Michigan faces off against one of the nation's top defenses on Saturday, and moving the ball through the air will be no small task. Michigan State's defense is legit, so let's not mince words there. Still, every defense has weaknesses or tendencies that can be exploited. Now, the Spartans have minimized these weaknesses, and when they do make mistakes they are often fundamentally sound enough to keep gains relatively low, which is what makes them one of the better defenses in college football. The goal of this article will be to look at some of the ways that Michigan can attack some of MSU's tendencies from a schematic point of view to get relatively favorable match-ups on their end.
Over the summer I wrote two preview pieces about Michigan State's defense. One was about their 4-3 Over front, the other was about their Cover 4. For the vast majority of the snaps they will be in this set up. They will run some man under, they will run cover 3 behind most of their blitz packages, they'll at times switch to a quasi-nickel package to get a hybrid player on the field, and on 3rd and long, they'll run their 3-3-5 nickel package with their Okie front, which is where much of their complex blitz package originates.
Because, for the most part, they'll stick in their 4-3 Over Cover 4, we're going to focus this article on beating that. As not all cover 4s are the same, Narduzzi will also adjust within the cover 4 to take away certain things. Let's look at three basic ways that Narduzzi will play his coverage.
Keep his LBs in the box and keep the safeties at 10 yards deep and 1 yard outside the EMOL
This will be adjusted slightly depending on the alignment on the #2 receiver or if there are more than two receivers to a certain side. The main idea here is that this basic alignment will be the stoutest against the run. It allows the LBs to play directly in run support, fast flowing and getting in position to play the ball, and it also allows the front side safety to play leverage in the alley as well as the backside safety to fill into the LB level and play backside leverage. The weakness of this set up will be the short to intermediate flats, which can be attacked in certain ways but not necessarily others, which we'll discuss in a bit.
Roll the Safeties over the #2, keep the LBs in the box
For much of the Notre Dame game, this is how MSU played it. Like your standard cover 4, it basically adjusts to straight man coverage to a degree against vertical routes. But now, it also allows/forces the safety to cover any of the hitch to out patterns from the #2. What this means is that the middle of the field is now much more open. As for the LBs, they will play run first and in coverage take anything that is initial toward them. Their goal will be to seal off the middle, essentially blocking any receiver from crossing the formation, and then break on anything quickly that goes back outside, which is the direction they are facing.
Roll the OLBs out and play the Safeties 10 yards deep and 1 yard outside the EMOL
This is the most cover friendly adjustment they'll make to their cover 4 and will likely only be utilized a) on obvious pass downs; and b) against 3 WR sets so 2 LBs are still in the box. But what this does is essentially brackets the #2 receiver while still having an over the top help from the safety on the #1. The safeties, still playing their basic cover 4, will fill into the LB level against draws or passes to the short middle. This utilizes a more broad, umbrella coverage, while allowing MSU to get speed into the box to hold down anything short. This type of look also gives considerably more versatility in adjusting their coverage to something like cover 3.
If I Had to Guess at MSU's Defense
I think Narduzzi runs a similar defense to the one he ran against ND. Generally the LB will be responsible for covering the #2 to the boundary unless he goes vertical, but I very much expect him to almost immediately lock the safety to the #2 to the field.
The reason for this:
1. Michigan still isn't a great running team, and doesn't have a pure running thread like Denard
2. Because he doesn't want to allow Gardner to get in a rhythm or comfortable; if Gardner is going to beat him, it's going to be with difficult passes over the top.
Now Michigan and the Fighting Irish are very different offenses, but generally, the goal will be somewhat similar. Michigan needs to find success passing over the top and they need to establish that they will run the football. If the safeties are playing heavily on the #2 it allows Michigan to attack MSU's defense over the top with easier passes, like posts, rather than having to fit passes into the sideline. And even if the running game isn't a superb threat in its own right, forcing the defense to respect it because you're running it is fundamental. If Borges lets this defense see Michigan as one dimensional, the same thing that happened to ND will happen to Michigan. Michigan needs to keep the LBs in and the safeties honest so to open up the pass game. If the LBs go out, Michigan needs to find a way to at least pick up some yards, force the LBs back in. Once the over the top stuff is established, some of the underneath things (see: 2012 MSU-Michigan game) open up.
Regardless of the way MSU plays their cover 4, there will be weaknesses to it. The key is to make them switch, make them adjust, and then Michigan can start, to at least some degree, dictating plays instead of letting the defense dictate them. It will not be easy sledding, and even attacking these "weaknesses" will not be easy, or even pretty much of the time. But being successful to some degree can allow Michigan to put up points that other offenses have yet been able to.