Even in the 'Fire Nardawg' days of the MSU defense, the unit has always made a strong commitment to stopping the run. And, more than a commitment, they've typically achieved that goal, finishing among the top 4 defenses in the Big Ten in 'Yards per Carry against' 5 out of the 6 Dantonio years (the sole exception being a 10th place finish in 2008) including two back-to-back #1 run defenses in 2011 and 2012.
But last year still showed a small slip downward in stoutness from the heights of the 2011 version. Though I'm almost positive much of the Spartan "regression" (from an otherworldly 2.8 in 2011 to a still crazy-good 3.28 in 2012) on the 'YPC Against' front can be explained away by decreased sack numbers, the fact is that the Spartan defense that gave up just a single 30+ yard run in 2011, and gave up eight such runs in 2012; and the defense that gave up zero 40+ yard runs, gave up three such runs in 2012. What I noticed somewhat live and more so going back and watching highlights again, was that the MSU defense seemed much more susceptible to teams carving them open off fakes and read options away from the original flow of the play. Or, if this was indeed always a weakness of the Spartan defensive sets, several smart offensive coordinators noticed and were able to exploit it.
Notre Dame is in a fairly vanilla 3-wide shotgun formation.
MSU is in their base 4-3, cover 4 defense. Norman is showing blitz at the bottom of the DL, Bullough and Allen are over the guards.
Credit to Notre Dame, this play looks a lot like all the other rollouts Notre Dame effectively used all game to neutralize the Spartan pass rush (and also was how they scored their first touchdown, off a deep throw to the endzone).
So MSU is playing it like what it looks like. The two corners are locked up over their assignments. Safety Jairus Jones has stepped up to cover the slot receiver. Gholston is beating his man with an outside pass rush Isaiah Lewis is deep roaming center-field. Denicos Allen is more or less where he should be.
Norman has coverage responsibility on the tight end. Whether part of Notre Dame's plan, or just fortuitous coincidence, the TE's short post route causes Norman and Max Bullough to become a bit tangled up. Then the Tight End throws a block on Bullough and wait a minute...
Oh boy, this might be bad. Golson makes the sprint-out counter hand off to his RB and this play is heading the other way.
We're going to start by looking for the first thing you should probably look for on any big play against MSU last year: Is Will Gholston being clearly held on the play? Haha, of course he is. Is he going to get a call from a ref? Haha, of course he isn't.
Unfortunately, when Gholston doesn't get the holding call, his aggressiveness with this outside pass rush move totally removes his ability to enforce backside containment and leaves a huge gap between the left tackle and guard for the Notre Dame RB to run through.
So, with the other three Spartan DL being locked up one-on-one, a Notre Dame OL is free to head out toward the second level and the RB is sprinting towards aforementioned huge gap. Not good.
Where is Denicos Allen? Well, he's covering the underneath on the slot receiver route to break up any throw over the middle which isn't the worst idea in the world. After all, for all he knows, it's still a pass play. But...
By now, it clearly isn't a pass play, and yet Allen's body is still facing exactly the wrong direction to stop this play.
Gholston lost level 1 of backside containment, and now Allen has lost level 2. The Notre Dame guard gets away with another hold on Micajah Reynolds in the middle of the picture, but still, no flag comes to bail MSU out.
So, there's a big problem here, and that problem is that George Atkinson, the Notre Dame running back with the ball, is stupid fast.
"Yeah, but Denicos Allen has like, a nine yard head start. He'l take a good pursuit angle and cut him off."
No, you weren't listening, Atkinson is stupid fast.
Dude hits the jets and, twenty yards down-field, has actually blown by Denicos Allen, who remember, had that big head start.
Then, just for good measure, he jukes a diving tackle by the MSU safety...
And makes it another seven or so yards, before Chris Norman and Allen (who, to his credit, didn't give up on the play) finally wrangle him down to the turf.
It's a lot easy to rip off a big play against an elite defense when you can get away with two separate play-side holding penalties.
*grumble* ... *mumble*...
But it's also easier when two players responsible for preventing this sort of thing goof up.
Mistakes happen, but when multiple player's mistakes compound on one another, big plays happen. Two positional mishaps and two missed tackles have nothing to do with the officiating, and were the other prime culprits for the result here. If Gholston maintains inside leverage, Atkinson actually has to run horizontally instead of being able to cut right up field on a diagonal line. If Allen remains covering his gap, maybe he doesn't even make the tackle, but he at least forces a time-consuming cut from Atkinson either towards the '12th defender' of the sideline, or the middle of the field where his teammates are. The fact that no one on the play seems to show a speedy player his proper due (Bullough, the guy who I think was supposed to be watching him, it's worth noting, does not do a great job of fighting through blocks either), breaks things down.
This is a really good play call by Notre Dame.
Credit where it's due. They'd been showing a pattern all game on the roll-out passes and then suddenly broke that pattern with something completely different. Good offensive coordinating.
On many plays where the Spartans are guilty of over-pursuit it is a East-West issue. Interestingly enough, here it is more of a North-South problem, where Gholston gets too deep up-field trying to get a sack, and Allen goes too deep down-field trying to help cover against the pass. Either way, the misdirection and the quick shift from pass-fake to run play catches a very good defense off its game.
Example 2: Same ****, different play.
Four plays later, Notre Dame is facing 2nd and goal. They're in a 3 wide shotgun formation once more, and MSU is again in their 4-3.
Notre Dame's initial 4 receiving threats seem locked up (one receiver is off screen at the bottom), and though the RB is again coming into the play as a threat off a delay, this time he is well-accounted for.
Maybe too well-accounted for. Norman has eyes on him, as does Bullough when he eventually passes this tight end off to the safety behind him. Allen is there in case he breaks to the far sideline.
Golson pump fakes, attracting the attention of all three (!) Spartan linebackers.
Nononononono, Denicos. Ah nonononono...
Well, Allen figures it out and tries to get back, but he's starting from the center of the field, while Golson is rounding Gholston to turn up-field near the sideline.
Is Gholston interfered with again on this play? He certainly seems to think so. The camera angle makes it a little less certain, and I'm not exactly sure about what is and isn't a block in the back when you're looking at a DE/OT showdown like this. But it's certainly not the cleanest block I've seen.
At any rate, Golson slips by him with nothing but open field between him and the end zone.
Johnny Adams, the last line of defense, can save this play if he can knock Golson down, or out of bounds, before he crosses the plane, but...
(That is not, in fact, Gholston signaling 'touchdown', but rather, him expressing his displeasure with the refereeing. The Notre Dame player in the bottom left, is probably doing the opposite.)
His dive at the Fighting Irish player's feet too, misses its mark. Touchdown. This gives Notre Dame the 14-0 lead that effectively put this game out of reach, sad as that is to say.
That looked disturbingly similar.
A pass play that turns to a run leads to a breakdown as the back-side DE is potentially interfered with (*mumble* *grumble* *mumble*), and the back-side OLB gets caught trying to defend a pass pattern down the middle of the field, instead of covering the sideline shallow zone.
Who knows, maybe Denicos is absolutely doing what he's been taught to on this play and Notre Dame is just cleverly exposing the Spartan scheme. He also, if I recall, got flip-flopped from Star to Sam linebacker and in his third game, might have still been adjusting to the nuances between the two outside linebacker roles. But if he's not doing what he was supposed to, that's two similar mistakes in the span of five plays. For all his strengths at attacking down-hill and bringing unbelievable pressure on passing downs, clearly pass coverage and recognizing fakes and broken plays are areas that he (and all the Spartan linebackers, really) can improve on heading into this season.
Thank God Everett Golson is a classroom cheat and a bad one at that.
For real. The guy does all the QB 'little things' right, is good at reading what the defense gives him, and has enough athleticism and arm strength to make you pay. Good player. Won't miss him.
My kingdom for someone tackling these dude's center of mass. Criminy.