After five straight weeks of pure dominance, Michigan's defense couldn't string together a sixth straight such performance against Michigan State. In the previous five weeks, offenses had averaged 2.8 points and 150.2 yards per game and 2.64 yards per play. The Spartans' offense was able to score 21 points, total 386 yards, and average 5.36 yards per play -- season worsts across the board for Michigan's defense.
However, that doesn't mean Michigan's defense played poorly. In fact, after watching the film, I thought the unit played quite well. As I expected, the Wolverines shut down the Spartans on the ground. MSU gained only 87 rushing yards on 30 non-sack carries for a low 2.9 YPC. Further, Michigan State had only one run travel more than 10 yards -- L.J. Scott's 11-yarder on his first touchdown scamper -- and that should have been brought back thanks to an egregious hold by a Spartans blocker against Royce Jenkins-Stone.
The difference in this game was Connor Cook. He completed 18-of-39 passes (46.2 pct.) for 328 yards (8.4 YPA) and a touchdown. No, he didn't complete more than half of his passes, but that wasn't because he was inaccurate. It was because, except for two game-changing plays during which Jeremy Clark bit on a double move to allow a 30-yard touchdown and Delano Hill busted on a 74-yard completion to the ... fullback, Michigan's coverage was as great as it could be. Sometimes, though, Cook beat that coverage with 50/50 balls where his receivers made outstanding plays. And there's no better example of that than the highly anticipated matchup between Jourdan Lewis and Aaron Burbridge.
Jourdan Lewis vs. Aaron Burbridge: Who Won?
In the week leading up to Michigan-Michigan State, this was the individual match-up to which I kept pointing. My belief was that Michigan State would struggle to run the ball against Michigan's stout front, particularly because the Spartans were not healthy along the offensive line, so Michigan State would need to air it out to accumulate yards. Further, it was clear that Aaron Burbridge is Connor Cook's favorite target, so, unless Michigan State's other pass-catchers like Macgarrett Kings, Jr., R.J. Shelton, or Josiah Price shined, how Jourdan Lewis, who's been almost impossible to beat in coverage, performed against Burbridge seemed like it would determine the winner of this game.
So who won this matchup? Here's a frame-by-frame look at all 18 times they faced off:
Battle No. 1: 1st & 10 - MSU 25 (15:00 1Q)
Play: Lewis lines over Burbridge on the field side. Initially, Lewis was in a press, but, prior to the snap, he backs eight yards off the line. Cook takes the snap, fakes a hand-off, and rolls to his right. Burbridge runs a 12-yard comeback route, and Cook throws to him while on the run. Cook's throw is too high, but Lewis was right in Burbridge's pocket:
Score: Lewis 1, Burbridge 0
Battle No. 2: 1st & 10 - MSU 2 (10:04 1Q)
Play: Lewis lines over Burbridge on the field side and is eight yards off the line. Backed up against his own end zone, Cook takes the snap and fakes the hand-off. It's another play-action rollout as Cook moves to his right. Burbridge runs another comeback, but, this time, he breaks at the right moment and gets a three-yard separation from Lewis:
Burbridge catches Cook's throw by the sideline for a 14-yard gain.
Score: Lewis 1, Burbridge 1
Battle No. 3: 2nd & 10 - MSU 26 (7:41 1Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with Burbridge as the lone receiver in the boundary. Lewis is across from him in a press. At the snap, Lewis tries to punch Burbridge with his inside (left) arm, but Burbridge instantly releases to the outside for a fade. Nonetheless, Lewis turns his hips and runs step for step with Burbridge, face-guarding him. Cook stares at Burbridge the entire time and lobs a pass in the air. The pass is too short and hits Lewis, who never turned his head, in the back of the helmet:
Not only is it an incompletion, Lewis is credited with a pass break-up.
Score: Lewis 2, Burbridge 1
Battle No. 4: 3rd & 10 - MSU 26 (7:36 1Q)
Play: Like the previous play, Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with Burbridge the lone receiver to the boundary. Again, Lewis is pressed against Burbridge at the line, but, before the snap, he opens his hips and backs off, indicating that Michigan will be in a Cover 3 zone. When the ball is snapped, Burbridge begins to run upfield, and Lewis, who remains in an overhang position, closes the gap between he and Burbridge. However, just as Lewis is about to get on top of Burbridge, Burbridge sticks his right foot into the ground and cuts into an out route across Lewis' hips. Lewis is caught out of position for a split-second, but that's all Cook needs. Cook rifles a pass high and outside:
All you can do is applaud Cook and Burbridge. Thirteen-yard catch. First down.
Score: Lewis 2, Burbridge 2
Battle No. 5: 2nd & 21 - MSU 46 (5:12 1Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with trips to the field side and Burbridge as the flanker. Lewis is lined over him but is 10 yards back in a deep zone. Cook receives the snap, and the Spartans run a flanker screen. Jabrill Peppers, who was lined over the middle receiver, immediately reads it and shoots into the backfield. Cook sees Peppers, hesitates, and acts like he won't throw it to Burbridge. The hesitation causes Peppers to take a step back, which gives Cook just enough of a window to throw the screen to Burbridge. Lewis beats his blocker and tackles Burbridge for a short gain:
Lewis made the play and held it to a three-yard gain, but this wasn't testing Lewis.
Score: Lewis 2, Burbridge 2
Battle No. 6: 3rd & 18 - MSU 49 (4:28 1Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with Burbridge as the lone receiver in the boundary. Lewis is in a man press over him. Cook calls for the snap, and Burbridge quickly releases to the inside on a slant. Lewis doesn't apply a jam and falls a step behind. However, he recovers and is on Burbridge's back. Then it gets controversial. Burbridge runs right into the umpire, and, as he tries to adjust his route, Lewis incidentally trips him underneath. At the same time, Lewis has his left hand on Burbridge's hip, but it doesn't appear that he was grabbing at or holding Burbridge. However, in real time, it looks like Lewis tackled Burbridge into the umpire, which draws a holding penalty:
MSU fans will claim that Burbridge should win this battle, but I disagree. Lewis recovered from Burbridge's initial release, and I don't think he ever held Burbridge. I think the interference with the umpire made it appear that way, which led to a holding penalty and negated what should have been a Michigan interception. This is a draw.
Score: Lewis 2, Burbridge 2
Battle No. 7: 3rd & 8 - U-M 28 (2:09 1Q)
Play: Michigan State goes shotgun with an empty backfield. Burbridge is in the slot to boundary with Lewis four yards off of him. At the snap, Burbridge runs straight upfield for four yards before he begins to fade the sideline. This is either a fade or a mini-wheel route. However, I can't tell because Royce Jenkins-Stone has a free rush at Cook and forces Cook to release this earlier than he anticipated. Cook tries to lob this over Lewis and into the hands of Burbridge. But Lewis engages with Burbridge, lifts his head up, sees the ball soaring in his direction, and tries to make a miraculous one-handed pick:
Lewis fails to do so, but his pass break-up forces fourth down.
Score: Lewis 3, Burbridge 2
Battle No. 8: 4th & 9 - MSU 28 (2:04 1Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the field. Burbridge is the flanker on that side, and Lewis is pressed against him. At the snap, Burbridge tries to shake Lewis' jam by taking two steps to the inside before using a swim move to break outside and run a corner route. However, it isn't effective as Lewis doesn't disengage from his jam and runs side by side with Burbridge. Cook tries to float one to the outside where only Burbridge can make a play on the football, but Cook overshoots his intended receiver and throws the football out of bounds for an incomplete pass:
Turnover on downs for the Spartans. Lewis was on Burbridge's hip anyways.
Score: Lewis 4, Burbridge 2
Battle No. 9: 1st & 10 - U-M 24 (7:38 2Q)
Play: Michigan State goes into shotgun with Burbridge as the only receiver on the outside. He's in the boundary, and Lewis is in press man against him. Cook receives the snap, and Burbridge does a shuffle step before he releases into an inside slant. Lewis doesn't apply a jam, so it's a free release for the Spartan receiver. Burbridge creates enough separation that, when Cook threads the needle between Ben Gedeon and Delano Hill, Lewis can't knock down a pass that is behind enough to carry Burbridge off his feet:
Nice route by Burbridge to pick up 13 yards and a first down.
Score: Lewis 4, Burbridge 3
Battle No. 10: 3rd & 8 - MSU 31 (12:14 3Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the field. Burbridge is the flanker on that side with Lewis pressed against him. Lewis wants to jam Burbridge, but Lewis' head is turned towards the sideline when Cook calls for the snap. Burbridge releases into his seam or skinny post pattern before Lewis turns his head back to the play, so Lewis has fallen a yard behind. Burbridge puts his hand in the air, asking for the ball, and Cook lobs a ball with perfect touch to him. However, as Burbridge tries to raise both arms in the air to make the catch, Lewis subtlety grabs Burbridge's right arm. Therefore, Burbridge can only attempt to haul in this touch pass with his left hand:
But Burbridge was unable to do so, so Lewis wins this battle even if he averted a penalty. Now, before MSU fans whine that I'm not consistent, there is a difference between this play and the holding penalty for which Lewis was mistakenly flagged. On that play, Burbridge didn't draw that flag because he duped the official into thinking he had been held. The flag was thrown because he tripped and fell into the umpire. Here, Lewis used a veteran-like move and wasn't caught. Such a move should be rewarded, not punished.
Score: Lewis 5, Burbridge 3
Battle No. 11: 2nd & 7 - MSU 28 (8:38 3Q)
Play: Michigan State goes with shotgun with two receivers to the field. One of those is Burbridge, who is on the outside. Lewis is pressed against him in man, but Burbridge is three yards off the line, which will provide him with extra space to break into his route. Burbridge uses that space to do a shuffle step before he cuts into his inside slant. Lewis is able to get two hands on Burbridge and disrupt the pattern for a second, but Burbridge disengages. Lewis trails Burbridge as Cook fires a pass in that direction. The pass isn't behind Burbridge, but it also didn't hit him in stride. This provides Lewis with a chance to stretch out his left arm and swipe the pass away. But Burbridge secures the football:
It's very good coverage by Lewis, but Burbridge wins with a 13-yard reception.
Score: Lewis 5, Burbridge 4
Battle No. 12: 1st & 10 - U-M 32 (15:00 4Q)
Play: Michigan State is in an offset I-formation with receivers split to each side. Burbridge is to the field with Lewis pressed against him. Burbridge gives a quick shuffle step before he runs a fade to the outside. Lewis throws a slight punch with his right arm to slow down Burbridge's release and stay with him step for step. Cooks sees that Lewis is in Burbridge's inside pocket, so he lobs a floater towards Burbridge's back shoulder. Burbridge slows down and leaps, trying to use his body to shield Lewis. But no dice:
Lewis leaps with Burbridge and sticks his hand in there to knock the ball aside.
Score: Lewis 6, Burbridge 4
Battle No. 13: 3rd & 10 - U-M 32 (14:51 4Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun set with twins to the field. Burbridge is the flanker on that side with Lewis pressed against him. Burbridge tries a small shuffle step to earn a free release to the inside to run a seam or skinny post, but Lewis gets two hands on him about five yards off the line and hinders his progress. Cook sees this and tosses the ball in Burbridge's direction, hoping that pass interference will be called. Or Cook may just be throwing it to Burbridge because that's what he has done all game. Nonetheless, the officials don't throw a flag, and Burbridge never looked for the ball:
That's a swipe by Lewis, not a hold, and it disrupted the route to cause an incompletion.
Score: Lewis 7, Burbridge 4
Battle No. 14: 3rd & 3 - MSU 11 (11:06 4Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a four-wide shotgun with two receivers to each side. Burbridge is the outside receiver to the boundary, and Lewis is pressed against him. The Spartans run a pick play where Josiah Price runs outside and into Lewis to help Burbridge separate on his quick slant. Price does just that. However, that should be offensive pass interference, but the officials don't flag it. The hip check that Price delivers to Lewis knocks him off balance and down to his knees. The only way that Lewis remains attached to Burbridge is to hold onto his jersey. This disrupts Burbridge's route, but it also should be flagged for interference. But the officials don't flag it as Cook's pass falls to the turf:
It's an incomplete pass, but there were two missed calls here. I'm calling this a draw.
Score: Lewis 7, Burbridge 4
Battle No. 15: 1st & 10 - MSU 32 (7:15 4Q)
Play: Michigan State goes with a three-wide shotgun with Burbridge the lone receiver to the boundary. Lewis is pressed against him. At the snap, Burbridge does a little stutter step before he releases to the outside to run a fade, but Lewis is glued to his hip. Cook throws the bomb in the air, and the pass is a bit inside. Burbridge and Lewis fight each other off with their arms to get in position, and Burbridge just beats Lewis to the spot:
That's about as good of coverage as Lewis can have. But Burbridge caught the 28-yarder.
Score: Lewis 7, Burbridge 5
Battle No. 16: 2nd & 15 - MSU 23 (4:10 4Q)
Play: Empty backfield for Michigan State. Burbridge is the slot receiver in the boundary with Lewis pressed against him. Burbridge hesitates for a split-second before he releases to the outside. This is another fade, and Cook lobs it up for Burbridge to make a play. It won't be easy because, like he has all game, Lewis is draped all over Burbridge. And yet:
There's nothing Lewis can do. Great adjustment and catch by Burbridge. 25-yard gain.
Score: Lewis 7, Burbridge 6
Battle No. 17: 2nd & 19 - U-M 45 (2:03 4Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a four-wide shotgun set with Burbridge as the slot receiver to the boundary. Lewis is pressed against him. Like the last two battles, this is another fade to the outside. Lewis doesn't jam Burbridge, so the Spartan receiver actually has a bit more of a cushion than usual. It doesn't matter, though, because Cook throws it too long:
There may have been more separation, but it still wasn't very much.
Score: Lewis 8, Burbridge 6
Battle No. 18: 3rd & 19 - U-M 45 (1:59 4Q)
Play: Michigan State is in a three-wide shotgun with trips to the field. Burbridge is the outside receiver; Lewis is pressed against him and shaded inside. Cooks takes the snap, and Burbridge tries to run what looks like a slant. However, Lewis jams him and flattens out his route. Burbridge adjusts and runs more upfield, so now it looks like he's running a post. Either way, Lewis is right on him. Cook feels pressure in the pocket and throws a soft floater in Burbridge's direction, hoping it will soar over Lewis into Burbridge's hands for what would be enough to earn the first down. However, just as Burbridge leaps up to make the grab, Lewis sticks his left arm between Burbridge's hands and swats it away:
Lewis' sixth pass break-up of the game, and Michigan State faces 4th & 19.
Score: Lewis 9, Burbridge 6
Final Winner: Lewis
The battle between Lewis and Burbridge wasn't as even of a matchup as we all claimed during the game and in the immediate aftermath. Burbridge was targeted 19 times, but three of those really weren't battles against Lewis. The first was the 27-yard reception he made on a corner route against Jarrod Wilson during MSU's opening drive. The second was a three-yard flanker screen during which Lewis was in a deep zone. The third was a shovel pass that saw Burbridge motion across the formation away from Lewis before the snap. That play lost four yards. And only the screen was diagrammed above to explain how Lewis wasn't tested on that pass, which is why I scored that "battle" as a draw.
The other 16 targets? That was all Lewis versus Burbridge. And how did those numbers stack up? Burbridge caught only six of those 16 passes for 106 yards. Yes, that's a nice chunk and speaks to Burbridge's big-play ability. Much of his success against Lewis came when Cook lobbed passes in the air on fades and he adjusted to the ball at the highest point to make spectacular catches. And I mean spectacular. I'm not sure there is another receiver that Michigan will face that can do some of the stuff that Burbridge pulled off.
At the same time, I'm not sure that is another quarterback that Michigan will face that can do some of the stuff that Cook pulled off. For as good as Burbridge was at snagging those passes, he needed Cook to drop dimes and put balls in perfect spots on a consistent basis because Burbridge couldn't create separation against Lewis. Lewis was in Burbridge's pocket the entire game. Of the 16 times that Burbridge squared off against Lewis, only once did he create any meaningful separation, and that was on the comeback route during Michigan State's second drive of the game. Everything else? Lewis was right in his grill, which is why Lewis notched six pass break-ups when covering Burbridge.
Cook demonstrated why he is considered by many to be a first-round talent, and Burbridge showed why he's the Big Ten's best receiver and one of the best in college football. However, even those two combined needed phenomenal throws and catches to beat Lewis, which is why Saturday's contest further confirmed that Lewis is indeed the best cover corner in the nation. He sticks to any receiver and has the ability to swat away passes at the highest points despite that he's only 5-foot-10. As I've said before, he's not perfect, but it will take perfect passes to beat him in coverage. Well, that's what Cook was able to do every once in awhile, which is why Michigan State continued to hang around in this game. The upcoming offenses that will test Lewis? They don't even have a chance.