The Big Ten’s biker gang rumbles into Happy Valley looking for a knife fight in a phone booth.
If you couldn’t cheer for PSU, the Spartans of Michigan State would be an awfully good second choice. Certainly everyone loves an underdog, and in a conference with Michigan and Ohio State, Sparty’s been an underdog most seasons since the late 1960s. With a budget that’s only 50 – 70% of their principle rivals, MSU’s roster is like the island of misfit toys – this recruit was a little too slow, another a little too short, and that one, perhaps, even a little too psychotic. But they all find a home on Sparty Island, ruled by a Head Coach, Mark Dantonio, who reflects their situation and sentiments perfectly – passed over, perpetually angry about it, and sworn into a blood oath to exact a measure of revenge for the perceived slight. Frankly – it’s awfully appealing to your inner savage, isn’t it?
But the key words this week, friends, are “passed over”. Like it’s been for the last handful of seasons, investing any serious effort in trying to run the bootball on Sparty’s defense is a waste of plays. Sure, you need to maintain a semblance of balance. But if you want to win, you have to throw the ball successfully.
Kill The Lights
Nothing too much has changed on Sparty Island the last half decade, which makes writing this column a lot easier. The Spartan defense remains a base 4-3 with “quarters” on the back end, predominantly in press-man with either a single-high or two-deep safety look over the top, depending upon how you deploy your pass catching threats.
Like last year, Sparty is coming off an inexplicable loss to Northwestern. The Big Ten’s biker gang allowed just 8 yards net rushing to the white-privilege aristocrats, mauling and bludgeoning them into a puddle of goo up front. But QB Clayton Thorson repeatedly beat them over the top, throwing darts to 2-star receivers with names like “Flynn Nagel ” and “Bennett Skowronek ”.
“Predominantly” press-man does not mean “always” press-man – and apparently that was enough to confuse #19 CB Josh Butler in the gif below, top of the frame, who chose to play the short zone in a Cover 2, whilst #6 safety David Dowell was playing the inside receiver in “man”. Outlaw bikers don’t play by the rules – sometimes, even their own rules. And this coverage bust gave Northwestern 7 points, and 77 of its 381 total yards (20%) on the day.
Below is another press-man snap that’s correctly played as press-man – but Northwestern wins. WR J Jefferson, an aspiring novelist, beats #24 Trae Person one-on-one outside off a simple “go” route for a 34-yard score.
And here’s a third shot of man coverage. This time Northwestern’s TE uses a pick from the outside receiver to get a step on junior 250-lb outside linebacker Tyriq Thompson in this out-and-up route, for a 21-yard TD.
If you’re keeping score – and you should since that’s the point – that’s 3 plays for 132 yards and 21 points. Sparty was about 5 plays away from stomping a mudhole in Northwestern. Michigan State really ought to be a 5-0, top 15 ranked team, instead of an unranked 3-2 squad. And lest you believe that Sparty obstinately runs press-man, throwing caution to the wind, we’re including these additional gifs.
As we mentioned last year , and as evidenced in the gifs above, this isn’t the “no fly” zone secondary of Chris Rucker, Darqueze Dennard , and Trae Waynes . However much Dantonio wants to play press-man, single-high safety in order to put an 8th defender in the box, stuff your runs, and punch you in the face, he also knows he can’t do that exclusively like he did when Rucker, Dennard, and Waynes roamed the secondary – particularly in passing formations, and/or passing down-and-distances. Thus, if PSU empties the backfield this Saturday, or gets caught behind the sticks, expect to see 2-deep zone, with Trace McSorley needing to fit the ball into some tight windows. (And lest you think Trace will scramble for 175 yards rushing off of draws like he did vs. OSU – eh, nope. Fuhgeddabouwdit.)
Below is 2nd-and-10. Sparty plays its nickle defense, with safety #27 Khari Willis as linebacker to the top of the screen. Thorson recognizes the coverage, and drops the pill into the “honey hole”, down the sideline over top of the corner in the flat, but in front of the deep safety coming off the hash. Those are the windows Trace will need to hit.
What PSU will really want to avoid is 3rd-and-long (thanks, Capt Obvious). Sparty will play a deep zone, maybe bring a 5th pass rusher like the gif below, and force you to throw short of the sticks, relying on their bevy of really, really good linebackers to play run-and-hit. Northwestern was 1-for-6 in 3rd and long situations last Saturday.
And oh by the way – if we could keep an eye defensively on Felton Davis III , that’d be great. Last year he gutted us, catching 12 balls for 181 and a TD. He’s still doing that stuff. On Saturday, he took his 9 touches for 146 yards and 2 TDs on the Wildcats, including this reverse.
Hit The Lights
Fate’s been kind to Film Room, which is why we cheer for Dear Old State, rather than MSU, the outlaw biker gang of the Big Ten foosball. Had things been just a little different, who knows? Maybe we’d cranking the throttle on our Harley, “Go Green” / “Go White” in matching upper / lower rockers on the back of our black leather jacket, and “1%’er” diamond patch threatening shotgun violence on anyone dumb enough to look in our direction for more than a quick glance. It definitely holds an appeal, doesn’t it?
Sorry – back to the point. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Convert big play opportunities over the top when Sparty gives us man coverage. And put 4 dudes on Felton Davis. That’s this week’s game plan.