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