CFB Drive: Michigan State Went Back To Basics

On Saturday the Michigan State Spartans were struggling on offense through three-plus quarters, clinging to a seven point lead. After forcing a punt, Michigan State went back to basics. Mark Schofield looks at the scoring drive that extended their lead over the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Michigan State takes over possession on their own 39-yard line, facing a 1st and 25 because of a personal foul penalty during the punt return. At this point in the game senior quarterback Connor Cook has completed just 7 of 15 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. The offense has managed only 51 yards in the second half ‒ offset by 50 yards in penalties.

Play One

Cook is under center and has 21 offensive personnel on the field, with pro formation left and an offset i-formation to the right, staggered to the weak side. The Chippewas have their base 4-3 defense on the field showing Cover 2 in the secondary and a stack front – a standard alignment for the 4-3 defense with the linebackers pinched to the inside to fill the gaps created by the splits between the defensive tackles:CFBReview4MSUPlay1Still1Prior to the snap wide receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. (#85) in jet motion from the left. This is designed to show the defense the threat of the swift receiver threatening the edge, causing the linebackers to take a few steps towards the sideline response. But the play call here is a simple inside dive by the halfback:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

The Chippewas linebackers aren’t fooled by the fake, and do a good job of maintaining their lane integrity, holding this run to a short two-yard gain, setting up a 2nd and 23.

Play Two

With quite a distance to go, the Spartans need to put the ball in the air on second down. MSU comes out with 12 offensive personnel in a tight pro alignment on the left, and tight end Paul Lang (#83) lined up as an upback shaded to the left side:CFBReview4MSUPlay2Still1

Even though Michigan State needs 23 yards for a first down, Central Michigan keeps their base personnel on the field because of the offensive personnel grouping. They put their defense into a 4-3 under front, and show Cover 2 in the secondary.

MSU uses a three levels concept on this passing play, sending Kings on a vertical route while TE Jamal Lyles (#11) runs an intermediate curl route. After checking protection, Lang releases into the flat. This is a very opportune moment to call this play, as the Chippewas rotate their coverage to Cover 3 Buzz at the snap with the weak-side outside linebacker coming on a delayed blitz:CFBReview4MSUPlay2Still2

This play design is perfect to attack Cover 3:CFBReview4MSUPlay2Still3

The vertical route occupies the play-side cornerback and the deep safety, allowing the two TEs to find soft spots in the underneath zone coverage:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

Lyles settles on his curl route, and is initially bracketed by the underneath coverage ‒ the MLB in the hook zone, and the OLB in the flat zone. The replay angle provides a good look at how Lang continues his flat route to the outside, the OLB widens in response, opening up a throwing lane to Lyles. After an accurate throw from Cook, the TE cuts upfield and picks up a big first down for the Spartans.

Play Three

With a fresh set of downs, MSU throws a wrinkle at the defense. Cook lines up under center again with 21 personnel on the field, an i-formation in the backfield and slot alignment to the right: CFBReview4MSUPlay3Still1

Just before the snap, WR R.J. Shelton (#12) motions into the backfield from the slot, setting up a power i-formation:CFBReview4MSUPlay3Still2

The Spartans use misdirection here, showing the lead power run to the right, while sneaking Shelton underneath to the other side of the formation, with both the center and the left guard pulling in front of him:CFBReview4MSUPlay3Still3

However, the defense again remains disciplined, The play-side safety drops into the B Gap in response to the motion ‒ likely a result of pre-game film study. This gives the defense more defenders than blockers:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

With their numbers advantage, the Chippewas are able to keep this to a short gain, setting up 2nd and 7.

Play Four

Having tried two misdirection plays ‒ with minimal success ‒ Cook comes out for this play and lines up under center with 21 offensive personnel on the field, in a pro left formation. CMU keeps their base personnel in the game and use an under front – showing Cover 1 in the secondary:CFBReview4MSUPlay4Still1

Kings then comes in motion from left to right, setting up a slot formation on the right. Cornerback Amari Coleman (#7) trails the WR across the formation ‒ confirming to Cook the man coverage in the secondary:CFBReview4MSUPlay4Still2

The Spartans fake a handoff to the right and move the pocket, with Cook rolling out to the slot side of the formation with left guard Brian Allen (#65) pulling around the edge to protect his QB. The offense runs one of their core passing concepts: a switch vertical route with the two WRs crossing on vertical stems, before breaking back to their quarterback on curl routes. Allen does a great job here of chopping down linebacker Tim Hamilton (#43) with a cut block, and Cook shows the ability to throw on the move ‒ something I think he does better than he gets credit for:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

The replays give a good view of the switch curl routes developing – and the shot the QB takes after releasing the throw:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

The connection is made between Cook and WR Aaron Burbridge (#16) and the Spartans have a fresh set of downs.

Play Five

Now set up in the red zone, MSU turns to another one of their core passing concepts: four verticals. Cook is in the shotgun again with 12 personnel on the field, this time in a 2X2 alignment. In response to the personnel grouping, the Chippewas keep their base defense in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:CFBReview4MSUPlay5Still1

The Spartans send four receivers on vertical routes, with Lang, the TE on the left, bending his route a bit to work up the hashmark:CFBReview4MSUPlay5Still2

At the snap, the defense rolls to Cover 3:CFBReview4MSUPlay5Still3

Four verticals is a nice concept to use against Cover 3, as the quarterback can influence the middle safety with his eyes ‒ hopefully moving him to one of the inside vertical routes ‒ before throwing to the other inside vertical route. But because Lang’s route bends, the OLB can stay with the TE for a longer period of time, allowing the FS to key route.

Seeing this, Cook works his progressions and settles on the running back, Gerald Holmes (#24), who runs a simple swing route. With the attention being paid to the vertical threats, the RB catches the outlet pass in good position. Safety Tony Annese (#18), who was responsible for the outside flat zone, looks to be in position to make a tackle, but Holmes just needs to make one move:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

Juking Annese, Holmes cuts toward the goal line and is finally dragged down inside the five-yard line.

Play Six

After his efforts on the previous play, Holmes is given the chance for glory:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

The Spartans run a simple HB power lead here and the blocking up front creates a huge running lane for the RB, who punches it in. Even the Chippewas fan in attendance have to appreciate the scoring play ‒ and drive:CMUFan

The touchdown drive extended Michigan State’s lead to 14, and they would go onto a 30-10 victory. The Spartans kick off their Big Ten schedule next week when they host Purdue, and drives like this will serve them well as they look to steal away the Big Ten East title from Ohio State ‒ the defending National Champions.

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.

Video Courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

One thought on “CFB Drive: Michigan State Went Back To Basics

  1. “On Saturday the Michigan State Spartans were struggling on offense through three-plus quarters”
    -Pretty misleading statement here. The MSU offense had 3 possessions in the 1st half, and scored on all three. The offense didn’t stall until the 3rd quarter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *