Scouting the MSU Offense (vs. WIS)

Submitted by AAL on October 5th, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Alternative Title: "We Already Knew This, But I Spent The Entire Day Working On It Just To Be Sure"

I am picking up where my Notre Dame diary left off. No video was readily available for UMass, Bowling Green, or Indiana.

As noted previously, legitimate scouting of an offense should have 2-4 of the most recent games, but time and resources have forced me to focus solely on last week's game. Defensive scouting based on an a single context is limited to what that offense thought necessary to be successful at a moment in time, and impacts the validity of this diary.

Some positive notes are that the Wisconsin game is MSU's most recent, its offense had some success in the game, and it was a pivotal, contentious game (meaning MSU was unlikely to hold back much in order to win).


Other Disclaimers

  • The focus was on data and not particular players’ ability. I didn’t review the film trying to figure out how good a particular player or position group is. Regardless, I picked up some things I note at the bottom.

  • I recorded 71 of 75 plays. 2 plays were not on the video and 2 were used to exhaust the clock.

  • I link to my own site to explain some terms.

  • Nominal analytical errors certainly exist, but don’t effect points made in a meaningful way.

Wisconsin's Defense

The Badgers played both a 4-3 and 4-4 front nearly equally. (In some respects the amount doesn't matter because Wisconsin's employment of man coverage makes it less relevant.) I have them in Cover 3 over 50% of the time and in Man Free for another 25%. They didn't try to disguise what they were doing much, making rotations way before the snap. Cover 3 allowed them to bring an extra man up against the run, where they yielded a respectable 3.9 YPC. In man coverage they mostly rolled the corners up to press. I think WIS knew MSU sometimes leaves eligible receivers (TE/WR) in for protection. So when WIS went man, anyone assigned to cover an eligible who stayed in to protect rushed the passer. This forced Cousins to get rid of the ball quicker if the corners could hold out for a few seconds. Indeed, I only have Cousins connecting deep down the field once vs. man (though others ended up there with YAC.)

As you might expect, WIS was not flashy on D, bringing an extra rusher 9 times and an actual blitz twice. When WIS used 5 man games, it always played Man Free behind it. The Wisconsin front 4 and ILBs are very solid. The Front 4 had some ability to generate pressure without extra rushers. Cousins was sacked, hit, or hurried multiple times. MSU offset this some by using more bootlegs or faster developing play action. The biggest problem for WIS was its perimeter guys vs. the run. Often they didn't come close to making the play when it was possible or couldn't get off blocks.


On with the chlorophyll:

By Down & Distance

  • 1 & 10 had 16 runs/9 pass for 64% run. 5 of those passes were play action.

  • 2 & 3 or less - 4/4 run

  • 2 & 7+ - 8 runs, 7 pass (split between dropback/ PAP)

  • 3 & 3 or less - 4/4 run

  • 3 & 4-6 - 4 pass (all 5 step), 1 run

  • 3 & 7+ - 6 pass (all 5 step), 1 run, 1 screen

  • 4 & 1 (x3) - Misdirection pitch, PAP, Iso strong

By Field Zone

  • Red Zone: 18 plays, 13 run/5 pass for 72% run. Of the 5 passes, 3 were PAP

  • MSU was never inside its own 15

By Personnel, Backfield, and Formation

  • 11 Personnel (19x)

    • Used in 1 & 10 seven times, 2nd or 3rd and long another seven times (total)

    • In 17 of the 19 times 11 personnel was used, MSU lined up in Dallas or (what I call) Dolphin. These are both 2 x 2 sets. Dallas sets the 2 WRs to the field and TE, WR to the boundary. Dolphin is a mirror image with TE, WR to the field and 2 WRs to the boundary. This is the only personnel group where MSU set its passing strength into the boundary (5x).

    • MSU used a Gun Near/Far backfield 15x, Ace 4x

  • 12 Personnel (17x)

    • I look at this personnel as MSU's go-to group. It is used in any 2nd down situation and in 3rd and short. To me, this says the offensive brain trust believes it can call a play with this group to get a first down or get themselves into a manageable 3rd down. 15 of 17 times it was used, MSU was in one of these situations.

    • Look for MSU to be in Ace Denver or to shift a TE to put them into a Near or Far Pro set.

    • 9 runs/8 pass, 5 of which were play action

  • 10 Personnel - in 6 of the 8 times used, it was 3rd and 4+. 6 of the total 8 were 5 step
  • 21 Personnel (9x)

    • 8 of 9 plays were runs out of I Pro or I Twins. 5 of those 8 were Lead Zones

    • From I Twins, the slot receiver motioned for a crack back block on the OLB (3x), two of those times it was run in that direction

  • 22 Personnel (8x)

    • 7 of 8 plays were in Red Zone, other for 4th & 1 outside red zone

    • 7 were runs, 1 was play action pass for final touchdown of game

  • 31 Personnel (6x)

    • This is an odd personnel group for the current age of football and it was employed in no specific situations or portions of the field. Right or wrong, it leads me to believe it was a game-specific wrinkle to mess with WIS or exploit particular defenders. Each time, MSU used a Power I Weak backfield. 4 times MSU ran in that direction.

By Play

  • Zone Run (23x) - Lead (10x); Outside (7x); Inside (5x); Split (1x)

  • 5 Step (16x)

  • Play Action Pass (10x)

  • Power (10x)

  • 3 Step (4x)

Top 5 Plays By Result

  • TB Screen +35 (threw over blitzers with man coverage behind, blown assignment)

  • 5 step +35 (Scissors concept; rubbed off defender in man coverage)

  • Play Action Pass - +30, +26, +24


  • The ESPN box score has MSU at 60% run overall (45/74)

  • MSU relationship between personnel on the field, down & distance, and play call is as strong as any you will see. With 3 WRs/1RB on the field you'll probably see a pass and there are probably many yards and/or few downs to go. With 2 RB and 1, 2, or 3 TE it's going to be a run (16 for 19 in this game) and probably 1 & 10 or in the Red Zone. Play action is nominally added to keep the D honest or surprise for big gain/TD. The only time MSU approaches balance is in 12 Personnel (1 RB, 2 TE). As noted before, they use this when they need a chunk of yardage and will mix run, play action, and the occasional 5 step.

  • I thought I'd pick up more about particular players than I did. I blame this partially on the fact that I think MSU wants to run particular plays in particular spots of the game more than get the ball into certain players hands. Are the skill guys good? Yes. Did MSU showcase any of them due to their ability? No. Also, to repeat, WIS did get good pressure with only a 4-man rush.

  • What does all of this mean for Michigan's defense? I don't really know other than I would bet on a lot of Cover 3.

  • I apologize for the funky formatting. I copied and pasted some of this from Google Docs.


Promote RichRod

October 5th, 2010 at 11:29 PM ^

I'll repost my scattered thoughts after watching the MSU offense v Wisc every snap video on the board:

  1. Stopping the run is more important than stopping the pass.  If they can move the chains running they will stick to it.  Then they will kill you with play action.  By the way, they ran the bootleg at least 6-7 times.  Someone is going to have to keep contain on Cousins so he doesn't scramble for yards on these.
  2. As always, they love the misdirection run plays.  They like slanting the line hard one way then cutting it back the other way.  I also saw the fake up the middle - edge pitch.  As always, they will get 15 yards if they run a counter draw so just resign yourself to that fact.
  3. All the misdirection seems to create a lot of one on one matchups with the LBs.  They will need to tackle in space.  Ezeh needs to not be passive and Mouton needs to keep tackling like he has been.  Please wrap up when you fill, Cam.
  4. If we blitz a lot we will lose.  Cousins knows the offense and throws right into the blitz to great success.  They converted just about every blitz into positive yards (when the receivers weren't dropping balls which definitely happened a few times).
  5. OTOH, the 4 man rush was pretty effective at getting to Cousins.  I wasn't particularly impressed with their line play.
  6. Nothing earth shattering, but I think our LBs are the key to this game.  They need to maintain their gaps and not be thrown off by misdirection runs and play action.

Big Boutros

October 5th, 2010 at 11:38 PM ^

Bucky's Fifth Quarter identified their "Badger Package" as technically a 3-3-5, using a defensive end as the third linebacker who generally rushed without his hand on the ground pre-snap. They also declared it a total failure, which fills my butt with quaking Jello. How did you categorize it?


October 5th, 2010 at 11:40 PM ^

I almost never actually log in when viewing the board (which occupies the majority of my days this season) but velt the need to +1 you for the breakdown.  Great to see an actual film breakdown to look for tendencies.  Keep up the good work.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:44 PM ^

I didn't seen anything I thought resembled a 3-3-5. Could you post the link so I can see if we are talking about the same thing? Thanks.


October 6th, 2010 at 12:20 AM ^

I looked up the play again on Youtube. IMO, the defense is 4-3 Cover 4 (The corners bail post-snap and nothing says 3-3 that I can see). The Mike gets a tad deep and the Will gets himself turned around, occupied by the 2 WRs to this side. Regardless, this is much better than biting and having MSU hit a dig over your head, for much more than 14 yards. Should they take a 3 yard drop? Hardly. Offenses complete these types of balls all the time. WIS just doesn't do a great job here. The Will may have had an outside shot if he didn't turn the way he did.

Also, it's the third play of the game and WIS played Cover 4 fewer than 5 times. I don't see the big deal.


October 5th, 2010 at 11:50 PM ^

This is my first time reading a diary from you. Fantastic, this is very useful information. It learned me some football. I am looking forward to your future posts. Thank you.


October 6th, 2010 at 2:42 AM ^

I've really enjoyed reading your diaries.  There are definitely some Carr-like tendencies to MSU's playcalling and use of personnel, and hopefully we can exploit this. 


October 6th, 2010 at 6:41 AM ^

Nothing earth shattering, but I think our LBs are the key to this game.  They need to maintain their gaps and not be thrown off by misdirection runs and play action.


God be with you, Obi.

Indiana Blue

October 6th, 2010 at 7:45 AM ^

I think the LB play is key ... actually its the entire front 7 (ok .. 6), but good run defense also relies on aggresive play by the safeties.  I am concerned that play action could result in bg chunks of yards.  I see play action as MSU's key to moving the ball  -  they just don't drop back pass very often & I think they may even use th drop back to run a called QB scramble since that worked so well last year. 

Still optimistic that they will not be able to stop us from scoring !

Go Blue !


October 6th, 2010 at 8:31 AM ^

(with thanks, because this is neat stuff): You've figured out the personnel MSU uses on different downs, the likely plays given the personnel. Does someone like GERG have these patterns figured, too? That's kind of his job, right, along with working out our D's responses?

But--here's the bigger question--when he sees them go to such patterns/personnel--or sees them change up--how does he communicate this to 12 kids out there on the field? Will they have internalized this as well as you have? 

Thanks to anyone who answers.  


October 6th, 2010 at 10:41 AM ^

The answer to your first paragraph is yes, though to a much higher degree. I've simplified a lot here for time's sake and only used one game.

When the D practices they learn what sets and plays the opponent likes to use based on a number of factors. They will get an enormous scouting report early in the week (at least the one's I used to help compile were 15+ pages usually). Probably each position coach adds a piece for his guys along with more general tendencies like above. DB coaches draw up common pattern combos, DL coaches draw blocking schemes, etc.

When I ran a scout team, each card had the play, personnel group, and a down & distance. Each coach has a practice script with the same info. Before the scout team breaks the huddle, the coaches will yell out the personnel group and a mock down and distance. This also helps reinforce the info from the scouting report.

On game day, though I haven't seen it, I'm sure there is someone on the sideline holding up neon cards to relay the personnel group to the D, which comes down over the headset form the box upstairs ("11" or "12" or "21" or whatever). The players communicate or have to know the D & D. Then they have to use what they know and play.

Half the stuff (or more) in even the most detailed scouting report can end up completely useless if the offense has success with something new. They will try things you haven't seen.


October 6th, 2010 at 11:07 AM ^

I also noticed the '31 Personnel' package- I did not recall seeing them run this formation before, and took to calling it the 'Phalanx' in a nod to the historical Spartans.  Seeing it live, I was like 'What the hell is that?'  And they ran it a good number of times, too.  Might see it again, but I also expect a good bit of four-wide shotgun in this game to exploit the obvious mismatch.  That would set up Brian's bete noire, the dreaded TDSCD that always seems to work against UM (actually, no one really stops that play very well).  Love the website, too- I'll be wasting many hours there later.