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Film Focus: Michigan defense vs MSU offense

You’ve seen the numbers. The film confirms Michigan’s domination over the Spartan offense.

Dustin Johnston

The numbers tell the story.

Seven points. 94 total yards. Less than a third of the time of possession. Wait, it gets uglier for Michigan State’s offense.

0.6 yards a carry. Four sacks. Brian Lewerke, who mysteriously got injured despite fully practicing all week, connecting on 5-of-25 passes for 66 yards.

If those facts and figures don’t paint a picture of Michigan’s defensive dominance over the Spartans, then let’s turn to the film.


Mark Dantonio is known for dumping a bunch of wrinkles in this rivalry to best attack the Wolverine defense. He and offensive Dave Warner try to replicate Wisconsin’s bread and butter play: the power with jet sweep action.

The problem is you need Wisconsin’s linemen to execute this. Kwity Paye shoves his guard into the backfield and wraps up L.J. Scott for only a yard.

Another play the MSU staff prepared was a flare to Scott out of the backfield. As Devin Bush tries to avoid crossing patterns from the tight end and receiver, Scott beats him to the edge and rumbles for a first down.

This is a similar route that beat the linebackers on Northwestern’s successful drives early.

After Scott muscled for three yards, Warner deploys five receivers to take advantage of another consistent weakness: man-to-man coverage by Michigan safeties on slants.

Running back Connor Heyward stabs a wayward pass from Lewerke with one hand, moving the chains again. Hats off to him for an impressive snag.

Feeling in rhythm, Lewerke launches a perfect strike over David Long’s head into the hands of Felton Davis. The ball bounces off him towards the sidelines, which might have happened anyways after Josh Metellus rocks him with a clean shoulder shiver.

This is the closest Lewerke gets to looking like the 300-yard passer he often has been in 2018. Warner dials up max protection for him, one receiver draws defenders with an in-route, and the throw is right on the money on a wheel.

Metellus has gone from targeting in Week 1 to learning how to hit aggressively, but legally.

Another curveball emerges with running back La’Darius Jefferson running the wildcat. With Chase Winovich and Carlo Kemp occupying multiple blockers, no Spartan linemen gets to the second level to chip the linebackers or Tyree Kinnel. Jefferson manages three yards.

Winovich and Josh Uche almost meet at the quarterback to end the drive.

Uche simply accelerates around left tackle Cole Chewins to sack Lewerke. However, Winovich easily beats a cut block to force a scramble. Uche outruns a mobile passer to the sideline.

Drive: Seven plays, 20 yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 7-0)


MSU has no pretense about what it wants to do on the first play. They line up nine blockers for Scott. Don Brown responds with nine defenders in the box, but only three down linemen.

With Lawrence Marshall at the nose, MSU double teams him and washes him out of the middle. With several blockers on second-level linebackers, take a counter behind a pulling guard for nine yards.

Warner calls the same play to the opposite side, and Scott churns for a new set of downs. Brown inserts Aubrey Solomon for more beef, which leads to a shorter gain.

Next, Lewerke fakes a dive to the fullback and pitches to Scott. With pulling action inside, MSU is trying to draw defenders inside to give the back room. Instead, Winovich and Josh Ross both slice past a block from the right tackle to limit the gain to two.

Airtight coverage leads to two incompletions and a punt.

Drive: Five plays, 13 yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)


Looking for options at receiver, Warner inserts wideout-turned-corner Justin Layne. He tries to sprint past Long, but one of Pro Football Focus’ defenders of the week runs step for step with him. Incomplete.

Next, Kinnel flies upfield to eliminate a jet sweep to Heyward for a loss. He’s suffered some issues this year at filling run lanes, but with the help of a pursuing Paye he performs perfectly here.

Unlike Wisconsin with slot receivers, MSU lines Heyward as a sort of wingback, with the other wing trying to seal the edge with a block. Again, the Spartans trying to impersonate the Badgers will fail due to inept line play.

Lewerke hurries a throw over the middle to Darrell Stewart, missing ahead of him for another incompletion. Winovich cleanly beats the tackle to induce the errant pass.

Drive: Three plays, -1 yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)


Kemp shoots behind a pulling guard on another Jefferson wildcat. He absorbs a potential arc block from the backside tight end, which leads to a numbers win for the Wolverines. Kinnel and Ross down Jefferson after only a yard.

Lewerke proceeds to complete two straight fans in the stands. With an accurate throw on second down, he might’ve been able to draw an interference on Brandon Watson for physical coverage.

With a throw that few Ents could reach, the refs couldn’t throw the flag.

Drive: Three plays, one yard, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)


Warner dials up another fake jet sweep, but this time runs an outside counter to Scott for six yards. A guard pulls, and the left side of the line walls off the Wolverine front.

Scott tries to run right at Solomon, who stones his blocker, disengages and stops the back cold for no gain. The interior defensive line is starting to stockpile effective pieces, including run-stuffers in Solomon and Paye alongside pass-rushers in Dwumfour.

Lewerke fails to needle a toss between Jim Thorpe semifinalist Lavert Hill and Watson.

Drive: Three plays, six yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)


Warner finally tries to utilize his signal-caller’s best asset: his legs. Lewerke rolls out to the right to shift the pocket, thus making it harder for rushers to tee off on him. He rifles an out route to Stewart for 15 yards and the first MSU first down since the second drive.

After another incompletion, Uche sacks him as he steps up in the pocket.

Brown lines up Uche and Paye next to each other on the right side. Once both engage with their blockers, Paye attempts a twist to the outside. Uche powers his way past Chewins, whereas the first time he won with speed.

The right-handed Lewerke rolls out to his left, and almost flings a pick to Hill. The next drive ends in a kneel.

The first half featured a trio of three-and-outs and a single four-and-out for MSU.

Drive: Four plays, six yards, punt (Michigan leads at halftime 7-0)


With Brown calling for press coverage and a single-high safety in Kinnel, Warner calls for an outside slant to Cam Chambers. The sophomore receiver breaks free from Watson and streaks for 20 yards. Without safety help, there’s plenty of room to operate.

Winovich blasts Lewerke late to move the Spartans to the Wolverines’ 48-yard line.

A speed option to Heyward finds space for five yards, limited by the pursuit of Bryan Mone of all people. Bush jaws around the official after the play, which tacks on 15 more yards.

There’s only so many ways to say the following, but pressure and tight coverage lead to three incompletions. The only twist? A holding on the right tackle pushes MSU out of field goal range.

For some reason, despite a perfect kicker with decent range, Dantonio opts for a third-and-20 wildcat keeper by Heyward. It loses a yard.

Drive: Five plays, 44 yards, punt (Michigan leads 7-0)


A Chris Evans fumble gives the MSU offense the chance it needed. They pull a play out of the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, and really everyone’s trick-play manual to score.

The Spartans actually unsuccessfully ran this play on the road against Indiana earlier this season.

This would be the last drive until late to eclipse seven yards.

Drive: Two plays, seven yards, touchdown (Game tied 7-7)


The game plan turns very conservative with the rain starting to pour. In turn, Wolverine defenders are pinning their ears back.

On the first play, Winovich discards the right tackle and smacks Scott for a loss.

Solomon and Marshall holding up at the point of attack, Scott cuts right into the tackle.

Lewerke misfires again. A good throw might beat decent coverage from Long, but it’s clear the Spartan passing game is broken.

A scramble goes nowhere on third down. Winovich holds the edge despite engaging with two blockers — the right tackle and a tight end.

Drive: Three plays, -1 yards, punt (Game tied 7-7)


A personal foul penalty on left guard Kevin Jarvis thwarts promising field position for MSU at midfield. Joel Klatt points out the flag was dubious.

You never know what was said on the field, so who knows?

This is a situation where Michigan State would draw up a crossing play for easy yardage on an over-aggressive pass defense. It’s worked for years, as pointed out in the preview.

In the past few weeks, Watson utilized a technique to position himself in front of the crossing receiver. This week, Brown calls for a short zone from Metellus and Ross to eliminate the threat.

Dantonio plays close to the vest and concedes with a punt.

Drive: Four plays, -7 yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 14-7)


If anything’s wrong about Lewerke, it’s mental. He wildly misses two open receivers in Heyward and Stewart.

Heyward settles into a hitch, but Lewerke balloons the ball into the stands. Stewart similarly works open off Long’s press coverage, but the quarterback badly overthrows the slant.

It begs the question: If Dantonio knew he was hurt, and saw the evidence for 45 minutes Saturday, why hasn’t he turned to a healthy backup at this point?

Drive: Three plays, zero yards, punt (Michigan scores to lead 21-7)


Lewerke lasts one more drive before ceding the final one to Rocky Lombardi.

After matriculating the offense into Michigan territory with penalties, Bush slams the door shut...

...with help from Dwumfour.

Lombardi sails one up the seam to close the game.

Drives: Three plays, three yards, punt

Five plays, 48 yards, turnover on downs


In a totally stifling performance, there are some caveats.

While there’s skepticism around Lewerke’s shoulder ailments prior the game, MSU has legitimately suffered lots of offensive injuries in 2018. L.J. Scott, several offensive linemen, Darrell Stewart, Cody White and in this game, Felton Davis.

With that said, Don Brown completely outfoxed the MSU brain trust. He schemed to shut down crossing patterns, He deployed the single-high safety look to put as much pressure on the Spartan front as possible. The vintage Dantonio first drive mustered only 20 yards and no points.

Even the past weaknesses started to look like strengths. The interior tackles in Dwumfour, Kemp, Marshall, Mone and Solomon all execute their roles. Kemp and Solomon, in particular, both flashed explosiveness and an ability to punch their blockers before starting pursuit.

As far as the safeties, Metellus and Kinnel played their best games of the season. The former set the tone by roughing up Davis on the sideline. The latter provided disciplined run support.

It’s getting to the point that any positive plays by offenses are seen as massive disappointments. This defense has raised the standard, even starting to surpass the 2016 unit.

A year ago in Happy Valley, Brown coordinated his worst game as a Michigan assistant. After apparently restless nights the last year, expect better results this time on Nov. 3.