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:
Still don’t understand Michigan State captain Chris Frey here or why this wasn’t reviewed. No need for this in the game. pic.twitter.com/LRkpkMvZbf
— Irish Illustrated (@PeteSampson_) September 25, 2017
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.