College football has a particularly long and excruciating off-season, so if I can churn a few off-season posts out of breaking down 'MSU football concepts' than I will.
But it's incredibly easy to sound stupid when discussing football strategeremisms so where I can, I'm going to cling to the work of smarter bloggers, writers, and coaches like a small, swimming, child clings to a inflatable floatie toy. Any time I wade out in the deeper waters of my own speculation you're trusting me at your own risk. Enjoy.
Everyone loves to see a good blitz dialed up, but sometimes it's just too risky. If Roman generals getting honored with a triumph had a slave sit in their chariot whispering "Remember that you are mortal." as the general was paraded in front of thousands of cheering citizens; I like to think head football coaches have some poor grad assistant constantly whispering, "Remember that you could totally get fired for a sufficiently embarrassing loss."
"Well then," you might be saying, "why not call a zone blitz? Effective and safe." NO, I AM TELLING YOU IT IS STILL MUCH TOO RISKY.
At the point in the game we are going to look at, the score was 7-0 MSU over the visiting Central Michigan Chippewas. CMU was backed up in both the spot of the ball, as well as down and distance. The last thing any Spartan fan (or player, or coach) needed here was flashbacks to 2009 as some CMU receiver beats his single coverage and races 80 yards into the end zone. Coach D, Pat Narduzzi, and the rest of the defensive staff are going to play it nice and safe. Four rushers, seven players providing coverage or help against a draw play.
After all, they don't need a fifth rusher. They'll get pressure with only the four. How? With a stunt.
What is a 'stunt'?
A 'stunt', sometimes called a 'twist', is when two defensive players (typically defensive lineman) switch assignments or gaps, with one player crossing behind or in front of their nearby teammate. You can think of it as two football players running a pick and roll on an offensive lineman. One DL 'sets the screen' so to speak, the other curves behind it. Video of this action is presented later in this article.
Brief history interlude
If you are uh, of the older persuasion, you probably know all this. If you're a younger guy like me, you might have heard of it, but not seen it precisely laid out. I'm talking about former MSU football coach George Perles' 'Stunt 4-3'.
The scheme was cooked up in Perles' days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he brought it with him to MSU, to varying levels of success, notably topping out with (as you probably know) MSU's last Rose Bowl appearance, and win, in 1988.
To not bog down too much in the details, the first and main trick of the defense was that it would line both defensive tackles up in the gaps between the center and the offensive guards, and split the ends wide out over the outside shoulder of the tackle, or over the tight end. Check out the article starting on page 120 of this pdf (written by the man himself) for some little chalkboard style drawings of typical Perles stunts.
Why align like this? Two reasons, I think.
1. Confuse offensive blocking assignments without blitzing
In theory, it lightens the load of the responsibilities of your defensive tackles, and gives them more freedom to create havoc. This is because traditional 4-3 alignments give one defensive tackle one gap ("You are one on one. Murder this offensive guard") the other defensive tackle has to handle two gaps ("Control the center AND the other offensive guard. Command a double team.") Aligning your DTs in the manner of the stunt 4-3 allows them, in Perles' words, to take 'a gap and a half', confusing offensive blocking patterns and letting the DTs shift around and stunt (cross over one another, or loop behind each other) in unpredictable ways.
The attention these two players will likely receive also means your DE will likely be one on one with the OTs.
2. Control the middle of the line of scrimmage
The second reason is that it puts massive pressure of the center to hold the point of attack against two players angled to knock his head off. Against the type of I-form, 'go up the middle' runs that suffused the NFL and CFB in the 70's and 80's the scheme worked wonderfully.
The middle linebacker would typically fill the gap vacated by the stunting tackle, a role Percy Snow played with relish on his way to becoming only one of two players to win the Bednarik and Lombardi awards in the same season.
But times change, and teams don't really run the Stunt 4-3 anymore, particularly not as a full time defense. This doesn't mean there aren't still concepts from this defense that can be applied to the current MSU defense.
I think the goal of the Stunt 4-3 (AKA the TLDR version) could be summed up thusly:
Confuse blockers, use your tackles to overwhelm a single point on the OL, present the offense with a supposed opening elsewhere on the OL, and then brutally fill that opening with your MLB and other players.
For an example of a George Perles stunt out of the 4-3, check out the above clip at 1:17. Note the wide gap over the center between the DTs and also how the right DT #64 circles behind the left DT #55 to bring pressure. Also of note for more humorous reasons, are how the Michigan left guard #64 freaks out and tries to find someone, anyone, to lay a helmet on, and how the Michigan QB laughably overthrows the football into the waiting hands of an MSU DB.
Fast Forward to 2011
We are back at our originally described scenario. The MSU D wants pressure with four rushers, just like the Stunt 4-3, or Tampa 2 did. But it's gonna to get it in a considerably different manner than George Perles would have.
The differences start simply with changes in alignment and personnel. Whereas the Stunt 4-3 excelled with two big, ferocious, defensive tackles, the 3-3-5 alignment MSU uses here essentially has no defensive tackle at all. And rather than play the gaps between the guard and center the 'DT' here, (6 foot, 275 lb Jonathan Strayhorn) lines up right straight over the center. The offensive guards are left uncovered and Will Gholston and Marcus Rush are split out wide into the D gaps (over the outside shoulder of the Offensive Tackles).
The Outside Linebackers are each lined up outside a defensive end (Allen on the bottom of the screen, Elsworth(?) at the top), while the MLB is sitting in the gap between Gholston and the DT.
One safety is fronting the two lowest receivers on the CMU trips side. Both Corner's are playing tight coverage. The final two safeties are playing a center field shell near the first down marker.
As you will see, this alignment follows rule one of the stunt 4-3 (confuse offensive blocking assignments without blitzing), putting no fewer than eight players into a possible blitzing positioning, all within at least 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.
However it plainly ignores rule two (control the middle of the line of scrimmage). The formation and down and distance makes a run up the middle unlikely here (even, in MSU's eyes, preferable). The advancement of offensive schemes, represented here by CMU's spread, means that MSU will not stunt this play from the inside-out, as Perles would have done, but rather from the outside-in.
But however they achieve it, the goal remains the same:
Confuse blockers, overwhelm a single point on the OL, present the offense with a supposed opening elsewhere on the OL, and then brutally fill that opening with defensive players.
Gholston stunts left over the DT, who attacks the right guard. I'd guess the thought process of the poor left tackle here is something like, "OH GOD WILL GHOLSTON IS IN FRONT OF ME. WILL GHOLSTON IS IN FRONT OF ME. HOLY CRAP HE'S BIG. COACH HAS BEEN TELLING ME ABOUT THIS GUY ALL WEEK, I GOTTA BLOCK HIM OR COACH IS GONNA KILL ME." So when Will Gholston takes a step to his left, the left tackle follows him and takes a step to his right. But then who's gonna block the Linebac- Uh oh.
The ball has only just reached the QB's hands and MSU has already put CMU in check. If this running back's first step is toward onrushing manmissile Denicos Allen, CMU might be OK (although, as he proved in the OSU game there is a very real chance Allen would simply leap over him). If he steps any other direction that's checkmate.
He does step in any other direction. He moves to the right for a quick play action fake with his QB, and this play is dead. Not like it matters at this point, but Marcus Rush has also beaten his tackle to the outside edge and gets
blocked in the back outrageously hard fairly blocked to the ground. It goes unflagged, presumably under the NCAA's 'no insult to quite possibly literal injury' policy. because the refs are smart and I am dumb and, as a commenter pointed out, blocks in the back are fine behind the line of scrimmage.
To the QB's credit he manages a handful of steps to the right before Fast Denicos Allen hauls him down...
A Second Look
To best appreciate the way the stunt, and the threat of Gholston, opens up this play, let's look at the flipped camera angle:
This is right after the snap again. Gholston has just started his stunt and it's pretty clear Allen is going to be able to pressure the QB off the edge. It would appear that between Marcus Rush (#44) and the Strayhorn, the DT, who is covered up here by the guard and center, that there's a nice big gap CMU should run into.
I think there's a couple of problems with that line of thought though. Firstly, I don't think there's a zone read option for the quarterback here, based off of how the receivers aren't blocking (meaning, I don't think there's any scenario in which the QB hands off to the running back on this play). But even if he did, this movement and alignment creates a large amount of stress on a QB making such a read. What exactly, I wonder, is the QB's cue he reads here? The DE a QB would normally look at here has stunted, with a linebacker holding contain off the edge. The DT the QB might read in more of a midline option also is, by all accounts, not where he normally would be. The read on the other DE says 'hand off', but...
As that hand off would be made we see Gholston (above the QB in the middle of the screen) bust through the gap between RG and C (Something that didn't really get emphasized in the other angle). He gets tripped up, but the QB making the read/trying to go through progressions) has little way of knowing that ahead of time. Furthermore, between Bullough, Robinson at the top of the screen and Elsworth, there is a triangle of players who could converge on that gap unblocked. Essentially, the obvious move becomes less obvious the more you look at it.
And as you see a second or so later, Bullough and Robinson are flooding to fill that gap, even as it is pretty clear the QB still has the ball. Moreover being 3rd and 11, down 7 points, this play call bets on the fact that the opponent will be more ambitious than to run off the right guard. That bet ends up being correct and CMU pays for that ambition with a sack and an upcoming punt.
If CMU had perfect foresight, they probably would have either just run the dive, or thrown the WR screen to the trips side and hoped for the best. Those are only the best of bad options and, unfortunately for them, football is played out in real time.
So look, CMU is CMU. But bad opponent or not, it's still highly encouraging to see the staff and players able to apply pressure on 3rd downs without blitzing. Any schmo with a headset can call a jailbreak blitz and get pressure. This is subtler, harder to counter stuff. If you can get a untouched rusher off of a 4 man pass rush, you're like, doing good things yo.
The 3-3-5 is a really, really exciting pass rush package, that works well with this team's defensive philosophy. It lets the smart minds of the MSU defensive staff and roster be extremely flexible in how they apply pressure and mix up coverages.
Modern defense is a game of sleight of hand: to show an offense one thing and present something very different. MSU shows a very heavy blitz pre-snap and then backs off to a rather light pass rush. MSU shows only one player attacking the center of this formation, but actually brings two, and in a way that causes issues. And finally, MSU opens a door a mile wide for just long enough for the QB to make the hand off before slamming it shut.