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Know Thy Enemy: Michigan State

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With the season upon us, it's time to scout out Michigan State and its offense . For those of you who would like to also read a more general overview of Michigan State on both sides of the ball, please see our "Previewing the Season: Michigan State" post.

The first and most obvious thing to do in scouting Michigan State's offense is to figure out how often they are going to run and pass.  The official statistics from ESPN show that Michigan State passed the ball 393 times last year. This number includes pass attempts by 2nd and 3rd string QBs, as well as from other utility players (RB, WR).

As for running, statistics show Michigan State rushed 580 times last year.  But 47 of those rushes were from a combination of QB sacks and/or QB scrambles by Spartan QB Brian Hoyer.  29 of those 47 were sacks, meaning Hoyer scrambled on designed runs or on his own accord 18 times.  For the sake of simplicity, instead of going through game logs to figure out if Hoyer ran on designed QB runs or scrambled on pass plays, we'll just count those 18 plays as pass plays on the assumption that Hoyer never ran on a designed run (this does leave out a small amount of plays such as QB sneaks but those are so few and far between they shouldn't influence the statistics that much).  So, we'll subtract out those 47 runs by Hoyer from Michigan State's total rush attempts, thus the Spartans rushed the ball 533 times (580-47=533). 

Now we need to adjust the passing statistics to add the 47 plays on which Hoyer was supposed to pass but ended up running (we are afterall trying to figure out how often the play call was run or pass not how often the offense actually ran or passed).  So adding the 47 pass attempts that ended up as runs to the actual pass attempts, we see that the Spartans passed the ball 440 times (393+47=440). 

Thus, Michigan state passed the ball 440 times and ran the ball 533 times for a total of 973 total plays.  Doing a little dividing, we can see that Michigan State calls a pass play 45.2% of the time (440/973=.452) and Michigan State calls a run play 54.8% of the time (1-.452=.548).  Thus, it appears as Michigan State is a fairly balanced attacking offense with a very slight tendency to run. 

That's the quick skinny.  Now let's look at the fat (formations and pictures after the jump).

So what follows is a quick (very quick) and narrow overview of the Spartan offense.  This portion of the post is intended to make you more familiar with the Spartan offense so you can better predict what the play may be as you watch the game yourself, as well as help you understand a few Spartan concepts.  Instead of putting highly detailed multi-frames per play breakdowns (such as I did in the Armed Forces Bowl analysis), instead I'm going to sacrifice a little quality to get more quantity.  I hope you don't mind.  Thus, instead of showing what happens in one play through 5 pictures, I'm going to show you one screen shot and just draw the action.  In all of the following pictures, Michigan State is the team in green.

Basic runs out of spread formations:

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3 WR set with backside guard pull on a run (guard pull = red line; ball carrier= gold line)

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4 WR set with backside guard pull (guard pull = red; ball carrier = gold)

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Power runs:

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Base personnel (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 backs) with a power run towards the strength (the side with the TE).

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Michigan State offense is in the Maryland I-Formation when against their own goalline.  Note: there are 3 backs in the backfield and no WRs.  Michigan State will also use this formation when threatening at their opponent's goalline.

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A few wrinkles in the I-Formation:

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Michigan State has base personnel on the field (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 backs) in an I-formation.  The play is an option play where the QB can choose to either hand the ball off to the RB or throw to the slot WR on the bubble screen based on what the defense shows pre-snap.  This play gives flexibility to the offense because it can attack the weakness of the defense by choosing the better play.  On this play, because the slot WR was covered, MSU QB Hoyer chose to hand off the ball.  Cal runs this very same play and concept. 

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MSU is in base personnel (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 backs).  Pre-snap motion from the flanker WR.  After the snap, the QB fakes the weakside run (red line) then hands the ball off the WR on an end around (yellow line).

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Playaction:

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Once again, MSU is in base personnel.  MSU puts the flanker WR (the WR to the offense's right) in motion.  After the snap the offense fakes a counter run left (the QB drops back turning over his right shoulder but then fakes the counter run with a fake handoff to the offense's left, and the RB steps right but goes left).  The MSU offense also pulls the backside guard (the RG) for protection and has the fullback fill the spot vacated by the RG.  The SE WR (split end WR) clears out the left side of the defense with a deep route, and the FL WR (flanker WR) who was in motion pre-snap, runs a sail route underneath the SE WR into the seam of the defensive coverage.  This play went for a big first down.

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MSU has base personnel on the field (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 backs) and is in a strong-I formation.  This play is similar to the previous play.  MSU puts the FL WR in motion pre-snap (the WR to the offense's right goes in motion to the slot position on the offense's left).  After the snap, the offense fakes a counter run left (the QB drops back turning over his right shoulder but then fakes the counter run with a fake handoff to the offense's left, and the RB steps right but goes left).  The MSU offense also pulls the backside guard (the RG) for protection and has the fullback fill the spot vacated by the RG.  The FL WR who was in pre-snap motion runs a wheel route behind the SE WR who runs a curl.

Note that both the previous plays occur out of similar formations (I-formation and strong-I formation).  They both utilize the same playaction blocking and deception scheme, and they both attack the defense deep and on one side of the field to overload a defensive zone.

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MSU offense uses lots of motion:

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One common theme I noticed when watching this game was the frequency of pre-snap motion (both on run and pass plays).   MSU uses motion to confuse the defense, and determine whether the defense is in man or zone.  This play above uses motion.  The three plays prior to this play used pre-snap motion.  One of MSU's tendencies is that they will often run the play in the direction of the motion.  In the play above, MSU puts their second TE in motion from their left to right, and runs a screen play to the RB to the right.  In the three plays prior to this play, you'll see that the plays unfold to the direction of the motion.

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Continuing on this theme of motion, the play above uses motion.  MSU puts the H-back in motion from the offense's right to left, then back from the left to the right before the snap.  The final motion of the H-back was from the offense's left to right and the offense ran the ball to the right.  MSU also pulled the backside guard (LG) on this play. 

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The play incorporates both pre-snap motion but also the concept of attacking one side of the defense in particular.  While this play is not a playaction play, it is very similar to the two plays I showed in the "playaction" section. 

MSU is in shotgun with 3 WRs.  They use pre-snap motion bringing the slot WR from their left to right.  After the snap, the slot WR runs a streak and the SE WR runs an inside comeback.  This WR combination is very similar to the second play in the the "playaction" section above.  Both plays push one WR deep and the other on a curl.  This WR route combination attacks a defensive zone by making a defender choose between defending the lower defender and possibly giving up a deep pass, or choosing to defend the higher defender and giving up a short pass.  On this particular play, Penn State was in a cover 2 defense and the cornerback chose to cover the short curl leaving the slot WR running the streak uncovered.  MSU QB Brian Hoyer threw to the slot WR for a would-be-deep-completion (WR dropped the ball).

In summary, the play above uses motion (to the right) and the play attacks to the right which goes along with MSU's tendency to run the play in the direction of the motion.

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The Hoyer factor:

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MSU QB Brian Hoyer will be a senior this year.  His experience shows on the field.  In the play above, Hoyer changes the play.  Hoyer recognizes that the Penn State linebackers are shifted to the offense's left (I put a box around the PSU linebackers).  Hoyer recognizes that PSU has left their best WR Devin Thomas (who has now graduated) one on one in man coverage against a PSU cornerback (red line).  Hoyer also recognizes that there are not any other PSU defenders close enough to the CB to really help cover WR Devin Thomas.  Hoyer changes the play to a quick pass to Devin Thomas on a hitch.  Hoyer throws the ball to Devin Thomas (yellow line), Thomas stiff-arms the PSU CB and runs for a touchdown.

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Bullet point summary:

*MSU will run approximately 55% of the time and pass about 45% of the time.

*MSU will use lots of motion.

*MSU will almost always run the play in the direction of the motion.

*MSU will attack deep and short with WR combination routes to the same side of the field.

*MSU will use the Maryland I-formation when close to their or their opponent's goalline. 

*MSU QB Brian Hoyer can and will change the play at the LOS so overloading one side of the offense is not advisable. 

*MSU will set up passing by first establishing the run with Ringer and using playaction.

*MSU's most common personnel sets: 21 personnel (2 WRs, 2 RBs, 1 TE); 12 personnel (2 WRs, 1 RB, 2 TEs); 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE). 

*MSU's uncommon personnel sets: 10 personnel (4 WRs, 1 RB, 0 TE); and 32 personnel (0 WRs, 3 RBs, 2 TEs). 

*MSU mostly uses man blocking schemes with pulling backside guards. 

*Few to none designed QB runs other than QB sneaks.

*MSU will use read plays including run&bubble screen combinations as well as zone read plays from shotgun.

*MSU rarely moves the pocket but will waggle the QB and use the occassional QB naked boot with dumps to the TE and FB.