If you’re reading this, you know that Michigan State lost to Maryland 27-13 on Saturday, the Spartans’ third straight loss by double-digits.
You don't need me to tell you that Payton Thorne overthrew a number of open receivers, and that whenever coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s defense went to a spot drop zone it gave up third down after third down to quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.
You don’t need me to tell you about how Michigan State’s offensive line struggled, or about how despite some well-designed plays, the offense sputtered in the second half. All of these things were covered ad nauseam in previous articles, and I fear will bear mention in the future.
In the here and now, Michigan State tried a number of things that made sense and worked on Saturday. All losses are frustrating, and this one was at the same time eminently winnable and more of a blowout than it appeared. As I have seen no substantive evidence that MSU has a game next weekend (Right? Right??), let’s take a brief respite and focus on things that, in the future, with better talent, might be part of something special.
After watching Maryland take No. 4 Michigan to the buzzer in Ann Arbor two weekends ago, my expectations for Saturday were muted. However, on Maryland’s first offensive drive, Michigan State consistently put Maryland in disadvantageous third-and-long situations. (the fact that Maryland converted nearly all of those is none of my business).
Though Maryland converts this third and long below, that is more a function of Michigan State cornerback Ameer Speed (No. 6) not having the requisite...ahem...*speed* to hang in man coverage with Maryland wide receiver Jacob Copeland (No. 2), a Florida transfer. Here, MSU lines up in straight man coverage on Maryland’s four receivers, and shows blitz with SEVEN players. At the snap, defensive end/linebacker Jacoby Windmon (No. 4) drops to an intermediate zone, with eyes on a scrambling threat in Tagovailoa, just after safety Kendell Brooks (No. 33) bails to a deep cover-1 zone.
MSU still rushes five, with a “stunt,“ linebacker Cal Haladay (No. 27) is looping around fellow linebacker Ben VanSumeren (No. 13), who inserts into the A-gap. However, Taulia senses the pressure, climbs the pocket, and hits Copeland for a first down.
Regardless of the outcome, this play has all the elements that fans have been clamoring for: 1.) press coverage instead of cushion coverage zone, 2.) a change in coverage post-snap with multiple players dropping into zone after showing blitz, and 3.) a creative blitz, with both linebackers involved in a blitz not unlike Mark Dantonio’s famous double-A gap twist blitz. (Remember the 2013 -48 yards rushing game against Michigan? That blitz.)
The 27 points given up by Michigan State’s defense was easily MSU’s best defensive performance against a Power 5 team thus far. While the defense was ultimately soundly defeated, the defense acquitted itself better than it has in past weeks. Despite the frustrating third down conversions, Maryland was held under 50 percent on third downs (8-for-17 — is that allowed?) and only scored six points in the second half. A large part of the defense’s effectiveness was the ability to contest (if not shut down) the run from base 4-2-5 set.
In the above clip, MSU is in its base 4-2-5 defense on a third-and-short against an unbalanced formation. Maryland runs a variation of “split zone,” where the offensive line zone blocks one way, and an offensive player crosses the formation in the other direction to draw a linebacker away, or kick-out blocks. Defensive tackle Simeon Barrow (No. 8) and Windmon win their assignments and get upfield. Haladay makes a great read, and cuts into the hole left by Windmon’s penetration to make a GREAT stick short of the sticks. On a down favoring the offense, with only two linebackers on the field, MSU shows that it CAN be done in the way Hazelton wants it to be, though I have my doubts as to the long-term efficacy of this plan.
Speaking of excellent defensive line play, Michigan State had another goal-line stand. There isn't much schematically to discuss, just excellent penetration and gap integrity. MSU has players along the defensive front who, when allowed to shine, can be effective.
Below, Michigan State pulls out an interesting twist facing a third-and-6.
MSU lines up in what looks like man, with the cornerbacks rolled up in press, but is actually zone. A tip that it is zone comes when the Maryland wideout at the top of the screen motions across the formation. Watch MSU’s safeties rotate coverage pre-snap. As the Maryland player motions, the safety toward the top of the frame moves his alignment, but does not follow the motioning receiver across the formation. Instead, the other safety rolls down and runs into the flat at the start of the snap, while the first safety bails to a one-high zone.
Now, watch the MSU defenders in the flat toward the top of the screen, Haladay and Speed. Speed looks like he is lined up in man, but on the snap as the man Speed is lined up across from cuts in, he passes the Maryland player off to Haladay, while returning to the flat to make a stop short of the chains on the running back that crosses Haladay’s face. This is a tricky coverage that baited Tagovailoa into making a throw that against man coverage, would have been wide open. In man coverage, Haladay would have been covering the back, and the pick that was set on him by Maryland’s Dontay Demus Jr. (No. 7), would have sprung the back for a first down. For convenience, the play is slowed down below.
It goes without saying that 13 offensive points is unacceptable. The offense in the second half was largely ineffective, but in the first half Michigan State had a pair of effective drives. I have largely summed up offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s offense as mainly being focused on running the ball with inside and outside zone, then taking the top off the defense with play-action. You can see why this offense was a perfect fit for MSU’s offense with Kenneth Walker III, and also how MSU’s offense can struggle if the run game isn’t effectively established.
This year, a large problem has been the ineffectiveness of the run game. This neuters the play-action attack, which is the strength of Thorne’s game, while also shortening possessions and forcing the defense back on the field.
In this game, Michigan State found an effective running back in Elijah Collins, who led MSU in rushing with nearly 1,000 yards behind a similarly porous offensive line in 2019. Collins averaged over 7.0 yards a carry, showing good burst, wiggle and power. However, he was largely shelved in the second half, an event for which I could not find ready justification.
I thought Collins’ play was generally quite good, exemplified by this play below. Here, a simple inside zone run ties up the interior of Maryland’s defense, and Collins seamlessly re-gaps, jumps outside, runs through a tackle, then slides past two other defenders for a touchdown. If that can be replicated, he is MSU’s RB1 with a bullet.
I have criticized MSU’s offense for being far top dependent on deep play-action shots, but Saturday demonstrated an intermediate passing game that holds promise. While it obviously wasn’t consistent throughout the entirety of the game, the threat of a real run game allowed the play-action to be respected and effective, creating lateral movement amongst the defense and opening things up.
Here, MSU runs a “waggle,“ where there is motion and blocking to the left, and a “levels” (or “sail”) concept where wide receiver Keon Coleman (No. 0), and tight end Tyler Hunt (No. 97) momentarily block then run open against the “grain“ of the defense, which flows toward the ball.
Below, MSU works similarly on a rollout, having a wide receiver run a fade to clear out space underneath for wideout Jayden Reed to operate on an out route.
That isn't the only way Johnson schemed up Reed getting the ball in space. In a nifty play below, wide receiver Tre Mosley’s motion turns him into a play-side blocker as Reed gets a screen pass for a significant first down. Plays like these can back the defense off and supplement a run game.
Below, MSU runs the same play to the other side of the field, again to set up a touchdown, this one on an excellent route and great ball, not pictured here. Good offenses get the ball in the hands of the best players, and that is certainly what Johnson does here.
Finally, Jay Johnson found other ways to scheme the ball carrier in space. Here, he uses a two-by-two formation from the gun and has the outside receivers run a “sluggo“ route, a slant that turns into a go route. This pulls the primary flat defender, the corner, both inside and up, opens up the flat for the inside receiver (Hunt) to convert a first down on an out route. A beautifully designed play that might be more effectively run to a non-tight end.
While the rest of the game provides more of the same struggle and strife of the last few games, there were certainly bright spots. Perhaps they coalesce into something greater down the road, but it will likely not be next week against Ohio State. Buckle up.