This season hasn’t gone the way Michigan State expected, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any dangerous weapons on offense.
Michigan State wide receiver R.J. Shelton possesses some of the best hands and elite awareness in the Big Ten. He has the ability to catch deflected balls and tap his toes inbounds — showing off his incredible concentration and instincts.
Down by four points on the road against Illinois, the Spartans faced a 4th-and-4 with 3:02 left in the game. They had to go for it.
Quarterback Damion Terry faked the handoff, evaded a rusher and threw off his back foot. At the time of the throw, it almost looked like Terry threw the ball out of the back of the end zone — but he somehow found his stud receiver hidden behind three Illinois defensive backs. Shelton jumped a little too early, which nearly cost him. Yet, he snatched the ball on his way down, before tapping both of his toes on the border of the orange-painted end zone. Touchdown.
Shelton leads Sparty with 47 receptions, which is fifth best in the Big Ten. In only nine games played, he’s already surpassed his 2015 reception and yardage total. As a true perimeter receiver, he shines in the intermediate and deep game. In fact, Shelton has two 86-yard touchdown receptions this season, both which came on 9-routes where he just toasted the opposing defensive back.
On this 86-yard bomb, it looks like Indiana was in Cover 3, but the safety bit on the play-action fake. Shelton saw the safety freeze, got inside leverage on the cornerback and turned on the jets. At the 15-yard mark, Shelton already had two steps on the corner. By the time he caught the ball at the Indiana 41, he was about 4-yards ahead of the nearest defensive back. Talk about speed.
As the previous two plays have showed, Michigan State gets a lot of their big pass plays off play-action. They lull defenses to sleep with their boring run game — hoping to make the safety bite on the run — then hit their speedster deep. 26 of his 47 receptions have gained first down yardage, while 14 of his receptions have gone 15-plus yards. Then, they’ve hit him deep (25-plus yards) five times, averaging 15.11 yards per reception.
In a play against Northwestern, Shelton once again showed off his ability to beat one-on-one coverage and beat his man deep for a score. They showed play-action (shocker) out of shotgun and Shelton did the rest. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor saw pressure and threw the ball up for grabs off of his back foot -- trusting that his wideout would come down with the ball. With no safety help, Shelton beat the defensive back, but the ball was a bit under thrown. The Northwestern defender tipped the ball not once but two times. The receiver kept his concentration on the football, caught the ball while in a back pedal and jogged into the end zone.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, they have three of the better corners in the nation on passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield. Per CFBFilmRoom, outside corners Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore have allowed only five receptions on 33 targets that have traveled 10-plus yards. It also helps to have a safety with elite NFL-type range in Malik Hooker, keeping everything in front of him. We mentioned that Lattimore — who has the ability to blanket opposing receivers — has a chance to essentially ice the game if he takes away Shelton.
Ohio State's secondary is locking it down this season pic.twitter.com/GDPOUUgUyY— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 9, 2016
If the Buckeyes stay away from peaking in the backfield when Michigan State runs play-action, they should be set, at least on defense. It’s fine to play a bend but don’t break defense against Michigan State. Let Tyler O’Connor make a mistake, while attempting to build a double-digit play touchdown drive against the Ohio State defense — just don’t let him hit R.J. Shelton deep.