Ohio State dominated Michigan State on Saturday.
It started off better than I think most expected. With the score sitting at 21-13 more than halfway through the second quarter, my eyebrow started to raise. However, A Series Of Events occurred, and the final score looked a lot more like what I expected it to be.
Chronologically, Michigan State hung tough in the beginning. After Ohio State’s opening touchdown, in which the Spartans displayed a variety of defensive looks of equal ineffectiveness, MSU’s Charles Brantley (No. 0) ran an intercepted pass back for a touchdown.
I was hopeful that a closer watch would display some sort of schematic trickery that fooled Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. Unfortunately, none was forthcoming.
Watch Brantley above: as soon as the ball is snapped, he plays a “half turn,“ opening his left hip and giving ground while keeping his eyes on Stroud. This is classic cushion coverage when safety help is minimal (as Jaden Mangham, No. 1, is shaded to the middle, it certainly looks like Brantley is bailing to a deep third or quarter). Because Brantley’s eyes are on Stroud, he sits on the hitch route as No. 2 Emeka Egbuka, the OSU receiver, continues down the field.
I am reasonably certain this mistake is on Stroud, as Egbuka converts to a fade route, which receivers are usually taught to do when they see press coverage. As Stroud threw a hitch directly to Brantley, the wires were obviously crossed.
After various Ohio State offensive events, MSU’s answered with its first offensive touchdown.
But Chase, that’s not—
Ah yes. Here we are:
That seemed intentional.
It was. I have well-documented issues with the totality of MSU’s offensive architecture. I have variously described it as “the oops, all big plays offense” and “inside zone, outside zone, play-action, then punt offense.” I generally stand by that, as well into the latter period of the game MSU was being out-gained essentially 5:1. However, as he is wont to do, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson had a couple of gems mixed in with the rest of the offensive selection.
MSU here is in its base set, 11 personnel, with the tight end offset in the “H” spot to the strength of the formation.
Sometimes, an offensive coordinator can’t scheme a player wide-open. Sometimes, the best that can be done is to scheme a player in a one-on-one scenario and give them the opportunity to make a play.
Ohio State does this above on their first score by running four verticals, which can be deadly to a cover-3 or quarters concept, which is what MSU runs. While four verts doesn’t guarantee an open player, it does guarantee that at least one player will be in a one-on-one situation. In OSU’s case, it is then just a matter of Marvin Harrison Jr. (No. 18) making an outstanding play.
For Michigan State’s touchdown, the Spartans only send three receivers downfield, but use a variation of the “divide” route concept to get Jayden Reed (No. 1) in a one-on-one situation.
Watch the the two MSU receivers at the bottom of the screen. Reed runs vertical, while Tre Mosely (No. 17) breaks off his route at 15 yards. The “divide” concept normally runs the inside receiver toward the middle of the field, forcing the safety to cover one player or the other, leaving one player mano a mano. Like Harrison Jr., Reed made a tremendous individual play for a touchdown in the same corner of the end zone. Mosely’s presence makes OSU’s safety late in getting over to Reed, to the extent that the alignment even allowed it.
Michigan State struggled to stop Ohio State offensively for long periods of the game. In the run game, MSU’s depth showed its inexperience. I am still relatively unworried about the run defense in the long term. Young players shoot upfield, get out of position, and lose gap integrity. TreVeyon Henderson and OSU’s stable of running backs will make you pay for that, but it looks different with any or some of MSU’s walking wounded back in.
In the passing game, it's a different story. MSU rolled up its cornerbacks, dropped players back, rotated and switched coverages. The brain trust displayed the intellectual flexibility desired. However, it didn’t work for reasons related to execution and implementation.
Here, Michigan State brings a nickel blitz with Angelo Grose (No. 15) and has one high safety, but Brantley just simply cannot match Harrison Jr.’s athleticism, and he punches in a dispositive score on the post pattern.
Below, MSU bluffed the interior blitz, with Mangham being responsible for the second receiver in from the sideline, who runs a slot fade. Obviously, Mangham does not rotate over, as he is too concentrated on taking away the middle of the field.
This is extremely frustrating, as taking away the middle of the field with a rotating safety is common in blitz schemes. The line and linebackers do their job, and the cornerback and nickel corner execute a good robber coverage scheme, hoping to bait a pick. Assuming neither of the corners are supposed to run with the deep releasing slot receiver (in most defenses that would be the safety’s responsibility), youth and inexperience is the most likely culprit here.
Playing defense is hard, especially as a young player. As Michigan State diversifies its scheme and adds new blitzes, players’ responsibilities are changing on a down-to-down basis. I feel for Magham here, but he commits the cardinal sin of a safety by getting beaten deep. Of course, the most important thing with Mangham is that he is OK after being carted off of the field during the first quarter of the game.
Wisconsin will not pose the same aerial threat. If Michigan State gets healthy at all with its defensive front, the quest for a bowl game may be back on. If not, MSU will see (hopefully fewer) mistakes like this next season without the benefit of 15 extra bowl practices.