I can’t help but feel like this is somewhat my fault. One week after I finally give the coordinators some flowers in this column, Michigan State comes out, out-gains an Indiana team by nearly double the total yardage, and blows a 17-point lead in a double overtime loss. Perhaps I should have seen this coming? Some people did:
Tip o’ the cap, Pom.
There are so many things that can be pointed to, including a lack of talent from the previous coaching staff, suspended players, injuries, et cetera. I frankly am not interested in hearing that, because, in year three of the Mel Tucker era, the same game management mistakes from game one against Rutgers in 2020 should not still be plaguing the team. Tucker needs to figure things out, and fast.
From a schematic standpoint, in a roughly chronological order, these are things that I thought were intriguing.
Early on in the game, Michigan State was the victim of a bad run fit on a quarterback zone run that was capped off by some truly ghastly tackling by Xavier Henderson (No. 3). So it goes.
We start off toward the end of the second half, where MSU comes out in their base two-by-one 11 personnel set. The tight end (Maliq Carr, No. 6) sets for a zone left pass block, and the routes at the bottom of the scheme are superfluous because that ball is never not going to wide receiver Keon Coleman (No. 0), who boxes out his man and makes a great play.
It’s not exactly a goal line fade, its not a hitch, its just a kind of...“Here, go get this ball vaguely thrown to your outside shoulder.” The kid is good, folks.
The bad thing about being in a 4-2-5 base defense is that your second level of defense is definitionally depleted, with only two linebackers. Indiana took advantage of this by lining up three wideouts to the wide side of the field, forcing MSU’s linebackers to spread out, functionally taking Ben VanSumeren (No. 13) out of the box.
Michigan State is left with a five-man box against a team that had less than 10 passing yards in regulation, that has an established quarterback run threat with Dexter Williams II (No. 5). This essentially puts MSU at a five-to-seven disadvantage in box players, which is absolutely unfathomable.
Michigan State has no margin for error, and when safety Kendell Brooks (No. 33) hops outside instead of staying square in the alley, MSU is gashed for a long touchdown run by Indiana running back Shaun Shivers (No. 2).
I cannot emphasize how much this cannot happen from a pre-snap perspective. Also, just downright bad safety play from Brooks, a senior who has been mostly solid this season.
In other things that I found unacceptable, I felt that there were instances from a blocking standpoint where people were asked to do things that they physically were not able to do. It is a sad fact that the tight ends, and broader offensive run surface, struggle to be plus blockers.
Indiana is a very blitzy team, so I understand that things were not going to be easy all of the time. However, when you ask tight end Daniel Barker (No. 9, trying to block Indiana’s Alfred Bryant, No. 92) to do things like this, you don’t help yourself at all.
Asking Barker to slant block a singled-up defensive end in Bryant who is lined up at least half a gap inside of him is, bluntly, absurd. At the very least, Barker’s split should have been smaller, and he shouldn’t be depended on to make such a critical block at the point of attack.
I saw a lot of consternation from the interwebs regarding Michigan State’s fourth-down play call in the mid-fourth quarter, and honestly, I can’t disagree with much anyone said.
As for the design, I just don’t really get it. Everyone is in tight, and you run wide receiver Jayden Reed (No. 1.) in motion. OK, sure. Where I get lost is sending two people down the seam, in the same area, where neither one can be open, or even one-on-one.
That’s on offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. What isn’t however, is Thorne not hitting Reed off of the motion action, when he is one-on-one with someone on the boundary. If that Indiana corner can make an open-field tackle on Reed, you tip that cap. However, it is a higher percentage play than a seam bomb to a covered man.
A different, better, fourth-down occurrence was on MSU’s final drive of regulation. While it is just a three-man route, having a matchup nightmare like Maliq Carr running a leverage win out-route against an undersized cornerback is an ontologically better concept than the above play. It is easy, it’s a quick read, it is to the short side of the field, and it gets the necessary yardage to get the first down.
Regarding the third-down play at the end of regulation, I have developed an operative theory. The run is clearly blocked to the right, but running back Elijah Collins (No. 24) cuts it left for a loss, and the kick from the left hash misses.
When I first saw Tucker state after the game that the Spartans were trying for a touchdown in regulation, I didn’t believe him. However, watching it again, (and again, and again, and again), the play is a split zone going right. There is a kick out left, a wide receiver crack block on an end, and another tight end releasing to the force player on the high right side. This is 100 percent meant for Collins to follow his blockers to the right to get into the end zone.
Watching it again, you can see that Collins only cuts back when left tackle Brandon Baldwin (No. 53) gets beaten and Collins has no further path to the right.
This is deeply unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s an instance of Collins going rouge.
In overtime, MSU pulled out a nice G/T counter, which I discussed at length last week.
Some excellent running from Collins here, he will be sorely missed if he does not return for his final year of eligibility in 2023.
Surprisingly, I didn’t have any notes on the play that set up the Indiana score in overtime. Henderson, a true team leader, needs to get over that ball faster, and he didn’t, and he has now played his last game at Spartan Stadium. It is what it is, and for the Spartans, it’s a shame.
I similarly had no notes on MSU’s final play, but I liked the design of the Spartans’ second down play on the same series. A trio bunch up top singles out Barker at the bottom. I like using a split out tight end when they are a matchup problem.
Barker is one of the closest things MSU has to that, so he was used split out as a wide receiver the same way Brock Bowers is with Georgia, Erick All was at Michigan, and Rob Gronkowski was with the New England Patriots. It could be argued that Coleman should have been in his spot, and I would entertain that if I didn’t think it would result in either Indiana calling a timeout and changing its defensive play call, or an automatic double team.
The throw is a bit off and Barker doesn’t quite have the athleticism to get the separation necessary, but it is a good play design.
This game was a gut punch for Michigan State, and we will see what the Spartans bring in their possible season finale next week.