pass, they'd have better counting stats if they got some help from the defensive ends, about which more later.


Actually, let's get into that right now. MSU has been stout against the run this year because of their strength up the middle, but they're pliable on the edge. Notre Dame busted a big run early in their game because starting WDE Kenny Willekes, a walk-on, was comically escorted down the line and planted directly on the B1G logo:

Willekes is what you'd expect of a walk-on DE; he's a try-hard guy who makes some plays through sheer effort and gives up others because he's being overaggressive to make up for being physically overmatched. He can get moved around in the run game, as you can see above. As a pass-rusher he's largely ineffective and tries to make up for it with irresponsible speed rushes that often see him get pushed past the pocket—Iowa picked up a first down on one such play when his speed rush took him all the way past the QB and opened a huge lane to break the pocket and look downfield.

They still apparently trust Willekes more than the other former walk-on, Dillon Alexander, who gave up his job to Demetrius Cooper for the Iowa game. Cooper is certainly an upgrade even though he hasn't lived up to the hype he had heading into 2016. He's still not an impact pass-rusher, though he'll hold the edge better than Alexander.

While I mentioned MSU's talent up the middle, I should note that talent doesn't extend too far down the depth chart—remember, one of the spots hit hardest by recent attrition was DT. It was very noticeable when the backups were in. Wadley had a dead easy touchdown run when Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens were both pushed well past the intended hole:

the two DTs are being mauled by #59 and #79

They struggled to push the pocket against the pass, too. Owens didn't do much else of note, while Jones was a little more up-and-down; on back-to-back plays he got pancaked on a pass rush to allow a six-yard scramble, then blew through a block to TFL a zone stretch. He's talented but inconsistent, and Michigan should do their best to lock the backups on the field when they can.

State is solid at the linebacker level. Bachie holds it all together. Senior Chris Frey is the most experienced defender, and he's generally good. He'll make some stupid, overaggressive plays, however, and sometimes said plays put opponents in serious danger:

That play somehow drew neither a flag nor a review. I really, really don't like the way Chris Frey plays football.

Anyway, Andrew Dowell mans the spacebacker spot, and he's improved against the run while looking capable in coverage against tight ends. He's definitely added strength since last year; he had a shed and stop on the edge against Iowa that I don't think he makes last year.

The secondary has held up for the most part thus far. I don't think that lasts. The picture that graces the top of this post is representative of MSU's first four games; they've let several receivers get behind the defense only to be bailed out by wayward throws. Notre Dame's first touchdown was set up by a 40-yard catch when Equanimeous St. Brown cruised right past Matt Morrissey up the seam. I've seen each corner—Josh Butler, Josiah Scott, and Justin Layne—get burned in similar fashion.

The mainstay in this year's secondary has been safety Khari Willis, who regularly takes awful angles against both the pass and run. David Dowell, Andrew's twin brother, at least didn't have a noticeable bust against Iowa after taking over for Morrissey. True freshman Trey Person also got a shot against Iowa and immediately blew a tackle on a bubble screen. The Hawkeyes could've had a lot of success on crossing routes to the tight ends but missed multiple open throws that would've picked up first downs; Michigan has those down better, it seems.

We're four games into the season and at least two of the four starting spots aren't settled; that probably tells you more than the numbers right now, which only account so much for the awful QB play of Bowling Green and Western Michigan.

MSU is going to try to knock Michigan off schedule with some blitz exotics, especially on passing downs. While they'll limit M's already inconsistent run game, they're going to be prone to allowing consistent yardage to the TEs, and they're still going to be very prone to getting hit over the top. Iowa blew multiple chances to score with turnovers, including a Tommy Rees moment by Stanley in a goal-to-go situation. So long as Michigan doesn't similarly shoot themselves in the foot, they'll put up enough points to win.


UM Fan from Sydney

October 4th, 2017 at 4:06 PM ^

Well according to the incredibly smart people on RCMB, their secondary is awesome and full of stars, so there's that. They don't think O'Korn will be able to throw on their oh so great secondary, especially when their super duper elite defensive line is pressuring the hell out of him.

Narduzzi is gone, sparty fan.

Space Coyote

October 4th, 2017 at 4:23 PM ^

I'm not sure I completely agree with the tone of this article, though I do agree with the content in a general sense. There will be big plays that are available. You can beat MSU over the top. They still aren't great. But they also aren't bad. There are also plenty of examples you can show where they have great coverage, and plenty where they have good coverage.

So it's the same as it has been for State (with a few more Cover 1 looks). You can get open over the top, and they'll live with that. They dare you to be able to execute. And if you can execute consistently, then yeah, you can put up some big points. But most college teams can't. It's not just Speight that missed a lot of deep shots. So if you hit this pass 25% of the time while being concerned about their pressure and struggling to get the run game going consistently, they think they can keep your scoring to a minimum.

This MSU defense isn't good enough to be dominant. And don't get it twisted, ND didn't even execute at a high level. There will be opportunities to put points on the board. There will likely be times where we're kicking ourselves for missing those chances. Hopefully there are more times we are excited for bombing the hell out of them. But that's what you live with against this D.


October 4th, 2017 at 5:05 PM ^

Dantonio seems to understand his defense isn't dominant, so he's shoring up the strength while daring you to execute stuff that's relatively hard, like hit downfield throws before the pressure hits home.

Does anyone here think we have the weapons to exploit that?  The things they're daring opponents to do, we haven't done with anything remotely resembling consistency.  Our blocking is terrible, our receivers are raw, and our QB play has been uninspired.  Hopefully O'Korn's performance against Purdue isn't a fluke but he also executed a lot of simple reads that are now on tape, and this is Dantonio's Superb Owl.

I do expect to win but largely because I expect MSU's offense to be utterly helpless against our fully armed and operational defense.  But if our O-line and RBs can't pick up even the simplest of blitzes or slants, this is going to be a nail-bitin' sludgefartin' 3-3 game through four quarters, and that's being optimistic about MSU's extracurricular trash play and the recent history of atrocious officiating.


October 4th, 2017 at 5:40 PM ^

w/o Black, who the hell do we have that can catch a deep ball?  let alone throw one accurately. if i'm msu, i dare UM to throw 20+ yards; put the CBs on an island, give some safety help on the TEs and keep plenty of bodies in the box to stop the run.

i really think UM needs to hit one or two deep balls, else this game is going to be a 60 min slog where a team with a big TO or special teams play could sneak out the win.

that said, i do think UM wins a 20-9 type game.


October 4th, 2017 at 8:55 PM ^

Allready said I believe DPJ will get loose in this game, Gaining time for the long ball is simple and Okorn is tailor made for it. You simply move the pocket and roll out. I am more than sure you will see a different Michigan approach. Okorn will roll out. Expect a good dose of QB draws. They will screen the ball a lot more. They will catch DB's peeking and hit DPJ or Genrty over the top. Michigan has so much in it's arsenal that if they can start to execute like we saw last week........watch out. They can easily use msu's aggressiveness against them and really gash them because we out athlete them everywhere. Make no mistake Iowa is not a very good team especially away from home. There defense looks incredibly slow. Just a side note look for psu to lose two of their next four games.

I see a lot of Michigan fans on here who are living in the past. It's like they are shell shocked or something. My god relax. There is not one all-american, shit I don't even know if there is one all big ten player on msu. Yes we could lose this game if we turn the ball over six times, but I actually think we win that batlle also. Yes I feel real good about this game. Michigan's offense was playing at about 50%. That will make your team way less solid for sure, but Michigan just keeps on winning because our defense is unreal and getting better and learning. I think the offense will pick up and fuel our D even more. I allready see a msu tendency. They roll Lewerke out when they are pushed back by their own endzone. Don Brown is going to kill these clowns.

As far as JOK not trying a downfield throw, he barely missed DPJ at the end of the half that may have been a TD on a play where there is no way he should have got behind there db. O korn underthrew it just a bit but DPJ's speed surprises other teams because his strides are so long. He is fast and will start getting some big plays. If the officiating is somewhat decent Michigan will roll.


October 4th, 2017 at 11:46 PM ^

His one pass to Black in Florida was a beautiful fade. And his other fade to Crawford was put in a location where Crawford was the only one to catch it.
The seem route to Gentry was very impressive too. And I would expect a few of those verse a team like state with questionable safeties. I think Michigan unloads on them actually.

UM Fan from Sydney

October 5th, 2017 at 8:43 AM ^

UM doesn't need a deep ball to be effective. In fact, no team does, which is why deep passes aren't nearly as common as others. If UM keeps passes to twenty yards or less and is accurate, I am fine with that. I think the deep ball is overrated. It's a lower percentage pass.


October 4th, 2017 at 7:09 PM ^

I trust our D completely but I'm not so sure our OL holds up well in this one to that damn double A blitz. I absolutely think this is setting up to be a 3-3 game most of the way through. 

That said, if we can move O'Korn out of the pocket it may set up nicely for DPJ to get behind the secondary. I mean, he knows how to outrun people and high point the ball already, seems like the perfect opportunity to unleash a few DPJ bombs.

Blue In NC

October 4th, 2017 at 5:12 PM ^

First, thanks for the analysis.  For once however, it seems like this plays to Michigan's strengths, at least so long as we are not stubborn.  Right now the UM offense isn't going to run consistently on anyone so it seems that shorter throws to TEs, with some occassional runs and big shots downfield is the way to move the ball.  That will net some 3 and outs on offense but Michigan has a good defense to allow this luxury.  Or am I just being overly optimistic?


October 4th, 2017 at 7:25 PM ^

I'm not sure deep balls are one of our strengths but I do think our TEs could have a day.

I'm more optimistic that we'll be able to run to the outside and on cutbacks after caving the line like we did against Florida.  I predict a surprisingly successful rushing performance of 150-200 yards.


October 4th, 2017 at 5:23 PM ^

Yeah it's a hyper aggressive defense that trades the risk of big plays stopping drives emphatically. It's a worse version of our defense but the same mindset. You can find screenshots of receivers running open behind the Michigan secondary from every game this year too, it cincy hits their two free touchdowns people feel differently and the fact they missed didn't make those receivers any less open.


October 4th, 2017 at 4:18 PM ^

I sure hope WD's Super Guides include a section on opposing team's play-calling when playing Michigan vs when they play every other team.  Kurt Frentz is the WORST at going into the shell of all shells when faced with every other team except Michigan and somehow morphing into the evil step-brother of Dana Holgorsen when we show up.

It drives me nuts.   

A State Fan

October 4th, 2017 at 4:22 PM ^

*cracks fingers* Hello boys.

- Agree on being able to fold in our walk-on DEs. That was actually the position hit by our legal troubles this offseason, not DT. But don't run stretch plays, because Willekes is fast enough to not get beat. Cooper is going to get the bulk of the time vs Alexander, he seems to be a starter in name only.

- I was surprised that Mike Panishuk was not a top 250 recruit, so much so that I went back and looked at our class that year. He was a day 1 player and has really taken a step forward. Him, Jones, and Williams are all really solid, I think you under sold Jones a bit.

- You might remember Chris Frey from such plays as: "Being ejected for targeting against Michigan as a freshman", and "Getting blown up by Devin Bush last year". He's an effective blitzer, all MSU LBs are better attacking downhill than being put in coverage.

- I want to say this loud enough for Michigan fans to hear: "MSU DBs ARE NOT THE PROBLEM". They grade well in PFF, and that matches the eye test. The DBs have been pretty good this year, except tackling on the WR screens by ND. The safeties in coverage are still the issue for MSU. ND targeted Morrissey routinely in that first half before they went into their prevent offense. Willis was beat over the top once by Iowa. The screenshot at the top is our 4th string tFr safety's first game action of the year. I highly doubt Michigan sees him.

Overall it's a defense that's vastly out performed last year, largely on the strength of the DTs and LBs. I'd expect MSU to be able to get some pressure, but would not be surprised to see Michigan attack the edges on quick passes like ND was able to.


Edit: If you watch that FFF MSU pancake video (NDs long run), you can see a blitzer get flagged for roughing the passer. Yeah, we still do a lot of that.


October 4th, 2017 at 4:23 PM ^

I've watched parts of every MSU game this year and their secondary is meh. Don't understand why anyone would think they are even average. Guys were running wide open and QBs were just missing throws. Definitely think Michigan looks good in the quick passing game and gets some yards running to the outside. 

Space Coyote

October 4th, 2017 at 4:28 PM ^

I really liked Panishuk as a recruit. Very high floor for a DT. Strong, has good technique. He's never going to be a dominant disruptor or great pass rusher, but he can be a plug for pretty much any defense.

I'd say Frey is steady. Not really great at anything, but he's solid. Sometimes a step slow, but works hard on defense to get to the ball and is a physical player. You can take advantage of him and don't necessarily fear him as a player, but he's also not a target for offenses.

CBs are a bit protected with what they are asked to do (most shots against them are tougher throws), but when I've watched I've mostly thought they were solid. You can get open against them, not sure I've seen anything from Michigan's WR to believe they will get open consistently though. Morrisey was a huge liability in coverage. They other guys are better, but you can also beat them. I will say I think you have to match up WRs against the safeties though to have repeated success, they don't struggle as much with TEs up the seam (though crossing the field and getting lost in coverage will be easier for TEs, so it's how you deploy them).



October 4th, 2017 at 4:36 PM ^

Take this for what it's worth but you are the first MSU fan I've seen post here who actually provided a thoughtful and balanced evaluation of your team.  You've got 400 some points so you're obviously not a newbie to the board but I guess I've never seen your posts before.

I have to admidt I actually like it when guys like BuckeyeJohnRoss (and few others) as well as Nitany Fan post cause they also provide a good counter-balance when discussing opposing teams.  Thanks for your perspective on State.



October 4th, 2017 at 4:45 PM ^

Thanks for posting.  I was actually at the MSU/Iowa game last weekend with my wife's family.  I was struck by the physical interior DL play from MSU, and I was astounded that Iowa kept going back to test it over and over again.  When Iowa challenged your safeties, they usually profited.  I can't for the life of me understand why they didn't do that more often.  

I couldn't agree more with your comment on this year's defense vastly out performing last year's version.  Solid group, with some weaknesses that certain teams can exploit.  I'd say that Michigan can exploit the safety play (provided they can execute).  I'm a little less sure about how the run game for Michigan will fare overall with the way the Michigan OL has played for much of the season.  

Should be fun (well, if high anxiety for everyone involved is fun).  Thanks again for posting.  


October 5th, 2017 at 12:35 AM ^

People need to stop being dumbstruck by why Iowa always seems to stop doing what's best for them. I mean, Ferentz punted to end the half instead of rolling out the QB and throwing a hailmary, which almost always ends the half.
The guy is the most conservative coach out there.


October 4th, 2017 at 4:19 PM ^

I liked their interior line quite a bit too. Their front 7 in general is well coached and discipline. They shifted with motion decisively, and at the snap, everyone seemed to be on the same page as far as stunts and slants. 

I actually think the biggest issue with the DBs isn't pass coverage as much as run support. Time after time, they would catch a block and stay blocked for the duration. ND had a couple of plays where the ball carrier comically ran through 3 or 4 defenders that were rendered completely stationary by their blockers. 

Michigan should look to get the ball quickly outside on bubble and smoke screens early and often. That should help open up the middle a bit. 


October 5th, 2017 at 8:10 AM ^

Agree with you big time on the screens. They should throw these to DPJ a ton every game. He would have scored on one against AF if crawford takes his man straight down the field instead of towards the play. His guy was the last man and made the tackle.

DPJ just seems to me to be the man in this game. They just need to get him the ball in space. I also think they just continue business as usual with Gentry and Mckeon. These guys are major match up problems for opposing teams.