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Film Preview: MSU’s one man running game, big play passing game, and a questionable defense

Ohio State hosts Michigan State this week, so we take a look at the Spartans’ awful pass defense and the offense that goes with Kenneth Walker

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Ohio State Buckeyes’ offense returned to its dominant form against Purdue, which is extremely bad news for Michigan State, who lays claim to one of the worst passing defenses in the country. In a severe mismatch of what one team does well and the other team does not, this game will be incredibly important for Michigan State’s star running back Kenneth Walker III to perform as the Ohio State run defense has yet to to face a player of that caliber. Mel Tucker will be bringing an energy and confidence not many coaches will bring to Columbus, but Ryan Day and company made light work of the Spartans last year —albeit two very different teams from a year ago.

On offense, the Spartans are Kenneth Walker III or bust. The passing game is built on the run game, and the utilization of long developing play-action passes can play favorably towards Ohio State’s pass rush. As we saw in the Spartans’ match up against Michigan, slowing down Walker is a four quarter job. Payton Thorne could possibly be down one of his big play receivers in Jalen Nailor, allowing Ohio State to shift more focus towards stopping Walker. Thorne has been a significant step up over the past few MSU quarterbacks, leading a passing attack that compliments the run game really well.

Defensively, Michigan State is still playing catch up personnel wise to fit into Mel Tucker’s 3-4 defense, which has led to some of the statistics this season. Gone from the Mark Dantonio days where they chose to just sit in Cover-4, Tucker and the staff like to mix in zone, blitzes, and man concepts. Utilizing the transfer portal, they rebuilt their linebacker unit, but the mismatched group has been prone to giving up big plays in the passing game. Overall, defensively Michigan State is a couple years away from where they want to be, and the film we’re going to look at highlights what the Buckeyes will be able to take advantage of.


As we get started in this film preview, Michigan State relies on a mix of both gap and zone run schemes from different running back alignments. The Spartans line up under center, from pistol and from an offset gun, and this allows them to utilize Walker in a multitude of ways. For the Spartans, the success of their run game is the key contributor to their passing game. If Walker can be limited, it will force MSU’s offense into an uncomfortable situation. That being said, let’s take a look at what the Spartans do well and what the Buckeyes will do to try to slow down this offense.

The first play we’re going to look at is one of Michigan State’s key run concepts. This play has become a staple in gap schemes with modern offensive linemen. Sparty utilizes the “GT Counter” which means the guard and tackle pull to kick out while the tackle and guard play side down block, creating the illusion of a read.

When we look at this play, we can see Michigan State come out in 12 personnel – one running back, two tight ends – which allows them to get a lot of big bodies to run block for Walker. The first thing we’re going to look at is Michigan State’s tight end (No. 97), who dives directly down inside as well as the guard, and the center (No. 64) steps right to wall the three-technique tackle. The right guard (No. 68) and the right tackle (No. 75) cross the formation, pulling to kick out the end, and the tackle comes inside and hits the linebacker, which leads to Walker needing to pause in the backfield.

Maryland actually defends this play extremely well, leaving a player in a one-on-one situation with Walker. Unfortunately, Walker is a special player, so tackling him is no easy task. With Walker being a player who is prone to bouncing outside group tackling, outside contain and good angles will be key to slowing down this attack.

In the passing game, their best plays come off the play-action, and like everybody else in the 21st century, the RPO. Payton Thorne is a huge step up from Rocky Lombardi and the last few MSU quarterbacks, because he has an ability to throw the ball down the field with touch and placement. The play below is a great example of how Michigan State likes to run some hard play-actions.

Michigan State aligns in 12 personnel, with two tight ends to the short side of the field —which is an important thing to watch here. Jaylen Reed (No. 1) comes across in an orbit motion, which creates a triple option look with Walker. The action in the backfield with the success in the run game leads to this play getting wide open.

The play fake to the right gets Purdue’s defense flowing to the right. The tight end on the line of scrimmage blocks down, creating the illusion that the other tight end was moving to the second level. Thorne does a soft boot action to reset his feet, then the tight end gets behind the defense. The low flood concept keeps the defenders from dropping back, leaving a huge window for Thorne to deliver a strike.

The overall feel of the Michigan State offense is that everything runs through Kenneth Walker and the big play passing game. If Ohio State can limit one of those two things, they should be able to take control of the game defensively. If Ohio State can tackle in space it will alleviate a lot of problems, because Walker is a huge yard after first contact back. Being a sure tackling unit and not letting receivers get behind the defense should slow them down enough for the Ohio State offense to take advantage of Michigan State’s terrible defense.


Mel Tucker went to the portal to rebuild this Spartan team, and defensively they have transfers in a lot of key positions on the field. Tucker and his team plays a strong mix of man and zone coverages. The Buckeyes were successful last year running the football, and I say this painstakingly, but with the quarterback run game with Justin Fields. Ohio State will look to catch MSU with motion, RPOs, and establishing the run game like last year. Facing the worst passing defense in the Big Ten, this should be a field day for the Buckeyes’ receivers and C.J. Stroud.

Against Purdue, Michigan State’s defense really struggled slowing down Purdue’s passing attack. There are two concepts that stood out to me when watching the Purdue matchup: mesh and verticals. These concepts gave Michigan State fits when trying to stop them, leading to a good chunk of big plays. The first play we are going to look at is straight verticals against Cover-4.

Purdue attacks the two-high safeties in this look, and that creates one-on-one matchups on the outside against the other quarters zones. Purdue lines up in doubles with a tight end in the right slot, giving them 11 personnel — which is Ohio State’s main personnel grouping. The two inside receivers for Purdue run a post and a middle over concept, and the outside receivers run true verticals.

David Bell for Purdue is able to break the cushion and make a great play on the ball, but what I want to look at here is all the space and cushion. Against MSU’s quarters there is so much grass all over the field. If you look at the top of the screen, Purdue’s receiver runs a 12-yard curl. Ohio State can pick apart this defense with a methodical approach, or they can test them deep like Bell and probably find similar success.

In the next play, Purdue lines up in bunch personnel with a tight end to the short side of the field. They run a concept that is extremely common in Ohio State’s offense in “Mesh” which has the two shallow crossers.

Michigan State runs man coverage against bunch, leading to them getting crossed up by Purdue sending everyone to the middle. The Boilermakers send all three bunch players to the middle of the field at different levels, opening up the field side. Purdue’s tight end runs across the formation and he gets enough separation due to the conflict created for MSU’s man coverage at the mesh point.

The tight end is able to get an easy first down here and picks up some extra yards. The reason this play is important to look at is Ohio State will run this play until MSU stops it, which they haven’t shown that they can. The Buckeyes will look to attack their man concepts with mesh and similar concepts, and Michigan State will not slow them down.


The Spartans will look to get back into the Big Ten East and playoff conversation with a huge road win against Ohio State. Michigan State will be bringing arguably the most talented player Ohio State has been tasked with stopping in Kenneth Walker III, but the Spartan defense is putrid at best. If they can not control the clock, Ohio State will potentially make this game ugly.

For the Buckeyes, slowing down Walker will be key, but the bigger key on defense is them limiting the Spartans’ big plays off the play action. If Ohio State can make MSU one dimensional, I do not think the Spartans can keep up with Ohio State’s offense. If Payton Thorne can throw the ball over top, that opens up Walker and their offense can be dangerous. If Bryson Shaw and the defensive backs can keep everything in front of them, the defense will be able to flourish in slowing down this Spartan attack.

The Buckeyes start their final stretch with a real test, and this game will be a great barometer for an Ohio State team who hasn’t played a team of this caliber since Oregon. With a huge point spread, Vegas thinks this game will be a blowout and I think a key part in that is this is a match up nightmare for the Spartans. As for me, I’m not making predictions, because every time I do the opposite seems to happen.