It is kind of ironic when you examine my headspace regarding Michigan State’s coordinator situation in early October versus mid-November. Whereas my earlier columns were full of complaints about the defensive side of the ball, in recent weeks I have become more quizzical of the offensive side of the ball.
Going back to the first article I wrote on this site, a retrospective look at the 2021 Michigan-Michigan State game, I said that Jay Johnson’s offense was essentially “inside zone, outside zone and shot plays.” I have also referred to it as a “never bunt, hit dingers” philosophy, while consistently lauding him for having a handful of immaculately-schemed plays every game.
The offensive design this season is no different than last year, but everything looks worse without a veteran offensive line and a generational talent in the backfield in Kenneth Walker III. This is a good reminder that an offense can be poorly-schemed and be successful because of freakish talent (Florida State in 2013), and can be well designed but deemed “gimmicky” because it lacks the sufficient playmakers to be successful (Michigan in 2010). In Johnson’s case, when I think of the offense, I just think of *normal* “SpongeBob.”
It’s not good, it’s not necessarily bad, it just...is. Do I think it will win anything of note without literally the best running back I have seen play football in the state of Michigan in it? No. But could you do a lot worse? Yes, you could.
Facing a fourth-and-1 on the Rutgers’ 20-yard line, Johnson schemes up the Scarlet Knights pretty well here.
Faking a run to the right with zone blocking action, the wide receiver to the top of the formation, Montorie Foster Jr. (No. 83) runs behind the line of scrimmage counter to the offensive line action in an “arc” blocking pattern reminiscent of split zone. Quarterback Payton Thorne (No. 10) turns back in the direction of Foster’s motion, and tries to throw an off-balance out route to tight end Tyler Hunt (No. 97). However, RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIS EYEBALLS, tight end Maliq Carr (No. 6) runs a wide open pivot route past the sticks for a would be conversion. Oi.
In better news, a tight end was NOT missed later in the first quarter, when Johnson schemed Daniel Barker open and Thorne hit him perfectly for an easy 26-yard touchdown.
The critical element of the play comes in the two-man bunch at the bottom. Wide receiver Keon Coleman (No. 0) and Barker (No. 9) are stacked. Coleman runs a corner route, occupying the boundary corner and safety. Barker runs what looks like a three-yard slant route, but then turns up the seam when he gets behind the linebackers. Thorne puts the ball on the money, and MSU takes an early lead.
In the third quarter, if nothing else, God bless Jay Johnson for giving me easily my favorite play of the college football season. Were I charting plays, I would likely give the below play the nomenclature of:
G/T Counter L QB ZR
What that means is essentially there are two elements to the play, a guard/tackle counter scheme and a zone read.
Michigan runs stuff like this all the time to great effect, so seeing MSU pull it out for a conversion was great. Let’s break it down into elements.
G/T: This means the guard and tackle are doing something. They will be the focal points of the play. But what are they doing?
Counter L: Aha! They are blocking counter to the left. In counter, a running back takes a false step in one direction to mess with the linebackers, (or even just hesitates, exaggerated counter steps are soooo 1980s) then takes the handoff going the other way. At the snap, Berger bobs a bit, then goes to a mesh point on the left side. Because it is “counter L” the guard and tackle from the right side pull left to smash the defensive line and open up a hole to run.
QB ZR: But wait! On the backside of the play, there is a classic Zone read on the Right. (Hence QB ZR) The circled defensive end is left unblocked, and the quarterback reads him. If the end crashes toward the running back and pulling lineman action, Thorne pulls the ball and runs it (which is what happened). However if he shuffles and plays the quarterback run, it’s a handoff and the back can depend on his wall of blockers.
You can tell that the read here is “live” because the tight end “F” on the left side blocks up, instead of running “arc” motion across the formation and helping the quarterback run. Any linebacker will react to the motion of two pulling offensive lineman, so it was wide open for Thorne to pick up a key conversion.
With all that in mind, watch it again in glorious slo-mo:
Old meets new, power running scheme with the spread staple of the zone read.
Ain’t it great?
Finally, I wanted to discuss something nice that defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has done in recent weeks, which is incorporate zone blitz concepts. Zone blitzes are inherently complex because when a defense sends a blitzer in addition to the three- or four-man front, someone must expand or switch their responsibilities.
Here MSU shows a 50 front with linebacker Cal Haladay (No. 27) lined up at the bottom of the defensive line, showing blitz. At the snap, he drops out to replace a blitzing safety in Xavier Henderson (No. 3) who lines up at a linebacker spot, and for this play, functions as a backer in responsibility.
At the same time, in the middle of the defensive line, Jacob Slade (No. 64) stunts around Simeon Barrow (No. 8). Simultaneously, a nickel back (I can’t quite tell who it is, but the second defensive back from the top of the screen, possibly true freshman Malik Spencer, No. 43) blitzes at the snap and gets a hit in on Gavin Wimsatt, the Rutgers quarterback.
To cover for his blitz, the safety over top of the blitzing nickel back covers the now uncovered receiver, and the corner at the top of the screen takes the wideout across from him. In coverage at the bottom of the screen, cornerback Ronald Williams (No. 9) simply gives up too much room and the pressured Wimsatt is able to complete a pass. It looks like this, you can appreciate the seamless switching of positions that occurs in zone blitzes.
Chase, what the hell am I looking at here dude?
Good question. In the middle of the defensive line, you can see how Slade loops around another defensive tacjle (Barrow), that is the stunt described above. The dashed and dotted lines signify blitz responsibilities. The solid red line shows the nickel blitz, and the dashed red lines show the absorption of the responsibilities by the two secondary players to the boundary.
In the same vein, you can see one linebacker blitz (signified by solid green line) and be replaced by a zone in the middle of the second level by the linebacker lineup off of left edge. You can see the safety with cloud coverage (“DB” icon on the 50-yard line, on the left hash) kind of wanders backward then runs to the ball when the catch is made. I blame poor eye discipline for him leaving the “Y” tight end open, though, for what would have only been a minimal gain.
The reality that Rutgers completed a pass for a first down on this play doesn’t nullify the fact that it was an excellent play call and a well-designed play that belies complexity, soundness of assignment, and players taken to coaching despite the fact that a third of the defense is suspended.
I’m not offering a full-throated defense of either coordinators. Both have looked rather bad for much of the year. However, both Hazelton and Johnson have been coaching football for longer than I have been alive, and have forgotten more about the game than I will likely ever know. This stuff is really hard, and most of the time even the most informed observer can only guess as to what is going on. In the offseason I plan to have several multithousand word columns evaluating the holistic nature of the scheme and talking about where MSU should go in the future. However, for now, in a season where much has gone wrong, its nice to see some things go right.