Gentleman, scholar, walrus.
With the Michigan State game just a few days away, you should all be familiar with the excellent blog The Only Colors—if you're frequenting, say, the RCMB instead of reading their content, you're not doing yourself any favors. I asked TOC's Heck Dorland (posts feed/Twitter) to do a scheme-centric Q&A and he went above and beyond with his responses; what follows is a remarkably in-depth look at how State operates on both sides of the ball and what it means for this weekend.
With the notable exception of the Purdue game, it appears that the offense has moved from complete incompetence to something resembling average. Have there been any significant schematic changes or is the improvement more a product of finding the right personnel?
I'd love to say that this happened:
*Dave Warner blows the dust and cobwebs off an old scroll and unfurls it*
“Uh, does anyone in here read... um...”
“That's Hurrian,” says a voice.
*everyone turns to look at Jim Bollman*
“What? I've been an 'Offensive Coordinator' who's not allowed to call plays for like, a decade now. What do you think I'm doing up there, calling my own plays and then comparing them one-by-one to Dave's plays, slowly nourishing a grudge with every play that I out-coordinate him? Hell no, I've spent the last two weeks polishing up the rough edges in my Aramaic. Anyways, it says something about six verts and a deadly curse...”
But that story would be an lie, as six verts is highly illegal. What mostly happened is the latter guess, MSU's guys either got better or got replaced by better guys behind them as this season has wore on.
A corner/go combo route; on this one, the go was obviously open.
If I had to identify a specific X's and O's change, I'd say most significant is how MSU has evolved to deal with man to man and one high safety/eight man box looks that tormented them in weeks one and two. This year MSU's passing game has been noticeably more willing to run various 'combo routes' (curl/corner, corner/post, corner/go etc.) against man-to-man than previous coordinators Roushar and Treadwell. Particularly effective vs these one high/man-to-man looks have been corner/go where MSU causes the CB to vacate on the go route and hit usually a tight end on the corner route towards the vacated space 15-20 down the sideline and corner/post where the outside receiver and slot receiver will mesh with the goal of freeing up the post over the middle, again, about 20-25 yards down-field. If you look at MSU's highlight reels since the YSU game, most of the big passing plays are coming against 8 man fronts, which was not true against WMU and USF.
[For the rest of the Q&A, hit THE JUMP. You should really, really read this.]
In that vein, what play (or play+constraint) has proven to be most effective in getting the offense to move the ball?
So right off the top, it's a more run focused offense than typical Dantonio ball this year, even if many particulars are still the same. The base play that has paced the offense with many a five yard gain on first down is still the ubiquitous power run, both under center and out of the shotgun. MSU will line up with a TE and a fullback (Trevon Pendleton, our FB, has been pleasantly excellent) and run this out of the I-form all day if you let them. Michigan State's offensive line is, to a man, mobile and their pulling players have done a good job of getting to the hole before Langford. They'll pull multiple blockers on occasion.
Garbage time vs. Illinois, sure, but this is a great block by Pendleton (#37) as well as a nice pull by left guard Connor Kruse (#54).
The other base play seems to be iso/dive stuff through the A and B gaps, with and without a lead blocker, as well as a decent amount of off-tackle stuff, again typically with man-to-man blocking schemes and with or without a two man backfield.
If you key too hard on this power game between the tackles MSU will throw some shotgun option looks at you, with the distribution being about 80% inverted veer (sometimes with WR R.J. Shelton sweeping across the backfield to present a triple option look, though I haven't seen MSU actually utilize the 'declined inverted veer hand off option' with Cook and Shelton yet), about 10% 'traditional' read option (Cook going outside and Langford inside doesn't play to their strengths as much as vice-versa) and about 10% speed option. Like Michigan, sometimes they actually read the play-side DE and sometimes they just block him, typically with a pulling guard. Most of Cook's runs seem to come off reads and not designed runs.
Finally, MSU still runs inside and outside zone runs as a change of pace, though much less it seems than they did last year. Tosses and sweeps to the RB have been rare, maybe even nonexistent this season. Outside runs come from the inverted veer, speed options, WR handoffs, or traditional off tackle stuff.
As far as constraint plays, they *try* to run bubble and RB screens against overloaded boxes and probable blitzes, they really do, but, bless their hearts, they aren't very good at actually pulling them off. Their more reliable constraint play to teams over-adjusted to inside runs is a motioned sweep to Shelton or another wide receiver.
The real moneymaker constraint-wise has been deep/intermediate play-action passing which is responsible for nearly all of MSU's big gains in the passing game.
As far as the overall passing game, they run *a lot* of shallow stuff, with plenty of picks on defenders going on underneath. Cross, drag, outside hitches and curls, inside snags and stick routes, you'll get to know these. Deep stuff is basically the post/corner/go/fade quartet with some clear 'choice route' stuff going on with inside receivers depending on what the safety does, often ran out of three or four verts.
How do you see MSU attacking Michigan's defense? Is there a personnel matchup that you think bodes particularly well (or poorly) for the Spartans?
I actually like this overall match-up for MSU as it stands today. The nightmare scenario for MSU is a defense like, well, MSU's, that can commit eight players to stop the run without getting burned in the passing game, that plays a lot of press man-to-man, and that blitzes a lot. What I've comparatively seen from Michigan is a team that plays a lot of bend don't break zone, that doesn't blitz a ton apart from 3rd downs, and that leaves two high safeties the great majority of the time. MSU is willing, maybe even eager to take four or five yards at a time this year, whether through run or pass, and Michigan seems willing to give opponents four or five yards at a time this year, out of the belief that eventually they'll make a mistake. But so far, MSU's offense doesn't really make mistakes (just six turnovers, 3 INTs and 3 fumbles, by the offense in 8 games so far). In short, Mattison might just let MSU do what it kinda wants to do. We'll see.
I expect MSU to come out and pound the rock on first down (MSU runs the ball on 74.3% of first downs, 2nd highest rate in the Big Ten) and throw the ball on third down (their 32.6% run percentage on 3rd down is third lowest in the Big Ten). As for second down? Well, the team is balanced on second down and honestly just uses second down to get to third and short, anyways. If Mattison sticks to form, you'll see MSU commit plenty of three and outs, or six and outs, or nine and outs, but eventually they'll probably grind down the field on a couple of 13 play-ish, 70 yard-ish drives for points.
As far as personnel match-ups, I'm going to be honest with you here, I can't answer this question clearly and here's why: I've looked over this Michigan defense pretty hard the past couple days, and I'm not sure if they are either A. really good or B. totally average (but I'm near positive it's one or the other) and furthermore, I'm not totally sure why they are either 'really good' or 'average', whichever of those they truly are. Makes sense?
Let me explain a bit:
Michigan is currently t-14th in interceptions nationally and t-77th in pass break-ups nationally. They pick off basically one out of every three passes they get their hands on, a very high rate, and, specifically, their starting four defensive backs have picked off 10 out of the 23 passes that they've gotten their hands on. A 43.5% interception percentage on defended passes is insane (MSU's starting defensive backs for example have picked off 26.1% of the passes they defend). Now, is UM's secondary intercepting nearly one out of two passes because they're ravenous ballhawks who I should be terrified of, or are they just getting lucky? I'm not sure.
Another example: the general stats say Michigan's run defense is stouter than a brick shithouse. Top ten in runs conceded of 10 or more yards. One rushing play allowed of 20 yards or more, 2nd nationally. Top ten nationally in YPC. Top ten nationally in rushing touchdowns against.
But looking at the cross-tabs so to speak, against our nation's 41st, 45th and 79th ranked teams in YPC that defense allowed 4.2 yards per carry, a below average number. And against our nation's 98th, 100th, 102nd and 124th rushing offenses (by YPC) Michigan gives up 2.38 yards per carry, a goddamn great number.
So, and you guys watch all of Michigan's games and drives, you probably have a better answer to this than I do, is the Michigan run defense going to play down to their competition again this weekend, or not? Again, I'm not sure.
Is there a player who isn't getting a lot of press (this could be just about anyone on MSU's offense) who you think could have a major impact on the outcome of this game?
I'm going to say tight end Josiah Price, who leads the team in yards per catch, just caught his first TD pass this last week, and throws a pretty mean block as well. Unlike TEs Dennis and Gleichert (who can block, but can't catch) and Lyles (who can catch, but can't block), Price has shown the ability to do both those things well (4 catches for 86 yards the last three weeks), which is crucial to those mid-drive switches from single back to five wide to I-form that are key to a good multiple offense. I've also feel like I've read Michigan's linebackers can struggle in coverage, so it'll be interesting to see if he can work the spaces over the middle and in the flats against the Wolverines.
Flipping to the other side of the ball ... I'm scared, frankly. In as much depth as you feel like going into, what makes the Spartan defense so damn good?
I think it ultimately comes down to three things:
A. Everyone basically knows what exactly they're doing and if they don't, someone will correct them pre-snap.
This seems to be the prime positive that Mattison and staff brought to the UM defense, so you guys should be able to especially appreciate the importance of this.
This MSU defense features eight 'true' returning starters (Rush, Reynolds, Bullough, Dennard, Lewis, Allen, Drummond, and Jones), and another two players who saw significant time in MSU's 3-3-5 3rd down package last year (Hoover, Calhoun). If you're counting along, that leaves only CB Trae Waynes as the relatively inexperienced starter, and even he had a few spot starts last year. He also plays field corner, which is an easy to learn, if hard to master, position in the Dantonio/Narduzzi scheme (MSU's frequent corner blitzes, for example, are always from the boundary side).
The point of listing out those facts is that this is a very experienced, connected group, who themselves take their keys from Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis, two three-year starters, who have the scheme down cold. They have checks for your checks. They fill run gaps. They don't allow yards after the catch. They swarm to the ball. They don't over-pursue. They are sound, they work together, they kill.
B. They learn as the game goes on and adapt
I cannot tell you how many times in the last three years I've watched an opposing offense go for 50, 60, 70 yards on their first drive, kick a field goal, score a touchdown, flip field position, whatever, and then absolutely get downloaded by this defense. It happened just this last weekend at Illinois. Sometimes it takes more than one drive, some days it takes a half of football or so. But I, for example, watched Purdue experience some early success throwing little 12-15 yard out patterns beneath MSU's retreating zone cornerback on two third downs in quick succession to keep drives alive, and then the third time Purdue tried it, not only was the corner right there in man coverage, but there too was safety Isaiah Lewis flashing in front of the receiver and nearly collecting a pick-six. Stuff like that is a joy to watch.
C. The things that should work against cover-4 don't.
The first thing people tell you to do against cover-4 defense [Ed-Ace: 11W has a nice primer on this scheme] is attack the short perimeter with your passing game. Once upon a time (2009, sorta 2010) this was good advice. But because MSU nowadays plays so much press coverage, their CBs, safeties, and OLBs viciously patrol the flats and will terminate with extreme prejudice the vast majority of straight up bubble screens, flash screens or swing passes. It helps that they rarely miss tackles.
The second thing people tell you to do is attack the corners out on their islands on the sidelines. But because Dantonio and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett train those dudes like the Dark Lord Saban himself, they are basically always in fantastic position, meaning QBs have to throw into these impossible windows between the CB and the sideline 25 yards down-field. Kelly tried this and Rees went like, 1/7 for 30 yards and two near INTs before getting bailed out by 2-3 uh, questionable, PI flags. This strategy worked for ND because Southhhhhh Bennnnddddddd, but I wouldn't count on it as a rule, first because refs generally let MSU's corners play pretty physical because they also turn around and play the ball, and also because Dantonio works the refs pretty well on this particular issue.
Bonus: So what does work?
A. Attack the intermediate and deep middle of the field.
Every once in a while MSU's CBs or LBs will hand off a WR to a deeper safety who either isn't on the same page, or is, in fact, not there at all. When you see MSU truly bust a coverage and they will a handful of times a game, whether or not the QB actually sees it, it is nearly always the deep middle of the field and due to a lack of communication between the two safeties or a CB and a S.
Additionally Allen, Bullough, and Jones, the LB trio are not bad in pass coverage, but each would prefer to be attacking downhill. Get them isolated in the middle of the field on a pass catching target, or fill the space they vacate when blitzing and there's a relative advantage you can press.
B. Run a good screen
Again, the really simple, standard, stuff results in a TFL often as not, but Kevin Wilson, master of the tricksy screen play, has burnt MSU as crispy as anyone with some nicely designed screens. Because MSU is so blitz heavy, anything that lets everyone get up field for a couple seconds and then puts the ball behind them can work well.
C. Misdirection and option runs
Throw back screens, sprint counter draws, speed options, and the 'Taylor Martinez piloted inverted veer but like, no one else's zone read or inverted veer, goddamn you Taylor Martinez, how are you so fast?' have all worked great at various times over the past to seasons. Getting to the edge is a tough task on this defense but once in a while, you can get everyone screaming the wrong way and cut the play back to great effect. It's worth noting on this subject that Calhoun's biggest improvement over the off-season, as well as his biggest upgrade over Gholston, has been in keeping contain. But then, no one's tested them with as much inverted veer as Michigan probably will, so who knows?
D. Don't give up on the run in general
No, you're probably not going to get four, much less five, yards a carry. But if you abandon the run, as lots of teams do eventually, MSU is going to point a microwave of overloads, stunts, and zone blitzes your direction and your offense will melt. Even if it feels dumb watching your running back struggle for 2 or 3 yards on first down, realize that carry might actually be the difference between Lewis or Drummond being near the line of scrimmage and not being there to double team next time your QB targets a deep route.
E. Play fast. Really fast.
Don't give MSU time to figure you out. The worst thing you can do is let Bullough and Lewis sit there and set everyone up jussssst so, and then let MSU decode your snap count because you got so caught up in the audible game that's there's two seconds left on the play-clock. If you reel off a big play get back to the line and run something else, quick. Indiana and Iowa had their best moments, the only times when the MSU defense looked truly mortal, basically, when they rapidly chained plays together and put MSU back on their heels. [Ed-Ace: *sigh*]
F. All praise aside, they do still **** up just like everybody else
Rush (#44, DE on bottom of screen) can't give up the inside so easily given MSU's alignment; Taiwan Jones (#34, over the slot) is there to help outside.
Against Iowa, Allen took a bad angle on a swing pass and didn't force the runner outside towards the sideline. The RB ran right past him and everyone else for a 40+ yard TD. Against Indiana, Rush didn't fill a run gap like he was supposed to and the RB ran right through the center of the defense for a 60+ yard TD. They're really good, but mistakes happen, and so when they do, take advantage of them and get the ball into the end-zone.
What makes the double A-gap blitz so successful, and how does MSU use the threat of that play to confuse opposing offenses?
You may remember this blitz from such plays as DOOOOOOOOM
Ah, this blitz should be a real good time if what I've read about the interior of the Michigan line all year is correct. Long answer here. Short answer:
- It's fast, faster than bringing blitzers off the edge just by basic mathematical principles.
- Because it attacks the center and a noisy Spartan Stadium often necessitates a silent count and more time to relay adjustments, the offense doesn't always have time to identify the blitz before it happens.
- It demands communication between center and the two guards to each pick up a man in the middle of the blitz. Failing that, the RB needs to make a tough head-on block.
- MSU will stunt and delay and cross all sorts of blitzers making the above inside blocking assignments harder still.
- A robber safety is empowered to break on many of the standard hot routes a QB will throw under pressure.
- Finally, MSU will run it over and over and over again if it feels like it, and eventually the repetitions can cause teams to abandon inside runs, throw more blockers at the problem, have the QB's eyes to drop down towards the line on passes, or eventually the pressure starts getting home.
Basically it's a dictation tool. Double A gaps is the dog whistle that Narduzzi uses to train opposing offenses to do the shit he wants them to do, like stop taking long pass drops and start running towards the sidelines. Coincidentally, because his team is fast and usually in the right position, quick passing games and runs to the edge don't bother him or his defense.
Who's the unsung hero of the defense?
Is it cliché and a 'hey look how much I like, *know* football, bro' thing to say the defensive tackles are the unsung hero? It is, isn't it? And is it cheating to name four dudes as under the radar when you asked for one? Welp. Hoover, Reynolds, Knox, and Scarpinato provide decent disruption (7.5 TFLs between them) from the inside, but, more importantly, absorb blocks to keep the LBs clean to run around and plunder the backfield (17.5 TFLs for Bullough, Allen, Jones). Everyone else on the defense is probably properly sung.
Same questions as the offense: what do you expect the game plan to be to slow down Michigan, and are there any personnel matchups that you're especially confident and/or worried about?
The MSU defense will do what it does. 4-3 with seven in the box on first and second down, 3-3-5 with six in the box on 3rd down. Honestly, the only guy who has really gotten Narduzzi out of his standard gameplan is Wilson at Indiana, who actually forced MSU to walk its OLB all the way out over the slot receiver in a sort of nickel look to stop all of his screen games. That's a big compliment to that dude.
Gallon, a receiver who can truly stamp his presence on a game, is obviously terrifying. He and Gardner are the easy answer to this question, but then, they're the only answer. Gardner standing in the pocket for four seconds (a hush-hush secret is that MSU's standard four man rush is nothing special), getting pressured from the inside and then rolling out behind Lewan for four more seconds, then finding Gallon wide open 50 yards down field is a goddamn nightmare and it's going to happen at least once. And then, Gallon and Funchess clearing out a bunch of open field for Gardner to scramble into is obviously the other major concern. When the going gets tough, basically one of two things will happen: Michigan will either run this two-man game between Gallon and Gardner (see: Indiana) with other guys like Funchess, Chesson, and Dileo floating around the field, which is going to be a big pain in the ass, or Borges is going to try and force Toussaint and Gardner in a standard shotgun/under center run game (see: Penn State) in which case, well, I hope he does that.
Care to put forth a prediction?
Oh, with the caveat that I am a dreadful 'guess the score' predictor, I will say, a 24-17 MSU final that is more comfortable for MSU than that score might indicate.