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Film Room: Western Michigan vs. Michigan State

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Film Review: Western Michigan vs. Michigan State

Initial Observations

  • Offensively, I thought quarterback Payton Thorne was overall functional, but shaky on non-fade throws outside the hash. When he had to plant and drive the ball, it sailed more often than it should have.
  • On the other hand, the deep ball looked very sharp. The threat of being able to consistently stretch the field deep will allow tight end Daniel Barker and wide receiver Tre Mosely to operate underneath, and will back the safeties out of the box, allowing for a more equitable run game.
  • Linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon — wow. While I would like to see him replicate that in coming games, it is a good early sign for the defense. Which…
  • …Pass defense left a lot to be desired. The cornerbacks weren’t exclusively relegated to playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, but I am unsure about the long-term efficacy of the pass defense.


Michigan State’s first game looked a lot like I expected it to, perhaps a half or full step below expectations. However, most mistakes seem broadly correctable. Michigan State ultimately defeated Western Michigan by a final score of 35-13.

From a structural and architectural standpoint, the offense was largely similar to what offensive coordinator Jay Johnson ran last year. MSU ran mostly three wide receiver-sets with a tight end/spread H-back (normally Barker) lined up in the backfield as an in-line tight end, with a variety of zone blocking concepts, usually folding backside linemen to get a numerical advantage on the play-side.

However, I was largely disappointed with the way the offense was executed in the first game. I am wary to overreact to the first game in any way positively or negatively, but correctible mistakes regarding missed assignments and missed throws aside, an area of legitimate concern is the offense’s continued reliance on big plays to produce points and win possessions.

There are always two ways to approach the question of big plays. The first school of thought says that the big plays are a result of an overmatched defense not being able to consistently keep the ball in front of them to necessitate long, drawn-out drives. There is certainly merit to that, as the touchdown from true freshman wide receiver Germie Bernard was simply Bernard being more athletic than the corner across from him on a hitch route, and Mosley’s long touchdown came from him outrunning the coverage on a seam route. Wide receiver Keon Coleman also seemed to “out-athlete” the player guarding him on his long touchdown.

The second school of thought would look at MSU’s drives after the Spartans went up 21-3 and before the long run by Jalen Berger set up the clinching fourth down sequence: punt, interception, fumble, missed field goal, punt. This, coupled with multiple three-and-outs, is not cause for undue concern. The offensive line generally kept two extremely capable running backs free for four to five yards at a time in the face of near-constant run blitzes, and protected Thorne well. Assuming a normal arc of growth and development, MSU should see more down-to-down success.

Defensively, Michigan State was able to essentially shut down most of the concepts Western Michigan was trying to run. While WMU was able to get into the red zone more than I would have liked, the virtue of a 4-2-5 is that it makes red zone scoring substantially more difficult by filling the defensive backfield with defenders, making passing difficult. Paired with MSU’s outstanding defensive interior and the emergence of Windmon as a pass rusher, I would expect MSU to force many field goals in the red zone.

All told, it was about what can be reasonably expected for a first game. While there is certainly room to grow, it is much better to nitpick a three-touchdown win than the alternative.

Below are three plays that I think exemplify some of the key concepts, moments, and themes from the game.

Play No. 1: High/Low

While MSU’s first touchdown was an athletically superior player housing a simple hitch route, the Spartans’ second score showed mastery of a crucial offensive concept: the high/low read.

The high/low read is a half-field read that seeks to put a defender in a position of conflict by placing two offensive players at different “levels” of the defense covered by one defender. In this case, the defender placed in conflict is Western’s boundary corner, Dorian Jackson, No. 23, who lines up at the line of scrimmage toward the top of your screen.

When the ball is snapped, Barker (No. 9) releases downfield on a corner route and Jayden Reed (No. 1) leaks into the flat. Jackson must either hammer down and cover the flat, (where the threat of Reed demands immediate attention) or bail and try to play the under-throw on a corner route. Jackson has a moment of indecision and then drifts back, albeit with his hips turned the wrong way. Seeing that by the time he throws the flat route to Reed, Jackson would be there to prevent anything more than a two-yard gain, Thorne looks to Barker. He sees Barker with outside leverage on WMU’s stumbling safety, and throws the corner route to the outside of Barker’s body, where it can only be caught or incomplete — not intercepted. Barker adjusts well, and makes an outstanding one-handed grab.

On the backside of the play, you can see Mosely and Coleman run a “mills” route combination. The mills combination puts safeties and linebackers in a blender by mixing a post route (vertical then diagonal to the center to the field) outside a dig route (vertical and then straight across the field toward the middle).

On the below diagram, it can be seen how this two-man route affected the middle linebacker who ran with the dig, as well as the safety, who comes down to cover the dig as well. The post drags a corner along with it, taking him out of the play and keeping the high/low read with Barker clean. Jarek Broussard, split out as a wide receiver to the boundary, goes in motion pres-nap, which pulls WMU’s boundary linebacker out of the play. The field linebacker, Ryan Selig (No. 27), drifts towards Barker, taking himself out of the play.

This is an excellent red zone play, especially on a second-down-and-medium. Were this played differently by the defense, it is very possible that the running back in the flat is open for a substantial gain (or at worst one on one with a defender), or that one of the mills routes pops open for a touchdown. In the view below, you can see the bevy of options Thorne has at his disposal.

Play No. 2: Turning Point

After going up 21-3 and spinning its wheels, Michigan State found itself in a one-possession game with under 10 minutes left. What sparked a 14-point run was a fairly standard zone run play that was remarkable not so much for its design, but for what it revealed about the headiness of the offensive line.

As I said above, I was generally high on the performance of the offensive line. WMU brought a variety of run blitzes, and MSU was able to consistently dispatch them to great effect, none in moments bigger than this.

Wester Michigan comes out in an “odd” front with three down lineman and a linebacker hovering over the center. The center, Nick Samac (No. 59), makes this play work. At the snap, the right side of MSU’s offensive line zone blocks left, blocking whoever is lined up over or inside of them. Multiple Western Michigan down linemen finish the play on the ground, which generally portends good things. Pay particular attention to the awesome block delivered by the right guard No. 50, Brian Greene.

Samac “folds,” taking a step back and over to his left, then reappearing a gap over. He starts by combo blocking the linebacker standing up in the left side A gap with J.D. Duplain (No. 67). However, when Samac sees a WMU linebacker screaming across his face, he makes no attempt to “scoop” block him and change his momentum, he simply disengages from the combo block and elegantly rode the linebacker into the ground, using his own momentum against him. A savvy veteran move if there ever was one.

The Western Michigan linebacker (Selig, No. 27), who took himself out of the Barker touchdown play by drifting into no man’s land, here embarks on a long and winding magical mystery tour that takes him nowhere near the ball, running confidently past the lane that Berger (No. 8) is running at. He winds up watching the play happen behind him.

The perimeter blocking is good, and the corner blitz at the top of the screen simply takes too long to impact the play. The result was a 50-yard gain by Berger. The headiness of the offensive line performance can be seen in the diagram below.

Play No. 3: Crunch

Michigan State’s defensive interior excellence is well documented, but an open question going into the season was the efficacy of the defensive ends. MSU addressed the question in the offseason through the transfer portal, and both transfers played a key role in this play.

Khris Bogle (No. 2), and Jacoby Windmon (No. 4), both line up on the edges of what I call a true 4-2-5 defense. (Some might classify it as a 2-4-5, as only Derrick Harmon, No. 41, and Jacob Slade, No. 64, put their hand in the dirt. However, as Bogle and Windmon both act as functional defensive ends with minimal coverage responsibilities from the two-point stance, I think the 4-2-5 classification is sound).

Schematically, there isn’t anything terribly complex happening, but it’s worth noting the sheer level of defensive line domination, as it is something that Michigan State will lean on in many matchups this year. MSU plays more run-heavy teams this year, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the defensive line will need to stand up against the run. Against pass-happy teams like Ohio State and Maryland, the best help a somewhat suspect secondary can get is a solid pass rush.

On this play, the Western Michigan offensive line is beaten in almost every conceivable manner. Bogle gets low and turns the outside shoulder of the tackle he is matched up against and almost sacks the WMU quarterback, Jack Salopek, and Harmon simply bull rushes his man into the quarterback’s lap.

Slade arm-bars his matchup to prevent himself from getting bogged down and gets into the backfield before losing contain. As Salopek scrambles to his left, Windmon makes an excellent open-field tackle after dancing various WMU linemen. Like some of Windmon’s other sacks, he displays not so much raw pass rush ability in a traditional sense, but rather an extremely high motor and good instincts. While I would like to see him develop the former, the latter is extremely valuable.

On the whole, I think Michigan State had a quality first game. There are glimmers of a narrative that presage good things — solid offensive line play, excellent downfield passing, good wide receiver performances and pass rush upside. It will be exciting to see how the adjustments continue on a week-to-week basis.