Poking the Fence – Looking for Weaknesses on the Michigan State Defense
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As you are reading this – no matter when that may actually be – you can rest assured that Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman is quite busy looking for ways to get yards against the Michigan State defense.
He said earlier in the week that it's fun to match wits with opposing defensive coordinators, so for Herman, Saturday will probably feel like a day at the bounce house for a seven-year old.
The Spartans come in with the nation's top-ranked defense – allowing an NCAA-best 64.8 yards rushing, as well as an NCAA-best 237.7 yards of total offense per game. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are second in the nation in rushing (321.3 ypg), and sixth in total offense (530.5 ypg). Clearly, somebody's numbers are going to take a hit on Saturday night.
The Spartans play a press quarters coverage, which means each of their four defensive backs occupies one deep quarter of the field. This is meant to take away four vertical routes from an offense, as each defensive back will match up with the receiver in their zone. However, it also allows the safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and you will frequently see the Spartan safeties lining up just six or eight yards from the line of scrimmage. This essentially makes them extra run defenders, and it limits the extra yards that running backs like Carlos Hyde are known for.
A week ago, there were times when Michigan's safeties were lined up 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and Hyde would already have a seven-yard gain before Michigan's deep safety even got to him. Even lined up 12 yards off of the line of scrimmage, safety Courtney Avery's first steps would be back pedals. That's not likely to be the case when the Buckeyes take the field in Indianapolis on Saturday night, and you can expect there to be much less back pedaling from the MSU safeties.
Despite Michigan State's hefty defensive rankings however, there are ways to attack their defense, and some teams have actually succeeded in doing so. Granted, prolonged success hasn't necessarily been achieved, but if lesser offenses can have success in spurts against the Spartans, then the Buckeyes should have their opportunities as well.
For one, the spread offense will take at least one defender out of the box against the Spartans, and the play-action can have a devastating effect on safeties that are matched up in one-on-one coverage. Against Nebraska, for instance, the Huskers scored on a 32-yard wheel route when safety Kurtis Drummond bit on a play-action fake, and let the inside receiver get by him down the sideline.
The Spartans have two very good safeties in Drummond and Isaiah Lewis, but Tom Herman will look to exploit them in one-on-one coverages with receivers Philly Brown, Dontre Wilson and tight end Jeff Heuerman.
The Huskers put up 392 yards of total offense against Michigan State in a 41-28 loss, and did it with two backup quarterbacks. Tailback Ameer Abdullah rushed for 123 yards on just 22 carries, and Nebraska as a whole rushed for 182 yards against the Spartans, which was a season-high allowed by MSU. While quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg weren't used much in the running game, they did roll out quite a bit to attack the edges and flats, which is another relatively soft spot in the press quarters scheme.
The 28 points Michigan State gave up to Nebraska tied their season high in points allowed. Indiana scored 28 points against them back in mid-October, finding the endzone in every quarter. The Hoosiers couldn't run the ball on the Spartans, save for a fluke 64-yard touchdown run from running back Tevin Coleman on the game's first drive. But Indiana did throw for 259 yards while never falling behind by more than two touchdowns until early in the fourth quarter.
The two games where Michigan State gave up the most points all season were against spread offenses, which is exactly what the Buckeyes are bringing to town. An offense can dink and dunk out wide against this defense, but most don't have the patience. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, don't mind throwing the quick hitches on first down, and then picking up the rest of the necessary yardage on the ground.
The Spartans haven't faced a running quarterback like Ohio State's Braxton Miller this season, but they faced two terrific runners last year. Nebraska – with Taylor Martinez – rushed for 313 yards against Michigan State, and Ohio State – with a more limited Miller – rushed for 204 yards a year ago. While the spread will take one defender out of the box, Miller's ability to read the option should be able to negate another.
There is no infallible defense, but there are defenses who are fundamentally sound enough to limit their mistakes. That's what Michigan State is. It also doesn't hurt that the Spartans are sixth in the nation in time of possession. No matter how good Michigan State's defense is, having the Michigan State offense on the field is the only sure way to keep the Buckeye offense from scoring.
While this will certainly be the biggest test for the Ohio State offense this season, the same absolutely holds true for the Michigan State defense. Wisconsin is the only team that has held the Buckeyes under 200 yards rushing this season (192), and 167 of those yards came in the first three quarters. Ohio State was running the clock out in the fourth quarter, and Wisconsin was quite aware, so the numbers were a bit skewed at the end.
In the Buckeyes' last 16 Big Ten games, they've been held under 200 yards rushing three times – twice by Wisconsin, and once against Purdue last season. This is not an easy offense to defend, even when a defense knows the run is coming.
Michigan State is going to do everything they can to keep the Buckeyes from building momentum on the ground, and the Buckeyes are going to do everything they can to find every last yard that it will take to win this game.
There are areas to exploit on this MSU defense, but Ohio State's execution will have to be up to the task. There will be some passes downfield that will be available, and Braxton Miller is going to have to be more accurate than he has been of late.
The purpose of this offense is always to stress a defense, and Miller and Carlos Hyde will be doing every bit of that. Whether that stress eventually reaches a breaking point could be the deciding factor in this game.
Instead, what is more likely to happen is that the Buckeyes are going to win some, and the Spartans are going to win some. Whichever team wins last, however, will likely win best, and there are opportunities here for the Buckeyes to be that team.
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