Craig Has The Scout - Michigan State 2019
Who: Michigan State Spartans
When: 2:30 pm - November 9th, 2019
Where: Spartan Stadium
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio. Dantonio has been coaching in the Midwest since 1980. Dantonio first came to Michigan State as the DB coach under Nick Saban. Dantonio moved on from Michigan State for a reunion with Jim Tressel at Ohio State. He parlayed the DC job at Ohio State into the Cincinnati job, where he had a .500 record in three seasons at the helm. Dantonio is the winningest coach in Spartan history, but has struggled three of the last four seasons. Dantonio seems to have fallen into the trap of refusing to fire his friends.
Offensive Style: Shotgun spread, and plodding. Dantonio shuffled the offensive coaching staff positions in the offseason, and the result is the exact same as last year. The Spartans have actually changed over the last two seasons, and have thrown more times than they have passed. In Dantonio's heyday, they had a string of solid RB-QB combinations that were run heavy affairs. Now, they run for about 3.5 yards per carry.
Defensive Style: A 4-2-5 with with Cover 4 behind. Mike Tressel is the DC. This defense though is an extension of Dantonio, and his fingerprints are all over it. The defense has slipped since Pat Narduzzi moved to Pitt, but the Spartans still have the #11 SP+ defense nationally.
Specialists: Some of Dantonio's biggest moments in his history have come on Special Teams, including fake field goals and blocked punts. Those are but a memory now, because the Spartans special teams are abysmal this season.
Three Things to Watch
The Spartan Run Defense up the middle. Joe Bachie had been one of the best LBs in the B1G this season. He failed a PED test, and now appears to be done for the season. The Spartans don't seem to have an heir apparent, which should soften up the middle of the Spartans run defense. It will be interesting to see if Dre Brown can exploit this.
Which team starts fast. Illinois struggled to get going last weekend, and didn't get rolling until the 2nd half. The Spartans have been sleepwalking the first half of their last three games as well. Whichever teams starts fast probably wins this game.
3rd down conversions. The winner of the game is going to win this category. Illinois and Michigan State need to stay ahead of the chains in this game to stay in 3rd and manageable. Whichever team executes this best wins.
Scouting Review - Offense
In the offseason, Mark Dantonio played musical titles for his offensive staff. He changed what every offensive coach was responsible for, while maintaining the same members of the staff. The changes kept the paperboard industry busy in Michigan printing business cards, but it did very little to improve the actual offense.
The shame of it all is that the Spartans have some decent skill position talent, but have wasted most of that talent this year in an offense that might be the worst of Dantonio's tenure in East Lansing. Against Illinois, the talent will be limited as the top receiver for the Spartans, Stewart, will be out this week. The replacement is a junior who lacks most of the attributes that made Stewart stand out on film.
The staff seems to be looking to next year already though. They have suddenly listed a series of co-starters on the offense. Top TE threat, a senior, Seybert is listed with the backup Jr. TE. Seybert is a middling blocker, but a solid receiver. With the sudden changes, it looks as if Michigan State is going to double down on the run game.
The easiest play to execute for Michigan State is the zone blocking scheme with a pure handoff. The Spartans will probably attempt this early, but may abandon it quickly. The starting center is also out for the game, and his presumed replacement is a true freshman. If he has to work against Jamal Milan all day, they might abandon this quickly.
They might mix this up by using motion to try and freeze the Illini LBs, allowing for combination blocks to slow the Illini DTs down.
The Illini don't bounce on motion like this, and would move to an under front. This creates a free release to the 2nd level for the Spartans OL, and allows the OL clean assignments.
The play Michigan State will run the most, along with its wrinkles, is the read option.
Illinois gave up yards to Langan and the Scarlet Knights in this look last week. The Spartans will be more competent than Rutgers, but less so than Minnesota. The interior of the Spartan OL is pretty weak, so the Illini DTs might be able to disrupt this.
Michigan State will TEs both inline and lined up as H backs. Against Northwestern and Indiana, they would add three to a side to add gaps and create mismatches on the edge.
The blocking scheme is interesting here because the H-backs are coming back inside on the zone blocking scheme to tie up the 2nd level of the defense. Wisconsin did this with some success against Illinois.
Brian Lewerke was QB1 for most of the year for the Spartans, but Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day have both been getting snaps from him as the year has progressed. Lewerke should take a majority of snaps against Illinois, he has the legs to make the read option work. Here is Lewerke on a read option keep
Lewerke wasn't able to shake the DE fast enough to attack the Nickel. Lewerke normally gets 4-6 yards on pulls like this.
The real wrinkle for Sparty is going to be the RPO game. The Spartans took a page out of the Gus Malzahn RPO book to generate different looks for the defense. The Illini corners have not been great against attacks to the flats, so I believe the Spartans will start the RPO game challenging the Illini CBs.
Lewerke was throwing this one before the snap, but this is a full RPO. Illinois will need to attack the block and stymie this similar to what Tulsa did.
Once Illinois overcommits to attacking the flat receiver, the Spartans like to slip the blocker up the sideline, similar to Purdue.
This video is pretty much the epitome of the Spartan offense this year. When the play calls are there, the execution is lacking.
The other way to attack the aggressive defenders is to run the same RPO look, but change up the route tree with a set of hitch routes. This has the same effect on the defense as a play action pass. It is also a Gus Malzahn favorite.
The Spartans had some really bad spacing on the routes here, but Lewerke completed the pass.
When things go really wrong, Lewerke has the ability to make plays.
This play is a complete bust in terms of execution, but Lewerke made lemonade out of it. This is the type of play that worries me. The Illini have been playing looks like this very aggressively, but a weird option may break for a big play.
If Lewerke is watching from the sidelines, I'm fairly certain the Spartans will abandon some of the RPO action, sticking with the pure read option. To introduce the pass element, the Spartans run play action looks out of this same run action.
The Spartans broke a big gain here by attacking the sidelines. The Spartan OL is pretty easy to read, they fire off the line on run plays, and set up quickly in pass pro like on this play.
The Spartans run read option three ways. The first is the zone read option seen above, the next is a Wham option look bring the H back across the formation, which allows the H back to slip into the flat. The final is using a Power blocking scheme. Michigan State is going to run all three and pound the one that has the most success. The above options exist for all three types of read option, and the Spartans will look to find something that works and stick with it. Here is the basic Wham read option play.
This is another instance of adding TEs and H-backs to increase the gaps to cover. The length of the formation made the H-back block back across the formation difficult to execute. If the DE overcommits to the run, the Spartans slip the H-back into the flat.
Lewerke is the best option at QB for this action for the Spartans. The receiver action clears the flat out leaving the H-back with a clean 5 yard cushion.
The other line blocking option is the Power blocking scheme.
Lewerke pulled this a couple of times in the film I watched. When he did, he had solid success on the carries. The blocking action on this helps the C on the 1-technique DT. If Michigan State goes with this, they may motion an H-back or TE to flip the Illini defensive front and clean up the blocking assignments.
At least once the Spartans will run a Z-motion read option. They telegraph the play since the offense is struggling, but they are going to run it to try and spring a big play.
The Spartans do run a few non-read plays. Aside from the zone blocking mentioned above, they also run a counter and a power play.
The run blocking for the Spartans is just ok, and they had more success with the read option looks against their opponents.
The Spartan passing attack has a lot of West Coast elements to it. They do a lot of timing drops, and hit outs when they can. The Spartan passing attack is primarily designed to attack zone defenses, so Illinois might run more man this week than normal. Here is the sideline timing route Sparty loves to use.
The Spartan OL is a dead give-away this is a pass. Most teams have their corners take inside leverage against Michigan State. When the Spartans see it, they take this sideline out route. If the CB shuts down the route, the crossing route is the checkdown for the QB.
Against Ohio State, they were scheming the Buckeyes pass D pretty well early in the game. The Spartans generated levels (West Coast style) to put the zone defenders in conflict.
Wisconsin picked apart the Illini using this concept, up until Tony Adams picked one of the passes.
I don't think the Spartans are going to go crazy through the air this week. I believe they are going to continually pound the read option look, and make the Illini stop them. They rarely take shots down the field, but if they do against Illinois they will do it off of Play Action.
The Spartan offense looked pretty good early in the year against mid-level competition and Indiana. The last three games, the offensive scheme has been ok, but the execution has been lacking. This weekend, the Spartans will simplify the offense and try to get it on track using the read option. Illinois has yet to shut down a read option attack, and the Spartans will try to use this game to get the offense back in gear.
Scouting Review - Defense
Michigan State runs a 4-3 Cover 4 scheme as the base defense. The Spartans will replace a LB with a nickel, but still run the same base scheme. A Cover 4 look utilizes a two high safety look, with pressing corners. The corners have work the zone outside the hashes, and are pass first defenders. By playing the two high look, the defense forces the offense to throw outside in the areas the corners vacate. Throws to the flats and along the sidelines are lower percentage throws than hitch routes.
Dantonio likes to press his corners in their Quarters (Cover 4) coverage. The press coverage limits available routes for the offense and shrinks the field even more. The easiest way to attack this is slants and vertical routes. The vertical routes along the sideline are hard to complete, while the slants bring the receiver to aggressive safeties.
The safeties and linebackers in the Michigan State press quarters scheme are extremely aggressive against the run. The safeties work between the hashes and fly to the ball on run plays.
One way to exploit the Dantonio Cover 4 with the skillset of Brandon Peters is to run RPOs, but have the receivers to run quick hitch routes behind the ultra aggressive linebackers. The Spartan corner run a softer press than typical, and react and get physical with receivers after they commit. The Illini outside receivers will struggle to separate from the Spartan secondary, so Illinois will need a receiver to step up in the slot this week. A punishing between the tackles set of runs mixed with RPOs behind the LBs is a recipe for success. To combat this, Michigan State will stay in an Over front with Quarters behind. They will try to eliminate the read option and RPO by forcing the offense to hand the ball off and swarm.
The Spartan defense is pretty standard, and doesn't blitz often, and stunts even less. The base defense takes advantage of two stout DTs. The middle will be softened up though by the loss of their starting MLB. Here is the base D
The look from Western Michigan is primarily what Illinois utilizes. As you can see from the play, the safety has pass coverage responsibility for the H-back. As soon as the H-back commits to blocking, the safety is flying up in run support and make the tackle.
Against Indiana Read Option look, the Spartans started having their DEs stand up. This gave them a better view for the read option look and allowed them to chase plays. Here is the RPO look that Indiana ran against the Spartans.
The Hoosiers pre-snap look made the Nickel the press player, and the corner dropped deeper. Once the receiver broke in, the corner is handing off his pass responsibilities and taking the receiver who gets the pass. This is about the best case scenario attacking the flat against the Spartans.
The Spartans will run blitz their LBs to create havoc. When they fail to get behind the line of scrimmage, the offense has a chance to attack the safeties directly.
Here the Hoosier RB cuts it back to the gap between the 3 technique and DE. The blitzing LB ran himself out of the play and allowed the easy blocking scheme.
One strength of the Spartan front is the ability of the defenders to play a shoulder of the blocker on offense. When the Spartan defenders are engaged, they hold their gap and keep an arm free from the blocker
The effect is a wall of Spartan defenders, which forces the RB to bounce the run parallel to the line of scrimmage. The RB running to the sideline allows the safeties to chase down the play and minimize yardage on runs. If the Illini middle three cannot move the Spartan line off the LOS, the Illini rushing attack will stall.
For all the woes of the Spartan offense, the defense has been extremely good this year. They currently sit at 11th in SP+. The defense should limit Illinois to 14 points maximum. All they need is the offense to score more than 14 for the win.
What does it mean?
The key is going to be stringing together drives. The Illini are dependent on big plays to score. They are 12th in the B1G in red zone attempts. They are 7th in PPG though. Breaking big plays (and a defense with a propensity to score) is a key facet of the Illini attack. The Michigan State defense is going to scheme to take away the explosive runs. By forcing Illini to string together drives, they are going to make Illinois execute in a way they have not this season. The way for Illinois to break the Spartan attack is by moving the QB in the run game, or going deep in the passing game.
I'm not sure how many points the Spartan offense is going to score though. I think they can string together more than one half unlike Rutgers. I'm not sure they can score 30 on Illinois though.
For Illinois to Win:
The Illini middle of the OL needs to create vertical gaps in the Spartan front. The Illini offense must minimize turnovers and keep the defense off the field. The Illini have tightened up the rotation of defensive players and the Spartan offense will try to keep them on the field for long drives.
The Illini defense needs to be opportunistic and get the Spartan offense behind the sticks. Michigan State struggles when they become one dimensional, and struggle to move the ball. The Illini must continue to play Lovieball to win.
For Michigan State to Win:
The Spartans cannot turn the ball over and avoid the fate of Wisconsin and Purdue. The Illini have been living off of turnovers and big plays. The Spartans must minimize both of these, and find a run play that works. Once they establish the run, they can start to dictate the pace and style of the game.
That's a BIG line, and it is growing. I truly don't know what Vegas knows, especially with all the injuries and suspensions in East Lansing. The Spartans have scored 17 points in their last three games, and are favorites by damn near that much. In my decision to have the Illini be on the wrong side of the spread, I'll take the Spartans to cover. And if and when they do, it will be the most Illinois way possible.
YTD Against the Spread: