Craig Has The Scout - Michigan State 2022
I'm not sure if you noticed, but ever since that glitch appeared where Craig is unable to post under his own username, we haven't lost a game. So as this winning streak continues, there's no way we'd go back to "Craig posts under his own byline."
Also, it's not fixed yet and Craig still can't post under his own byline. So there's that.
To Craig's scout:
Who: Michigan State Spartans
When: 2:30 pm - November 5th, 2022
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Mel Tucker. Tucker is a B1G kind of guy. Started as a player at Wisconsin, and his first coaching job was as a GA for Nick Saban at Michigan State. He was on Saban's first staff at LSU before joining Jim Tressell at Ohio State. He moved from Ohio State to the NFL, ending with a disastrous turn with the Chicago Bears. Saban picked him back up at Alabama, and he left to be part of Kirby Smart's first staff at Georgia. Tucker has something that elite coaches like, three separate national championship-winning coaches pulled him on their staff. He left Georgia to be the HC at Colorado, and after one season bailed for the Michigan State role. Tucker has made a splash and has a contract to match. The most interesting part of the Tucker experience is his staff. Tucker is a man dripping in elite connections that assembled a staff markedly worse than Bielema's.
Offensive Style: Shotgun Spread zone rushing attack with Screens and deep shots attached. Jay Johnson is the OC, who Tucker picked up from Georgia and took to Colorado. Johnson is from the Jim Chaney school of offense, Chaney was the OC for Purdue with Tiller. When Sparty can run, they will. They run mainly outside zone for the rushing attack, and the passing attack is quick hitters, screens, and intermediate option routes.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 Cover 1. Scottie Hazelton is the DC, and is coming under increasing fire from the fanbase. The Spartan defense was not great against the pass last year, as evidenced by Ohio State picking them apart. They are struggling against the run this year as well.
Specialists: Michigan State possesses one of the best punters in the league, and probably the worst place-kicker. In a game where field goals may matter, Michigan State will try to punch the ball in the end zone due to poor place-kicking. In a game where punters will have to earn their keep, Michigan State sports an advantage.
2022 Michigan State at a Glance:
2022 Record: 3-5, 1-4
Rushing Offense: 97.5 ypg
Passing Offense: 239.4 ypg
Total Offense: 336.9 ypg
Scoring Offense: 24.5 ppg
Rushing Defense: 168.6 ypg
Pass Defense: 256.3 ypg
Total Defense: 424.9 ypg
Scoring Defense: 27.4 ppg
Turnover Margin: 0
Three Things to Watch
Whichever way the wind blows. The weather report is not favorable for Chase Brown's legs. With the wind gusting up to 40mph on Saturday, it will be breezy. Add in the possibility of rain, this could be a sloppy game. And run heavy.
The Illini run/pass ratio. Illinois is a VERY run-heavy team. Michigan State has historically been one of the worst pass defenses under Tucker and just lost multiple key pieces on the DL and secondary. Illinois might look to keep the run lanes open with a short passing attack.
Michigan State's OL at the point of attack. Only a few teams have had much success running the ball against the Illini. Sparty will try to mimic Minnesota, the Gophers were averaging 1.5 ypc before contact against Illinois and ripped off 156 yards. All other OLs against Illinois have struggled to keep that number above 0, and only Wyoming and Minnesota have eclipsed 100 rushing yards against the Illini.
Scouting Review - Offense
Jay Johnson is the OC for Michigan State, and he is a well-traveled play caller. He cut his teeth at Kansas before they hired Mangino, and moved from there to Southern Miss where he got his first OC gig. He did such a great job the head coach that hired him was fired after 18 years at Southern Miss. He moved from there to Craig Kragthorpe's staff at Louisville, and his only full year on staff was Kragthorpe's last. He then moved to Central Michigan on Dan Enos' first staff, only to move on to Louisiana Lafayette for Mark Hudspeth. He left ULL to take over as OC for Tracy Claeys at Minnesota in 2016 before the entire staff was fired after a 9-4 season. His offenses were never great and tended to be paired with a strong defense.
In 2017 he moved to Georgia as a support staff member working with Jim Chaney. This is where Johnson's current identity was manifested. Johnson runs a lot of outside zone runs, misdirection using WRs and H-backs as kick-out blockers, and plenty of WR screens on the perimeter. The offense takes advantage of playmakers though and is currently 42nd in SP+. If the defense was better, Sparty would be going places.
The playmakers are at the skill positions primarily. Michigan State is the highest-talent team Illinois has faced this season. The best area to see the talent is at WR. Keon Coleman (#0) is the most explosive receiver the Illini have faced, but Trey Palmer from Nebraska is on par with him. Jayden Reed (#1), the receiver opposite Coleman, might create more challenges for the Illini. He is a possession receiver with a knack for getting himself open.
At QB, Payton Thorne shares a lot of similarities with Tommy DeVito. Thorne is accurate and has an average depth of throw that is painfully shallow. Michigan State is run heavy on 1st and 2nd down runs, and falls behind the chains often. They rely on Thorne to pass to move the chains and most of the offense is short routes. About 40% of Thorne's passes are behind the LOS. Michigan is quite the outlier on the season for Thorne, prior to that he was very efficient when being blitzed and generated explosive plays doing so. Michigan chose not to blitz. Illinois…likes to blitz. Thorne's ability to withstand the pressure will be an advantage for the Spartans.
The Michigan State OL is really solid on paper. PFF would say this is a solid B1G line, with two all-B1G level talents. The left side in particular grades out well and are both good in run blocking. Wisconsin had a similarly graded OL coming into their game with the Illini. This will be a challenge for the Illini DTs, but more importantly for the ILBs. When the Illini LBs get caught in the wash, bad things have been happening. The thing is, the NERDstats don't really bear out that this is a good OL. The RBs average 0.2 yards before contact, and the pressure rate allowed against good defenses is around 40%. It is the odd case of a lot of good individual efforts falling apart due to the weak link.
The primary blocking action for the Spartans is the zone scheme. The Spartans are a wide zone team, and they utilize the H-back in different blocking configurations. In this play, they use the H-back from the backfield and seal the edge with him.
In other instances, they will put the H-back on the end of the line and give him the exact same blocking assignment.
This play is pretty good for understanding how the Spartans would stack up against the Illini. Illinois will use this exact same defensive front for the majority of the game.
The Illini secondary needs to stay awake though, as Michigan State is more than happy to run a play-action look off this run game.
The run blocking and action is the same, but Coleman stays at the LOS opposite the play. Thorne has a naked boot on this, and a couple of reads. Coleman is the second option after Reed is running the deep out. If both of those are covered, the TE is dragging across the middle. The TE is the player to watch in this for Illinois as he will be isolated with the ILBs. The other option for the play-action is one of the deep shots built into the playbook. The Michigan State OL is pretty stout in pass blocking at the point of attack, and Thorne has enough mobility to avoid bad sacks. Here is the deep shot.
It's a little hard to tell since Thorne was flushed early, but I believe he hit his primary receiver on the route. Thorne has a tendency to check down early though, and his favorite target in the deeper passing game is the TE on a dig route over the middle.
The primary back Berger is a solid back. He's not Kenneth Walker III, nor Chase Brown, but he is a very able and competent back. Berger runs with patience and rarely misses gaps his OL creates.
Berger makes a nice, decisive one-cut move here and grinds out the yards. Darkangelo is the best Illini LB at filling gaps, so it will be interesting to see if Michigan State chooses to run at Barnes and Hart more often when they are on the field. Again, Berger didn't try to do anything fancy on this play and got the yards upfield he needed for the first down.
Johnson has another wrinkle he will utilize in the outside zone blocking scheme. He will use his TEs and H-backs to block the edge as shown above, but will also use them as lead blockers in the scheme as well.
The lead blocker on this play is none other than Daniel Barker. As experienced Illini fans, you will be completely surprised that he missed his block and let this play get blown up. The Michigan safety comes down hard, and Barker should have kicked him out, allowing Berger to hide behind the tackle and force the LB to choose a side. He instead sealed the LB and put the RB at a disadvantage with the safety sitting in the hole.
Johnson will motion his receivers quite often, which was a staple of the one-back offense Chaney grew up in. The motion has two effects, it stresses the defense to adjust laterally prior to the snap, and provides a running start for the receivers. Michigan State puts that movement to use as a misdirection. They pull the backside WR away from the motion and he is the lead blocker on a Wham play. The motion bounces the secondary, which means the WR pulling across the formation creates a numbers advantage.
Coleman is a pretty solid blocker and occupies the edge defender creating a lane for the back.
Same look here, with a much cleaner kick out of the edge defender. They primarily used this against Wisconsin when they lined up in a 3-4 look similar to the Illini. I think the Spartans will run this a little more often on Saturday as Illinois will run man and have a CB chasing the blocker through the wash of the blocks through the box. Additionally, I only saw this run with Coleman as the pulling blocking.
The Spartans have a Counter play in the mix as well, so they have a series of plays running the Gap scheme. The one block they use that is a little unique for the B1G is the Dart play.
Illinois will get into a similar 4-man front in their Nickel sets, so I think this look might be incorporated against that look similar to what Minnesota was running here. The OL for the Spartans did a really good job pushing the Minnesota DL off the ball and created a great running lane. Berger is again a solid back but not a game-breaker. More competent B1G backs would have hit that hole a half-beat difference and been in a footrace with #27 for the end-zone.
The passing attack with the wind and potential rain will lean heavily on the quick passing game. The Spartans are similar to the Illini in that a vast majority of their passes are within 5-yards of the line of scrimmage. Thorne is a competent passer, but not as efficient as DeVito though. Thorne's default in the passing attack is to target his TEs over the middle.
This set is a Drag concept. The TE is coming laterally across the face of the LBs, while the opposing WR is coming behind. The TE (Barker) sees zone and settles into the gap. Against the Illini man defense, the idea is for Barker to clear the LBs (along with the swing route of the LB) and Keon Coleman would come clear on the cross behind.
They run another variation of the TE or slot receiver settling into gaps. Here is the slot receiver settling into the zone gap, with the opposite slot running an out.
The old Purdue version of this had the outside receivers running fades vs. the comeback routes. Thorne hits the quick hitter here against man coverage. The Spartans picked up the blitz and Thorne was decisive with the ball. The Illini will show similar coverages and blitz packages.
The Spartans will attack the middle with the TEs in a similar fashion out of play-action. Michigan State likes to attack the middle of opposing defenses, which is a solid strategy against Illini LBs. Sydney Brown did a great job shutting down LaPorta when he had him in man coverage against the Hawkeyes, the issue for Illinois is that the Spartans have two solid TE options. Here is the middle attack off of play-action.
Thorne's awareness is top-notch on this play guiding the receiver to the open throwing lane. The H-back motion helps hold the LBs. The Spartans kept 7-men in for pass protection, releasing the H-back and running back when no rush appeared. Plays similar to this will be a staple against Illinois to help with the pass rush and blitzing.
Another staple of the Purdue offense back in the day was passes to the running back out of the backfield. The Flare route was a favorite of Chaney in his days, and the Spartans utilize it often as well.
The pass requires a good deal of coordination. Besides a quick, accurate pass from the quarterback, the other main ingredient is perimeter blocking. The Spartans have a TE and a WR blocking on the perimeter ahead of the back. Berger is not a game-breaker as a back but is sure-handed. He is a solid route runner though and will be a challenge to cover coming out of the backfield. The flare is part of the checkdowns in the standard Spartan passing attack as well. When Thorne gets impatient, he checks down quickly.
The primary look here again is the TE sitting down over the middle. Once Thorne sees it is covered he goes to the last check down on the route tree and hits the RB flare. With the wind in play, this method of attacking the defense will be solid. It will stretch the Illini horizontally and pull Illini blitzers out of the box.
Another part of the basketball-on-grass offense that the Boilermakers employed was an aggressive screen game. The throws are easy and allow the Spartans to pick up yards easily. The first one is the receiver screen on the perimeter, in this case, the TE.
The Spartans mix up which perimeter receiver is the target. While the Spartans are not rolling out Vinny Sutherland on the perimeter, their receivers are decisive and grab yards made available. The Spartans also do a nice job releasing their OL to get downfield blocking. An advantage for Michigan State is the quick throws help negate the Illini blitzing attack. Illinois tends to have pressure on the QB for about half of their opponent's passes. Michigan State allows over 45% on their passing downs. This quick hitter helps overcome the weaker pass protection and allows the Spartans to stretch the Illini defense. They run a similar version of this out of an RPO look.
Thorne is doing simple math on this one. The Star walking into the box makes 6 defenders but leaves a 2 on 1 on the near side. Wisconsin played this nicely and retreated quickly, but Thorne is running an RPO here and made his decision at the snap.
The final type of play Illinois will see multiple times is the deep shot. Michigan State likes to isolate Coleman on the perimeter. They did it multiple times off tempo against Wisconsin and challenged Michigan in the same manner without tempo.
Coleman is the deep shot WR for the Spartans, and for good reason. He is athletic and has a good nose for the ball. Witherspoon will have his hands full, but he has put the clamps down on similar receivers this season. Here is another example of the shot against the Wolverines.
Against Michigan, they used Trips opposite Coleman to rotate the secondary away from the deep shot. Kendall Smith has ball-hawked a few of these passes this season.
The weather will be a factor but will have less of an impact on the Spartan offense than expected. Michigan State will try to establish a run and hit on the short passing attack. Illinois has been holding opponents to 44% completions, with Indiana hitting a season-high 53.8%. The Spartans will try to hit 60% against the Illini. The Spartans will try to run up yards after the catch as well to put points on the board.
Scouting Review - Defense
The name of the game is suspensions. Eight Spartans have been suspended so far, with potentially more to come. Four of the top eight on the defensive front are out. Add to that two starters in the secondary being out as well, and it will be a curious collection of players on the field for the Spartans.
Chase Brown is going to get a workout. The Michigan State front from previous weeks handled blocks well and had done a nice job of preventing OLs from getting to the second level. The Illini will have to find another body to take carries on Saturday or Brown will wear out in the second half. Michigan divided up their carries this past weekend at Corum (RB1) - 33; Edwards (RB2) - 10; McCarthy (QB) - 7; Stokes (RB3) - 2.
Defensively, Michigan and Illinois are similar along the fronts. The backend varies though as the Illini run primarily man-defense. The Wolverines ran 60-40 zone to man, which was more man than usual. The blueprint for beating the Spartans is pretty established. Get 150 yards rushing, and run about 70 plays. The high play rate wears down the Spartan defense, and the consistent rushing attack takes advantage of gaps in the LB and Star positions.
The run fits of the Spartans are pretty sound, and the standard DL is pretty good at holding the point of attack.
On this play, the Spartans were even caught in a slant away from the play side. Even with slanting into a poor position, the Spartans held well at the point of attack. The Spartan DL had been holding well on the point of attack.
If the Illini move to more heavy formations, the Spartans will roll down the Star as the end man on the line of scrimmage to help manage the gaps. Michigan attacked the Spartans in the middle, but with the suspensions, Illinois might find more success off-tackle against the ends and Star.
As seen here, the Star does not stand up well against the run. If you are a Spartan fan, one has to wonder what the Star shows in practice to elicit playing time when he is playing this poorly. The good news for Spartan fans is that he will not be playing on Saturday since he was suspended.
This play reminded me the most of Chase Brown's running.
Corum is patient behind the line, almost hopping his way to the line of scrimmage. Again, the Spartan front held up well against the Michigan OL. The Illini will be doing their level best to open holes this weekend to open gaps for Brown. A healthy McCray would be a boon as well.
When Michigan State is setting up to stop the run, they will normally put their secondary in man coverage. The man coverage helps shut down the RPO game (see Illinois vs. Minnesota) while allowing the safeties to support in the run game. The downside is that the secondary is put on islands on the outside. Illinois has exploited opponents on the perimeter using Hightower and Bryant this year. The wind might help defend this weekend as well. Here is the man coverage look.
How the Spartans react to the suspensions will be intriguing. Man coverage was the preferred defense against Michigan and their power run game. The coverage against the Ohio State Buckeyes was exclusively zone. Illinois' short passing attack would normally be perfect for man coverage, but missing the pieces of the secondary might lend itself to more zone coverage.
The Spartans love to blitz though. And they will bring blitzes from all over the field. Their favorite blitzes involve the LB corps though. Grose was their Star, and they blitzed him often before his suspension.
The blitz sets the edge and forces the run back to the middle of the field. The Spartans like to set the edge but will stunt the DL while bringing heat. Here is an inside blitz while running a tackle twist.
The Wolverines picked up the blitzing LB well, but the twisting tackle comes loose and tags McCarthy in the pocket. The outside rush kept McCarthy from scrambling and made him look downfield. Another method of LB blitzing is to loop the ILB around the end, running the tackle twist, while stunting the DE inside.
The Badgers did a good job of stopping the twist but were caught out by the looping OLB. The Spartans are forcing quick throws on opposing QBs, which is where man coverage is preferable to force tight throwing lanes. The final defensive scheme the Spartans will employ is a tackle-end stunt.
The Spartans will be running line stunts to create havoc against the Illini offense to create havoc. With the suspensions, it will be a boom or bust strategy, but the Spartans cannot afford to allow the Illini to string together 10+ play drives and wear down the defense.
The suspensions will create a challenge for Hazelton. He is an extremely aggressive coordinator who tries to control the game. The loss of eight contributors will create some unique challenges. The Spartans will need to create turnovers, which means taking multiple risks. The wind will be a great aid to the Spartans, but the name of the game for them is to prevent being worn down.
What does it mean?
Illinois on offense runs a system very similar to Michigan. The Wolverines played very close with the Spartans for three quarters last week, and then pulled away in the 4th quarter. Michigan played bully ball with the Spartans until Michigan State became frustrated and worn down. Then the Wolverines pulled away.
Michigan State wore down last week, with eight defensive players being suspended it should happen faster this week. Offensively, Michigan State is a grind-it-out offense that will take a few deep shots. Illinois runs mainly man coverage, so the possibility of being beat deep exists, luckily the wind should help tamp down the opportunities.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois offensively is a similar version of Michigan. The downside for both offenses is the struggle to finish in the red zone. Michigan State blitzed extensively against the Wolverines forcing Michigan to lean heavily on the intermediate passing game and running the ball. The game plan should be the same against the Illini, but the suspensions make the picture cloudy. Michigan State prefers to blitz heavily, so the Illini will need to keep DeVito upright and attack the flats against the Spartans. Finally, they need to control the line of scrimmage and open holes for Brown and establish a lead early.
Defensively, the Illini will need to tackle in space well. The Spartans will do everything they can to isolate Coleman against the Illini corners. If Berger can hit the holes created and consistently take the yards available, the Spartans will stay in the game. Illinois needs to minimize runs where Berger breaks into the second level, and prevent Coleman from winning deep shots.
For Michigan State to Win:
The Spartans need to get ahead early and force the Illini out of the suffocation game. The Solid Verbal has a term for the way Illinois plays - crockpotting. They keep up sustained pressure and slowly break down opponents. At the end of it all, it is a delicious win for the crock-potter. Sparty needs to keep the Illini from dominating time of possession and instead control the game.
Defensively, the Spartans have the second highest blitz percentage in the B1G, behind Illinois. Michigan State needs to get home with the pressure, and not be burned on the perimeter. Both of these would be a challenge with all the suspensions. Therefore, the pressure needs to get home, or close to, and force Illinois off schedule and force turnovers.
It's so odd to see Illinois continually favored in games, and in double digits nonetheless. Michigan State will present a few unique challenges for Illinois, but the Illini are a discount version of the Michigan team that just beat the Spartans. Mel Tucker has never lost a B1G game by less than 11 (40-29 against Purdue in 2021), and seven of his ten wins are single-digit affairs. Sparty's chance is a close, mucked-up game. If they fall behind, history would say Tucker's teams fade. I'll take Tucker for the fade and the Illini to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: