There was a rather long twitter exchange earlier this week between BiSB and former player/regular MGoBlog reader Jon Duerr about this play, a ho-hum split zone that Michigan State swarmed. Both guys saw things in this play that somewhat characterized the Spartans’ approach this game, and why Michigan had to pass to counter it. So I thought I’d draw it up.
This play has been an effective counter to the base inside zone run all year. Rather than making the tight end block the DE lined up over him, the TE releases into a linebacker, leaving that end to get clobberated by a crossing TE or FB. Defenders who think they’re trying to defeat zone blocks to the frontside suddenly find themselves sealed in place, and linebackers who thought they were flowing to frontside gaps are just putting themselves in position to be blocked by free-releasing linemen who shouldn’t have an angle on them:
Regular zone rules are otherwise in effect. The covered linemen and the next closest uncovered linemen will try to combo the DTs then work their way to the Mike and Will linebackers. With split zone however play is designed to seal the tackles—who think they’re winning at preventing themselves from getting reached—in place and release the covered guys to the linebackers, who will naturally try to flow to the frontside of those blocks. Then—“whoops”—the linebackers are on the wrong side.
What you do with your receivers is up to you (and what your opponent is doing). The tight end’s crack block on the SAM is mirrored by the split end (X)’s attack on the Will, which mimics a mesh play. Michigan added the flanker (Z) cracking a safety rather than running off a cornerback, since the CB might take himself out of the play by playing man anyway.
Michigan State snuffed it out by playing super-aggressively against the run. They’re doing three things to blow this up.
[After THE JUMP]
1. A SAFETY NEAR THE BOX
This matters in how Michigan State’s defense uses its safeties to free linebackers from having to patrol the edges, letting the front seven concentrate on bottling up interior gaps. Note it’s 2nd and 10, Michigan is down by 11, and this safety is still putting himself at 6 yards at the snap.
This puts the safety in a better position to defend the run, while making it harder for him to get over the top of a deep route to his side. This allows the SAM (their spacebacker, Dowell) to attack an interior gap, and the end to crash inside aggressively, since the safety should be not that far behind to clean up, if, say, the QB rolls out.
It is hard to run against MSU because they have all of those guys involved in the run game. But—and remember this is 2nd and 10—State made it even harder.
2. STRONGSIDE END CRASHED LIKE A MOFO
This was the crux of Duerr’s argument: that this walk-on DE (Willikes) read the play correctly when he noticed he wasn’t being blocked, dove inside to close down space for this backside run, then got low so that when Khalid Hill impacted him, he didn’t get shoved backward again.
Duerr called this “kicking Michigan’s ass.” I called it a rock-paper-scissors loss since the design of the play, and Dantonio’s coaching, has this DE doing something normally unsound because he figured out (or knew) he was going to face a kickout blocker.
Nobody’s arguing the DE made a good play here:
That takes out two gaps: since the DE still has leverage outside of Khalid Hill, but has closed all of the space on the C gap behind Hill’s block so that Evans can’t attack it. That’s too bad because McKeon did momentarily win his block against the SAM, who started trying to attack a frontside gap when he read the RB’s handoff coming down the QB’s other side, and thus got hung up inside. Another angle:
Just want to reiterate....
NUMBER 48 WALKED ON STATE'S FOOTBALL TEAM. pic.twitter.com/Xpy1d4xs9N
— Due# (@JDue51) October 8, 2017
Dowell did eventually fling McKeon off (and popped him in the helmet after the whistle as Spartans are wont to do), and Hill chucked Willekes to the ground, but neither thing mattered because of where the DE’s making an impact with Hill.
That’s pretty aggressive stuff by the SAM, but this goes back to #1: Michigan State can do that with their linebackers because the strong safety is hanging out there, first getting on top of McKeon, and then once he sees the TE blocking, setting back up outside to contain a bounce.
However this is still a zone play, and with the SAM’s false step putting a TE between him and his gap, there are still yards to be had in the B or A gaps. What happened there?
3. LINEBACKERS ARE GOING BANZAI FOR INTERIOR GAPS
It’s 2nd and 10. Michigan is down by 11. I keep pointing this out because this behavior is only called for in situations when you expect a run:
Look where those linebackers are and the ball hasn’t been handed off yet. How’s anybody supposed to run when linebackers are flinging themselves toward the line of scrimmage all willy-nilly like that?
You’re not. Here we are at the decision point. The gap inside Khalid Hill is already d-e-d dead from the DE but not also how the blocks are going:
Ulizio and Kugler are the guys meant to get seals but the DTs didn’t bite. Both have been pushed back behind the line of scrimmage, limiting space, and their DTs are in position to shed and play either side of their blocks.
As for the linebackers, Bredeson couldn’t get playside of the Will, who flowed too quickly toward his interior to get caught outside. And Onwenu, who just let go of the DT he was comboing with Ulizio, squares his shoulders downfield just in time to see the MLB, Bachie, screaming by him. Onwenu had nothing else to do but tackle Bachie (fortunately he wasn’t flagged), who got into Evans’s feet and started the end of the play.
With Hill ultimately winning his battle with that walk-on DE and Bachie taken out with illicit countermeasures, Evans tries to cut off Hill and get what he can. But Ulizio’s DT ripped to the other side. Evans can now only fall off Ulizio’s back, where the landed Bachie can grab and Frey, the WLB, can prevent any forward movement
WHAT CAN MICHIGAN DO ABOUT THIS?
State seemed highly prepared for this run from this look, which isn’t that surprising since it’s a thing Michigan has run a lot, and Michigan wasn’t running the inside zone play that it works off of.
When linebackers are acting that aggressively you’d like to pass behind them. However State was prepared for the mesh too. Watch the SAM (topmost linebacker standing between the hashes) when he sees McKeon turn his way:
Dowell was reacting to the run action but because he’s got safety help above, he’s prepared to jam up the works for any receiver who comes into his area. McKeon was trying to initiate contact, but Dowell was also desirous of it. A hypothetical mesh play here sees McKeon jammed up near the line of scrimmage, and the free safety jetting down to cut off a crossing route by DPJ. Michigan State’s defense puts those linebackers right where you want to go with a quick pass over the middle, and they’re trained to stretch the bounds of legal contact to make sure you don’t cross them.
Which brings us back to what we were talking about all through the bye week and last week: you have to attack those safeties. Michigan in the past has had a play-action thing off this where Hill woops the crashing DE and heads out into open flat, while the TE and WR draw off the coverage. They can also try that play that almost worked against Florida, where the X receiver runs a post at the free safety and Hill goes out in a wheel. Or have Evans run the wheel. Or run flags. When quarters safeties aren’t being properly stretched, they’re going to sneak down into the slots, and the linebackers and edge defenders are going to pinch down and react super-aggressively to the run, and you’re going to have a bad time.