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Film Room: Northwestern

A blown coverage, a perfect reverse, and a breakdown of the red zone struggles recap a brutal loss.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Well that sucked. Homecoming was not kind to the Spartans this year as Northwestern comes in and defeats MSU for the third straight time, twice in East Lansing. That was a first in this series, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Let’s get to it.

Red Zone Breakdown

Michigan State had four red zone possessions during the game. They scored a touchdown on one of them, and field goals on two of them. The other one was the last possession that resulted in a turnover on downs. Here’s a breakdown of those possessions.

Possession One:

1st and 10 at the NW 15: Shotgun speed option to Jefferson to the short side of the field for four yards

2nd and 6: Felton Davis reverse/sweep to short side of the field for two yards

3rd and 4: Incomplete pass to Sowards in the end zone

4th down: Field goal is good

Possession Two:

1st and 10 at NW 13: Incomplete pass to Davis in the end zone

2nd and 10: Lewerke scrambles for six yards

3rd and 4: Swing pass to Heyward for no gain as he falls down while catching it

4th down: Field goal is good

Possession Three:

1st and 10 at NW 20: Heyward inside run out of shotgun for two yards

2nd and 8: Incomplete pass to Sokol

3rd and 8: Pass interference call against NW for grabbing Davis

1st and goal from NW 3: Fumbled snap as play clock is running down and Lewerke throws it into the ground at Heyward’s feet

2nd and goal: Touchdown pass to Davis on the fade to the corner

Possession Four:

1st and Goal at NW 6: Incomplete pass to Stewart in the end zone

2nd and Goal: Incomplete pass to Hayes in end zone after bad snap

3rd and Goal: Pass complete to Sokol for five yards, goes to ground as he catches it

4th and Goal: Incomplete pass to Davis

So there you have the breakdown. Four red zone possessions resulting in 13 points. One touchdown and two field goals. This was the second game of the season that MSU had four red zone chances and came away with only one touchdown. The other was their other loss at Arizona State.

What stands out to me after re-watching these sequences is how poorly executed the passing game was. Lewerke was just 3-for-10 in the red zone for eight yards and a touchdown. That works out to 0.8 yards per attempt in the red zone and only 2.67 yards per completion.

Looking at it play by play you see that several of the results were due to poor throws. The third down pass to Heyward on the second possession was a little behind the runner and caused him to fall while catching it. The pass to Sokol on possession three was behind him, and cost him a completion and yardage. The completion to Sokol on the final drive was not a good throw and probably would have been a touchdown if he didn’t have to dive for it. And the final pass was just overthrown to Davis, although at that point it probably didn’t matter.

Now Lewerke is not alone at fault. He didn’t get a ton of help. Sowards should have caught the third down pass the first possession, and if that’s Cody White there he probably does make the play. There were also a couple of poor snaps that threw off timing on a couple of plays.

At the end of the day, the entire offense is to blame for the red zone issues. The plays, the execution, it’s all a problem, and it has cost them two games now.

McGowan Touchdown

This was just a pathetic busted coverage and quite frankly something that should not be happening at this point in the season.

So McGowan is up top (yellow circle) and is just going to run a straight fly pattern down the field. The slot receiver is going to run about a 10-yard out pattern. Somewhere there is a miscommunication on who exactly is supposed to do what.

The linebacker Dowell (red) is going to drop into the zone and cover the underneath portion of the out route. At the same time Butler, the corner on McGowan, is going to pass him on to the next level and he also picks up the slot receiver along with Dowell. Meanwhile, the safety, David Dowell, also breaks in on the short route, leaving McGowan completely alone.

Here it is in motion:

And here is a still shot right as Thorson is throwing the ball.

Three defenders all covering the same guy when you are in zone is not good. And the result is a 77-yard touchdown pass.

Here’s a look from the end zone angle.

You see the safety, Dowell, turn as soon as he sees the ball being thrown deep and try and catch up but it’s way too late for that. This has to be on him, he played it like he was responsible for the slot receiver despite both the linebacker and the corner playing the underneath zone. He’s the safety, he’s responsible for the deep zone, but it looks like he thought they were in man and once Butler passed the receiver off to the next level it was over.

Having your upper-classman all-conference safety blow a coverage like this five games into the season is not something that should be happening, and I think it speaks to where this team is mentally at this point.

Davis Reverse TD

Credit where credit is due here. I’ve been saying that MSU has to find ways to run in a non-traditional way. While this continues to be a struggle, they have gotten two big touchdown plays out of it the last couple games. This time it’s Felton Davis making the big play.

So it’s first-and-10 and MSU is just across midfield. Sowards is going to come in motion from the top pre-snap. Lewerke fakes the handoff up the middle and tosses to Sowards. Davis takes a step or two out and then comes back around to get the pitch from Sowards on the double reverse.

The next part is where Davis really makes this play happen.

Most guys will head for the sideline on this play and use the big part of the field to turn the corner on the defense, but Davis sees the blocking and hits the hole and gets himself moving upfield full steam as quick as possible. Once he does that, it’s over.

Had he gone to the outside there would have been a defender waiting for him but instead Davis reads the blocking perfectly and runs right past everyone. Unfortunately, this play and Felton’s fantastic touchdown grab weren’t enough.