Preview: Offense vs Mississippi State

Submitted by Brian on December 31st, 2010 at 1:21 PM

In multiple parts due to length.

mississippi-state-logo Essentials

WHAT Michigan vs Mississippi State
WHERE Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL
WHEN 1:30 Eastern, January 1st 2010
THE LINE Mississippi State –4.5
WEATHER Partly cloudy, 76 degrees
20% chance of rain

If you haven't gotten the basic outline by now you're to be commended on your remarkable ability to avoid information. The internet now possesses a frame-by-frame breakdown of a long run by I-AA Alcorn State in their body-bag game against the Bulldogs along with dozens of other bits less manic. Truly, no team has ever met the level of amateur scouting that Mississippi State just did from the Michigan blogosphere.

But here we go anyway…

Run Offense vs. Mississippi State

The maniacal maniacs of Manny Diaz will make this tough sledding for the Michigan ground game except in instances where someone gets caught out of position and Denard Robinson's sledding will have a new non-caloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant applied to it. MSU's hoping this won't happen, what with articles being written that quote "discipline" in the headline and stress tackling:

"Tackling is the other big concern with bowls because we haven't tackled a guy in five weeks," Diaz said. "So those will be the things we will all unfortunately find out together, whether we'll be ready to tackle in one-on-one situations. They're going to spread you out and make that a one-on-one game."

And other articles in which Diaz invokes "gap control":

“It’s all about gap control,” Diaz said. “They do some pretty good things with their run game. They’re going to ask you the questions and you have to have the answer for it. The issue with them is that if there’s a play when you miss the answer, he has a chance to go 80 yards because he’s so fast.

"With such a small margin of error, it might be our death.”

Can the Bulldogs do this? They've got a shot. Diaz points out they won't  be intimidated since their scheduled was littered with Heisman finalists, including the 6-6 controversy robot that won the thing. MSU held him to 70 yards rushing on 18 attempts and 136 yards passing in a 17-14 loss; if they do the same to Michigan and give up 17 points they won't be losing.

The basic philosophy of the MSU defense is evident in their first drive against LSU. It's evident everywhere all the time but this is a particularly emblematic bit:

Blitz, blitz, blitz from everywhere. Eight guys on the LOS on first down run blitzing like nuts. On passing downs heavy doses of zone blitz, and on third and two there's a specific rollout contain blitz from a linebacker. MSU doesn't blitz like Michigan blitzes: as the changeup.

This has been highly effective no matter what metric you grab. MSU is 19th in rushing defense against a fairly tough schedule—they didn't play anyone in the nonconference but got stuck in a brutal SEC West (or "Legends," whatever)—and obliterated a few actual teams along the way:

Opponent Att Total TD Avg
Auburn 44 209 0 4.8
LSU 38 169 2 4.4
Georgia 33 119 0 3.6
Florida 32 169 1 5.3
UAB 31 126 2 4.1
Kentucky 39 116 0 3.0
Alabama 34 186 1 5.5
Arkansas 33 194 2 5.9
Ole Miss 32 84 2 2.6

The problems usually came in the form of big gains, like a 56-yard Julio Jones run by Alabama, a 64-yard Knile Davis run by Arkansas, and even the aforementioned long touchdown by the Alcorn State Acorns.


The ruthless math of blitzing is that when you're wrong, you're really wrong. Mississippi State has not found a way to defy this, but they're good enough that you're going to be in second and long lots and unless you rip off a long one you're not cracking 5 YPC even if you've got Cam Newton. They also managed to give up 24 points to a 4-8 Conference USA team a week after holding Florida to seven—unpredictability is inherent in the system.

This begins to be old hat but the numbers above indicate a certain difficulty with spread systems—Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas had three of the top four rushing days against the Ole Miss defense. As you can see above and Georgia found out in their loss to MSU early in the year, the question you're asking when you line up under center and run pro-style at this thing is "do you know how much I like second and long?" Michigan's spread will pull linebackers outside and ask questions of the safeties, who I liked in the Georgia game but Alcorn State (and everything else) analyst Blue Seoul has consistently dogged for things like that still above, wherein #5 is in the midst of pulling a Random Michigan Safety Since Marcus Ray With The Exception Of Jamar Adams-level boner.

As far as individual Mississippi State players, the defensive line is a who's-who of reasons Jay Hopson was a bad idea. He tried and failed to acquire three fourths of their starting DL. One was longshot JUCO Pernell McPhee; the others were high school kids Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Neither could escape Mississippi's immense gravitational field, and even trying has seen Hopson move to Memphis. Within two years he'll be in the event horizon.

Anyway, on tape none of these guys are great. McPhee is the best, a fairly disruptive (9.5 TFLs) DT who leads the line in tackles with a respectable 32 and can penetrate if given a one-on-one matchup. Boyd is also a guy who can beat a block and make a play. No one really gets to the QB but that's another show.

Key Matchup: Denard Robinson and possibly others in space against Mississippi State safeties. The very nature of this defense and this offense demands that this matchup happens several times. Sometimes it will be behind the LOS and bad for Michigan. Sometimes it will be downfield with one guy between Denard, paydirt, and 5 YPC. Note that the situation with Alcorn State victim above got bad at the end of the year. He was replaced for the Arkansas game, not that it mattered as Mallett went ham.

Pass Offense vs. Mississippi State


Chris White is white. Also he sacks people sometimes.

Here's a spot the Bulldogs might be vulnerable thanks to that blitz-mad philosophy. MSU's 89th in pass defense and while they're considerably better in efficiency terms at 50th, Michigan rolls into the game with the 24th ranked pass efficiency offense thanks to a wide variety of long gains that happen when people freak out about Denard Robinson and forget about 'Tree and company.

Michigan's got a reputation as a run-mad team where receivers go to die but if you flip over to the actual stats you'll see Roy Roundtree behind only a trio of Indiana receivers in receptions per game. He's 37 yards short of Jeremy Ebert's conference-leading 919 receiving yards, and most of those were not screens—teams have been taking away the bubble just about the whole year. If he hadn't gotten a severe case of the dropsies late in the season Roundtree would have led the conference in yards.

The reason a slot receiver has gone ham this year is because of the guy throwing it to him. Teams bring up a safety, then they bring up another safety, then they watch Roundtree fly down the field behind those guys. Opponents that have played it safe have held him in check, however. Conservative Big Ten cover two archetypes Iowa and Michigan State held him to a total of 58 yards, but both had the luxury of doing so because Michigan's offense rolled down the field only to turn the ball over in the redzone in both games.

It's not like Michigan is going up against a defense anything like that anyway. MSU is aggressive to the extreme. Their results to date show a vulnerability…

Opponent Att Cmp Yards TD Int Cmp% YPA
Auburn 21 12 158 2 1 57% 7.5
LSU 16 10 97 0 0 63% 6.1
Georgia 31 18 274 1 0 58% 8.8
Houston 59 32 356 3 2 54% 6.0
Florida 39 24 210 0 1 62% 5.4
UAB 45 23 236 1 0 51% 5.2
Kentucky 42 23 258 2 3 55% 6.1
Alabama 23 14 277 2 1 61% 12.0
Arkansas 26 17 305 3 1 65% 11.7
Ole Miss 44 24 261 1 1 55% 5.9

…but unfortunately for Michigan it appears it's a vulnerability to good pro-style quarterbacks who either have the protection to slice apart the defense or the arm and devil-may-care attitude to zing it into tough places MSU gives up by design. You'll note that Auburn has the best performance outside of the pro-style slingers. Auburn was wildly run-biased in that game, especially since two of the throws were trick plays for former QB Kodi Burns and a few more were screens, and it got them their worst scoring output of the year. Michigan should learn the lesson from that game and move first-down playcalling much closer to a 50-50 split unless they have some indefensible magic rushing gameplan.

When Michigan does pass, pickups will be key. The Diaz philosophy is evident in the numbers. His leading sack guy is linebacker Chris White with six. Number two is linebacker KJ Wright. Five different defensive backs have tackled the quarterback in the backfield when he attempts to throw the ball. Since no MSU defensive lineman has more than two and a half sacks and Michigan's offensive line has combined with Denard's legs to provide mostly fantastic pass protection, most pressure on Denard will come via unblocked rushers. On the one hand, that's a Diaz specialty. On the other, pickups equal time equal trouble for MSU because…

The Mississippi State secondary is shaky. They did not impress in the Georgia game and Blue Seoul's comprehensive evaluation of the Bulldogs hammers this point time and again:

Ark. #7 takes it to the house on a 60+ yarder on a student body left type play.  Again, these DBs will give up big plays against real speed.  Thankfully we've got a lot of that at WR. (not so much at RB, this would be a great team for Carlos Brown to play against). MSU's #7 let himself get blocked on the play when he didn't need to and could've saved the TD (14 yards downfield, but that's still better than a TD)

All the blitzing covers up for that, but it'll be interesting to see who wins that back-and-forth battle. Michigan opponents have been terrified to get after Robinson in the pocket since a missed tackle (or even a poor choice of rushing lane) is a big gain waiting to happen, especially if you have the cajones/stupidity to put man coverage behind your blitz. Robinson is going to see a ton of zone blitzes.

On conventional downs this game cries out for a heavy does of QB Draw Oh Noes. The thing that leaps off the tape about the LSU game above is just how aggressively the Bulldog defense reads run. Mallett also nailed one of the MSU safeties for an 88-yard TD on play action in the Arkansas game—these guys scream downhill. Michigan has gashed opponent after opponent with Denard's one-man play action and there probably isn't a team on the schedule more naturally vulnerable to the play than MSU. The Bulldogs will be trying to coach their players up on it but when your entire philosophy is built around maniacal aggression it's tough to beat that now well-worn instinct out of players.

Key Matchup: Magee versus Diaz, and in the event of a favorable outcome there Denard versus His Shoulder. There will be opportunities for explosive plays if Magee catches Diaz in the wrong call.


Zone Left

December 31st, 2010 at 1:38 PM ^

This is going to be interesting.  Everyone after UConn sat back this season and tried to play assignment football--even on passing downs.  Miss St's style is so obviously different that something is going to have to give.  In a way, this is the kind of defense that Rodriguez's spread was designed to go against.  He wants the defense to pick something they desperately want to stop by playing up or by blitzing and then gives the QB multiple options with each play depending on what the defense goes out to stop.  There's going to be plenty of frustration tomorrow, but absent turnovers, I think the offense will be highly effective.

Defense, well...


December 31st, 2010 at 1:43 PM ^

patience and calm from our young troops when their blitzes work, which some of them will; and surprising them with all the talent we've got--including the healthy, returned talent--beyond Denard. THEN we'll see Shoelace spring some long gainers.

If this is the last hurrah for this team and RichRod, I wish them godspeed. And I will consider the Gatorade over the coach's back--should we win--a big dump on all his enemies, too. Call me petty :).


December 31st, 2010 at 2:08 PM ^

with bowl games is that they're notorious for teams coming out and going completely against tendency.  I wouldn't be surprised if MSU only blitzes half as much as normal or less tomorrow. 


December 31st, 2010 at 2:25 PM ^

As much as I agree that teams tend to try and not be as predictable for a bowl game, I do not see this as a possibility.  MSU not blitzing is like Michigan not running the spread option... There will be new wrinkles yes, and things that we haven't see so far, but the fundamental believe of MSU is to blitz.


December 31st, 2010 at 2:15 PM ^

It seems this defense sets up for Denard roll-outs when passing and running if nobody is open.  Man coverage vs. Denard.  There's a reason we haven't seen it all year.

I'm hoping this is the game Denard scrambles some on passing downs instead of only on designed runs.   


December 31st, 2010 at 2:20 PM ^

I love that you pointed out that last bit. Denard scrambling on designed pass plays has been something that I have been dying for all season. The idea of our WRs going deep downfield and Denard finding none of them open, thus deciding to take the acres of space in front of him seems too good to pass up.

Kilgore Trout

December 31st, 2010 at 2:50 PM ^

My impression after reading this is that Denard is going to have to be able to stand in and make a few throws like that 3rd down coversion to Roundtree against ND.  Assuming he's fully healthy, I don't see why he can't do that. 

The other thing I wouldn't be surprised to see is Smith and Shaw with 3-4 catches a piece on little releases behind blitzes.  Unfortunately that might open Denard up to taking some hits, so I guess that one is questionable.


December 31st, 2010 at 8:19 PM ^

Good call on Smith and Shaw on releases behind blitzes.  That should work well. 

I'm looking forward to see what Rodriquez does against their blitzes.  Their defense is very different from how everyone we've played this year.


January 1st, 2011 at 8:57 AM ^

Watch that video of MSU's D vs LSU again around the 2:15 mark. Pass to Toliver in the corner of the endzone, dropped. Cheerleader shakes pom-poms vigorously, to which Toliver takes offense, so he drives her to the ground with his groin.