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Film Room: Michigan State vs. Illinois

How ‘bout them Fightin’ Bret Bielemas?

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

On the road, backs against the wall, down a third of your starting defense against a team that was one complete ref-jobbing against Indiana from being undefeated and top-10 in the problem, right?

In one of the gutsiest performances I can recall, Michigan State proved a lot of people wrong in defeating the No. 16-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini. It is clear that Illinois was probably overrated and had a favorable schedule, but 7-1 is 7-1! Bringing a salty, in-your-face defense and a punishing rushing attack, Illinois was stymied all afternoon by Mel Tucker’s merry band of chopping woodsmen.

Upon rewatch, something that stood out to me was not necessarily the X’s and O’s (though we will get to that), but the technique with which some of MSU’s players played. It is not enough to simply be schemed into the right places by intelligent and prescient coaches, one must respond to coaching and play with correct pad level, leverage and eye placement, among other things.

A terrific example of superlative technique comes in the third quarter. Watch Michigan State’s Simeon Barrow (No. 8, looks like No. 2), the first defensive tackle down from the top of the frame.

Now watch it slower:

For a defensive lineman, some of the most important elements of technique are pad level, hand placement and gap integrity. Barrow displays all three above. First, he comes off of the ball low enough to absorb the initial contact from the offensive guard. Though he gets rocked back a bit, his hand placement is exceptional. By contacting the guard violently inside the shoulders with his extended hands, he can keep the guard at arm’s length, and “rip” to the inside gap that he is responsible for, tackling the running back for no gain. It is excellent defensive line play, one of my favorite things to watch in football.

Staying in the trenches, something Illinois did, which I enjoyed watching from a schematic point of view, was a dizzying array of whams and traps. A trap is where a player is deliberately left unblocked so that he gets too far upfield, just in time to get hit from the side by a cross-formation puller, taking him out of the play.

The victim here is MSU defensive tackle Jalen Hunt (No. 99), who sees open grass and sprints into the backfield. Watch the tight end at the top of the formation, who crosses the formation and rides Hunt out of the play. It is well-coached football, evocative of Bret Bielema’s days at Wisconsin, a power-running gap team.

Also, nice stick by safety Kendell Brooks (No. 33). He plays with violence.

Illinois did a very “college football wackiness” play on its two-point conversion that bears mentioning. The Illini motion out their running back to a quads set to the top of the field, and the receivers at the top of the quad set bluff block. This leads MSU’s players to activate to the boundary, as they follow Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito’s eyes (and pump fake) and think screen. As previous opponent Michigan has run a motion-quads set multiple times this year, MSU has surely seen this on film.

However, after the pump fake, an Illinois tight end bends his stalk block into a route for an easy conversion. This is the type of thing that would never fly in the NFL, but is effective enough in collegiate ball.

Rounding out the defensive discussion is the fact that Michigan State is THE BEST TEAM IN THE COUNTRY AT GOAL-LINE STANDS. As shown early in the season, MSU has big, physical players who play well against undisguised runs at the goal line (as seen against Washington and Minnesota). To counteract this, opposing offensive coordinators have sometimes gotten too cute, and hurt themselves. Michigan tried to option off people with a quarterback run game, while Illinois tried to run pitch options, all to no success. On fourth down early, MSU stood firm once again.

Illinois’ big adjustment here is a zipper motion, where an outside wide receiver motions in, then reverses back to the outside. This can be clearly seen at the bottom of the clip. The idea here is to either get cornerback Ameer Speed (No. 6) to bite way too hard on the motion and give up outside leverage, or to have him hang back and give up the curl route below the first “L” in the end zone. Speed splits the difference between the two perfectly, and terrific edge pressure forces a poor throw. Scheme plus technique equals a turnover on downs.

On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan State displayed a lot of unbalanced formations.

Above, Michigan State puts all their receivers to one side of the formation. Against Illinois’ defense, which is an aggressive, blitzy man-to-man scheme with one safety deep, this forces the defense to be aligned to Michigan State’s strength. This enables MSU to run effectively to the other direction (known as running “to the weak side” or “away from the strength”), provided the initial blocking is solid. It is, and it results in six points for MSU. Running back Jarek Broussard (No. 3), how are ya? It’s been a while.

As Illinois runs a very aggressive Don Brown-esque defense, the Illini are vulnerable to misdirection and screens. MSU displayed both here, with a beautiful screen to Broussard.

Firstly, wide receiver Jayden Reed (No. 1 at the bottom) motions across the formation, pulling a man with him. Then, the right side of the offensive line offers enough resistance to allow Payton Thorne (No. 10) to throw to Broussard, who comes across the formation opposite Reed, who adroitly follows his blockers for a big gain.

Below, MSU comes out for a huge fourth down in the Spartans’ standard set, 11 personnel with a two-by-one, three-receiver set, and a strong side tight end.

At the bottom of the screen, the tight end (Maliq Carr, No. 6) pass blocks, and there is a standard route combo of a fade route outside of an out route. If that looks familiar, it should, because Michigan State also ran the exact play from the same set, from the same place on the field for a touchdown in this game. In this play, however, the magic happens to the top of the screen, where Reed is covered man on man. As Illinois runs a cover-1 defense, when Reed runs a crossing route, that area of the field is vacated until the safety rotates over. As Reed leaves, he is replaced by running back Jalen Berger (No. 8), who leaks into the flat, catches a timely ball and holds on through contact.

Michigan State uses the threat of Reed in motion frequently, running a counter to Berger as Reed drags a defender across the formation. Again, Illinois is a victim of its tendencies as the Illini players devoted to man coverage are slow to come off and react to the counter action.

Lastly, Michigan State scored a touchdown by using the mother of all cover-1 man beaters: mesh. Given how high I have been on the receiving talent of MSU’s tight ends and the athleticism of the wide receivers, mesh makes sense here.

Essentially a pair of rubbing crossing routes from the inside receivers with any conceivable combination of actions by the outside receivers and running back, it forces man defenders to stay in phase for an impossibly long period of time, while dodging their own teammates as they try to run with a long crossing route.

Above, you can plainly see that wide receivers Keon Coleman (No. 0) and Tre Mosley (No. 17) are the crossers. Mosley’s defender can’t stay with him for as long as the route takes, and it is an easy pitch and catch. Also, Mosley has a very good release against physical man coverage that merits mention.

This was a gritty win that puts Michigan State solidly on the track for bowl eligibility, and it will be interesting to see how the team grows in the last quarter of the season.