Fee Fi Foe Film: Michigan State Defense

Submitted by Ace on October 23rd, 2014 at 4:54 PM

Previously: Michigan State Offense (NOTE: C Jack Allen will play, according to Mark Dantonio.)

Kurtis Drummond's day in a nutshell: this late throw to the flat turned into a 30-yard gain

I really don't know what to do with this.

Michigan State's defense isn't as good as last year's, that much is certain. On the average play, they're still a very stout group; they're in the top five in opponent first down rate, opponent available yards gained, and 10+ play drives ceded, per Football Outsiders. FO also reveals their major problem: big plays. MSU ranks 97th in percentage of opponent drives that average at least ten yards per play. They finished ninth in that category last year.

It showed against Purdue. The Boilermakers offense either hit the MSU wall and exited with alacrity or busted a couple chunk gains on their way to scores. That ended up working out to the tune of 340 yards on 5.5 yards per play—not spectacular, but not bad, either—and 31 points, with three of the four touchdown drives covering at least 60 yards.

So, there's a ray of hope. But I also saw Purdue run multiple packaged plays with solid success, including a touchdown on a pop pass to a motioning slot receiver, and the light dims just a bit. Quite a bit. A great deal of bit, really. But hey, it's hope.

Personnel: Seth's diagram is now updated to properly reflect the amount of recruiting talent Michigan's offense is largely squandering. Click to embiggen and view Seth's pessimism regarding how M's coaches may decide to utilize their available personnel coming off a bye week in which MANBALLING may have been emphasized:

MSU keeps their base personnel on the field just about every down, with corner Trae Waynes and linebacker Ed Davis aligning to the boundary across from "STAR" (hybrid LB/S) David Harris and CB Darian Hicks on the field (wide) side. RJ Williamson and (sigh) true freshman Montae Nicholson have each earned starting nods; they're still battling for the strong safety job and both should see snaps on Saturday.

To address a typo, Kurtis Drummond is 6'1, 202 lbs., and not a three-tech masquerading as a free safety.

Base Set? The 4-3 alignment you see above. Either Harris or a safety—or both—will be shaded over the slot; an example:

Also note the depth of the safeties; in MSU's aggressive Cover 4 scheme, they tend to play relatively close to the line.

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

Man or zone coverage? MSU mostly runs Cover 4 coverage, a "zone" defense that functions more like aggressive man coverage; I covered the concept in detail in the Minnesota FFFF post.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? Pat Narduzzi didn't dial up a ton of blitzes in this one, but I don't expect that to be the case against a Michigan squad that has yet to show they have a counter to his pet Double A-Gap blitz.

Dangerman: Even though he had a rough performance against Purdue and in general hasn't had a year up to his lofty standard, it's very hard not to go with free safety Kurtis Drummond, who's posted two INTs, four PBUs, and two TFLs in addition to leading the team in tackles. While it usually isn't a good sign to have a safety as a defense's top tackler, that's not as much the case when the safeties are asked to be as aggressive as MSU's.

Drummond does seem to be taking more gambles this year, contributing to the increase in big plays allowed. While he nearly picked off the tardy pass to the flat that's screencapped at the top of this post—and he would've walked into the end zone had he done so—he didn't get a hand on it, and Purdue's receiver faced little resistance for 30 yards. He also missed a couple tackles due to overaggressive pursuit angles and got beat over the top for a big gain early—a better ball in that situation likely would've resulted in a long touchdown.

Normally, though, Drummond is very sound in coverage and equally adept against the run. I get the distinct feeling he's trying to do too much in an effort to replicate the success he had last year in a secondary with first-round CB Darqueze Dennard and all-conference SS Isaiah Lewis, and it's occasionally costing him big.


You're familiar with the defensive ends by this point. SDE Marcus Rush has seemingly been in East Lansing since the George Perles era; he's a productive, technically sound player at an important spot. He gave Purdue's tackles trouble; it takes a phenomenal pickup by Akeem Hunt to prevent a sack here, and even then Rush's instant pressure contributes to an inaccurate throw:

Bookending the line across from Rush is WDE Shilique Calhoun, who's still a heck of a talent even if he's not the top-five level prospect he was billed to be this offseason after he posted great numbers and a couple attention-grabbing touchdowns in 2013. Calhoun, like William Gholston before him, benefits statistically from being in a position to make a lot of plays created in large part by the players around him, but he's also reliably there to make those plays.

The tackles mostly held up well, especially Joel Heath, who can be quite disruptive at three-tech. Both nose tackles had some difficulties holding up to double-teams, however. Starter Lawrence Thomas got buried a couple times. Freshman Malik McDowell, who rotates in quite a bit—sigh, I know—was one of the primary culprits on a few inside runs by Purdue that were quite successful. McDowell is the unidentifiable Spartan whom you can see getting pancaked at the first down line in this screencap:

In this one, you can more clearly see his number (#4) as he's bashed a full three yards off the LOS and into the end zone on a Purdue TD run:

Michigan could find some success running up the middle against these guys. Then again, Michigan.

The linebackers looked solid, for the most part. Taiwan Jones slid into Max Bullough's vacated starting spot at the MIKE this year; he's an experienced, stout 'backer who can take on blocks and hold down the middle. There did seem to be some difficulties between Jones and his fellow inside linebacker Ed Davis—I'll cover that later. Harris was a little shaky at the STAR; he's got the athleticism to play in space, but he got blocked far too easily on a few bubble screens that Purdue broke for solid gains; I don't expect Michigan to take advantage of this, obviously.

Trae Waynes is the best corner in the Big Ten; Purdue barely looked his way in this one. Darian Hicks is the new starter at field corner, and while he held up in coverage, his tackling left a lot to be desired. He was easily blocked on screens. Then he made a bad effort to bring down Hunt on a long touchdown run; while Thomas is equally culpable for getting destroyed to open up the running lane, Hicks can't allow Hunt to beat him untouched to the inside here:

You can see the issue with the strong safety position, too—Nicholson takes a horrible angle above, while Williamson had similar moments in his time on the field. The potential for big plays is very much there, and Michigan will probably need a few if they want to pull the upset.


Purdue was able to get a couple nice gains on back-to-back plays by using MSU's aggressive alignment and relative inexperience against them. First they come out in a four-wide set with three receivers to the field side, which draws both Harris and Drummond away from the box.

Williamson helps make up for MSU having just six defenders in the box by creeping towards the line—he's the safety on the near hash—but Purdue makes up for this by optioning off a DT. You can see them do that right after the snap; the right tackle kicks out while the rest of the line blocks down, and the right guard lets the DT lined up over him get a free run into the backfield:

Meanwhile, the slot receiver up top is running a bubble screen, which occupies Harris and Drummond. Williamson reads run and crashes down. The two inside linebackers are worth watching; they appear unsure of what to do here and end up in the same spot as the QB makes his read and hands off:

The right guard cut-blocks Jones, effectively taking out Davis, who I have to assume busted this play by trying to loop around the blocking instead of taking on a blocker in his running lane. With McDowell in the midst of getting deposited on the turf by the left guard, the center is able to move to the next level and sets his sights on Williamson. With both linebackers taken out by one block, a huge cutback lane is about to open up:

The center bears down on Williamson, who has little choice but to try to feed the play back to his help in the middle of the field—late-arriving help because of the bubble screen action—so Hunt sets up his block...

...and cuts back inside for a first down and more:


Yes, I do regret spending this much time on something that Michigan is too much of a dinosaur program to run, in all likelihood.

That's too bad, because getting MSU focused on better defending the interior immediately paid off on the next play, a pitch that went big after a gorgeous crackback block on Calhoun opened up a huge lane to the outside:

If a bowling ball Purdue running back can get that gain, so can Michigan. Setting it up, however, is a different story. Hopefully Doug Nussmeier has been adding some wrinkles to the offense over the bye week.



October 23rd, 2014 at 5:06 PM ^

A newly imprisoned 5-foot tall convict with soft hair, delicate features and an inability to grasp soap bars is going to watch us in the Michigan-MSU footbaw game and think "Man, I'm sure glad I'm not those guys"


October 23rd, 2014 at 8:42 PM ^

it almost looks like Michigan calling a smart pitch against Michigan State for a huge gain. Sadly, I don't think we have that play in our playbook. Anyone have a reason to think Nussmeier will come out with such creativity and try to switch up MANBALL. (Assuming MANBALL is not analytically equivalent to "Never try anything creative in the run game.")


October 23rd, 2014 at 8:59 PM ^

Fun fact - MSU's starting defense now averages more stars than UM's.  (Helped by Pipkins being replaced by 0 star Glasgow).  It is also on average 1 year older since most of them are RS.  

Ryan, Henry, both Clarks - all 3 stars.



October 23rd, 2014 at 9:07 PM ^

It will be an exciting game if our running game does what its suppose to do early.   They might switch Waynes on Funchess for a fair match up which still wouldnt wouldnt stop him.   

With their agressive defense, we have to be great at pass protection.


October 23rd, 2014 at 10:59 PM ^

It's weird watching a competent defense in MSU after so much of my life watching them be various levels of meh or worse.

That said, as Ace noted this isn't last year's defense.  Beyond Drummond probably pushing a bit to replicate last year without a couple of veterans, it does feel like their LBs aren't in the right position like last season.  That line is still very tough, but there are yards to be made against this team with some solid play-calling.  Of course, because this is Michigan they'll just run into the line twice and then ask Devin to throw a 15-yard dart to a double-covered Funchess.


October 24th, 2014 at 12:32 AM ^

But who here thinks that if we tried to run those plays, we could actually do well?  I suspect we'd have a lot more of one OL going one way while the rest of the line went the other, or a tackle getting caved in before our deep pass pattern could develop.

I can't blame the coaches for not calling plays we have no chances of actually pulling off, so I expect to see a vanilla game plan focused on what we can actually do well.  Unfortunately, that almost certainly doesn't include anything that matches up well with their defense.



October 24th, 2014 at 8:32 AM ^

Your missing three guys on your walking wounded

Smith- Bad ankle, just when he was starting to look like he was getting healthy in the Rutgers game he's has to be helped off the field again.

Kalis- Back issues from the start of the year, anyone with back problems know they just don't go away especially when u are trying to push around other guys that weigh 260+ lbs

Butt- ACL, it even took JMR a whole year after he could play to get back to form