mark d'antonio
Definitely the rain, man [Bryan Fuller]

Fee Fi Foe Film: Michigan State Defense 2018 Comment Count

Seth October 19th, 2018 at 10:07 AM

Previously: The Offense, MSU's defense last year

Resources: My charting, MSU game notes, MSU roster, Bill C profile, CFBstats

Michigan State runs a…

Lemme guess: a match quarters defense.

Yes, which…

squeezes the linebackers inside and plays their safeties super-aggressively against the run.

Right, and this…

stifles outside runs, but opens up deep passes behind the safeties who are not super-athletic. But they get away with that because the quarterbacks they face are either butt, or playing in a rainstorm, or suddenly become butt when they're playing Michigan State for no reason, or just forget they're allowed to throw.

I feel like you're read this before.

They return 10/11 starters from last year. Also I have been living in this state this millennium. Do they have a Bullough at middle linebacker?

Yes, but he's not starting. Instead there's a guy named Joe Bachie…

…who can cover multiple A gaps and won't stay blocked, so you don't want to run at him, and anyway their DTs are excellent at squeezing those gaps shut, but they're also built to stop all outside runs so it's either run over Bullough…


…Bachie or throw over the safeties, which we can't do because we have a Big Ten quarterback who can't hit wide open bombs?

Dude, Shea is GREAT at wide open bombs!

Oh? What's the forecast on Saturday?

Rain, but only from 12 to 3pm.

So Dantonio just has a deal with the…

interim president of Michigan State University, John Engler.

eo nomine.

The Film: PSU-MSU again. Michigan's not a Speedy Eaglet offense (and yes, we're sore about that), but it was always going to be this game. FWIW the officiating atrocities didn't quite even out but Penn State won back a lot of OL tackles.

My diagram:


PDF Version, full-size version (or click on the image)

[after THE JUMP: same story, same names]

These are mostly the same guys as last year, though now that they're older they're less cyan-y. There's also a lot of families. The Panasiuks are not pass rush threats though DT Mike Panasiuk is an excellent 3-tech against the run. NT Raequan Williams is long-armed and impossible to keep blocked because of it. WDE Kenny Willekes is an Order of St. Kovacs walk-on and I'm done showing him disrespect.

Say, did you see PFF put Willekes ahead of the Gaz for 1st team all-B1G?

Nope nope nope nope nope nope. Done.

Even though they're the only spot that graduated a starter, the linebackers are again the strength of this defense. You can argue whether MLB Joe Bachie or Star (#hybridspaceplayerterms) Andrew Dowell is the better player this year only because Dowell is unquestionably one of the best players in the conference this season. New guy SAM Tyriq Thompson is still learning and still rotating with his spring competitors, mostly Ann Arbor native Anjuan Simmons. They also have a Uche/rush specialist in OLB Brandon Boyer-Randle who's 4th on the team in TFLs despite limited snaps.

Both of last year's starting cornerbacks against Michigan are injured. Field CB Josiah Scott is out for the season, but CB Josh Butler is listed as questionable and could return to the rotation this week. Boundary CB Justin Layne, a 6-3 converted receiver, passed both of them last year—he's a superb tackler, but plays too far off and gives up the most completions of anybody on the team by some margin. In Butler's absence they've been running out sophomore DB Tre Person, who's listed as a safety and kind of plays like one despite being very corner-sized.

That brings us to the safeties. FS David Dowell has finally seized the starting job back from the athletically limited S Matt Morrissey, but remains the nearest thing to a sore spot on this defense, and giving him help has opened some cracks in other places (I'll come back to this in the overview). SS Khari Willis would take an entire article to fully describe. He is the avatar of this defense: spectacular against the run, and spectacularly lucky he hasn't given up 30 TDs the last two seasons from getting burned over the top. PFF has him all-B1G along with the crazy Maryland guy. Color me skeptical. And respectful. Respektical.

Base Set: They're still that same 4-3 even  or 4-2-5 even (depending on whether you call the Star a safety or a linebacker) team they've been for over a decade. A quick refresher on the nomenclature:


Their pass rush package this year is a 2-4-5 that subs out the DT and SDE for pass rush specialists and the SAM for last year's other starting safety (Morrissey).

Man or zone coverage: They're still mostly Quarters, but the cornerbacks play off a lot more this year. They go to a Cover 3 defense (and their other formations) a lot more on 3rd and long.

Situation 4-2-5 2-4-5 3-3-5 1-high 2-high 3 4 5 6
Normal Downs 38 - - 7 31   20 13 5
Passing Downs 15 7 2 6 18 2 16 3 3
Total 85% 11% 3% 18% 82% 3% 58% 26% 13%

Pressure: GERG or GREG: State would rather send four and have one or two linebackers activate quickly on run action, but they blitz more than enough to keep you wary. Quarters mostly locks the four true DBs into coverage, and the way State plays it they can do without the Star in coverage, and you get so used to the MLB and SAM hanging out in short zones that when they blitz you don't have any targets in the space they abandoned. They still have that dreaded A-gap blitz, and brought back the A&C gap twist blitz that you've probably forgotten and Gardner's ribs never shall.


I should note when I count rushers I will put "4.5" for an LB who comes in spy, and "4.9" if both LBs are coming down and making contact with OL, even if they're not fully rushing the passer. That's why there's a discrepancy between the graph, which shows full rushers, and the averages, which includes blitzy linebackers. Michigan State and Wisconsin have the same aggressiveness against the run with their fronts, but MSU's pressures are going to feel a lot more like Northwestern's.


Middle linebacker Joe Bachie emerged last year as the latest centerpiece of a defense that's designed to make life hard on the middle men in order to concentrate firepower outside. Bachie was a little more protected last year and wracked up every kind of stat. This year he's being asked to deal with a full Bullough load, and MSU's #1 rush defense is a testament to how well he's handling his role. A play like this doesn't do anything for his stats:

#35 the linebacker between the hashes

At no point does Bachie leave his lane, overpursue, or give the tight end an opportunity to do anything about him. Making Sanders bend is enough. The rare times he's given a simple read he can still end a game by himself.

#35 the middle linebacker

He's been able to play a little bit more on the edge because the Star is a full-fledged star now. Andrew Dowell has cleared up the coverage issues that plagued his early career and that has made him all the more effective as a blitzer. Pro Football Focus named him one of their all-B1G linebackers, along with Bush (duh) and a Minnesota OLB/DE they shoehorned into an LB spot because there are so many Edge guys in the conference this year. They focused on his backfield work.

Andrew Dowell, Michigan State

Week 7 overall grade: 80.0

Much like his counterparts here, Dowell has had a strong start to the season in coverage and when rushing the passer. On just 18 pass-rush snaps, he’s been able to record six pressures and he’s limited receivers in his coverage to just 4.1 yards after the catch per reception allowed.

Often he's the guy, after Bachie and co. have done the corralling, to make sure when contact occurs it doesn't go further.

#5 the linebacker splitting the hashes

And while I might have some words about The Gaz left, I can see what PFF is seeing about Kenny Willekes as an edge defender. Here he is playing both sides of a Power Read:

#48 the DE on the bottom

The tackles are both excellent. Raekwan Williams was the lone bright spot of 2016 and has now reached most of his ceiling as an unblockable freak messing up everything you want to do in the middle. He doesn't get a lot of penetration, and he's not an immobile planet. He's perfect for zone defense because he just won't leave his gap and won't let you have any space in your next one. If you double him now you've got two mostly useless guys sliding across the formation:

#99 the second guy down on the D-line

I forgot to capture a Mike Panasiuk clip so here are my notes on him from this game:

  • Panasiuk+3 both sides, squeezes gap forces cut into himself. Great play.
  • Panasiuk+2 shoots inside OT and gets TFL himself
  • Panasiuk+2 again inside OT, held (h) gets Sanders off balance tho. A.Dowell+ was there if no stumble


We've been here before, haven't we?

We have. Did you clip a Double-A Gap Blitz?

I knew you'd ask

They ran it twice. PSU picked it up and attacked the flats.

Ah, like old times. Anything new to add, or is this exactly the same team—plus a year, minus a linebacker—we saw last year?

Yeah I wanted to discuss Willis, and this play in particular:

This is a bust. You can see Bachie waving his arm before going to the frontside gap so that #28 (Jon Reschke, who didn't last long in this game) knows he's got to fill the abandoned gap. But Reschke is still on his first job: preventing a quick seam and a good route from that tight end. That tight end has Khari Willis over him too, and in the past Michigan State has trusted their safeties to just handle this with minimal buzzing from the linebackers. This example is an extreme but they're protecting Willis in coverage more than they have in the past, and that is opening up tight end outs and—on occasion—gaps up the middle when Bachie's responsibilities stretch him too far.

The reason they're doing so is also clear in that clip: Willis is not fast. He's not even Kovacs. He knows his game, and he doesn't miss on tackling, and that makes him very valuable to this defense.

But the help in coverage he's getting is pulling guys away from other jobs. CB Justin Layne (#2) is usually on the same side as Willis, and might have earned a dangerman tag for his tackling, but I counted five instances in this game of 1st down grade passes underneath him as he bailed too deep. After compiling things I wondered if that was really on Layne, or was he back there because of Willis?

Don't take Penn State coaching decisions as gospel, but they tended to run a lot of plays at him. Most got shut down as the system churned those into tosses to the flat, and with State leaving all of its defenders facing the play on 80% of downs, anything going outside is asking to dodge a cavalry regiment. McSorley was way out of sorts in this game—MSU didn't make him trip himself on 4th and 4 when a lane for the first down opened. And history suggests that going over the top of MSU's pass defense is just asking to be added to the file of missed receivers.


But somebody's got to be the regression to the mean. Maybe it'll be you.



October 19th, 2018 at 11:45 AM ^

first thing I noticed!


I also feel this is going to be a Hudson playmaking game. He is overdue and I can see Brown throwing him all around the field to cause Lewerke and the passing game trouble. Hopefully he has his best game of the season thus far tomorrow!


October 19th, 2018 at 10:25 AM ^

How good is MSUs front 7 compared to ND? I would guess the areas of strength are different; ND seems to have borderline elite DE + DT dudes, while MSU has a perfect system for the LBs they get, and the strength is always at the LB position. 

This will definitely be a harder game for our OL than Wisconsin was, because injuries. 

Let's hope we learned how NW, PSU, and USU got so many yards against them, and have a couple scripted drives and unseen plays to throw at these guys. If we can get on the board quickly, that can really hurt the 'disrespkt' chips. Can't afford a slow start to give these guys momentum and confidence. We need a lead at halftime. 


October 19th, 2018 at 12:01 PM ^

No but these games are never fun. The coaches inexplicably get dumb, players have bad days, Sparty players get dirty, refs will make all kinds of terrible calls and even the weather is often butt.

If you like football for any reason beyond rooting for shirt colors you absolutely hate this rivalry. The great parts are invariably buried in mountains of steamy dog turd. We have a pretty good chance of winning but the only sure bet is that the game will offend the senses.


October 19th, 2018 at 12:34 PM ^

No, we have a good chance in spite because:

UM run offense < MSU run defense
UM pass offense >> MSU pass defense
UM run defense >> MSU run offense
UM pass defense >> MSU pass offense

It's shaping up to be a slaughter, on paper, and not even juju's gonna erase all that.  However, all the crap that goes with MSU games turn what should be UM blowouts into nail-biters or upsets, and any MSU advantage into. . . well, the domination they've enjoyed over the past decade.  But losing to MSU is only half the frustration.  It's just a thoroughly revolting affair.  I remember some epic UM games over the years where titans collided until the bedrock beneath them wept with awe and agony.  UM-MSU is wrestling a diseased pig in a pile of its own shit after it's been fed nothing but undercooked chili for the last four days.  I loathed this rivalry more than I'd loathed MSU itself, although the whole Nassar scandal recently dropped an anvil on the other side of the scale.


October 19th, 2018 at 2:49 PM ^

2002 was the 49-3 demolition.  Carr was pissed off over the Spartan Bob thing from the year before, and MSU was in late Bobby Williams free-fall.  

Braylonfest was 2004.  And as awesome as that game wound up being in the end, it sucked pretty hard through the first three+ quarters.  State hit us on the (goddamn) counter draw to go up 27-10 late, and if M hadn't recovered an onside kick after an ensuing field goal the Braylon heroics may never have happened.

I somehow have no memory whatsoever of the 2006 game.   


October 19th, 2018 at 2:40 PM ^

My memory doesn't go that far, outside of 1997.

I generally don't need beatdowns to enjoy footbaw and while I'm a Michigan homer, sometimes I'm just happy with a good clean game.  Yet since Dantonio arrived, this is the one game I want a beatdown because it's become such an undignified series, but it's also the one game where I can never get that beatdown I want because of the very filth that makes me hate it.

I would love nothing more than for Michigan to run up the score on Molester State, but even if Michigan outplays the hell out of Sparty, they'll yank jerseys in front of refs all day to prevent that.  2016 was basically a blowout that got whittled to nine points because the refs didn't see a single damn MSU hold they didn't like.  I like football, but that implies a sport is being played.  I don't like it when one side and a bunch of jerkwad zebras turns what should be pitting of athleticism and strategy into a cross between Calvinball and some crappy mafia film plot.


October 19th, 2018 at 10:44 AM ^

Are MSU's linebackers likely to fall prey to a play action game? With poor safety play it seems like the game would be ripe for taking advantage of the mis-match with Gentry, both on seam routes and relatively quick-hitting play action passes where you get the linebackers to take an initial step forward and hit him 7-10 yards down field.

ND Sux

October 19th, 2018 at 10:45 AM ^

Thanks - really appreciate these previews.  Diagram should have 5 refs with dangerman designations on them.  They bail Sparty out every other time we make a play - especially in East F#ckhole.

I Love Lamp

October 19th, 2018 at 10:47 AM ^

I want to believe my eyes, where they tell me this Spartan team is very average.  But I’m just so used to watching Sparty pull miracles out of their asses, that I’m just flat out paranoid.  Reading this didn’t help much.


October 19th, 2018 at 10:55 AM ^

Their defense is really vulnerable to certain things, the problem is that our offense is not particularly designed to take advantage of their weaknesses.  If you were a talented air-raid attack like OSU, you look at their defense and you come away all smiles, but that is just not how our team is built.  Does Michigan State have a great defense?  No.  Is it going to feel like they have a great defense to us?  Yes, probably. 


October 19th, 2018 at 10:52 AM ^

The narrative on MSUs defense this year has been that they are a stellar run stopping team and just meh at pass defense. This reads more like they're great at the former and pretty good at the latter with busts coming from their pass defense sometimes. Am I reading that right?

I now haz more scared in my stomach.


October 19th, 2018 at 10:54 AM ^

I didn't think Josiah Scott was done for the season, at least not officially.  All the chatter has been he's targeting this week for a return.