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Film Room: Michigan vs. Michigan State — Anatomy of a Comeback

How Michigan State triumphed in an instant classic.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the weeks and months following Michigan State’s comeback win over Michigan in 2021, the game (or rather, Michigan’s loss) has been consistently justified and rationalized by the national college football media as an amalgamation of dumb luck and referee assistance. However, this reductionist narrative obscures the critically important point that Michigan State’s win over Michigan had as much to do with the tangibles of scheme and game-planning as it did the more nebulous elements of grit and individual effort. As MSU looks to the coming post-Kenneth Walker III era, much can be learned about how the Spartans will adjust by looking to the past.

In particular, three key plays from Michigan State’s comeback last year shows how MSU beat Michigan in multiple phases of the game, whether with the arm of a then-unheralded quarterback, the legs of a patchwork offensive line or, finally, with the hands of a much-maligned secondary.

While the level of schematic advancement that MSU showed may be overlooked in the broader college football media, it portends good things for Mel Tucker’s regime going forward, no matter the personnel. As the program fills with more high-end talent and less Mark Dantonio holdovers, the principles displayed in the 2021 Michigan game will become only more effective.

Context: Know Thy Enemy

Michigan came into the Michigan State game knowing that the offense ran primarily through Walker. To counter this, the Wolverines brought a novel approach that was present in both of the offensive clips we will look at. Michigan came out in five-man and six-man fronts on the majority of plays, hoping to both create enough confusion at the point of attack that Walker could be stopped for minimal gains, and to create one-on-one matchups for its edge rushers to get in the backfield.

Michigan State’s initial answer to this was to not overcomplicate things by trying to devise a scheme to block each of the myriad of players that could appear in any gap. Rather, MSU leaned on something it used to great effect all season: zone blocking.

When an offensive line zone blocks, the only job the offensive linemen have is to block the next play-side defender. For example, if a run play is designed to go to the left, and the center has a defensive tackle lined up in the gap to his left, that’s who he blocks. However, if the offensive guard to the right of the center doesn’t have anyone lined up across from him to the play-side, he will “climb” to the second level and try to block a linebacker. To make it simpler, this is what the above situation would look like:

In practice, zone blocking looks like everyone on the offensive line is “sliding” one way or another en masse. It is a simple but effective scheme. However, what MSU did to modify the zone blocking action in key situations shows excellent schematic flexibility, and should allay any fears about the ability of the staff to adjust to a Walker-less offense going forward.

Additionally, MSU came in with the 4-2-5 defense that defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton ran in almost every game in 2021. While it certainly ceded yards to Michigan’s offense, it forced multiple field goals in the red zone, and iced the game when it mattered most.

Let’s break down a few keys plays from the Spartans’ come-from-behind victory over the Wolverines on Oct. 30, 2021.

Key Play No. 1: Fourth-down strike to Jalen Nailor

Halfway through the second quarter, MSU trailed by a possession and faced a fourth-down-and-1 near midfield. Electing to keep the offense on the field, MSU picked up a huge chunk play that led to a go-ahead touchdown.

Looking at the defense pre-snap, you can quickly notice a couple of things. See how Michigan is playing extremely close to the line of scrimmage, with a defender in almost every gap, with no safety help against the pass. This is indicative of both the down and distance, and the healthy respect that Michigan has for the run.

Knowing that Michigan is thinking a run is coming, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson does two things to start this play. Firstly, he does an “orbit” motion, swinging Reed behind the formation and into space on the left side of Payton Thorne. This both gives Thorne a safe target to throw to, and shows the offense that Michigan is playing man when DJ Turner (No. 5 for Michigan) mirrors Reed’s motion. Secondly, he has Thorne fake a handoff to Walker.

Because Michigan is thinking run, the fake handoff freezes Michigan’s defensive backs and linebackers momentarily. This gives Walker and Connor Heyward (who comes screaming across the formation from his spot behind tight end Tyler Hunt) enough time to engage with the defensive end and linebacker lined up on the left side of the offensive line. The rest of the offensive line responds to the mess of winged helmets at the line of scrimmage by zone blocking to the right, drawing most of the defensive front along with them.

This isolates Jalen Nailor with Gemon Green, No. 22 for Michigan, at the top of the screen. Again playing on Michigan’s expectation of the run, he engages with the cornerback for a couple of moments. This is enough to get the corner’s eyes in the backfield, trying to find the running back, as Green has the job in run support to set the edge against a run.

This gives Nailor the opportunity to disengage from his fake block and run wide open over the middle of the field for a massive catch and first down gain. The only Michigan defender who doesn’t immediately sell out against the run is Daxton Hill (No. 30), who eventually makes a shoestring tackle. It looks something like this:

This play not only set up a huge touchdown for MSU, it showed the staff’s ability to modify its game plan during the course of the game. In the first quarter, Walker probably gets a handoff behind zone blocking to the right. Maybe it gets the yard necessary, maybe it doesn’t. However, by playing off of their own already established tendencies, Johnson thoroughly fooled Michigan for a huge gain — and not for the last time.

Key Play No. 2: Walker’s fifth Touchdown

With five minutes left in the game, Walker had already put on a MONSTER game, but wasn’t finished. Having just gotten a critical turnover and needing one more score, Johnson again played off of the zone blocking scheme to put the ball in the hands of his best player and give him options in the run game.

In this play, Johnson starts with both a tight end/H-back (Heyward) on the line of scrimmage to counteract the five defensive linemen Michigan has on the line of scrimmage. With Michigan only having one linebacker in the game, Johnson knows that if he can deliver Walker past the line of scrimmage, he is as good as gone.

To achieve this, Johnson actually has three options on this play. Most of the offensive line zone blocks left, leaving the backside defensive end (David Ojabo, No. 55) unblocked. Thorne takes the snap and reads this defensive end. Since Ojabo shuffles and doesn’t immediately crash toward him, Thorne gives the ball to Walker instead of keeping it, all while staring down Ojabo to make sure he doesn’t move.

In that split second, the right tackle (AJ Arcuri) performs a “fold” block. Arcuri takes a couple steps behind his guard (Kevin Jarvis), who is breaking with the zone block tendencies and blocking the defensive lineman to his right. Arcuri then explodes up and to his left, sealing off the defensive lineman being blocked by the center AND the linebacker, who was fooled by the zone stretch action and unable to get into the run gap.

Another critical element is that Heyward pops outside the offensive line and engages with Michigan’s strong safety, taking him out of the play. All that is left is for Walker to erase Michigan’s deep safety, who takes a ghastly angle to the ball.

Below is the more traditional broadcast view:

Here is what the play looks like drawn up:

Because of the zone blocking, when Walker gets the ball, he can either follow the zone blocking to the left, or run straight through the dump-truck sized hole that appeared directly in front of him. Taking the path of least resistance resulted in a touchdown and an eventual rivalry win, but the play design is extremely clever, again using Michigan’s knowledge of MSU’s presented tendencies to get Walker in the most advantageous position possible.

Excitingly, Walker really didn’t have to do much on this play, except for making the safety miss. If Johnson can continually put MSU’s backs in positions where only one safety stands between them and pay dirt, 2022 can be just as good as 2021 was for Michigan State.

Key Play No. 3: Charles Brantley puts the nail in the coffin

The last play, seen above, isn’t anything fancy schematically, but is a well executed play by a secondary that was under fire all year.

Michigan State starts out here in its base 4-2-5 set.

Note how MSU doesn’t put anyone over the center, rather having both of its defensive tackles and ends aligned to the extremities of Michigan’s offensive line to maximize pass rush.

Michigan actually handles the contrived pressure rather well, but MSU is still able to push a couple of linemen into Cade McNamara’s lap. Sensing the pressure, he fires what he thinks will be a free release to his tight end.

At worst, the tight end should have been one-on-one with Xavier Henderson, where he stands a chance of being able to box out Henderson and make a play on the ball. However, Charles Brantley, seeing McNamara wind up, falls off of his coverage assignment in the flat, working his way deeper, knowing that if he has to turn and cover the receiver in the flat again, he will only surrender a handful of yards.

Due to the pressure, the ball comes out slightly under-thrown, and Brantley is able to make a spectacular one-handed interception, ending a game for the ages.

The 2021 edition of the Michigan State-Michigan game will go down in the annals of history compared to other highly anticipated matchups like 1964, 1997 and 2015. The ability of the coaches to consistently deliver scheme wins that drew off of existing tendencies and maximally disadvantaged the Wolverines not only earned MSU a win for the ages, it hints at the possibility of many more to come.