Head coach Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans enter Ohio Stadium this Saturday in control of their postseason destiny, with visions of a Big Ten East title and possible inclusion in the College Football Playoffs. But after starting the season with eight straight wins and rising as high as No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Spartans stubbed their toe in a 39-38 loss to a then 3-6 Nebraska squad two weeks ago. Despite the loss, Michigan State again finds itself in a meaningful November match-up with the second-ranked Buckeyes.
While the matchup may not yet be a true rivalry, the schools have split the last four meetings, and are unquestionably the top two programs in the Big Ten East. In last season's offensive-fueled 49-37 victory in East Lansing, the Buckeyes avenged a 2013 Big Ten Championship game loss to the Spartans in which running back Jeremy Langford gashed the Buckeye run defense to the tune of 137 yards and three touchdowns, while quarterback Connor Cook quietly threw for 358 yards and two scores. With both teams averaging over 32 points-per-game this season, do not expect field goals to get it done this Saturday.
The Michigan State offense continues to run its signature pro-style, gap-run scheme, although the squad clearly misses the consistency Langford (currently starting for the Chicago Bears) brought to the run game. The Spartans have relied on a running back by committee approach, with three backs receiving at least 75 carries through 10 games. Freshmen Madre London and LJ Scott have provided a bulk of the offense’s running yards (the two have combined for 924 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns), although both have seen late-season reductions in playing time due to injuries and ball security concerns. The unit currently averages a pedestrian 3.9 yards-per-carry, the lowest of Dantonio’s tenure at MSU.
The Spartan offensive line, considered a strength coming into the season, has not performed up to expectations either. The unit has started five different combinations due to injuries, and has not protected Cook well as of late. After taking two hard hits in a 24-7 win over Maryland last weekend, Cook left the game in the first quarter to have his shoulder examined. He returned during the second quarter, only to be pulled again due to ineffective play. While Dantonio labeled Cook’s pulling as “precautionary”, his arm should remain a going concern as Cook will likely be called on to make vertical throws this Saturday.
Leading an offense plagued by an inconsistent running game and struggles on the offensive line, the dynamic duo of quarterback Connor Cook and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge must both have statement games against a tough Ohio State pass defense this Saturday if the Spartans want to upset the defending national champions.
Cook, a three-year starter, holds the keys to a Michigan State victory this Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior currently leads the Big Ten in touchdown passes (21) and ranks second in passing efficiency (143). He is considered a lock for selection in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft by most draft pundits, and has the opportunity to finish out his senior season in style with a win over Ohio State, a Big Ten Championship, and possible postseason play.
As a run-heavy team, play-action passing concepts form an important component of the Spartan’s offensive scheme. Effective play action concepts should be built off and compliment a team’s base run game. In last year’s meeting Michigan State ran a variety of plays including Power, Counter, and Inside Trap to great success, tallying up 178 yards and three touchdowns.
In spite of an inconsistent running game and an injury-plagued offensive line, Cook has successfully executed the play-action game several times this season.
In Michigan State’s opening-season 37-24 victory over Western Michigan, Cook put the team in position to score its first touchdown of the year off a beautiful post-corner combination, hitting his receiver on the run for a 40-yard completion.
Notice the accuracy and arm strength Cook demonstrated, effortlessly throwing the ball to his open receiver. Cook's hot feet, square shoulders, and tight release all contribute to his ability to fit the football into tight windows.
Cook again demonstrated his accuracy in one of college football’s premier early-season matchups against Oregon. Early in a 7-7 game, the Michigan State offense pulled the string on 2nd and long, freeing up tight end Josiah Price to take a 14-7 lead.
Facing 4th and six in Oregon territory, Cook put his arm strength on display one more time, throwing a dime to his slot receiver off the famous Smash concept. The placement on this throw is elite, with Cook fitting the ball between two defenders where only his wide receiver could make the catch.
In Michigan State’s stunning last-second victory over Michigan, the offense executed a well-designed play action concept off their base Power, pulling a guard away from the intended receiver to test the defender's eye discipline.
Watch the clip again with a focus on Michigan’s second level defenders. Notice how aggressively they attack the line of scrimmage when the “see” run, allowing fullback Trevon Pendleton to slip into the undefended curl zone for an easy pitch-and-catch.
While success in the play action passing game should translate to points, the Spartans need star wide receiver Aaron Burbridge to stuff the stat sheet as well. The senior is Cook’s go-to receiver and currently lead the Big Ten in yards (101.2 per game) and receptions (6.5 per game). The 6-foot-1, 210-pound receiver possesses phenomenal body control and sure, soft hands.
Burbridge’s signature touchdown to date came against Air Force, in which he caught a highlight-reel touchdown, diving for the ball and managing to tap his left foot down in the end zone before sliding out of bounds.
Burbridge possesses extraordinary hand-eye coordination, allowing him to consistently pluck the ball out of the air. This ability increases his catch radius and allows him to maintain full speed through his routes, increasing YAC (yards after catch), and he has put this highly-coveted skill on display several times this season.
Burbridge’s hand-eye coordination and soft hands allowed him to press upfield very quickly for a 34-yard touchdown in an eventual loss to Nebraska. NFL scouts love his ability to take the ball out the air with his hands, rather than using the body to trap the ball with the arms.
Knowing that Cook will attempt to go downfield off play action and consistently look to Burbridge in key situations, what can the Silver Bullets do to minimize their damage?
Look for three factors:
- Limit explosive plays off play action
- Play man-coverage
- Blitz Cook on pass-heavy down and distances
Limiting explosive plays off play action requires quick, accurate key reads by the linebackers and secondary.
Interior defenders (the MIKE and WILL) will read the guards while perimeter defenders (SAM and defensive ends) will read the EMLOS (usually a tight end or tackle) for their run/pass key. Interior and perimeter defenders will read using the hi-hat, lo-hat rule (hi-hat generally tips pass blocking while lo-hat generally tips run blocking) and play direction keys (Does the offensive lineman down block? Zone step? Pull?).
As the 2015 season has progressed, co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell have increasingly played cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley in man coverage, particularly against pro-style offenses. Expect this trend to continue.
In man coverage, or Cover-1, Apple and Conley will line up in a pressed position directly over the outside wide receiver, disrupt the receiver’s route at the line of scrimmage, and follow the receiver wherever he goes. A single deep safety provides help against any vertical routes that may get by the corners.
In the Buckeye's 49-7 dismantling of Rutgers, cornerback Gareon Conley's tight man coverage lead to a third quarter interception of quarterback Chris Laviano.
By simplifying the cornerback’s coverage rules (follow your man wherever he goes) and providing deep help overtop, the defense will look to avoid letting Burbridge slip behind a defender to create an explosive play and possible score.
Finally, the Buckeye defense will look to exploit Cook’s tendency to lose his mechanics outside the pocket and force the ball into tight windows with a heavy dose of blitzes. As analyzed in previous film studies, the Ohio State defense often moves into a 3-3-5 nickel package in obvious passing situations.
The Buckeyes will send a variety of blitzes from the Nickel package, but look for SAM linebacker Darron Lee to display his excellent speed coming off the edge from the wide-side of the field.
As the weather cools, the games become more meaningful. Both teams find themselves in a familiar position, needing a win over a top-ten opponent to continue marching towards the Big Ten Championship game. When opponents with elite talent meet, the outcome is often decided by execution. Who will make the plays this Saturday? Connor Cook and his go-to receiver Aaron Burbridge, or the reanimated Silver Bullets?