This wasn't the season I was expecting. Going into the year, I figured I would be writing this staring down the barrel of two truly toxic weeks on the internet, in preparation for a two-loss Michigan State team’s visit to a one-loss Michigan team to determine who would be in the driver’s seat for third in the Big Ten East.
This is not the reality in which we live.
In our timeline, Michigan State revived its hopes for bowl eligibility with a 34-28 double-overtime victory over a Wisconsin team that is fresh off of firing its head coach. It was a back-and-forth affair in which MSU took punches, gave them right back, knocked a ball out, then posterized a truly shocking number of Wisconsin defensive backs for a homecoming win.
Let's talk about it!
The first thing worth discussing is Michigan State’s pass defense, which was excellent statistically, giving up 131 passing yards on 24 attempts for a meager 5.5 yards an attempt, holding Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to a truly abysmal quarterback rating of 36.1. For comparison, in MSU’s other Power Five games, the opposing quarterback ratings were: 88.0, 96.7, 88.4, and 98.0. One of these is not like the other. I personally think that Mertz is a disastrous football player, but this was his second-lowest passing output of the season.
It is certainly reasonable to be optimistic about the direction of the defense, particularly as the Spartans get more healthy out of the bye week (safety Xavier Henderson and defensive tackle Jacob Slade returned against Wisconsin), but my gut tells me that the truly exemplary performance turned in by the MSU secondary this weekend was more the result of modest improvement paired with opponent-based variance. Time will tell.
Looking at Wisconsin’s two touchdown passes, in overtime a man-coverage-beater crossing pattern from a slot receiver caught MSU in a one-high man look (defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has been really good about expanding from spot drop zone) and Chimere Dike, Wisconsin’s best receiver, is simply faster than Michigan State nickel back Angelo Grose.
The first touchdown is more concerning. An epithet you hear often about zone teams is that someone is “covering grass,“ or dropping to a spot on the field with no regard for their contextual surroundings, instead of covering the players that come within their zone.
Take a look at Michigan State cornerback Ameer Speed (No. 6) at the top of the screen.
I mean, yikes, dude.
It’s easy enough to understand what’s happening. Speed’s eye discipline is awful, it is drawn to Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen (No. 0), who is clearly being covered by safety Dillon Tatum (No. 21).
This is a levels concept, a high-low read that MSU used to great effect against Western Michigan. While it is understandable why Speed wouldn’t want to let a man cross his face for a touchdown, it is emphatically not his job to worry about Allen. Unless MSU is unveiling a two-trap coverage in the fourth quarter of the Spartans’ sixth game, (they aren’t) a scenario does not exist where Speed should let ANYONE behind him, as MSU is backed up against its own goal line, and no safety help exists over the top. MSU’s coverage and scheme has been an issue all year, but this is a mistake that cannot be made.
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, MSU did a number of interesting things with one of the unit’s best pieces, linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon. Windmon had a monster game, racking up 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.
MSU brought Windmon (No. 4) as a rusher on passing downs, but also allowed him to display his versatility by utilizing him as a true EDGE defender. His background as a linebacker is on display in this play below. Here, Michael Fletcher (No. 5) lines up opposite Aaron Brule (No. 7), as a defensive end and Windmon bumps to a true linebacker spot. Carrying a tight end up the seam in the 4-2-5 set, he makes a great play on a ball that is just slightly behind the intended receiver.
From a scheme perspective, it is interesting that he ran with the tight end instead of dropping to a zone. To me, that would indicate some sort of man two-high look. It’s an incredible credit to Windmon’s athleticism if Michigan State is comfortable letting its sack leader, who frequently lines up as a defensive end, play true man coverage in high leverage situations.
This next play is one of my favorites from the game. Coming out of the half, Michigan State runs a corner blitz that sets Wisconsin way behind the sticks and helps nerf a drive. Looking closely at cornerback Charles Brantley (No. 0) at the top of the screen, this is NOT a designed corner blitz, where there is a safety rotating over to cover whoever the cornerback is abandoning. Rather, Brantley has a key to read in the EMLOS (end man on the line of scrimmage), a Wisconsin tight end. When the tight end shows pass block, Brantley activates downhill and displays excellent acceleration to get to Mertz in the backfield.
I have heard this called a “dog green” blitz, where a player has the option (or eponymous green light) to blitz if his key shows pass block. This is risky — Michigan beat Nebraska last year by converting a shocking number of third downs by having its tight ends “delay” or show block, then release into a pass pattern. Be on the lookout for that in two weeks. From the MSU perspective, however, this displays a LOT of what Hazelton has gotten criticized for. Scheme complexity? Utilizing players’ strengths? Creativity? It’s all on display here.
Something else I really wanted to zero in on was Michigan State’s use of play sequencing in zone/split zone series on offense. It starts with zone blocking, MSU’s base run play, where the entire offensive line blocks either one gap left or right. You have seen this a million times, remember?
Who could forget.
The next wrinkle off of this is “split zone,” where everyone blocks to one side or the other, save a “kick-out” player that crosses the formation and whacks an unblocked end. You will see this time and time again from Michigan in two weeks, it is one of the Wolverines’ base run plays. Watch the Michigan tight end here cross the formation in the opposite direction of the blocking and hit the EMLOS.
Michigan State takes this and makes it better by running split zone with jet action. Above, wide receiver Germie Bernard (No. 5) crosses the formation in jet motion, then immediately there is a split zone action with wide receiver Keon Coleman (No. 0) crossing the formation the OTHER way and sticking a kick-out block that running back Berger (No. 8) runs off of.
Are you confused? So was the Wisconsin defense! Thats a lot of lateral movement to keep up with, and by the time you have it figured out, Berger is pushing downfield.
MSU actually adds yet another wrinkle on the play above and below with a concept called “windback.” This is where the running back takes a counter step, a false step in the opposite direction he intends to go, and runs off the backside of the zone blocking, the opposite direction of the way the line is blocking. This designed cutback off of zone blocking yielded a first drive above, and a touchdown below.
But wait! There’s more!
It didn’t work, but offensive coordinator Jay Johnson put yet ANOTHER wrinkle in this package by running “split flow,” which is where the kick-out blocker, Coleman, becomes a receiver by running past his blocking target into the flat. It's another creative way to get the ball to your playmakers in space, and it also is preceded by the jet action referenced previously.
I think it is important to see how play sequencing works. Every coordinator at the college level is working absolutely ungodly hours, trying to get a competitive advantage. Many times, when you see a play that seems off the wall, or ineffective, it is working to either break a tendency that the offensive coordinator knows they have displayed, or it is setting something up for later in the game or season.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m not in favor of fitting the archetype of “guy on Twitter who is an assistant junior varsity high school football OC and contends that coaches can do no wrong, ever,” but I do strongly feel that there is a LOT more going on schematically than meets the eye in most cases. And that Keon Coleman is good.
Speaking of Coleman, did he do anything else of note this game?
Indeed, he did.
Keon Coleman is an unbelievable athlete, and did various Keon Coleman things on Saturday. However, most of his plays, and the Jayden Reed deep shots, were not at all schematically complex. Virtually all were three- or four-wide sets that featured fades on the outside, a sit route in the middle, and a jaw-dropping play on a 50/50 ball by a MSU receiver.
So let's see it.
The plays. You were going to show them?
I actually wasn’t, you’ve seen them 10,000 times.
But you’ll still show us them?
This isn’t complex, but hot damn is it pretty. A Simple fade route, back shoulder ball, physical catch and a touchdown for MSU.
Again, nothing fancy, but a great ball and a great catch for the game-winning touchdown by Reed. Quarterback Payton Thorne played a very good game, and executed very well. This is a fantastic throw.
I liked that Michigan State displayed more four-wide sets than I was used to seeing in this game. This spreads the secondary out more, and gives the quarterback a better idea of what coverages he is looking at. It's a valuable tool to have in the offensive toolbox.
I would love to see the all-22 on this route combination because I cannot really tell what concept is being used, but I CAN tell that it was an outstanding, decisive throw through traffic on a third down deep in MSU territory. Noah Kim can wait if Thorne keeps this up. It's what you want to see from him at this point in the season, I was very impressed.
I have consistently held that a strength of Thorne’s game is his performance in the play-action game. The first throw here is an excellent cover-2 hole shot that he throws off platform while being flushed from the pocket and going through a progression. This is veteran stuff.
The second throw is one of the biggest of the game, a shot to tight end Maliq Carr. Notice how Carr (No. 6) converts his crossing route to a seam pattern. I can’t tell if this was designed to be an in-and-up, or if it was an option conversion, but either way, it is pretty.
Thorne puts the ball on the money as the defense respects the play-action because of the frequency with which Michigan State runs the ball. Though MSU did not have a good day on the ground on Saturday, it is important to still run the ball enough to have your play-action game be respected.
All told, it was a gritty win to be proud of. I still think the offensive line is struggling, and that the run game is middling even with Elijah Collins coming on strong. The defense has taken a step forward, but got run on more than I would like. MSU has two weeks to get in the best place it can for Michigan, the biggest game of the Spartans’ year.
Next week I will take a look at the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry, and try to prognosticate what Michigan may do, and how MSU can attack them.
If there is anything else in particular you want me to look at, or any questions you have about scheme/strategy etc, leave a comment below and I can do a mailbag of sorts in the article next week.