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Film Room: Northwestern

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The Spartans played well on both sides of the ball en route to the upset win over undefeated Northwestern.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was unexpected. Coming off a COVID created bye week, the Spartans found some new life on both sides of the ball and came up with a big time upset of top-10 and previously undefeated Northwestern. It was reminiscent of the Michigan game in not only that the Spartans got the win, but also that it was a much more complete game. It started with the defense and the offense was able to do enough to win. Let’s take a look.

Fourth Down Stops

Northwestern was uncharacteristically aggressive early in the game going for it on multiple fourth downs. The Spartans were able to make some stops and gain instant momentum.

Here is the first one which came on fourth-and-one from the MSU 18-yard-line.

There is nothing complicated about what Northwestern is trying to do here. They are going to line up, and try and run it right into the middle of the MSU defense. The problem for them is the two guys in the yellow circle, get completely owned by the MSU lineman across from them. That frees up Antjuan Simmons (red arrow) to come through untouched and make the play.

Having your center end up on his knees two yards behind the line of scrimmage is not a great recipe for success in short yardage situations. Simmons comes in free and makes a perfect tackle to spin Isaiah Bowser down short of the line. Winning the point of attack wins the play, and doing it consistently wins you the game.

The second fourth down stop worked out even better for Michigan State.

On fourth-and-four Northwestern goes four wide receivers, with three to the top side and one to the bottom, along with one back in the backfield. Peyton Ramsey is going to single in on the bottom because it is single coverage. Shakur Brown is playing press coverage right at the line, and his physicality wins the play. The receiver is going to run a five-yard inside curl it looks like, but that isn’t where the ball goes.

Brown bumps him at the line and stays with him into his route. In an attempt to get free, the receiver ducks down and comes inside. The ball is thrown to the outside, where Brown is, and it is too easy. Brown picks it off and takes it the other way deep into MSU territory to set up a field goal and a 10-0 lead. Initially the refs threw a flag, but they picked it up. There was some contact, but it was mostly hand fighting early in the route within five yards of the line.

Rocky’s Good Throws

It was certainly a mixed bag in the game overall for Rocky Lombardi, with some really ugly throws mixed in with some beautiful ones. There were two perfect tosses that helped stake the Spartans to a big lead early, and those are the two we will look at right here.

This was actually the second of the two, but it was much more of a touch pass than the bomb earlier in the game. Here it is third down and MSU is in danger of turning a long sustained drive into a field goal instead of a touchdown.

MSU spreads it out with three wide outs. Reed (yellow) is in the slot, with another receiver to the outside of him (out of screen) up top. MSU brings the tight end in motion to that side of the field as well and gets Reed matched up in single coverage in the slot. As the red circle shows, there is a lot of space on that side to work in.

Rocky drops a couple steps and throws a perfect ball to a spot and Reed runs under it for the touchdown. Once again an example of the MSU player winning their one-on-one battle.

Here is the first touchdown. There is nothing to break down really here, I just wanted to watch it a few times. Nailor beats the defenders just by being faster than them, and Rocky with an absolute beauty of a throw, hits him in stride. Bye bye. Six points.

Northwestern Bootleg TD

Thought it was worth tossing in a negative here just to try and keep things even. This was a fourth down touchdown play for Northwestern on the opening drive of the second half. The Spartans had stopped the Cats at the goal line on a quarterback sneak dive on the previous play, so they decide not to test that again on fourth down.

There is nothing complicated about this play either, but it is a good one in many goal-to-go situations. Northwestern is in a tight formation. They bring the tight end across the formation and empty out the near side. They have two deep backs in the I-formation.

Ramsey is going to fake the handoff to the deep back, and roll out to his right on the naked bootleg. Someone has to take that option away, and it falls on the safety Michael Dowell (red) to do so.

That is not what happens, as Dowell crashes down into the line and shoves at the pile from the side. Meanwhile, Ramsey is untouched into the endzone for the score.

This falls to Dowell instead of the linebacker because the linebackers are crashing the hole in the middle where the play fake is going. With no one to cover right there, Dowell needs to keep contain to the bottom, but he buys the fake like everyone else.

It’s a good play design and was executed well, but because it is a naked bootleg, if Dowell stays home, he’s got a chace to stick Ramsey short of the goal line.

Well that’s it for this week. A big win and a good game for MSU. Who knows if they play this week, so we might have another bye to prep for the big Land Grant Trophy showdown to end the year. We will just have to wait and see.