(If this seems like a sort of random play to critique, well, it's one of the two 'bad plays' that was included in the highlight video. I'm still working on getting BTN2Go up and running.)
The call on this play I'm looking at is a play-action pass. It seems like there are three things defense's key in on, and thus three things a team has to have down pat to run good play-action: the first thing is 'what's the line doing', the second thing is 'what are the other skill position players doing', the third is 'the fake handoff and ensuing 'run' by the 'ball-carrier''.
Act One: Offensive Line
On a play action pass, your offensive line can pass block, as if the run play you're faking is some sort of draw or something, or maybe if they are really worried about the pass rush or just don't care about being entirely deceptive.
But smart offensive coordinators will have their offensive line block like it really is a running play, or at least as much as possible without violating 'ineligible man down-field' rules. Having linemen run block forces players to flow away from where the ball actually is, and redirects or halts blitzers from going after your quarterback. If you're faking a power run, this means you're going to pull a tackle, or a guard, or tight end ,or whatever, from across your line. If you're faking a zone run, you're going to see the sort of lateral movement along your line that that entails, and likely the initial ignoring of an end man on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
Act Two: Other Skill Positions
Are they pretending to throw blocks down-field? Is the fullback hitting someone in the gap you're faking the run towards? What is the tight end doing, is he heading to the second level, or is he holding back and looking for a pass rusher to hit? Defensive linemen might not pick up on this stuff in the scrum, but linebackers or defensive backs might, and they're typically the ones you're trying to fool.
Act Three: The hand-off
Is the ball 'disappearing' into the running back's chest? Is the quarterback holding the pose for a moment and selling it or is he rising to throw too soon? Is the running back finishing the fake, pretending to protect the football, and running to the gap he normally would or is he pulling up and looking for a block? When you watch on TV, do you believe the running back has the ball for more than a second? Does the camera man, whose job it is to figure it out and whose been at this for years now? If not, the defense might not be fooled either.
So let's grade this play out and see what went wrong.
The fake run here is outside zone left. This means the Bronco left defensive end is going to be intentionally unblocked at the beginning of this play. This is all to sell the fake, and means MSU is going to need to deal with this unblocked player at some point.
WMU's defensive line is aligned, let's say, 'funkily', here. Like, you look at how the left defensive end and left defensive tackle are aligned, and you almost kind of wish Maxwell hands the ball off and MSU goes with the actual run play here. But then,you can't really argue against the pass either, given where one safety is. It should be a win-win. With that said, there's a reasonable chance this weird alignment (inadvertently, I think) messes up this play.
PROBLEM NUMBER ONE: Right tackle Jack Conklin is blocking this, maybe not completely unacceptably if this really was outside zone left, but is really not doing this right with the play call of a play-action pass. The general rule of zone blocking is you take the guy lined up right over you, or the guy on your inside shoulder. In my uneducated opinion, for this play to work, Conklin needs to put a block on this left defensive tackle upon the snap and not let him go. He doesn't, instead drifting past him into the center of the line, perhaps making trying to sell the run through his movement, or maybe just making the mistake of a freshman in his first start. Is he not used to the tackle basically being lined up over him? Is he used to being the left tackle on these left handed zone runs? Who knows. But this means there are now two unblocked Broncos on the end line of scrimmage and not one. Uh oh. The two do some weird little mid-play stunt, where the DE crosses behind the DT, I think in an effort to crash after the RB.
Which is a big issue because the H-Back here is doing the classic move of countering back to seal the last man on the line of scrimmage, the initial man the play leaves intentionally unblocked.
PROBLEM NUMBER TWO: The fact that there is now one more guy than he can deal with makes this frustrating to me, as you can see the plan, it wasn't like this play is designed to give a guy a free run at the QB, the H-Back is supposed to swing back from the left side of the line to the right and seal the edge for the QB as he rolls out to pass but it just can't work like this. The H-Back hits the first unblocked guy he sees, what he's taught I think, the DE who has maneuvered inside of the DT. Conklin, maybe realizing he's erred has doubled back and is also trying to block the DE. Two guys on or in the vicinity of the DE, no one on the DT on the end of the line. See where this is going yet?
The blocking upfront is screwed up, we know that, but with a good play-fake to the RB, it might save this play still. A good fake will freeze the unblocked DT, worried that he's going to need to get on his horse to help out on the other side of the field. And if the DT is worried that tearing after a Maxwell who doesn't have the football will take him out of the play, well... he won't tear after the football.
PROBLEM NUMBER THREE It's not a good fake, man. It's not good. This drives me nuts, because look, I feel weird criticizing football plays like this, I really do. I feel weird every time. Because in the back of my head, I know that if I sat down with any of these players they'd be like, "Yeah, it's easy for you to say 'do this', but do you have any idea how hard my job is out there? Think you could do it better?" and my mouth would flop over and closed like a caught fish dropped onto the deck of a boat, because hey, playing quarterback at a division one level seems insanely hard. There are so many parts of Andrew Maxwell's job that I could not do. I couldn't read a deep coverage, I couldn't pick who was going to blitz and who wasn't. The less said about my intermediate passing game the better. etc. etc.
But. I'm pretty sure I could manage a passable fake hand-off. It's the same thing that makes free throws and play-calling easy to criticize. Don't have to run a 4.4 or diagnose a pre-snap shift to do that stuff. And, I mean, it's true! There's not really a good excuse for sloppy play-action fakes and it's not the first time I've picked this nit with Maxwell.
The ball doesn't go near Bullough's chest, Maxwell doesn't 'sell the fake', instead turning to throw almost immediately. Bullough does, if not a great job, as least a passable act that he has the ball, but there's only so much he can sell.
The direct result of this is the unblocked DT immediately understands what's going on, and immediately bolts after Maxwell, which again, is obviously not how this play was drawn up. The indirect result is that Maxwell's accelerated fake also has him shallower down-field then he'd normally be meaning he doesn't have the extra yard or two of space to recognize the rusher and perhaps side step him.
And the annoying thing is, you look at the above screen grab and everything is basically perfect, EXCEPT, ya know, the free rusher bearing down on MSU's quarterback. Maxwell has a good base, he's looking down-field, and seven of eight potential threats are dealt with (though that block at the bottom of the original LOS where the defender and the O-Lineman have basically switched sides is, uh, interesting) If someone is even kinda blocking the eighth guy, or even if he is back near the line of scrimmage instead of almost six yards up field, Maxwell probably has time to scan, step in, and fire into some favorable one-on-one coverage.
But that's not the case, of course, Under pressure now, he backs up and, from about 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hurls a ball off his back foot towards a sideline route. It's to Maxwell's credit that he doesn't take a nasty sack here, or throw a pick, but as I've said before, nobody's issue with him is 'makes too many huge mistakes'.
Burbridge is one-on-one, that's good! And if Maxwell had time to step into this throw, you could even see this being a nice 15 yard catch or so. But he doesn't.
Burbridge is well covered by the time the ball arrives, and it's is understandably inaccurate and high.
Is Maxwell just trying to throw the ball away here? Could be. But an incomplete pass is an incomplete pass and this one is an ugly one.
Same instructions as last time:
Go here. Right beneath the video player on the left side of your screen there's those filters that start with 'all, big ten blast, did you see this?' etc. Go down to the school filter and click on 'Michigan State' out of the list. The video you're looking for is titled 'Western Michigan at Michigan State - Football Highlights' and is 4 minutes and 3 seconds long.
The play starts around 0:28
Offensive line: Conklin has to put a helmet on someone much quicker than he does here. His indecisiveness also contributes to the H-back not blocking the 'true' last man on the line of scrimmage.
QB: the play-fake must be sold better. Pass under pressure is understandably ugly, but the pressure is not dealt with especially well either.
Play-call: Maxwell has never been particularly strong at selling play-action, throwing on the run, or dealing with defenders in the open field. I think the plainest I can put it is: this play-call does not play to his strengths as a quarterback. If that does not automatically make it a bad call, it is at least sub-par on some level.
On the other hand, WMU has 8 players in the box pre-snap, and then continues to commit 8 players to stop the run against the play-action fake, so you have these two MSU intermediate/deep routes against three deep cover guys for WMU which is great math for MSU. If the tactics of the play are lack luster, at least the strategy seems to be, you know, grounded in a good base. Go/Post combos are standard, are the TE blocking and releasing on a drag route is a nice touch, even if it's covered.
WR; like I said, the route as thrown is not open, but the flaws earlier in the play mean that isn't especially relevant. A good throw might have been catch-able for the first down, but tough to ask for a good throw when an unblocked DT is bearing down on the QB. It's hard to tell, but it looks like Burbridge cuts off a go route into a sideline out route in a attempt to help out his QB, but it obviously doesn't free him up. There are other parts of the game where the WRs can come in for heavy criticism, but I don't think this particular play is it.
It's good strategy (throwing the ball, down-field, against a stacked box), messed up by bad tactics (a major blocking mistake, bad play fake, bad throw to a covered receiver). The encouraging thing is the part that busts this play the hardest, Conklin's confusion, is fixable as he gains more experience and perhaps flips back to his more natural position of left tackle. The discouraging thing is, the other troubles are stuff we saw all of last year that didn't seem to improve over the long offseason.
The story here should be simply 'Freshman playing slightly out of position' struggles in first start' and instead it's that plus, 'Argh! Maxwell, why you do this?'
It doesn't seem like MSU has completed a really crisp play-action pass in about 14 games now. Maybe the reason so many short routes are called is because, more often than not, when MSU tries to go deep off a run fake, something like this play is the result.