In a lot of ways, it felt like the 2013 Michigan vs. Michigan State game. The score was close at halftime, but the final score was reflective of the broader game state.
Tunnels, swinging helmets and narratives have largely obscured the fact that Michigan State’s defense played its best game of the season by some margin, and still gave up over 5.0 yards a carry on the ground, and lost by 22 points as the offense displayed uncharacteristic impotence.
Starting with the clear high point of the night for Michigan State fans, MSU’s offense came alive with two awesome catches by wide receiver Keon Coleman (No. 0).
One of the big bye week additions to the offense was to try to spread Michigan’s defense out with very wide splits from the receivers, outside the hashes on both the field and boundary. One side has a trio bunch of three MSU receivers with a simple screen to Tre Mosely (No. 17), with Coleman split wide alone to the field. The screen was thrown multiple times throughout the game, to little effect. In this play, quarterback Payton Thorne looks Coleman the entire way, and puts up a jump ball that allows for a terrific catch.
Michigan cornerback Gemon Green (No. 22), is known for his ability to stay in phase, but short circuits when the ball is in the air. This was the case here, as evidenced both above and in the Ricky White game in 2020. Michigan tried to have a safety come over the top in time to help, but Makari Paige (No. 7) came over too late.
After further success throwing to Coleman in the first half, Jayden Reed and Coleman received a grand total of five targets in the second half. The natural question is “why?!?!?” I think there are three likely answers.
Firstly, Michigan’s offense was able to sideline MSU’s three-and-out prone offense by grinding out long drives as the game wore on. Secondly, Thorne was under constant siege, and missed multiple throws that would have converted. Thirdly, I mentioned above that Michigan made a concerted effort to have a safety over the top of deep balls to prevent Coleman’s “mossings.” This was much more in play in the second half, as can be seen below.
This route is defeated six ways from Sunday, and MSU is fortunate it was not intercepted.
A question I was asked in comment section earlier in the season was essentially “What is our offensive identity?” It is a fair question. MSU certainly leaned into the “never bunt, hit dingers” philosophy last year, which worked with the nation’s best running back in Kenneth Walker III, a stable of capable wide receivers and a functional offensive line.
With a besieged offensive line and pedestrian backs, the same philosophy has not been maximally effective despite good receiver talent. Michigan State struggles to run the ball, and gives up pressure on too many drop backs. There isn’t enough organization on the offensive line to handle pulling action or gap schemes, which reduces the run scheme to a simple inside zone/outside zone constraint. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson implemented more motion into the offense this week, moving tight ends around to try to create matchups. Still, the X’s and O’s remained lacking, and the “Jimmies and Joes” just couldn’t stack up.
The final score could have looked a whole heck of a lot uglier, but MSU forced multiple field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone/goal-to-go situations. I think Michigan’s primary wrinkle in goal-to-go situations was to use quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s (No. 9) legs on option plays to create 11-on-11 run situations. I think, but am not sure, that MSU had this anticipated, and completely downloaded.
On each of the two below plays, watch No. 33 in the safety spot, Kendell Brooks. MSU “scrapes” on the mesh point, sending Brooks screaming down at McCarthy on run option mesh points. McCarthy can’t handle both linebacker leverage AND an unblocked safety, so the run threat is neutralized, and the field goal-fest was on.
Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton has been rightfully criticized, but this was his best game plan. Another adjustment that he did was to really limit Michigan’s passing game by keeping two safeties back on obvious passing downs.
In many situations, by not giving up outlets deep, McCarthy was either forced to check the ball down, or leave the pocket and run. This play was a functional sack. Watch McCarthy’s head as he tries to get through a progression deep, but is frustrated by the two safeties that keep a lid on the offense as McCarthy looks end zone. McCarthy wants to go to the innermost receiver, Roman Wilson (No. 14), but he is “walled off” of his route, and McCarthy had to attempt a scramble.
The downside of keeping players deep is that McCarthy was able to pick up 50 yards on the ground, including four first down conversions. Here, McCarthy gets through almost a whole progression, but can’t find an open player and must tuck the ball and move the chains.
MSU debuted a 4-3 front against run-heavy Wisconsin, and mixed it in against Michigan again. The downside of moving Jacoby Windmon (No. 4) from EDGE to a true linebacker spot is that he and Cal Haladay (No. 27) have to do true linebacker things, like *cover.* Michigan ruthlessly exploited this with tight end levels routes, and by trying to match speedy skill position players in one-on-one matchups with linebackers. There is no better example than Jacoby Windmon trying to cover Donovan Edwards, who was coveted by Ohio State as a receiver.
The appeal of a 4-3 is that it allows you to play “bigger” and stop the run. However, when you give up 276 yards rushing at over 5.0 yards a carry, one has to wonder about the transition costs of such a move. MSU was able to prevent explosive runs, but got consistently pieced for four, five and six yards at a time to keep the chains moving.
Michigan’s offensive line created consistent push, and the backs were good enough to make hay. Michigan was able to run the ball against the strength of MSU’s defense, the defensive line interior, well enough. More yards were to be had (and taken) on the edge, but running back Blake Corum’s second touchdown shows what Michigan did on the interior.
Michigan peels a tight end through the hole to seal an edge, and Michigan left guard No. 77, Trevor Keegan, absolutely mashes. By the time the linebackers can react, they are dealing with releasing Michigan blockers, and Corum is into the end zone.
Corum was delivered to the second level untouched on most runs, and when you factor in his ability to fall forward and break through contact seemingly every time...it seems a lot like the 5.0 yards per carry that Michigan averaged. So it goes.
Last year, Michigan got 146 rushing yards on 4.3 yards a carry against MSU. While that qualified as struggling for Michigan’s ground game in 2021, MSU’s win in that game obscured the fact that there were still yards to be had on the ground against MSU last year, and created unrealistic expectations about what MSU could be expected to do against Michigan’s rushing attack. In 2021, Michigan’s run game was limited, but “success” was not totally nerfing the Wolverines’ run game, it was forcing them into high-leverage third-and-long situations. Michigan still ran on over half of its first downs last year, and getting almost 150 yards of rushing is more than completely shutting a team down. This year, the dam broke a bit more, though not as much as many Michigan fans expected.
Lastly, I wanted to discuss the fourth-down stop (you know the one).
I was going to draw out an elaborate diagram showing what exactly went wrong, but its much more “meta” than simply bad assignment football (which, to be clear, it was). You simply cannot come out of a timeout and not have half of the offensive line not know the snap count.
Coleman absolutely whiffs on a linebacker at the top of the formation, and Tyler Hunt (No. 97) toward the bottom of the formation, gets his face crossed as bad as you will ever see. These two defenders meet at Jalen Berger (No. 8) in the backfield, where they are joined by the defender that Maliq Carr (No. 6) at the bottom of the formation, allows through. Lovely.
Next week, Michigan State will be down two defensive starters against another downhill running team with a salty defense. If a bowl is to be made, its gut check time for the Spartans.