Fresh off their narrow victory last weekend over Ohio State, the Michigan State Spartans needed a home win in their season finale against Penn State to earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Mark Schofield looks at how Connor Cook delivered MSU’s ticket to Indy.
After missing the game against the Buckeyes with a shoulder injury, quarterback Connor Cook returned to the lineup for his final home game and connected for three touchdown passes in the Spartans’ 55-16 rout of the Nittany Lions. Any question over the final outcome was erased when Michigan State received the second half kickoff and went right down the field on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive that culminated on a great example of a QB staying aggressive and challenging a narrow throwing window.
On 1st and 10 at the Penn State 29-yard line, Michigan State has the football on the left hashmark and 11 personnel in the game with pro alignment to the left, and an inverted slot formation to the right. Cook stands in the shotgun with running back Gerald Holmes (#24) standing to his left. The Nittany Lions have their 4-2-5 nickel package on the field and the secondary shows a Cover 2 look before the play. Cornerback John Reid (#29), a true freshman, lines up in catch man technique over the pro side of the formation, across from Z receiver Aaron Burbridge (#16). Safety Marcus Allen (#2) is the safety shaded to that side of the field:
The Spartans use play-action here, with Cook and Holmes meeting at the mesh point, but this is a pass all the way. Burbridge releases vertically as does the slot receiver on the right, R.J. Shelton (#12). The outside receiver, Macgarrett Kings Jr. (#85), runs a deep out route:
The defense rolls into Cover 6, keeping the Cover 2 look to the pro side of the formation with Reid and Allen, but dropping into a soft Cover 4 look on the wide side of the field. As the play develops, Burbridge has a free release with Reid giving the WR a bit of a cushion. After a few steps, the receiver bends to the outside, attempting to establish outside leverage on his vertical route. Reid then gets a solid jam on Burbridge, driving the receiver out of bounds. The CB then turns toward the middle of the field to read the play.
Behind him, Allen actually takes a few steps forward on the playfake, before recognizing the passing play and the route on the outside. The safety then begins to widen. This creates a fairly narrow throwing window for Cook to find Burbridge. But given that this route is a great way to attack Cover 2, and that the throw comes to the shorter side of the field, Cook looks to squeeze this in:
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Cook’s throw is delivered with good timing, anticipation and velocity, and the football arrives just before the safety. The pass is a bit high, but Burbridge is able to high point the football and secure the catch. When Allen tries to separate the receiver from the ball by delivering a chest-high shot, Burbridge simply bounces off the safety, stays upright, and then spins around a retreating linebacker, and races into the end zone with the touchdown.
Here’s another look at how this comes together. Notice how the CB does a good job here of riding the WR to the outside and then turning to the middle of the field to stay underneath the receiver. Also pay attention to the work from the quarterback. Cook takes the snap and after the fake he opens to his right, before coming back to the vertical route on the left. When he actually makes the decision to throw, Burbridge has Reid right beneath him, but Cook knows where to put the football against this coverage to throw the receiver open, while keeping him away from the safety:
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From there, the receiver takes care of the rest. The play from Burbridge is a great example of how a receiver can work back in-bounds after being forced out, and make a play on the football. From an evaluation standpoint, the WR flashes some very positive traits. After he high points the football, he shows both play strength as well as the ability to quickly change direction, all very important facets of playing the receiver position.
With their ticket now punched to Indianapolis, Cook, Burbridge and the rest of the Spartans now look to secure a playoff berth when they take on the Hawkeyes this weekend.
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 ESPN.