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.


Comments Show All Comments

wyatt's picture

Thanks for breaking down the schemes so some of us can anticipate what might happen Saturday in the biggest game for the Buckeyes in several years.

MN Buckeye's picture

Thanks for your analysis, Ross! Having read your articles for a while now, I am actually beginning to understand what you are saying. Looking forward to some great matchups.

Blue Eyed Buckeye's picture

Ross Fulton for 2013 11Warriors MVP!

Seattle Linga's picture

Nice analysis Ross! Spot on in my opinion because Sparty is so defensive minded and that is their true strength. 
They have not faced an offense like ours this year and there will be only so many adjustments they can make when there defenders (back 7) are tired of tracking CH and BM all ovewr the field.
Go Buckeyes - Laser Focused Boys!

warosu's picture

Love it! Thanks Ross

GoBucks10's picture

Great analysis, Ross.  I think the key to victory this weekend is going to be solid execution in all three facets of the game:
- Offensively no turnovers and keeping play-calling from bogging down
- Defensively sound tacking, QB pressure, and stopping the run
- Special teams excellence especially with regards to prepping for trick plays

"Because I couldn't go for three."  - Woody Hayes

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Prepare yourselves to be shocked!!! Both Mark 'Erkel' May and Brian Greazy just picked MSU to beat Ohio State!!!  WOW - I am completely taken by surprise !!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

DannyBeane's picture

Mark May choosing against us is like a good luck charm. As long as he picks anyone else I feel confident. 

oldbuckeyedave's picture

lol, mark may and greasy both get to get embarrassed saturday. go bucks beat sparty and embarrass espn


Dougger's picture

Don't care what other people predict, as long as Herman outsmarts Narduzzi, and our players want it more, play smarter, and absolutely limit turnovers. 
Edit: GREAT breakdown Ross, looks like Dontre could be our X-factor for the boundary to get space and keep them on edge. GO BUCKS

I like football

dubjayfootball90's picture

Ross, you are the man

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

cal3713's picture

Really happy we played them last year so that we have some ingame experience against their scheme.  

GOOMBAY's picture

Outstanding. That is all.

usafcap603's picture

I have been reading articles on 11W for almost a year and finally signed up yesterday, I love Ross's breakdowns and am excited to post my first reply!  I can barely contain the excitement for Saturday's matchup!  Go Bucks!  OH!
P.S. Mark May, you are a bafoon, but thanks for the continued disrespect, love it!

MN Buckeye's picture

Welcome 603! Glad you joined the fray!

BrooklynBuckeye's picture

Welcome to the best board on the web! IO!

Boxley's picture

Mark May is a buffoon. But he is so bad, he is probably the more rare, mythical, bafoon as well.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

Nutbuck1959's picture

I still maintain that May is setup to be the OSU hater.  He may really enjoy it, but i believe it is all set up.

mtgerken's picture

Player to watch: Dontre Wilson
His speed will be crucial in this one. Getting out to the corner on jet sweeps and triple options will be the biggest part of the game as Dontre can beat the DB's. If he can we will have plenty of room on the inside waiting for El Guapo  to burst through! Go Buckeyes

"Because I couldn't go for three!"


Seattle Linga's picture

Hopefully Dontre will have fun on the indoor track 

Hovenaut's picture

Wouldn't mind seeing him go Teddy Ginn 2005 on Sparty tomorrow.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think Philly Brown is also in line for a big performance from the slot.

Go1Bucks's picture

Please forward to a certain Fick(le)ell coach for insight, just in case...

Go Bucks!

Maestro's picture

Heuerman, Spencer, Smith, Brown, Wilson, Hyde, Miller.  Weapons baby!!!!

vacuuming sucks

osuguy2008's picture

I was hoping for a full Defensive breakdown this week but after that performance last week I guess Ross decided to forget it

Maestro's picture

He did it earlier in the week with the offensive breakdown.  Pretty sure it was Tuesday.

vacuuming sucks

Ross Fulton's picture

Yep, I included both my offensive and defensive breakdown in my Tuesday post.

will0327's picture

Yes was thinking all week Dontre is the Xfactor think about we really haven't even seen the 3 head monster of Hyde-Miller-Wilson. Because with Hyde and Miller attacking the middle mostly Dontre should have plenty of chances to make plays .... and lets not forget this WR group has been drilled to good at blocking (thank god) because if we are able to block those corners all year like they have year ..... we should be all right 
Also Shazier is going to lose his mind in that dome watch.


SOF_Buckeye's picture

Is this the week of the 'Diamond' formation...?

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Woody Hayes

Ross Fulton's picture

Not going to happen...


just doesnt add anything for this group. 

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Conner Cook - please meet Ryan DAMN Shazier!!!  Oh, your mouth piece is 5 yards back!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Young_Turk's picture

I would like to take a week of vacation and attend the Ross Fulton football for dummies seminar. 
Taking the students from the basics of formation and positions, covering various philosophies, breaking down various games from preceding years, watching a half of football and devising half-time adjustments for your team, and finally devising a game plan for a future opponent. 
I'm in for $500. 


TNBuckeye1421's picture

Great article Ross... How much of a factor do you think playing in a dome on the turf will help OSU

Ross Fulton's picture

I think it is certainly in OSU's favor, particularly in the passing game. Any inclement weather would have helped MSU as the less explosive team. 

hetuck's picture

Two plays come to mind. 1) the 2nd play of the Cal game where Guiton faked the wide screen and hit Smith on the fly for 93 yards. 2) I think it was Iowa where they used Wilson as a decoy and hit Philly Brown on a post. Both plays take advantage of safeties sneaking up. 
I also look for some speed option and misdirection. Finally, the TE down the middle off play action could be deadly. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, I fully expecting to see the play action deep cross play off inverted veer that takes perfect advantage of a C4 safety.

osuguy2008's picture

Ross- Does MSU's defesnse set is front to the field/boundary or purely off of the offense's strength (ie. the tight end)?

Ross Fulton's picture

Good question. They generally align their over to the field. Like OSU, they have field and boundary players.


But they have numerous adjustments they make to deal with teams who are gaining yardage running one way or the other. For instance, if a team is successfully running to the 1-tech side they will call for a "G-Technique" which means that the 1-tech widens to a 2-i. They will thus alter the DL alignments.

osuguy2008's picture

So that means they'll put their 3 technique & best pass rusher to the field, correct?

Zimmy07's picture

In MSU's Cover 4 - if OSU comes out w/ 20 personnel (2 RB's & 3 WR's, no TE) do I understand correctly that MSU would cover Dontre Wilson w/ a LB if he were to motion out of the backfield into a 4th WR spot?

Jones's picture

I'd expect to see a lot of Trips (3 WRs to one side) to the Field from OSU in this game. They showed it a lot last week, although they mostly ran out of that formation as they had a numbers advantage due to Michigan's alignment, by keeping Heuerman in as a regular TE to the boundary, away from all the WRs.
Since MSU often blitzes the boundary corner, I wouldn't be shocked if OSU kept a WR to to the boundary with Heuerman lined up as one of the WRs to the field (creating a 3x1), and keeping a man there to block the boundary CB on run plays, as well as keep the defense from playing tight to the box. If OSU can run inside on MSU's DTs, as Ross pointed out, then MSU will likely look for ways to bring extra defenders into the box, and the 3x1 could negate that.

Ross Fulton's picture

Great post. Trips is always great against C4 teams because it is difficult to play the coverage against trips. Generally a D needs to roll coverage towards the trips and play man on the backside. 



I think OSU will use lots of 4 wide with Heuerman in the slot, because it limits the type of blitzes MSU can utilize.