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Digging Holes and Self-Defeat

An ugly quarter of passing the football.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Play #1


ND is in a 3-4 with two high safeties. MSU is in a 2WR, 1 TE I form. Tactically, I would prefer MSU check to a run here, but if they're going to pass, they go about it the right way.


Price and Burbridge run routes up the seam to draw the MLB's and safeties down-field. Pass protection is good vs the three man rush.


Mumphery fills the space vacated by the linebackers with a drag route. Cook steps into his throw, but also sort of hops into it. Because the throw is short Cook still can deliver this easy pass to Mumphery in stride, but this is a harbinger of footwork problems to come.


Mumphery makes the catch in space and is able to turn up-field for some nice YAC and a 7 yard gain on first down. This is a good play-call to beat this type of ND cover-2 defense, especially the max 'drop 8 defenders' version the Fighting Irish employ here.

Play #2


3rd and 3. I've talked a lot about how teams are willing to play cover-1 with just one safety back deep because they aren't afraid of MSU's passing game. Well, ND is in cover-0, with no safeties deep, and all 11 defenders within five or so yards of the line of scrimmage. Goddamn, this is disrespectful.


MSU, near positive they've got man-to-man coverage, dials up a simple smash route combination where Burbridge runs a curl to keep one defender short, and isolate Macgarrett Kings Jr. on his deeper corner route in the end zone.


Pass protection is very good. And Kings as we'll see, has gained enough separation from his defender to turn this into 6 points. The problem, I think, is Cook's footwork. He steps in to the throw, but he's leaning back, with his body weight over his back leg. This is him as he's throwing the ball.


And this is him right after the throw, still with his body weight falling backwards. I don't pretend to know everything about properly throwing a football, but I played enough sports and know enough about physics to know that when your weight is heading backwards as you throw/hit/kick something, it's going to sail high on you.


Sure enough, Kings Jr., who is giving this his best shot and exhibiting great body control, but who is nonetheless 5'11 and not 6'7, can't reel this overthrow in. A better throw by Cook is likely a touchdown. This ball might as well be thrown straight out of the back of the end zone for all the chance that it gives his receiver.

Play #3


ND is playing a soft 3-4 cover 2/cover 4 look here, with two safeties deep, one off-screen, and the CBs 8 yards deep as well. With this pre-snap look, I would prefer MSU throw a quick pass to Kings behind the LOS, or run the football, particularly if they could involve Cook somehow. They, sort of, do this second thing.


Cook and Langford initially look like they're running some sort of speed option. This would be a good call! Unfortunately, it's just a run fake and Cook pulls up to throw. MSU is running three vertical routes down-field.


Pass protection holds up for a while, but defenders eventually pressure Cook as he heaves the ball down-field. He stands to absorb a hit here, and steps into the throw again, but again, his body is leaning backwards as he chucks it toward his deep receivers.


This sort of situation is always a bit of a gamble. If ND is in cover 2, this play call does good things as MSU has three deep receivers vs. two deep defenders. If they're in cover 4, this play call does bad things, as they have three deep receivers vs four deep defenders. Pre-snap it could be either, though you'd bet cover 4 more than cover 2 based off the positioning of the CBs.


They're in cover 4. So there's three guys closely covering this two middle routes, and another blocking off the route on the sideline. Cook should probably just throw this ball away.


But if you're going to throw into 2 on 3 situations, overthrowing the ball by 6 yards is accidentally prudent. Yay for inaccuracy, here. I guess.

This is a bad play call, when you consider Cook's play style is going to lead to him throwing deep here, no matter what (I do not recall him throwing a ball away this year). Would REALLY have preferred just running the speed option straight up instead of as a fake here, I think it could have gotten 5 yards at the least, maybe much more with a good pitch or pitch-fake from Cook.

Play #4


This is a nice mid-drive adjustment from MSU. With a similar pre-snap look from Notre Dame (and why not, it worked well last time) MSU calls something that, if not precisely four verts, appears to be at least four verts-ish, ensuring one on one match-ups for Cook and the WRs to pick on.



Unfortunately, he has no time to survey his options as his left tackle, Clark, badly whiffs on a cut block on this stand-up DE, and allows him to immediately pressure Cook.


Flushed from the pocket, he and Langford form that little 'two man game' roll out/swing route that Monte Ball and Russell Wilson ran so effectively at Wisconsin.


Cook shot-puts the ball to Langford on the run.


Langford catches the ball in space, puts an excellent juke on an ND linebacker and gains enough YAC for the first down.

Play #5


This is a bubble screen to Kings Jr. It's not a great call given how ND is aligned, but it's fine, I don't mind it. I do mind that Kings Jr. is standing a full 3-4 yards off the LOS in a way that would seem to, in hindsight, telegraph the play-call.


But none of that matters as this is our first truly groan-worthy case of Connor Cook, Unsecured Fire Hose Nozzle.


In this case, he's turning the side to throw but again his weight is heading backwards toward his running back as he steps in.


Perhaps overcompensating for this, his throw in badly high and in front of Kings Jr. who stabs a hand out at it, but understandably can't make the catch. This incomplete pass is solely on Cook, is the type of ugly misfire that makes you wonder if he can be successful as MSU's QB. He and MSU coordinators will have a fix for this specific issue later in the game, by putting him in the shotgun, he doesn't have to do this two step drop that seems to trip him up, but that does little to help at this point.

Play #6


We've certainly seen some things go wrong. Want to see a lot of things go wrong all at once? Ok.


This has been a long standing problem where team's will blitz outside linebackers and MSU's tackles will be like, "Whaaaa?" until the dude is already by them. Clark's first step is to assist Treadwell with the DE, which would be great except the OLB rushing right off his outside shoulder. The OLB's hand is even in the dirt pre-snap, so it's not like it's that likely he's going to drop into coverage. I don't get how blocking this outside guy is something Clark thinks he has time to put off until after he helps holds off the DE for a bit. Is this what he's taught to do? I remember Burkland and France struggling with this against ND as well.


On the other side, Fonoti also gets beat and I'm a bit more understanding of this because I think he pretty clearly is forcing his man to the outside with the expectation that Langford will help him out, when Langford has to step up and absorb a delayed MLB blitz instead. With that said, Fonoti still lets the DE turn him around awfully easy.


Cook, under pressure now to be sure, doesn't buy himself any more time by stepping up in the pocket, and in fact, doesn't not step forward period, throwing this ball essentially flat footed and with his body almost totally open.


Despite this he gets the ball to Burbridge's chest. Where it is dropped. This does not end up being a catch.


The real kicker to this failed protection, failed pocket presence, failed catch, triumvirate is what happens about a second after Cook releases the ball.

A properly lead ball to Burbridge might be a first down as his trailing defender has run into the ref. On the left side of the picture, Bennie Fowler has come free off a 'mesh' pick for another likely first down. And beyond Burbridge, Price also has found great inside position on his post route for a first down if the ball is on the money. This is a play that doesn't require a lot of time to work but it does need more than two seconds Cook and his blockers created for himself before he threw the ball.

Play #7


Now let's really put the finishing touches on this turd sundae of a first quarter passing performance.


It's only a three man rush, so I don't want to be too effusive, but pass protection is very good here.


Cook, despite the DE/LT battle right near him, steps in and seems to have his weight moving forward as he throws this ball.


This needs to be a first down 9/10 times.


This needs to be a first down 9.99/10 times. Dropped.


MSU was 2/7 passing in the first quarter, for 19 yards. Of those five incomplete passes:

-two were dropped passes that were extremely catch-able.

-one was overthrown when the QB had all the time in the world to make the throw.

-one was overthrown by six yards into 2 on 3 coverage.

-one was overthrown on a simple quick throw to a WR behind the LOS.

None were broken up by ND defenders. Four of those incompletions were essentially unaffected by the presence of Notre Dame defenders at all. In other words, on four of those five plays, it could have been the best play call in the world, with 10 players doing their best possible jobs, and the failures of one player (whose identity switches from play to play by the way, just to make the issue extra tricky) are dooming the attempt to 0/1, 0 yards essentially before the play even starts. And this happened on 57% of the 1st quarter's pass attempts. That's devastating. That's baked-in failure.

The good news is blown pass protection assignments, bad footwork, and drops are all, theoretically, correctable issues. And things got better in the second half with MSU also managing a nice TD pass in the 2nd quarter. But 2/7 for 19 yards is a difficult hole to dig your passing attack out of on the road. And the ways these problems compound on one another must be insanely frustrating for all involved.