Last season Michigan State traveled west to take on Oregon in a highly-anticipated early season clash. The visitors found themselves with a 27-18 lead midway through the third quarter, but could not finish the job. Marcus Mariota and the Ducks ripped off 28 unanswered points over the final 20 minutes, en route to a 46-27 victory. This weekend the two meet again in East Lansing. Mark Schofield broke down last year’s game film and highlights what stood out for each offense to get you ready for the weekend. Part one of CFB Film Preview focuses on Michigan State’s offense.
In last year’s meeting the Spartans were able to move the football both on the ground and through the air. Connor Cook finished the day completing 29 of 47 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns, but with two interceptions. Running back Jeremy Langford, now with the Chicago Bears, carried the ball 24 times for 86 yards. While only averaging 3.6 yards per carry, two ground game concepts were successful for Michigan State and you can expect the Spartans to roll these out early and often on Saturday.
One way Michigan State opened up holes in the ground game was by using unbalanced lines to create advantageous blocking angles for the linemen up front. Here is one such example. Midway through the first quarter the Spartans line up for a 1st and 10 play near midfield. Michigan State has 21 personnel in the game, showing an i-formation in the backfield. But the formation up front is different. Tight end Josiah Price (#82) is lined up at left tackle, while LT Jack Conklin (#74) lines up on the right side of the formation next to right tackle Kodi Kieler (#79). This gives the Spartans two big tackles on the right side of the formation:
You can see the confusion this causes the defense. The Ducks have their base 3-4 defense in the game because of the offensive personnel grouping – but now the front doesn’t know exactly where to line up:
Michigan State runs the football to the right side, but even with the added size on that side of the formation they are not done bringing blockers over. The offense runs a counter play, with left guard Travis Jackson (#63) pulling in front of the play:
Playside linebacker Joe Walker (#35) diagnoses the play at the snap and bursts forward for the hole, but Jackson meets him and initiates contact. The block from the LG gives Langford enough of a hole. The RB identifies the crease, makes a quick cut in the backfield, and cuts through the B Gap for a nifty seven-yard gain, giving the offense second down and short yardage:
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The benefits of the unbalanced line – and the creation of advantageous blocking angles – are evident on this play. With a guard and two tackles on the playside, the offense can use the RG and RT to block down on the nose guard, which they do. But with the extra tackle on that side of the formation, Conklin, is free to handle the defensive end, Arik Armstead (#9). The only player unaccounted for is the play-side linebacker, but Jackson handles that defender as he pulls through the hole in front of the ball-carrier.
The Spartans also moved the football on the ground using counter plays, without the need for an unbalanced line. Early in the second quarter Michigan State faces a 3rd and 1 in the Oregon red zone, and Cook is in the shotgun with 11 personnel in the game. Oregon has their base 3-4 defense on the field for this play, showing an A Gap linebacker blitz:
Langford is to the right of Cook, and at the snap he cuts in front of his quarterback, angling for the left side of the line. But the play is a designed counter and the hole is actually on the right side of the formation:
Again, it is Jackson who leads the way. The offensive line all blocks to the left, to help sell the running play to that side of the field. But the LG cuts around to the right and seals off outside linebacker Tony Washington (#91). For his part, Langford sells the run to the left well up to the mesh point, then angles back towards the right, cuts inside of Jackson’s block, and is off to the races:
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From the end zone camera, you can see the other crucial block on this play. The weak-side linebacker does a good job of not overreacting to this play and uses his counter-steps to diagnose the play and flow to the ball-carrier. But Price, the TE, does a very good job of scraping to the second level and meeting the ILB before the hole, giving Langford enough room to race into the endzone for the score:
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While MSU did not gain a ton of yards on the ground in this game, these two concepts allowed for big gains in the running game. Given the success with these schemes, look for the Spartans to return to these playbook pages on Saturday night.
The Passing Game: Attacking the Middle of the Field
Cook threw for over 300 yards in the meeting last year, and what the film showed was the ability of Michigan State to attack the middle of the field in the passing game. Oregon used a number of coverage schemes in the secondary last year, but the Spartans used a few different designs to attack the middle regardless of the coverage employed by the Ducks.
On this first example, MSU uses dual dig routes from the slot formation to attack the middle of the field. Facing 2nd and 7, Cook is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. The offense has a pro formation to the left and slot formation to the right. The Ducks have their base defense on the field and show Cover 1 in the secondary:
But just prior to the snap, Oregon rolls their coverage to Cover 6, dropping the two defenders across the slot formation back into the secondary:
The Spartans have a nice route called to attack this coverage, using dual dig routes from the slot receivers. The outside WR runs a deep dig route, selling the play-side cornerback and safety on a deep route, forcing both players to gain depth on the potential vertical route. This opens up the middle of the field for the slot WR, who runs a shorter dig route – after first showing a shallow crossing route:
Both the play-side linebackers – the OLB and the ILB – try and re-route the slot WR off the snap. But R.J. Shelton (#12) does a good job of avoiding both linebackers and working to the middle of the field:
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Cook shows good patience and anticipation on this play, waiting on the route to develop and throwing Shelton open as the the WR is still covered by the inside linebacker:
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The Spartans used a similar concept to open up the middle of the field later in the game. With the football on the left hashmark, Cook stands in the shotgun and MSU has 11 personnel on the field, using slot formation to the right and a tight pro alignment on the left. The Ducks have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
The Spartans run a drag/dig combination route on the left. Price, the tight end, runs the deeper dig pattern while the WR runs a very shallow drag pattern in front of the inside linebackers:
At the snap the defense rolls this play into Cover 3 buzz, dropping the play-side safety down into a linebacker alignment. As you watch this play, notice how the shorter route entices the play-side buzz safety and an inside linebacker. Both defenders break in a few steps on the drag route, which gives Cook enough of a window to find his TE over the middle:
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One final way the Spartans opened up the middle of the field for the passing game was using play-action. This play is an example of a run-fake pulling defenders out of position. MSU faces a 1st and 10 just outside the red zone, and Cook is in the backfield alone. With 11 personnel on the field the Spartans set up in trips to the left and slot formation to the right, and Langford is the middle receiver in the trips. Because of the offensive personnel, the Ducks have their base 3-4 defense in the game and are forced to split the OLBs to the outside, leaving linebacker Torrodney Prevot (#86) aligned across from WR Tony Lippett (#14) at the bottom of the screen:
From his middle trips alignment, Langford comes in jet motion prior to the snap, showing the defense the threat of the jet sweep. But the RB is a decoy on this play – Cook’s first read is Lippett on a simple seam route:
The play works to perfection:
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The defense uses Cover 3 here, but in response to the jet sweep action both Prevot and Walker flow forward to the running back. This opens up a big throwing window for the seam route, and Cook flicks the football to Lippett and the receiver cuts down to the Oregon 6-yard line setting up a 1st and goal. The replay provides a good view of how the two linebackers squat on the screen look from Langford, allowing Lippett to slip into the secondary.
While the Spartans were not able to finish the job last season, the concepts outlined here put them in position to build a lead on the road. If MSU is to finish what they started last year, they will likely need to rely on these successful offensive schemes to knock off the Ducks on Saturday night.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy Fox Sports.