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Film Room: Northwestern

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For the first time in a while, we have multiple defensive breakdowns to evaluate.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Well it was not a great performance by MSU last weekend in Evanston. However, despite all the mistakes and breakdowns, the Spartans still had a chance to win the game at the end. They just came up a little bit short. A little bit better execution by the offense or special teams in regulation and they might not need overtime to win. A better performance by the defense in overtime and they win anyway. They just couldn’t get it all lined up enough to pull it out like they did the week before. On to the film...

Jackson halfback toss TD

This is the play that put the Wildcats ahead early in the fourth quarter, a lead they would hold until the final minute of the game.

It’s first and ten from the MSU 12 yard line. Northwestern is in shotgun with Jackson the lone back in the backfield. Two wide receivers are split to the top of the formation, with one to the bottom.

Jackson is going to take the hand-off and roll right, while the two receivers closest to the formation both run similar patterns coming to the right as Jackson’s two passing options.

You see that the hand-off to Jackson has the desired effect of sucking in most of the defenders on the right side of the field. Even the defensive back covering the slot receiver bites a little bit. But the big ones are that both defensive backs that should be covering Skowronek on the near side (Layne and Willis) commit to the run.

Here you see it frozen with seven MSU defenders below the red line that are fully committed to the run. You see Jackson’s two pass options are both in good shape. The slot receiver has inside position, and you can see the MSU DB biting ever so slightly on the run here as well. Skowronek is about to blow past Willis, who is flat footed after coming up to help in run defense.

You see Willis scrambling to get back here as he realizes that Jackson is going to throw the ball, but the damage is done. Jackson lobs it up for Skowronek who goes up and gets it and hangs on as Willis makes one last swat to try and knock the ball free.

It looks like Jackson probably could have thrown to the slot receiver as well, but Dowell is racing back to try and help on the play and might have been able to get in the way. Jackson makes the safe, easy toss and it’s a touchdown.

This was just a great play call because MSU had been committed to stopping Jackson all game, and he was mostly contained on the ground, he had gotten loose on a few pass plays out of the backfield. Northwestern took advantage of the Spartan defensive commitment to stopping the run at just the right moment.

It should also be noted that on the replay, the color commentator points out that this was not something he had seen from Northwestern in study, so they were clearly saving it for the right moment.

Cameron Green TD Catch in Overtime

This was the second play of overtime, and at the time it felt like quite the deflating play. While it wasn’t the winning touchdown, it was certainly a harbinger of things to come for the Spartan defense in the overtime period.

Green (yellow circle) came in motion across the formation pre-snap to where he is in this shot. He is going to run a little out and up, while the receiver to that side of the formation runs a quick comeback. The two will both be in a similar area when Thorson gives a little shoulder fake, and that’s when Green goes deep. Chris Frey (red) is covering Green, and bites badly on the shoulder fake.

Here you can see the play in motion, it’s tough to see because of the shot but you can see Green blow past Frey at the bottom right corner of the screen when Thorson gives the shoulder fake.

And that is how you end up with Frey chasing Green down. Ball is in the air on its way and Frey is about five yards away.

All to easy. Frey has to be better than that, especially considering it’s overtime. Keep them in front of you and make them earn it. A senior captain can’t be making freshman mistakes in that scenario.

Cody White OT Touchdown

At this point I thought MSU was going to win it. They had just scored to force a second overtime and then this was the second play of the second overtime.

It is first and ten from the Northwestern 11 yard line. MSU spreads out the Wildcats with five receivers and an empty backfield. White is in the slot on the near side. Holmes (near) and Davis (far) are going to run corners, while Stewart (top) runs a quick slant underneath. White and Sokol are going to work the middle of the field.

Northwestern has three defenders in that area, so Lewerke is looking for whoever gets the one-on-one match up.

As you can see here, the two middle defenders stick on Sokol. White puts a nice move on his defender, freezing him just enough to get separation as he heads up field.

Lewerke reads it and drops in an absolutely perfect touch pass to White. I mean this is just a beautiful pitch and catch that I think Spartan fans will see a whole lot of over the next couple of years.

Winning TD

This is what would end up being the game winning touchdown. It is also a perfect example of the type of play that Northwestern had success with throughout the game.

This is on third and seven, and if you can get a stop and force a field goal attempt, you have a good shot to win the game considering how easily they had scored the previous few possessions. Alas...

Flynn Nagel (yellow circle) is going to be the guy that ends up with the ball. He is going to run a shallow cross. The wideout on the other side of the formation is going to run a slightly deeper crossing route, while the slot receiver works up the seam.

Michigan State is going to rush five, the four players closest to the line, and Bachie (red circle) is going to blitz off the far edge. The two outside receivers are manned up by the corners. Morrissey is going to drop into coverage (red arrow). Willis and Dowell are the deep DB’s here, and presumably one of them will be tasked with picking up the slot receiver.

As the play starts to develop a couple of things happen. First of all, the running back picks up the blitz (red), giving Thorson time to let the play develop.

The two wideouts start their crosses, and you can see Nagel already has some separation from Josiah Scott. Meanwhile, both Willis and Dowell appear to be covering the slot receiver (yellow). Morrissey is so deep he is out of the shot here. Honestly I don’t know what he is doing because at this point it seems like he is still dropping back, despite the fact that all the routes are clearly in front of him.

What happens next is that the crossing routes do exactly what they are meant to do and get in the defenders way. You see the receiver from the top intentionally gets in Scott’s way to put him off his line of pursuit ever so slightly. He does a great job of not actually setting a full pick, at most there is maybe some slight contact between his arm and Scott, but not enough to be any sort of penalty. Thorson steps up and delivers the ball to Nagel in stride.

The other thing you can see here is that Dowell and Morrissey are completely useless on this play. Morrissey dropped deep as we said, and here you see him backpedal out of the screen at the start, then break on the cross to the near side, before starting to scramble back across the field after the ball is delivered to Thorson. Actually he plays this more or less like he is supposed to, even if he might have dropped a little too deep before reacting to the play. If the ball goes to the other crosser, he is in position to come up and help make the stop.

Dowell on the other hand, is caught in no man’s land. He initially shades the slot receiver along with Willis, then follows the other crossing route for just a moment, before breaking towards Nagel. But he has drifted too far to the middle of the field and due to the slot runner sitting down, and the referee’s position, Dowell is forced to take a bad route towards the sideline.

As a result, no one is back to help once Nagel gets to the corner on Scott, and he is able to just barely make it to the end zone. The little interference from the other crosser and the safety being out of position are what turn this from a first down play to a touchdown play.

This stuff was happening all day long, and part of the reason for it was that MSU was just not getting enough consistent pressure up front. On this play they blitzed Bachie, who would likely have been in the middle of the field here to help on the short routes. But when he rushes, and the rush doesn’t get home, it opens up things like this.

That is it for this week. More negative than positive in the review but there were some good things as well, especially the playmaking abilities of Lewerke, White and Felton Davis. A lot of the big plays for MSU came as a result of these three just making plays with their pure skill and ability. Although, Lewerke and White were responsible for some of the biggest mistakes as well. That’s what you deal with when you have a young team.

One of the reasons we went with more of the “bad” plays this week was that we just haven’t had a chance to look at that many defensive breakdowns, because of how solid they have been. This week, especially the overtimes, gave us more to look at.

It was suggested in the comments last week that readers should be able to submit plays they want to see. I agree. If you see something during the game you want me to highlight in next week’s piece feel free to hit me up on twitter (@matthoeppner) either during or after the game. Let me know a little info about the play like what it was and when in the game it occurred. I will take all suggestions into consideration for the next week’s post.