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Film Room: Michigan State vs. Washington

Yikes...but what does it mean?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, as the maxim goes, you are what your record says you are. However, with Husky Stadium’s “overrated” chants ringing in my ears, when one squints and looks at last season, you can see deep cracks in Michigan State’s 11-2 record in 2021.

Simply, Kenneth Walker III covered for a LOT of sins, all of which were on display Saturday night. Last year Michigan State was second from last in the Big Ten Conference in terms of yards produced by the offensive line, and gave up an eyebrow-raising 14 percent stuff rate. Despite these grisly failings, Walker still won the Doak Walker Award and led Michigan State to numerous victories almost single-handedly. When you realize that 70 percent of his yards came after contact, it makes more sense.

When Walker was scoring five touchdowns against Michigan, and running wild against Rutgers and Northwestern, it didn’t matter that Michigan State struggled to convert on a down-to-down basis. It wasn’t a dealbreaker that MSU’s pass defense literally ranked dead-last in the country, and it wasn’t a kiss of death that MSU’s pass protection and run blocking for anyone not named Kenneth Walker was…poor.

There were instances that presaged what happened on Saturday. When Nebraska kept two safeties deep and ran a tite front to hold Michigan State to 14 yards in the second half, it was concerning.

Lost in the comeback was that Michigan got to lead MSU 30-14 by putting a man in every gap and containing explosive pass plays. Ohio State was written off as “One of those days,” but Purdue showed that it was more than that. The Peach Bowl without Walker was rightly heralded as a substantial program-building win, but Cal Haladay’s pick-six obscured the fact that Payton Thorne failed to play winning football for much of the night (he eventually figured it out, though).

On Saturday, there were many sins, and no forgiveness, for Michigan State. Washington kept safeties back and kept a lid on MSU’s boom-or-bust pass offense, something that I was concerned with going back to Western Michigan.

The offensive line was a disaster, letting Thorne get hit left and right. What was even more concerning was that the offensive line was completely ineffective in the run game. In fact, Michigan State averaged a negative-half-yard (-0.5) before contact per rush, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. Thorne hit some throws, but missed a few as well. Finally, in front of God and everybody, the pass defense was demonstrably “who we thought they were.”

While I don’t think it’s appropriate to try to prognosticate long-term what a Week Three non-conference game might mean, it is clear there is a ton of work to be done. If you had extremely lofty expectations for the season, I might temper them. The offensive line and pass defense are going to put a hard ceiling on what this iteration of the Spartans can accomplish. However, there are definite positives.

The Good:

I thought Thorne played fairly well. He was under assault for most of the night, but made a number of excellent throws throughout the night. Keon Coleman played a tremendous game, and is beginning to round into a really good football player. MSU’s defensive front is excellent, and I think they acquitted themselves well, particularly around the goal line. The play calling was chaotic at times, but there were excellent offensive play designs and play calls. While the game is likely closer with Jacob Slade, Xavier Henderson and Jayden Reed active, I don’t think the outcome changes.

The first play I want to note is what was, in my opinion, one of Thorne’s best throws of the season, on a well-designed play. Facing a fourth-and-7 from Michigan State’s own 36-yard-line, MSU lines up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and runs a variation of “mesh.” In mesh, the two outside receivers run short posts, while the two inside receivers run shallow crossing routes. Here, Daniel Barker (No. 9) comes up from the bottom of the frame across Tre Mosley (No. 17), who is tearing down from the top. Thorne fits a bullet of a ball in the teeth of the defense for a first down.

An interesting twist here is that Jalen Berger (No. 8) does not run a route as is customary in mesh. Rather, he lines up as a “spread H-back“ offset in the gun from Thorne and assists in pass protection. The fact that this is necessary underscores the offensive line struggles MSU faced. It can be seen in more detail here:

The second play doesn’t necessitate too much schematic fanciness, though it does bear mentioning. Watch the bottom of the screen — Coleman runs a relatively simple three-yard slant as Mosely drags the second-level defender away from the slant by running a corner route. Thorne was always going to throw to this route action — his eyes never moved to the backside of the play. What makes this play notable is the subtlety of Coleman’s route running.

Coleman is dealing with a cornerback playing in his face in press coverage. Knowing he needs to create space, he attacks the cornerback physically, initiating contact a couple of yards downfield then quickly and smoothly flipping his hips as he cuts into his slant route. This cannot be coached — it is pure athleticism, and exciting to see. As he flips his hips, the cornerback is stuck on Coleman’s back and can do nothing as Thorne delivers a perfect ball for a third-down conversion. Washington’s linebacker, Carson Bruener (No. 42) is late getting to the hook/curl zone where the ball is thrown, and Thorne makes him pay. It is an extremely well-executed and well-designed play, one I would like to see more of.

The last play I wanted to discuss positively was another Coleman play, his final touchdown. Coming on a second-down-and-3, Michigan State finds Washington in what I believe is either a cover 1 or cover 2 man concept out of a 4-2-5 package. Washington has four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. I am almost certain at least one safety is supposed to be playing either deep man free (take whoever releases downfield furthest) or a deep half (take whoever releases deepest on your half of the field). However, due to MSU’s route combination, there is confusion, and Coleman winds up carrying a nickel back down the seam in true one-on-one coverage. The ball is well placed, and the catch is excellent.

However, what makes this play is the route combination. By sending different receivers to different levels of the field, this play design creates a mismatch in which Coleman’s defender has no help in the seam. As you can recall from our discussion on pattern matching last week, this is a bad place to be. In the below diagram, I have taken my best guess as to what the coverage and route combinations did, without the benefit of having all-22 film.

Working left to right, you see a hitch inside of a corner route, this is called a “smash“ concept. This is successful in occupying the safety, cornerback and linebacker on that side. The route into the flat by the running back freezes a linebacker, and then the play-side nickel back, cornerback, and safety are left to defend two vertical routes.

The math of three defenders and two routes means that one route will be left one-on-one. Often, if a player is playing a cover 2 “deep half“ coverage, they will instinctively drift toward the player definitively in “their“ zone, so the player closest to the sideline that goes vertical, depending on the nickel corner to cover the other receiver. Generally this is effective, and the nickel can count on linebacker help underneath. However, with the linebackers occupied as laid out above, all the nickel can do is to try to contest Coleman in the seam as best he can. The ball and catch are on point, and the zone is successfully overloaded.

The Bad:

From a schematic perspective, the biggest surprise to me was how thoroughly Washington was able to stifle the Michigan State rushing attack. Throughout the week, I predicted a fairly routine MSU victory based on what I viewed as the non-negotiable nature of MSU’s run game. However, the Spartans averaged just 1.7 yards per running back carry. Isolating three high-leverage run stuffs, Washington nerfed MSU’s run game in a disappointingly predictable way.

In the first two selected plays, Washington emulated what Michigan did last year, running a “double eagle” front. Notice in the two plays below, Washington has three down linemen. The outside two down linemen line up inside of MSU’s tackles, with another down lineman lined up over MSU’s center.

This puts three linemen in Michigan State’s interior at the snap, with two standing defensive ends ready to crash or play contain. This was not new, it is used against run first teams by any team with a 4-2-5 package in their defensive arsenal. MSU did not handle this effectively, and will need to develop a counter as it will see this front many more times before the season is over.

Particularly galling in the above play is how badly left guard J.D. Duplain (No. 67) gets forklifted into the backfield by a defensive lineman.

This is absolute destruction at the point of attack, it renders the play with no chance of success.

Below, on the left side of the line, Duplain and tight end Daniel Barker get slanted on, letting their defensive assignment “cross their face,” getting to the inside and destroying the play. This cannot happen in a third-and-short situation, as “getting your face crossed” is the worst mistake committable by a zone blocking team.

Below, Washington showed something different. The player to watch is right guard Matt Carrick (No. 56). With just two down lineman, Washington stunts, looping the defensive lineman at the top of the “W” logo into a gap over, and having the linebackers fill. Carrick gets beaten badly by Bruener (No. 42), who gets so completely around him that Carrick can only fall on him as Bruener makes his initial wrap. Carrick getting taken out of his lane allows the other linebackers to fill, a classic example of a missed assignment.

Even more slowly below, you can see how badly this ruins the play.

I was extremely surprised at Michigan State’s inability to run the ball, especially as the starting running backs on Washington’s first two opponents, Kent State and Portland State, were able to average 5.9 and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively. This must be cleaned up before MSU enters conference play.

The Ugly:

On defense, Michigan State ran the same spot drop, country quarters and cover 3 that I was worried about last week. The split coverages, man blitzes and pattern matching that I thought might be effective really didn’t make an appearance. You don’t need to see any highlights of the coverage getting picked apart, but this play is particularly illustrative of that issue.

Sitting in a cover 4 concept with two safeties deep, Washington runs a mesh pattern similar to what MSU did above, but one of the crossers recognizes the safeties deep and sits in the coverage hole behind the linebackers. Washington could have done this almost every play, and it would have remained effective.

Another concerning aspect of the game was that there was virtually no pressure. Michigan State registered no sacks, and only one tackle for loss. Jacoby Windmon was absolutely stoned, and Washington was without All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland. Washington mitigated Windmon with a fair share of doubles, but he didn’t dominate against single blocking either.

A different concept that Washington used to great effect against Michigan State was to pick on MSU’s linebackers in coverage. There were multiple instances where Washington would motion a running back out of the backfield, forcing Cal Haladay (No. 27) to cover. This play picks on Ben VanSumeran (No. 13), a gritty run-stopping linebacker. Washington’s tight end, Devin Culp (No. 83), sets as an inline tight end and stalk blocks in pass protection.

Reading his pass keys, VanSumeran spot drops, allowing Culp to drift into space and pick up an easy conversion. I would imagine this will be countered going forward.

Lastly, there is little schematic about the bomb that effectively ended the game after MSU scored to cut the lead to a two-score game early in the second half. The camera angles do few favors, but it looks like the rollout action froze MSU’s safeties, and by the time they realized what was happening, Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk was behind everyone for a score.

We fight for better days, indeed.