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Red Zone Play Calling Remains a Mystery

The fake field goal sure was neat, too bad it probably shouldn’t have been necessary.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Alright so I was actually originally thinking of including some of this in my regular film room piece but it was running long and it is more of a tendency breakdown than specific X’s and O’s on any given few plays.

I am going to go through the drive that ended in the fake field goal touchdown play by play. The end result wiped away a lot of the ill feelings surrounding what transpired from a play calling perspective, but it really should never have come to that, or at least not the way it did. So let’s check it out.

Spartans start on their own 37-yard line after an Indiana punt.

1st and 10: Jefferson picks up four yards on first down.

2nd and 6: Toss left side to Jefferson nets four more yards.

3rd and 2: Lewerke in shotgun with Jefferson, runs the option to the near (wide) side of the field. Lewerke keeps it himself and picks up eight yards.

1st and 10: Read option play with Lewerke and Weston Bridges. Lewerke keeps it, maneuvers around some blocks and picks up eight before going into a slide and getting hit for the targeting call that tacks on 15 yards to the end of the play.

1st and 10 at IU 29 yard line: Lewerke under center double fake first to Heyward, then a look to the WR in the near flat before throwing it back to Heyward on the screen. Connor takes it up the far sideline for 16 yards and the Spartans are in the red zone.

So far the drive has gone from the MSU 37 yard line to the Indiana 13 yard line. MSU ran the ball four times before their lone pass of the drive up to this point, the screen pass off the play action.

They ran it twice in a more traditional fashion to start the drive, then mixed in a couple option plays, and then the screen. So far there has been good variety and it’s kept Indiana off balance. So now they are down to the Indiana 13 and looking to finish off the drive.

1st and 10: MSU comes out in shotgun and runs a jet sweep to Stewart for two yards.

2nd and 8: Trick play with Cody White getting the toss and then rolling out to pass and throwing it to Lewerke on the sideline for a gain of six.

3rd and 2: Lewerke is in the shotgun with one back, he brings Sowards across the formation from right to left, then they toss it to him going back the other way on ANOTHER jet sweep type play, that loses a yard and sets up fourth down.

It is this play that drew this comment today from Dantonio at his weekly press conference.

It is also this play that I would like to show you real quickly what it looked like pre-snap.

Take a look at this. Indiana has nine guys in the box there. They are single coverage with both Felton Davis and Cody White. Specifically look at Davis and the room he has out there. He can run just about any pattern he wants and will likely be able to beat his man to the ball. Wanna throw a quick slant inside? It’s there, for at least the first down, if not the TD. How about a fade to the outside? No problem, because that’s the wide side of the field, and he’s ONE ON ONE.

But instead they run it to Brandon Sowards of all people, to the SHORT SIDE OF THE FIELD WHERE ALL THE DEFENDERS ARE BUNCHED. Even if you ran that play but gave it to him here, coming across to the wide side, that play had a much higher chance of working. But no, they waited and then ran him back the other way and gave him the ball then.

Now that whole series of plays was terrible. You ran a jet sweep with Stewart after the option and traditional runs had been working fine, followed that up by having your second best red zone receiving target throwing a pass to your quarterback, and then finished with a sweep toss to a guy that three touches on the season coming in to the short side of the field when both your receivers had one on one coverage on the outside.

This is why you needed to finish the drive by running a fake field goal with your QB and kicker in an option play. Hey it worked, awesome, good thing Coghlin didn’t take a huge shot and get hurt cause then you’d be down both your starting punter and kicker.

And if this was an isolated incident, then it wouldn’t warrant this level of scrutiny, but it is not. We have all seen it time and time again. Dave Warner can literally not help himself once he gets in the red zone. He’s doing just fine calling a nice drive and then gets in his own way. I don’t know if he has some separate sheet with his special “red zone plays” on it, but if he does, someone needs to take it away from him and burn it.

The desire to try and get cute all of the sudden when things are working just fine makes no sense, and running those trick plays and boundary sweeps when the defense is bunched together in the short field is the complete opposite of when you want to run them (see Nailor jet sweep later in game).

I understand that with LJ Scott out and the offensive line issues they can’t run the ball the way they would like, especially in short yardage situations. But cmon, Brandon Sowards? That brought up memories of the tight end sweep run call against Nebraska a few years back.

The best playmakers you have on offense are Lewerke, Davis, and White. Use those guys. Stop thinking so hard and get the ball to your best players.