Ohio State v. Michigan State: A Schematic Preview

By Ross Fulton on December 5, 2013 at 8:29p

The only thing now standing between Ohio State and the BCS National Championship Game is Tenth Ranked Michigan State. 

Mark Dantonio's Spartan squad has ridden a solid offense and the nation's top-ranked defense to a 11-1 record. Offensively, Michigan State utilizes a run-heavy offense, mixing the occasional deep play action pass and underneath drop back game behind improving sophomore quarterback Connor Cook. 

But the real star for the Spartans' is Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi's 4-3 over, shadow technique cover 4. 

Below I analyze Michigan State's offensive and defensive schemes and how Ohio State may match-up.

Running to set up the run

Michigan State offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman (yes that Jim Bollman) operate largely from pro-style, tailback based formations to run the football. According to the Only Colors' Heck Dorland, as of the beginning of November, Michigan State was running the football nearly 75% of the time on first down, second most in the Big Ten. The Spartans' primary goal remains to stay ahead of schedule, setting up manageable second and third downs.

Michigan State's base run play is one Ohio State fans have long associated with Bollman, which is power, aka Dave. The Spartans' tailback Jeremy Langford is a downhill runner who can bounce the play outside, and Michigan State has a fairly athletic offensive line. The Spartans also like pulling multiple blockers on misdirection plays, particularly to the boundary. Langford is the Spartans' primary weapon, and the Spartans will continue to run the football until a defense stops it.  

Michigan State's first change up, particularly in second and medium, is to use shotgun spread option runs. From the shotgun the Spartans generally run in one of three ways.

  • power and counter plays to Langford;
  • zone read or inverted veer with Cook, who is big and fairly mobile;
  • jet sweeps or reverses to R.J. Langford to reach the edge.

Shelton is the Spartans' primary horizontal threat. Michigan State uses jet sweep and other reverses to Shelton, both to constrain the defense against overplaying the inside run game, and to create explosive edge plays.

Throwing on Third

The Spartan passing game comes to the fore on third down, where Michigan State throws nearly 70% of the time. Warner prefers two different route combinations. The Spartans utilize shallow crossing routes such as mesh, or deploying vertical corner/go routes, particularly off play action.

Cook has undoubtedly improved as the season progressed. He exhibits nice touch, particularly on deep routes.

But he can also get rattled and throw off his back foot, leading to inaccuracy. The Spartan offense seeks to avoid must-pass situations where an opponent's defense line can tee off rushing the passer.

Taking a Page

The Michigan State offense and Ohio State defense present a match-up of each team's less heralded units. 

The Spartans' offensive success is predicated upon advantageous field position created by its defense. Michigan State's offense is also based upon the run game, the area where the Buckeye defense excels.

But Michigan State will likely try to exploit the Buckeyes' areas of weakness. Look for Michigan State to use heavy formations to run to the boundary, and then deploy counters, jet sweeps, and other misdirection to the widen field to try and exploit Buckeye over-aggressiveness. If the Spartans can establish a run game they will be dangerous with the vertical play action pass.

For its part, Ohio State will likely utilize a similar game plan to the teams' 2012 contest. In that game the Spartans also ran to the boundary. But the Buckeye defense effectively widened in response, and Luke Fickell utilized quarter-quarter-half coverage with Bradley Roby in force support. Fickell also successfully deployed single-high safety blitzes, particularly on third down.

For Ohio State, the defense's success likely comes down to whether the line can control the line of scrimmage, as the Buckeyes have a higher chance of success in rendering Michigan State one-dimensional.

And Now, the One We've All Been Waiting For

But the Michigan State offense vs. Ohio State defense is undoubtedly the under card to the Buckeye offense against the Spartan defense.

Narduzzi's defense has become one of the best in college football by embracing a specific identity – a 4-3 over, cover 4. By Narduzzi's account, Michigan State played that coverage at least 65% of the time in 2012, and the Spartans' defense flows from this framework.

Although the Spartans implement cover 4's basic tenets, Narduzzi has placed his personal stamp on the coverage. This begins with the corners. Unlike traditional cover 4, Narduzzi generally has his corners align in press coverage to help eliminate easy throws to the flat. And the corners generally play what Nick Saban calls "Meg" technique, meaning they will play the outside receiver in man coverage.

The aggressive corner play frees the safeties to provide run support. The Spartan safeties rarely align beyond 10 yards and read the number two receiver to their side, coming down in run support if the receiver blocks.

Aggressive corner play frees Michigan State's safeties for run support.

Against spread teams, the Spartans often cheat the Sam linebacker/nickel defender off the slot receiver into the gray area, utilizing a permanent scrape exchange where the defensive end plays the front side zone and the Sam accounts for the quarterback.

Narduzzi also deploys two favorite blitzes frequently, that being a double A gap linebacker blitz, or a blitz from the boundary corner. The latter is yet another method to combat the spread run game.

Operating this scheme is an experienced, disciplined unit. The Spartans' defense has eight multi-year starters, and is led by linebacker Max Bullough and safety Isaiah Lewis. The two ensure that the defense is properly aligned and help the unit quickly adjust from one series to the next.

Beating the System  

Yet, as with any defense, holes exist. Nebraska provided a template for playing the Spartan defense, scoring 28 points against the Spartans, despite turning the football over five times.

The relative weakness of Michigan State's defense is their defensive tackles, and the Cornhuskers controlled the point of attack inside, averaging 5.6 yards per rush, largely on inside zone and inverted veer. Nebraska then stressed the edge with bubble screens to take advantage of the Spartan slot defender cheating against the run.

Finally, Nebraska created big plays down field by attacking the rules of Narduzzi's cover 4. For instance, Nebraska ran a switch route off play action. This put Narduzzi's aggressive cover 4 in conflict. Although the corner largely plays man coverage, with this route combination, he needed to trade the inside receiver off to the safety and cover the wheel route. 

Nebraska had success attacking the rules of Pat Narduzzi's cover 4

But both the corner and safety went with the inside switch route, leaving the wheel route wide open for an easy touchdown.

Better play the wheel route, son.

Jimmy and Joes

The Buckeye offense used similar principles last season to win at Michigan State - despite three turnovers. The Buckeyes attacked the edge with Braxton Miller and early wide receiver screens to counteract the Spartans' aggressiveness. For instance, below the Buckeyes took advantage of the Spartans crashing down against inside zone, using the H-Back to lead Miller around edge. 

The Buckeyes also repeatedly deployed lead outside zone with Miller.

Then, after Devin Smith beat the Spartan defensive backs over the top for a go-ahead touchdown, Ohio State turned to Carlos Hyde with inside zone to seal the win.

On Saturday, the Buckeyes will likely use the same broad outline, but are now a far more effective and diverse run/pass offense than was featured last season in East Lansing. Look for the Buckeyes to attack the edge early with jet sweeps and inverted veer, as well as mid-range cover 4 beaters like Snag. Urban Meyer and Tom Herman likely want to keep Michigan State off-balance early before returning to their two-headed rushing attack of Miller and Hyde.

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