Fee Fi Foe Film: Michigan State Offense Comment Count

Ace October 14th, 2015 at 5:36 PM

Cackle with knowing glee if...

Michigan State entered the Rutgers game with a banged-up offensive line and it showed; star left tackle Jack Conklin didn't play—and the "available in an emergency" caveat seemed dubious at best given the score and the success of RU's D-line—while Kodi Kieler, the normal starting right tackle, struggled mightily in his first game back from injury, not looking nearly 100% as he was in and out of the game at left tackle.

Then Rimington-caliber center Jack Allen, who'd slid out to left tackle when Kieler was on the bench, got rolled up on late in the game; his status for Michigan is very much in doubt, possibly even more so than Conklin or Kieler.

Rutgers dominated up front against MSU. Michigan's D-line awaits. This could be a real good time.

Personnel. Seth's diagram once again requires GIF form, this time to represent the myriad possibilities on State's O-line, which are helpfully mapped out at The Only Colors [click to embiggen]:

Now with D-line rotation.

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Hybrid. MSU went with a lot of two-wide ace and I-form on first down, almost always to run the ball, and when that didn't work they'd go into the gun and usually add another receiver for second and third downs.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly zone stuff.

Hurry it up or grind it out? State tried to tempo Rutgers exactly once and had a run get blown up at the line. Otherwise, they were content to huddle up and grind it out.

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

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Connor Cook is a capable but not explosive runner. MSU got a key first down on a read option keeper in this one when Cook didn't waste any time getting upfield; they'll break out a designed QB run every so often to keep defenses honest. Cook's mobility comes into play more in the passing game; he's good at breaking the pocket and throwing on the run, though he uses his legs more to buy time than to scramble downfield. He gets a 6.

Dangerman: The dangermen on the offensive line are all injured to some degree, so I'll skip discussion of them for now.

You're familiar with Cook. I thought he was phenomenal in this game given the circumstances. Despite facing a heavy rush on many of his attempts, he averaged 9.4 yards per attempt with no completion longer than 29 yards, and he only had one glaring error, uncharacteristically forcing a pass into the end zone that Rutgers intercepted in spectacular fashion.

Otherwise, Cook made several spectacular throws, often of the impossible-to-defend back-shoulder variety:

I had him down for five DOs in this game and could've given him one or two more. Other than a tendancy to occasionally sail passes to his left, he's very accurate, and he was really impressive at throwing while under duress—he'll need a similar performance Saturday.

Cook's top target all season, meanwhile, has been Aaron Burbridge, who's gone from disappointment to one of the best receivers in college football during his senior season. He's got twice as many catches as any other Spartan this year; he's dangerous both as a downfield threat and a catch-and-run target—MSU even gave him a couple jet sweeps in this one. Handling him one-on-one is a difficult task:

Expect Jourdan Lewis to shadow Burbridge in arguably the most important personnel matchup of this game.

Zook Factor: Dantonio had a moment of #B1G, punting on 4th-and-6 from the Rutgers 44 with the Spartans clinging to a three-point lead. While the punt pinned RU at the five, they drove for the tying field goal anyway.

HenneChart: On a high volume of throws, Cook put up an impressive Downfield Success Rate, especially when considering the heat he faced:

Rutgers 5 19 (5) 1 3 4x 1 -- 6 -- 70%

Note the pressure figure: MSU's line really struggled. Cook has a quick release and usually makes his reads in a hurry and he still ended up rushing a large number of throws.


I found MSU's offense rather predictable. When Cook goes under center, they usually run. When he's in the gun, they throw.

Formations Run Pass PA
Gun 8 30 6
I-Form 8 1 --
Ace 12 -- 1
Pistol -- -- --
Heavy 8 -- 1

Most of those under-center snaps come on first down.

Down Run Pass PA
1st 24 4 3
2nd 7 13 4
3rd 5 13 1

That's almost as predictable as Northwestern's offense; MSU just decides to start throwing a down earlier.

The discussion of this offense has to start with the offensive line, which looked bad in all phases. The run game never got going outside of one nice first-half run by Gerald Holmes when Rutgers screwed up their run fits and a couple half-decent gains by LJ Scott at the very end of the game; MSU averaged 3.3 YPC against the nation's #79 run defense by S&P+. Kieler looked nearly immobile at left tackle; everyone not named Jack Allen underwhelmed. The screencap that graces the top of this post isn't out of line with how they performed all night.

A huge factor in that was confusion up front when Rutgers did anything besides rush four guys without any frippery. If they blitzed or stunted, missed pickups were the norm.

Communication should improve if Conklin is able to give it a go at left tackle, but his health is in doubt and the probable loss of Allen at center likely offsets any improvement that would bring from a communication standpoint. This line looked overwhelmed against Rutgers; Michigan's defensive front is just a bit better than Rutgers' and now MSU almost certainly has to shake up their lineup again.

The lack of blocking made it hard to judge the running backs but I've watched a fair amount of MSU this season. Madre London is a solid back who's got some power but isn't a huge open-field threat; naturally, he got hurt and didn't return. Gerald Holmes was next in line in this game; he made a couple nice open-field cuts to break off the 30-yarder and otherwise did very little. Touted freshman LJ Scott has an impressive size/speed combination and gets the edge more often than the other backs; he's more of a threat to break a play for 20 yards than to go all the way, but I'd still consider him their big-play back.

Burbridge was covered above; he's the biggest threat on this offense. The rest of the receivers are pretty meh. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is undersized for an outside receiver and not always reliable to bring the ball in. Slot RJ Shelton is far more dangerous on jet sweeps than downfield passes and jet sweeps seem ill-advised against this defense. DeAnthony Arnett—remember him?—had a couple big plays in this one, including a touchdown on a perfectly thrown wheel route, but he's only seen six targets all year. If Michigan can shut down Burbridge, State is in trouble.

The blocky/catchy types were pretty impressive. Josiah Price is among the walking wounded; when healthy he's a solid blocker who can threaten the seam. Paul Lang was targeted downfield a few times by Cook and looked like a viable receiver. Jamal Lyles is a plus as a blocker. Fullback Trevon Pendleton also impressed as a blocker; MSU will sometimes use him as a surprising lead blocker on screens:

That worked against Rutgers' soft coverage; we'll see if they even try it against Michigan.

Unless at least two of Conklin, Kieler, and Jack Allen are magically healthy for this game, I have a hard time seeing MSU consistently putting points on the board. Even with Allen healthy, MSU's runs mostly met a wad of bodies and their pass-blocking was downright bad. Cook will have to be near-perfect, and while he's very capable, he can't block for himself.

The absence of James Ross could hurt Michigan—the Spartans spend nearly equal time in one- or two-receiver sets as they did in 3+, so M might not be able to play base nickel—but he's only out for a half, Ben Gedeon exists, and State is likely to be throwing on second and third down anyway.

I can't avoid the conclusion that was obvious to anyone who watched this game: Michigan should maul MSU up front; with Jourdan Lewis a threat to completely neutralize Burbridge, State is going to have to move the ball in ways they so far haven't been able to do against much lesser defenses.



October 15th, 2015 at 12:13 PM ^

The problem this year hasn't been getting receivers open downfield, it has been Rudock not connecting with them downfield...and sometimes not even throwing downfield despite the receivers being wide open.

A matchup advantage here doesn't solve for this.  Hopefully this is the game Rudock can exploit it, but I'll believe it when I see it.


October 14th, 2015 at 6:51 PM ^

The defense could be exposed by a veteran QB who has seen almost every defensive formation imaginable. The OL could be owned again by MSU's DL and force Rudock into several turnovers. 

MSU has a good chance of winning. This is a veteran team that has played in many big games over the past couple of seasons. Michigan is the one lacking big game experience.


October 14th, 2015 at 9:48 PM ^

Fair enough but even Tom Brady can look bad with a line that can't protect him. Even the best qbs are nuetralized when you can't run the ball and don't have time to throw. The state of MSU's offensive line as well as the demonstrated dominance of Michigan's d-line portends well for those two things to happen. Plus a shutdown corner and star HSP to complement nicely. Cook will need to play the best of his career and Burbridge has to burn what appears to be the best corner in the nation. Doubt he's faced a truly talent corner yet.


October 15th, 2015 at 12:18 PM ^

One of the themes of this column is that Rutgers pressured Cook on the regular, yet he still had a superb performance.  I hope he cracks this game, but I don't see any evidence here that suggests he will all of a sudden panick and make poor decisions in the face of an aggressive pass rush.

Yost Ghost

October 15th, 2015 at 3:21 PM ^

Disagree...football is partly about good quarterbacking. It's also partly about good defense. Good defense kills good offense almost everytime.

With their banged up, patched together OL I doubt they stand much of a chance against a deep, motivated UM DL that's playing at home.

Burbridge is the only threat downfield and our secondary is arguably the best in the B1G.

Cook is gonna be running for his life most of the afternoon.

Conversely their D couldn't keep Purdue's offense from racking up 21 points in EL. Purdue is ranked 89th in offense.

UM will cover the points.


October 14th, 2015 at 8:28 PM ^

You bring up good points. But this MSU team this year just doesn't appear to be as good as those past teams. And there's only so much one person, including a QB can do. Of course it certainly is possible that Cook puts the team on his back almost single handedly wins the game, but those kind of performances are rare.

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October 14th, 2015 at 10:09 PM ^

Sure that could happen but if you're expecting the same level of MSU d-line dominance - i.e. just shutting down the run game and pummeling Devin Gardner - that ain't happening. Even IF Sparty's current d-line is as dominating as it was in the past couple of years (it's not), they are no longer facing a young, inexperienced and poorly coached oline running an incoherrent scheme. This is a veteran line that is stronger, older, Drevno-coached and running week 7 of a continually improving Harbaugh offense. I think we see an in control Jake Rudock making prudent decisions, not a running for his life DG.  We've got an older Darboh, Butt and Chesson making plays on shaky (non-NFL level) corners, instead of Funchess loafing around and being blanketed. And to boot, innovative NFL caliber playcallers and gameplanners not.. well you get the idea.  Things have changed a lot in a year.  


October 14th, 2015 at 7:44 PM ^

Unless their missing offensive lineman appear magically fully recovered, I just dont see how this goes spartys way.   I believe the line play will be won by M on both sides of the ball.  If Michigan can run the ball consistently I believe Rudock will be very effective.  Remember he is a very experienced QB albeit without Connors accolades.  Also MSU has been very unimpressive against very unimpressive competition.  But yes I do share some of everyones paranoia.   I am watching the game with several of my sparty freinds (yes I admit it, I have them).   

snarling wolverine

October 14th, 2015 at 5:58 PM ^

Zook Factor: Dantonio had a moment of #B1G, punting on 4th-and-6 from the Rutgers 44 with the Spartans clinging to a three-point lead. While the punt pinned RU at the five, they drove for the tying field goal anyway.

I'm hardly a big Dantonio fan . . . but wouldn't most coaches punt there? 4th and 6 isn't a high-percentage play. And from the 44 you have a decent chance of pinning a team deep.


October 14th, 2015 at 7:08 PM ^

Yeah, you definitely punt in that situation. There was still 12+ minutes to play. I could see going for it if there was 3-4 minutes to go and a first down ends it but that wasn't the case.

If you fail to convert, Rutgers only has to go 25-30 yards to get into field goal range. Prior to that game tying drive, MSU had pretty much held the RU offense in check (RU finished with around 350 yards of offense, but almost 90 came on the game tying drive), so why not make them drive the length of the field? Otherwise, you increase the probability of them getting into FG range by hitting just one big play.

Even if the punt results in a touchback, Rutgers still has to go 45-50 yards. In the end, the punt was downed at the 5, so I think it was played perfectly. Give RU credit for driving the length of the field.

I think B1G moments are more appropriate for punting from the 35.

Ricky from Sunnyvale

October 14th, 2015 at 6:08 PM ^

Cook is a good QB and Burbridge is very good as well. I can't wait to see how our defense plays against these guys. Hoping Cook has no time to get the ball out and forces throws, doubt he runs like chicken w/o a head like Mangum did. 

Beat Sparty, pray for futons. 


October 14th, 2015 at 6:13 PM ^

What I'm hoping for after reading this, is Michigan's CB's getting all up in the face of MSU's WRs so they dont have free release and because of that Connor Cook isn't going to be able to make quick decisions and dink and dunk passes. Also want to see a lot living in the MSU backfield by the DL, sacks, hits, hurries, and at best for them balls thrown out of bounds because of the pressure.

I think the front 7 will neutralize any sort of running game since our run D is a strength and almost every RB Michigan played has had a bad game against Michigan front 7. And their OL is banged up to boot. 

Hopefully our offense keeps improving and gelling and with basically having 3 offensive coordinator I'm excited. Cant wait till gameday


October 14th, 2015 at 6:22 PM ^

It's amazing how different the expectations are for this game now, compared to before the season.

Reading this makes it hard to believe MSU can sustain any kind of offense. I think Burbridge will have at least one big play but not much else. The injuries across their line tip the scales too far in Michigan's favor.

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October 14th, 2015 at 8:14 PM ^

Before the season they had a line with 2 future NFL picks on it, including a potential 1st round LT healthy, and a good 7 man rotation in there.  Now they are playing both tackles with some form of injury and their All American center may be out.

QB play and RB play is as expected preseason IMO (RB was the big question for their team).  Price has been hurt at TE but should be back we all assume and is an issue.  And Burbridge stepped up to take Lippett's role although I am not quite as in awe of him as everyone seems to be - he is just the guy taking the majority of the receptions in an offense that has a QB who can deliver the ball in good spots.  Someone's receptions had to jump and it became him.  That said he did have a beautiful catch a few weeks back.  A good WR but I dont see greatness - Lippett was more explosive.

Also before the season we thought we had a Mattison type defense which did well vs medicore to average offenses than struggled vs very good ones.  And let in TDs at the end of every half.  And lost its 2 most productive NFL guys in Ryan and Clark and would probably be about the same as last year.  Not this machine we currently have.