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Film Room: Minnesota vs. Michigan State

At least the Lions...never mind.

Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

I don’t really know what to say. The strictures of sports journalism, and my contract of employment, compel me to write something scheme-based about what we witnessed on Saturday afternoon in the Minnesota versus Michigan State game.

Going into the game, I knew there was a range of outcomes that included a Michigan State loss, but I genuinely expected MSU to eke out a 24-20-type win. However, as we all know, that emphatically did not happen, as the Golden Gophers dominated the Spartans by a final score of 34-7.

In this article, I want to take a brief look at what worked when MSU found success, and what didn’t work, finishing with some conjecture about potential game plans and what it all means.

What Worked:

The pithy answer to this is “not much.“ As in all of Michigan State’s games under offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, there were individual plays that were well-designed and extremely effective. However, these were not strung together in successful drives, and the offense continued to be more bust than boom.

When the offense looked best was on the first drive of the second half, when Johnson used quarterback Payton Thorne in play-action to set up what should have been a touchdown drive to make it 17-7. I understand the frustration of MSU fans at the inability to run the ball, and Johnson’s seeming insistence on fruitlessly running the ball, but it is critical to mix in some runs to keep the defense honest. The commitment to the run paid dividends here, as the play-action concepts sliced through the Minnesota defense.

In the clip below, MSU lines up in 11 personnel with one running back and one tight end in a two-by-two tight formation from the pistol. Jayden Reed (No. 1) does a “zipper“ motion, motioning across the formation, then coming back and inserting into a route, messing with the linebackers. Two players run deep sit routes as Tre Mosely (No. 17) works his way on a crossing route for a first down. This play gives Thorne lots of options, and is very well designed.

Next, MSU comes out in a diamond formation (Michigan used this to great effect against Ohio State last year) with two wide receivers out wide, a five-man offensive line surface, and beefy tight ends Maliq Carr (No. 6) and Daniel Barker (No. 9) as flankers, with Jalen Berger, (No. 8) as the running back. This play torches the coverage Minnesota is in, as the diamond forces Carr and Barker to be covered by slow linebackers. Barker gets leverage within the zone, turns as Thorne points and delivers, and gets a nice pickup. This formation gives MSU a lot of options, and should definitely be used going forward.

What Didn’t:

Michigan State was completely unable to run the ball for the second week in a row. I saw much consternation on the interwebs about Johnson’s play-calling, with some merit. However, when you are averaging 2.7 yards per carry, there is only so much sequencing that you can do from a play-calling perspective.

I saw Johnson try to counter that with quick hit throws that basically acted as a default running game (these throws are largely responsible for Thorne’s 17-for-24 for 132 yards stat line, just 5.5 yards per attempt). The downside of these plays is that they were largely short of the sticks, and Thorne was not an effective downfield passer in this game. Last week, Washington used an eagle front to nerf Michigan State’s run game. Minnesota used three and four down lineman in fronts similar to Washington, and were able to beat MSU’s offensive linemen at the point of attack.

The big story for Michigan Stats fans is (as usual) the pass defense. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 23 of 26 passes, and put up 268 yards and three touchdowns. Obviously it was an extremely surgical performance, but a silver lining (if you are inclined to look for them) was the difficulty of throws he was forced to make.

Michigan State was caught playing its spot-dropping cover-3-and-4 coverages at times, but came into the game making substantial changes to the defensive structure. On the first play of the game, MSU comes out in a radically different formation, with a cornerback in press coverage to the top of the screen, and a safety just two yards behind linebacker Cal Haladay (No. 27) acting as almost a second linebacker.

This is a look of a team that built its defensive game plan around stopping the run —something backed up by linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon’s comments in the postgame press conference. Minnesota completes a pass here because of the split field coverage. The bottom cornerback, Justin White (No. 30) plays far off the ball and can't quite get back to the stop route in time.

Another prime example of this split field coverage comes here, in the third quarter. Watch the top of the screen, as just before the snap, the cornerback at the top, Chuck Brantley No. 0) backs off into a zone as White shows blitz.

This pre-snap movement is something MSU had not previously shown, and was a game-specific adjustment. However, Minnesota has a perfect play call dialed up as the sit route underneath Brantley’s zone is completed. If Brantley had not backed out pre-snap (this wasn’t a mistake, just bad luck that Minnesota had a route concept that worked perfectly against what MSU was doing), Morgan would have been forced to look at the frontside triangle concept, which MSU had covered relatively well.

Watch cornerback Ameer Speed (No. 6, bottom of the screen) line up in press man, then play a zone coverage when the Minnesota receiver cuts inside and he sees a Minnesota player coming toward him, and Haladay picks up coverage underneath. Save for Ben VanSumeren (No. 13) being matched up on a receiver at the end of the play, this is a well-designed switching defense that looks much better than the spot-dropping concepts.

Playing the corners up and moving people around pre-snap forced Morgan to make a series of very difficult throws. Unfortunately, he completed almost all of them, but the fact that difficult throws were being forced is an improvement from receivers being almost exclusively wide open.

Below is an excellent example of the type of throw Tanner was hitting with regularity.

This is a one-high man under coverage, totally different from the passive spot dropping that was so criticized in prevous weeks. The outside cornerbacks play press man, one safety is deep, and Angelo Grose (No. 15) plays man coverage from a seven-yard drop as five men rush.

Unfortunately, Grose isn’t quite fast enough to break on the in route, and this is a well-thrown ball that has to be perfectly placed, and is. Morgan made multiple other throws against man coverage when the MSU defender was in phase and well-positioned. If he was half-a-beat off on any of these throws, they fall incomplete. MSU’s season will be determined by if other quarterbacks can replicate this feat. In any case, it is nice to see defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton have more sets in his tool bag than what we have seen previously.

Throughout the struggles of the late Mark Dantonio years, and through to the present day, one defensive constant that Michigan State has had is a salty run defense. That was not the case on Saturday, but instead of finding an X’s and O’s answer, the film suggested something else.

Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim is an excellent back, and Minnesota has a large, physical offensive line. Before the coin flip, Michigan State was down its best run defender at two of the three defensive levels (Jacob Slade on the line, and Xavier Henderson in the secondary), and the absence of linebacker Darius Snow forced Haladay to be less of a pure run defender. When you also entertain that defensive linemen Simeon Barrow and Khris Bogle were injured at times in this game as well, Minnesota’s run dominance makes more sense.

Last year, Slade and Henderson almost single-handedly ruined Michigan’s run play designs in MSU’s win, and were excellent in other games versus run-heavy teams as well. If MSU gets healthier on defense, I think the run defense will regress/progress to the mean. However, there are clear depth issues at linebacker that aren’t going anywhere, and it is clear that even while healthy, the defensive line production has taken another step back. I did not expect MSU to register zero sacks for the second-straight week.

Noah Kim?

Not yet. While he looked sharp, it was against Minnesota’s backups playing a vanilla cover 2 defense.


It’s clear that Michigan State expanded its defensive playbook beyond what the Spartans had already been doing. However, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan was able to nullify it by making tough throw after tough throw.

Offensively, Michigan State only ran 44 plays, with minimal success. If MSU is unable to produce more down-to-down success against Maryland, Jay Johnson might want to start polishing up his resume, as I would suggest Scottie Hazelton start doing. Head coach Mel Tucker knows the pressure that comes with his contract, and he will be making moves as soon as prudent in the offseason, should current trends continue.