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Film Room: Notre Dame

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Key mistakes plague MSU in loss to Fighting Irish

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Michigan State Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Well, things didn’t exactly work out for the Spartans on Saturday night against the Irish, as Notre Dame took advantage of every mistake MSU presented them en route to an easy win. There is plenty to work on heading into conference play for Michigan State, especially when it comes to taking care of the football.

But first we need to review Saturday’s game and see what went wrong.

Pick Six

This was just a crushing blow early for MSU, so let’s break it down.

It’s third and six from the ND 45 yard line. MSU is in shotgun with Scott in the backfield and three wide receivers, two to the top. The two up top are going to cross their routes about three yards after the line of scrimmage, with the slot receiver running an out and the outside receiver coming towards the middle of the field. In theory this should would as a type of a pick play, where the defenders will get tangled up, or the outside receiver will pick the inside receiver’s man, opening up the throw to the out route.

The problem here is that Notre Dame was in a zone defense.

Lewerke is winding up to throw here as the routes cross, but as you can see, the outside corner isn’t following the outside receiver to the inside, he’s looking at the QB and is ready to pick up the slot receiver coming into his area. Meanwhile the nickel back (red circle) is picking up the outside wideout coming through.

The throw is about to be on it’s way and at the play already has minimal chance for success, as even if the throw gets to the receiver before the defender does, its either going to be broken up, or he’s going to be hit short of the line to gain.

Here’s further illustration of that last point. The ball (yellow circle) is on its way and the ND defender already has his hands up ready to go for it. Stewart has just looked up and has no idea what’s coming. It’s pretty easy for Julian Love from there. You can also see what I mean when I say the best result of this throw is he gets tackled short of the first down.

It doesn’t help that the throw was behind the receiver either, making it all the easier for Love to catch it in stride and take off down the field.

Meanwhile, look at the rest of this play. There is nothing there. The red circles show you the three MSU receivers and they are all covered, although the guy at the bottom was probably the best chance for a conversion if Lewerke is looking that way and hits him as he turns around despite the bracket coverage.

In addition there are three other ND defenders hanging around the middle of the field. This play was doomed before the ball was even snapped. Full video here.

I’m not sure if a more experienced QB realizes this pre-snap and audibles, or if it they pick it up as the play is developing and pull it down, but it was clearly not something Lewerke saw coming at any stage. Gotta credit the ND defense for being prepared for this play as well.

Wimbush rushing TD

Now we are going to go back to the opening drive of the game. We are doing this a little out of order because the pick six felt like the bigger play. For this play, we see ND pick the right spot to take advantage of the MSU defense.

It is second and ten from the MSU 16 yard line. ND comes out shotgun with four receivers and one back in the backfield. MSU is in their base defense.

The plan here for ND is to clear out the middle of the field, so the far outside receivers run basic fly type patterns to take the corners up field. The slot receivers run out routes to draw more defenders away from the middle of the field. The running back releases out of the backfield to draw any other defenders away. Meanwhile the center does not engage anyone off the snap, and waits for the QB to take off behind him before heading up field to block for him.

This actually works even better than the Irish were probably hoping for. The outside corners follow their men on the deep routes. On the near side both the linebacker and the safety follow the slot receiver. This is a mistake by the safety, who can’t commit as hard as he does and abandon the middle of the field.

On the top, the linebacker follows the slot receiver and the safety drifts towards the sideline but doesn’t come in on the receiver as hard as his counterpart does. Still, the middle of the field is wide open and it leaves the middle linebacker on an island by himself with way too much room to cover.

This is right as Wimbush is taking off to run. The receivers have cleared out the middle of the field, leaving the middle linebacker all alone in the red circle. The center is heading up field to block him, and the running back is actually looking for someone to block, but as of yet, there is no one to worry about. Outside of the linebacker making a spectacular play, this is going to end badly for the defense.

Here it is from the QB’s angle. You can see the huge gap in the middle opened up and how much room is left for the middle linebacker to cover. Wimbush follows his running back out of the backfield, drawing the linebacker, then cuts back behind the center as he engages the linebacker and it’s an easy waltz into the end zone. Full play here.

Williams TD catch

This was the touchdown that put ND up 21-7 following the Lewerke fumble. It was touch because it came on third down and holding them to a field goal attempt would have been big for the defense.

So again, it’s third and six from the MSU eight yard line. Notre Dame has overloaded the left side of the formation with all three wideouts. There is one back in the backfield to the right of Wimbush.

The back is going to come out of the backfield on the right side, while the tight end on the same side runs a route up the seam.

The outside linebacker on the near side, Chris Frey (yellow circle) comes down along the side of the D-line before the snap like he’s going to blitz, and at the snap, heads straight for the QB, at least he starts to.

The running back runs right past Frey, who feebly reaches back in an attempt to slow him down (yellow circle). Elsewhere, the MSU defense has this play covered pretty well, as the red circles and arrows show. You can also see an MSU lineman breaking through and about to put pressure on Wimbush, forcing him to roll to his right.

Now the safety on the near side is going to drift towards the tight end to help cover him. That opens up the right side of the field, right where the running back is headed. But it can be assumed that the safety isn’t really concerned about the tailback, as that is the linebacker’s responsibility. Frey’s actions also reinforce this.

Here’s another great look from behind the play. Frey is the small yellow circle and as you can see, he’s screwed. The rest of the play is covered perfectly (red circles), and the middle linebacker after drifting underneath the tight end’s route, is now zeroed in on the QB to cut him off if he tries to run. But he doesn’t see what Wimbush sees, that his running back is wide open and has a ton of room to worth with. So Wimbush just rolls out and tosses one to the end zone before Frey can catch up. Williams is able to get a foot down before Frey hits him and it’s six points. Full play here.

I can only assume that Frey forgot that the running back was his responsibility until the split second he saw him about to run by him. Or he assumed that the back was staying in to protect the QB as an extra blocker, so he was going to blitz. Either way, if he straight up blitzes, it’s probably a sack. Or if he stays with his man, the pressure likely forces Wimbush into a very tough throw, or a scramble. The result is likely a much better one for MSU than what transpired.

It was not a good showing by Michigan State on Saturday. They looked very much like a young football team, because they are. It wasn’t a comedy of errors and total meltdowns across the board, but the mistakes they did make were huge ones, and the Irish took full advantage of them. That was the biggest takeaway was that ND made MSU pay dearly for nearly every misstep. They turned all three turnovers into touchdowns. It’s almost impossible to win a game when that happens.

Let’s hope for more positive film next week against Iowa.