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Film Room: Michigan State vs. Penn State

Payton Thorne looked the part, at least for a half, while the defense continues to struggle with running quarterbacks.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Well it was a fun first half wasn’t it? So far we are up to two and a half games where MSU looked like they were a real football team. Let’s see if we can’t make it another whole game next week. As for this week’s game, let’s take a look.

Sean Clifford TD Run

The Spartans struggled against the quarterback run for most of the game, which was concerning because that is a known part of Penn State’s offensive game plan. Will Levis has had over 15 carries in four of the last five games now, and Sean Clifford came in as the team’s second leading rusher.

Despite that, Levis was successful in picking up several first downs in shorter yardage situations, and Clifford broke one for a touchdown. This was the second straight game where quarterbacks ran for big yards against MSU’s defense.

This play was another third down designed quarterback run, however this time it was with Clifford so you had to at least respect the possibility of a pass.

This play is a mess from the MSU defensive scheme. Clifford basically is going to take it right up the middle and somehow there is no one there.

The running back (yellow) flares out to the right and is followed by Noah Harvey (yellow). That already opens things up. The left guard (red) pulls to the other side of the line and gets out in front and puts a block on Antjuan Simmons (red). Penn State has now taken out the second line of defense with a single pulling lineman.

The final nail in the defense’s coffin is that the safety (orange) creeps down before the snap, overplays the running back route, and is out of position to take a good angle to fill the gap where Clifford runs.

You can see how this plays out, with both the linebacker Harvey and the safety heading straight for the running back and vacating the middle of the field. Clifford slips through the line and he’s gone for a 30-plus yard untouched QB run touchdown.

It’s a combination of bad execution and recognition, as well as bad scheme. Dropping the single deep safety down and leaving the middle of the field wide open is almost always going to result in a big play if the offense executes at all.

We continue to see weekly examples of big runs against the MSU defense because of either missed gap assignments, or just not having the right personnel to fill the gaps. I remain unconvinced that the 4-2-5 base can work throughout a Big Ten schedule.

Payton Thorne

Michigan State did a lot of good stuff with Payton Thorne, at least in the first half, and it showed off what he can do. The Spartans also ran the ball effectively enough to open things up with play action, which was used on the first touchdown strike to Jalen Nailor.

Here we see a third down conversion that uses several elements that can make Thorne successful.

A simple little play here that works as well as you can hope. Thorne is going to play action fake and roll out. He’s shown to be pretty accurate so far on the bootlegs, and I hope we see a lot more of that to get him out of the pocket, especially with a suspect offensive line.

The receiver on the left side (red) is going to go and sit down underneath just on the other side of the first down line, drawing the attention of the corner and safety on that side. The near side receiver is going to go deep and clear out the middle of the field for the tight end coming across.

The result is a wide open Matt Dotson and an easy pitch and catch for a first down and then some.

This is the kind of well designed, easy to read and execute play that we need more of.

And then there are plays like this one, that comes two plays later. This design isn’t bad, using multiple fakes to try and draw in the back end of the defense, but it certainly doesn’t create a wide open play, although it does allow the receiver to get just enough of a step. Despite all that, Thorne takes the shot and throws an absolutely perfect ball to Tre’Von Morgan, who comes down with it in triple coverage.

Just a beautiful throw and an even better catch. The lesson here is that sometimes it doesn’t matter how you scheme things up on either side of the ball. Sometimes players just need to make plays and win battles. Thorne and Morgan made the play here and despite good coverage, it’s a touchdown for MSU.

There was a lot of good from Thorne in the first half, and that is what Michigan State needs to take away from this game. In the second half, Penn State adjusted on both sides of the ball and MSU did not. That needs to improve going forwards as well. The coaching staff needs to be able to adjust and re-adjust within a game. Hopefully they will get there, but as for everything else about this year, it has been really uneven.

One more game left against Maryland and it is a winnable one. Let’s see what the Spartans learned from this one to take forward.