DISRESPEKT is earned. Anyone can become a scrappy, well-coached, ball-control program that wins a few big games despite never showing much in the way of draft picks and fancystats. But the more you win, the more that disrespect erodes. It takes an extraordinary program to reach true DISRESPEKT, to both keep winning AND continue to prove, day in and day out, that you objectively shouldn't.
Sending a string of quarterbacks to the NFL, returning 10 starters, getting some Heisman chatter, having a top-10 class reach drinking age, blocking someone: these are all acts that will undermine the foundations of a good DISRESPEKT, catapulting your Bill C numbers into playoff contention, making pundits believe for reasons they don't quite understand, and convincing Vegas to put the dreaded minus sign after your name. DISRESPEKT requires a true commitment to playing hurt and underrecruited backups, taking behavioral penalties, pulling statistical improbabilities out of your ass, then going online to make fun of all the losers and their math.
This Michigan State offense has reached peak DISRESPEKT. The top-250 RB who "skipped the NFL" is voluntarily on the bench. Lewerke's Heisman campaign barely merits all-Big Ten honorable mention. All but one of their burly receivers are injured. The offensive lineman most expected to be good is the least likely to play. Their biggest gainers are trick plays, and their best actual play is throwing a too-short fade into perfect coverage.
They're #75 to Bill Connelly, brutal to watch, and perfectly formed for the narratives of people who hate smart. They just knocked off #6 Penn State on the road. My brain says Michigan's #1 S&P+ defense can go into that cold, wet slab of concrete and whup these guys. History is clear they'll find a way to get just enough. I'm terrified.
The film: MSU-PSU was a classic upset. State collected all four of their fumbles plus Penn State's, Penn State defenders dropped all four of Lewerke passes they jumped, and while they did intercept one of their 12(!) additional one-handed passes defensed, Spartan receivers caught four of them. MSU's longest play from scrimmage was a fake punt, and their four touchdowns were off an RB pass, a fake field goal, and two dead drives extended by unnecessary defensive penalties. The national takeaway was why didn't they save this game for Michigan. I also charted the offense vs. Indiana, whose defense is conceptually a lot more like ours. That game too featured a lot of luck, but also Cody White.
Personnel: My diagram:
Putting aside the offensive line situation, MSU's skill position personnel is dealing with a lot of their own injuries. RB L.J. Scott has a recurring ankle issue and Dantonio said last week that it'll be up to Scott, who's been dressing, when he plays again. I'm guessing that will be Michigan, but he's been a progressively paler shadow of the dynamo freshman we saw in 2015. In fact I think he's been fully passed by sophomore RB Connor Heyward, a thick north-south type, if not also by the slightly more agile but still tank-like RB La'Darious Jefferson. All three are under 4 YPC this season, but again, the OL is after the jump.
Talent at receiver this year was a deep pool until somebody went grenade fishing in it. Jumbo slot WR Darrell Stewart is expected back for the first time since an (ankle?) injury against IU, and WR Cody White, the Tarik Black to Felton's DPJ, broke his wrist against CMU and is probably still out for this one. Add to the list freshman WR Jalen Nailor, who hasn't dressed the last few weeks, last year's top backup WR Cam Chambers, who's got 137 yards this year on just 8 targets but has been playing with a cast on his hand, and a backup slot Andre Welch. By the the PSU game regular outside options had been whittled down to just star split end Felton Davis, a Braylonesque threat we'll get into at the Dangerman section, and flanker Brandon Sowards, a skinny 5th year senior who wasn't used until this year except as a backup punt returner. In Stewart's absence smurfy slot Laress Nelson was highly productive, gathering 5 receptions on as many targets for 12 YPT, most of those seams.
In hefty skill position guys, tight end is a rotation after they failed to get much of a senior year bump out of returning starter TE Matt Sokol, who's been less a part of the offense of late. Backup TE Matt Dotson, a true sophomore, is basically a flex receiver. He's big enough to get away with some big guy OPI and shrug off little guy OPI, but not much of a blocker yet at this stage. There's also "TE" Chase Gianacakos, an offensive tackle-sized big boy who moved from guard and is purely in there to road grade. Standard blocky FB Collin Lucas has been dealing with an injury as well but I'm sure they've got a play designed for him in this game.
And then there's QB Brian "I Like the Way" Lewerke, whose legs were the engine of last year's MSU's offense, and whose star is hanging on right now only out of respect for his prior season. He'll have his own section too, after…
So: that offensive line. I've never cyan'd an entire front before, and I wouldn't have if I didn't watch two games to make sure. The fancystats are unkind: 118th in rushing marginal efficiency, 95th in opportunity rate, 112th in Havoc rate allowed, 87th in OL yards. They have good reason: the projected starters average 3 years in the program and under 300 pounds. Injuries and a lack of elders are unkind to OL, and the lack of stability this year has been acute. Only one position has had the same guy start all six games:
|Game||Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle|
The one guy we thought would be good this year is G David Beedle, but he's expected to be out for about three more weeks. Losing him against Northwestern was the chair to the back of the neck for a unit taking body blows all season. C Matt Allen is one of those Allens, but hasn't played like those Allens—he was +2/-7 in my two games of charting, and all of those minuses were pass events where he let a DT right at Lewerke.
The third original interior guy, G Tyler Higby, is the opposite—he's 285 and looks more like 250 when he's getting ragdolled in run blocking, but he's also the only guy on this line who seems to have an idea where he's supposed to be. That's impressive considering he's played every position on the line except RT this year, but not that useful given everything around him. Beedle's absence draws back either G Kevin Jarvis, a big, immobile, square dude in the Alex Mitchell mold, or if Jarvis's ankle can't hold up, freshman G Blake Bueter, who should not be on the field.
The tackles remain badly undersized, and are struggling because of it. The 6'8" LT Cole Chewins is now up to an almost plausible 290 but he's been playing with a troublesome leg injury that saw him in and out of the non-conference season, and not nearly himself in his PSU return. They're stuck with true sophomore RT Jordan Reid, who still looks more like a tight end, because the alternative is last year's horrific starter, Luke Campbell. Campbell converted to guard, likely after a quarterback revolt, and Higby will go outside before they subject their quarterbacks to Campbell's blocking again, but if you count the non-red names in bold above you can see how frighteningly close this guy is to being back on the field.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? They're a hybrid, alternating mostly between a shotgun 3-wide and a two-wide Ace formation that they like to convert to a jetbone with both TEs and a WR tight to one side. TE motion is a usual thing. They went unbalanced four times each game, and the Pistol stuff was all from PSU (they were 71% gun against Indiana).
|Formations (MSU vs IU + PSU)||Personnel||Playcall|
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? They're Manball with more zone than they'd prefer. I think they would like to be a base power team but they're forced to be a QB's legs offense with Lewerke and that OL situation, so the result ends up accidentally Borgesian. That's not to say they just throw whatever at the wall and work under a mandate. They're better at power when they can do that. What they can't do at all is run outside, however, and they get in so many long 2nd downs that a consistent 4 yards isn't very worthwhile anymore. So they have packages:
- Power Package (17 plays): 9 powers, 5 pitch sweeps, 2 counter treys and a trap
- Zone Read Package (16 plays): 8 zone reads, 4 split zones, 4 inverted veers
- RPO/IZ Package (15 plays): 7 inside zones, 3 lead zones, RPOs are either bubble or fake bubble slant paired with IZ
- QB Run Game (9 plays): 6 speed options, 3 QB lead zones
- Jet Package (7 plays): 5 jet sweeps, 1 fake then IZ, 1 that converted into an inverted veer
Removing a 75-yard jet sweep in clock kill time, the QB run game was the only effective part at 4.7 YPC. Power got 3.9 YPC, zone reads 3.6, and the rest were around 2 YPC.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Grind it out to the max. They're 123rd (out of 130) in adjusted pace, and feel even slower than that due to all the incompletes. They huddle. Once in awhile they'll hurry to the line but they're still so young that this isn't a good use of practice time.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): He is an 8, but the scary thing about him is when he first starts moving he runs like a 5 or a 6 and you think you've got him. You don't got him.
This was such a surprise last year that Lewerke runs were averaging close to 9 YPC by the time Michigan faced him. This year it's much more of a focal point for the offense, and thus for defenses, but everyone has that moment where they forget the blond kid needs to be kept inside the tackles at all costs.
Zook Factor: Despite a dodgy offense and a defense that loves a good goal post shadow, Dantonio seems to possess a modern attitude toward punting. Not because he sees the statistical advantage of playing for 4th and short, but because he understands, intuitively, the damage to the soul inflicted by a 4th down conversion.
Dangerman: Speaking of damage to the soul, a Felton Davis event is a dagger directly to the pericardium. I have to apologize for my preseason take that Cody White is better because stats. Felton's 8.5 YPT, 55.4% catch rate, and 7.8% efficiency pale in comparison to Cody White and his 11.5 YPT and 77% catch rate.
The reason for the discrepancy, I think, is competition. White feasted on Utah State and Arizona State, while Davis's best three outputs were Penn State, Northwestern, and Indiana. The other reason is throwing to Davis is the floor of ideas when Lewerke gets in trouble.
And just chucking it up to him when he's in single coverage just tends to lead to good things. This one is right at a cornerback in perfect coverage and I dinged Lewerke for throwing it there (BR) when Davis owns the space inside. It still makes life hard on the cornerback, who's got to keep position on this monster and then track the ball. (On this one the cornerback does everything perfectly and still gets flagged because Davis fell down.)
Cody White is indeed more likely to burn you:
WR on the top
But it's the long-haired dude with freak body control who routinely converts in high-leverage situations. By now you've certainly seen the game-winning touchdown on a back-shoulder fade. That's a thing they throw at Davis all the time versus man coverage:
He's got tremendous strength to turn your little bit of contact into an arm bar of leverage and a body that seems built specifically to shield you from the ball and bring the reception. When thrown at Davis with any kind of accuracy it's un-defendable. When thrown at Davis with miserable accuracy it can still be completed.
When Davis gets going—usually at the end of games—anything thrown his way can seem like a good idea, even when it's definitively not. Which I guess brings us to the other half of that connection.
If PFF has published any individual grading for Lewerke in these two games I couldn't find it. But they did do a quarterbacks of the Big Ten rundown last week: Lewerke was 8th in the conference in overall grade with a 69.5 score, between Iowa's Nate Stanley and M.J. Rivers of Illinois (Shea's 4th with an 83.5). This was before the Penn State game, but I have to imagine the 16(!!!) passes defensed will not help that ranking.
The pressure has to be part of it. Blitzes better designed to handle his legs and play-action from his legs this year have to be a factor. I believe like the QBs at State before him, his coaches teach him to throw it away and live another day. I counted a few passes against Indiana that were just out of reach of Davis (not down the sideline) that you might squint and call a throwaway since it's man coverage and unlikely to be caught by anyone unless his receiver makes a circus catch. There was also a lot of plain ol' inaccuracy in both games.
The NFL grade might have dropped but it underrates the effectiveness of the passing game to call him a 50% scattershot because of the offense's philosophy.
Michigan State's secret weapon all of these years has been paying close attention to high-leverage situations. Their playbook is, well, Spartan, for the most part, but every game they have a few interesting wrinkles off of some random coaching tree that they'll pop out for an important down, or use to press their advantage after a random event comes up their way.
Here's one I was surprised they didn't save for us when I saw it live:
The other two receivers on the trips side are running bubble screen action and sure enough the first steps from the interior slot receiver are widening like a bubble. At first you think this just their normal zone read/bubble package you're as familiar with as they are. Then the QB pulls at the same second the "bubble" receiver cuts into a slant. It's an evil play, picks up the first down, and changes the end-of-the-half script from a PSU 2-minute drive to an MSU one.
The other trick plays are just trick plays. Here's the RB pass from Connor Heyward:
There was also a fake punt and two fake field goals. They scored on the speed option that Peppers returned in 2016, and failed to convert on a lob to the nose tackle for the other. IU got burned for an RPS TD by overplaying the the look that MSU was running power and slants from all day with trap coverage. Safety freezes when he sees the pulling guard stand up, and the short drop takes away his second to react:
And a reverse pass to the QB, again near the end zone.
They also played with the bubble/slant conundrum in that game with a true RPO. The first time it's really a bubble:
The second time (2 plays later) the bubble blocker went into a full slant:
(yes, sharp eyes, the illegal man downfield got called, but so did a phantom PI on the cornerback)
When not in that mode, they do get fairly predictable. The thing that looks like a pitch sweep is a pitch sweep. The thing that looks like power is usually power, and if not it's a levels concept. Both IU and PSU were picking up on tendencies and exploiting them, and when MSU didn't have a clever response drives stalled.
Again, it comes back to an offensive line you can't trust. Every time MSU went 5-wide they ate a blitz before Lewerke could find somewhere to throw it. They did a lot of 4-wide, then, but whatever's gnawing at Chewins has severely nerfed his backstep. If you don't give him help an IU DE can dust him.
The above is the only hold called on MSU in either road game. Penn State got the Tackle Taco Hour business too (hopefully Franklin's not clever enough to wait to send his tape in), but even then Lewerke would get skittish and fling it into the Feltonsphere. MSU's response to that was a lot of max pro, and the problem with that is…
So that's how you get to 16(!!!!!!) passes defensed. There are only so many routes you can run with just three receivers in the pattern, and those get old pretty quick. PSU's corners were jumping those all 2nd half and were incredibly unlucky to come away with just one pick.
Lewerke's response to this was to throw it inside and hope the safety isn't used to blanked coverage. I charted it as a bad read, but he's probably seeing the safety and guessing (correctly) that momentum screws the bold.
State's other answer to this is to run a lot of option routes. Felton and Lewerke are mostly on the same page with those, and I presume Cody White is getting there. Cody White's backup…
The challenge of facing this team, on the road, in a rivalry game, is you can't let things get to you. There's a version of his Penn State game where Lewerke throws 8 picks. There's also a version of this game where a PSU DT whose knees were just chopped on 3rd down of a successful goal line stand doesn't retaliate by punching a guy in the facemask. There's one where a phantom call on another PSU DT doesn't flip a late stop on 3rd and long and MSU doesn't get a touchdown with two long pass plays right after. The thing is they're saving those big plays for that moment, and in a random-ass football game, that moment is bound to come.
This is going to be a very different kind of challenge from Wisconsin—that was a team that hadn't been stopped on 3rd and short because they can blow you off the ball; this one rarely even gets that opportunity. But when this State offense senses opportunity they are still quite capable of bunching together a handful of good plays. Nobody wants another Northwestern game, especially in the rain.