Previously: Michigan State Defense
Michigan State's offense is still looking to put it all together. Against Notre Dame, the Spartans gained 496 yards but acquired nearly half of them in garbage time, making the outcome look closer than it should've (sound familar?). They also committed two disastrous first-half turnovers, a pick-six by Brian Lewerke and a fumble by LJ Scott right before he crossed ND's goal line, that skewed the outcome in the other direction.
Then Iowa simply shut MSU down, holding them to 4.1 yards per play and 2.4 yards per non-sack carry. The Spartans managed to beat the Hawkeyes in large part because they won the turnover battle 2-0, but it wasn't pretty.
Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
On the Michigan side, Chase Winovich has sustained his remarkable play long enough to earn a shield, and he should be in for a big day against MSU's young, skinny tackles.
On the MSU side, right guard David Beedle is questionable after missing last week's game with an undisclosed injury. True freshman Kevin Jarvis, who started last week against Iowa, would take his place if he can't give it a go. Either a banged-up guy who was a sore spot last year or an 18-year-old kid will have to block Maurice Hurst on occasion. That projects to go rather well for Michigan.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? It's a hybrid at this point, for whatever that means. State spends most of their time in the shotgun but will go to more manball-y I-form and heavy Ace formations. They'll bring out an extra OL—usually Chase Gianacokos—on occasion, and not just in short-yardage situations.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? State runs a relatively even mix of inside zone and power. Neither has proven effective. Most of MSU's best runs have been Lewerke keepers or scrambles.
Hurry it up or grind it out? While MSU is right about average in adjusted tempo, they feel slower than that—they usually huddle up and take their time at the line.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): As BiSB has noted in Opponent Watch, one of the most notable statistical oddities of the young season is Brian Lewerke's 8.5 yards per carry, which ranks him second in the conference. He somehow managed to break into the open field for a 52-yard gain on a third-and-one QB sneak against the Irish, and while he's been limited as a runner otherwise in the last two games, he all but sealed the Iowa game with a third-and-long scramble:
Just a thought: maybe don't have everyone turn their back to the mobile quarterback when the other team is trying to run out the clock. You may get a sense during this post that Iowa's defensive approach drove me bonkers both live and upon further review. You wouldn't be wrong.
Anyway, Lewerke isn't a Denard, but he's a pretty adept runner in the read-option game and as a scrambler. He's not just a straight-line guy; he set up a short second-and-goal against the Hawkeyes by juking a defender to the ground after breaking the pocket. He doesn't look to scramble first—I was actually quite impressed with his ability to go through progressions—but he's usually decisive when he does. That said, Lewerke's mistakes tend to be big ones, and that extended to his scrambling against Notre Dame, when he broke the pocket to the left, then fumbled when he tried to reverse field while lifting the ball over his head like a basketball player attempting to set up a crossover:
As it turns out, there's a reason they don't coach you to do that.
Even with that taken into account, Lewerke is a dangerous player because of his ability to make big plays with his legs. He gets an 8.
Dangerman: As this team is currently constructed, Lewerke is the dangerman. He's improved as a passer, forces defenses to account for his legs, and shows a strong command of the offense.
We've given running back LJ Scott a star out of pure respekt. Scott is an enigmatic NFL-level talent who's had a brutal start to the season. Running behind a bad run-blocking line, he's averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, but he can't blame his teammates for all his woes; he's lost three fumbles, two as he was about to score touchdowns, and that's been a problem throughout his career.
Scott is the most talented of State's offensive players yet he's stuck in an underwhelming timeshare with Gerald Holmes and Madre London. Going by what he's done this season, he shouldn't be in this section. I remember the first drive of last year's game, however, when Scott almost single-handedly took State down the field for a touchdown. He still has that in him.
Up front, senior center Brian Allen is an impressive player, though it's often hard to tell given the chaos that surrounds him. He's strong in both the pass and run game, and while he's not quite Mason Cole he's a good blocker in space.
Zook Factor: Mark Dantonio still vacillates between extremely conservative and extremely aggressive. After a third-and-three run came up a two yards short, he called for a punt from the Iowa 44-yard line—a bizarre sequence if you're going to run on third down. Later in the game, he got aggressive when it may not have been the right choice. More on that later, as it has more to do with the offensive line.
This is the Michigan game, so Dantonio will make impeccably aggressive game theory decisions. He should get called out for his defeated with dignity approach, though; he kept the starters in long after the ND game was functionally over and Lewerke came close to getting his knee blown out.
HenneChart: I charted Lewerke against both Iowa and ND, as MSU's approach was different based on the opposing defenses. The Irish were more aggressive, so MSU dialed up a lot of quick passes and screens while mostly keeping Lewerke in the pocket. Iowa sat back, as they do, so they called for more rolling pockets to allow longer routes to develop without exposing Lewerke to too much pressure.
|Notre Dame||3||9++ (3)||1||4 (1)||2x||2x||1||3||1||59%|
While the downfield success rates came out nearly identical, the mistakes Lewerke made against Iowa weren't nearly as dangerous—having half-field reads on many of his throws helped there. His biggest mistake against ND, on the other hand, was biiiiiiiiig:
For the most part, though, I think the DSRs here undersell Lewerke's talent. He's working with inexperienced receivers behind a leaky O-line, and his coaches tend to tip plays by formation. His talent is obvious; much of the time he looks really dang good:
It's the few moments when Lewerke still looks like a first-year starter (remember, he sat for most of last year) that keep him from consistently being one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, but he's on his way.
So, yeah, about formations tipping plays—this is the Iowa game:
That's not just a down-and-distance thing; MSU will break out the I-form or Ace in situations other than short yardage, but they're still really likely to run out of them. Ace formations tended to feature jet motion frippery.
There's also a very noticeable split in how plays are called by down:
MSU has started incorporating RPOs, mostly an inside zone read with a slant on the backside, so several of those play-action passes have a run element involved—which only serves to skew the playcalling even more in the run-run-pass direction.
If not for the fact they were winning almost wire-to-wire, the Spartans almost certainly would've had to abandon the run instead of stubbornly sticking to it. The maybe-you-shouldn't-have-done-that fourth down call by Dantonio was fine by game theory standards; leading by a touchdown, MSU needed a half-yard with the ball at the Iowa 30. This offensive line simply cannot run block, however. Here's second-and-one:
Guess what happened on fourth-and-one?
Hindsight is 20/20 but this stuff wasn't hard to predict with the power of foresight. No matter the running back, there weren't any yards available to get without considerable effort or a cheeky quick toss to the edge (and that worked precisely once before MSU tried to go back to the well and got stuffed). The tackles are both sub-300-pounders who have a hard time getting any push; left guard Tyler Higby is average at best and prone to getting knocked back; right guard has been a mess whether it's manned by David Beedle or Kevin Jarvis. Even Allen has had a rough go at times; he picked up a couple penalties against Iowa. It's hard to see how MSU will move the ball on the ground against M's defensive front.
Pass protection is also going to be an adventure. MSU is 86th in passing down sack rate despite attempting to gameplan around their offensive line. I didn't see enough bad moments from right tackle Luke Campbell to make him a sore spot; I also can't imagine matchups against Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich will go well for him. The other tackle, Cole Chewins, is perhaps generously listed at 284 pounds. He's 6'8". Mere physics dictates he be a sore spot and the film confirms—he can get pushed around. I also don't think these types of passes, which kept the chains moving against Iowa, are going to work when Don Brown is dialing up pressure from all angles:
Those who saw the Iowa game may wonder why wideout Felton Davis, who had nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns, isn't a dangerman. While he was certainly considered, he hasn't produced at that level in the other three games, and this felt like MSU exploiting a matchup—Iowa's Michael Ojemudia had a really tough game primarily lining up against Davis. While I need to see more before declaring Davis a star, he's impressive physically; he's definitely a jump-ball threat with strong hands, but I want to see if he can consistently get separation against good corners.
Lewerke's favorite target prior to last week was slot guy Darrell Stewart, who's bigger than your average slot bug and otherwise unremarkable. The other starting outside receiver, Trishton Jackson, was invisible against Iowa. Tight end Matt Sokol is a downgrade from Josiah Price as a receiver and, while it's tough to tell given the O-line mess, doesn't seem to be an improvement upon him as a blocker either. They do have some younger receivers, namely Hunter Rison and Cody White, who show some excellent athletic potential, but it seems like they're still getting the offense down—both have had limited roles.
I don't see MSU faring well against Michigan's defense. The combination of bad offensive line and lack of creative playcalling is bad news against Don Brown, and the traditional run game is flat-out moribund. Lewerke is going to make some plays, but unless he plays a mistake-free game—unlikely given his style—it's going to be tough to the Spartans to keep up.