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Film Preview: Michigan State has taken a step back on offense, still looking for defensive identity

Michigan State’s offense is lost without Kenneth Walker III, and the overall physicality of the team leaves a lot to be desired for the Spartans

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Ohio State Buckeyes are heading to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans this weekend, and will be looking to replicate last year’s 56-7 victory. This year, Michigan State is coming in floundering and struggling to find its identity on both sides of the football.

Last season, Michigan State was riding incredibly high after upsetting their in-state rival the Michigan Wolverines, and the emergence of Kenneth Walker III had Spartan fans thinking they were going to party like it was 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. Then reality set in, and the patchwork secondary was exposed by C.J. Stroud and future first round picks at receiver. The defense showed up and limited the running game, and a blow out ensued.

This year, the plan of attack shouldn’t change that much. The Buckeyes have the weapons to expose the back end of Michigan State’s defense. The Spartans have struggled to find a run game identity, and this has hurt their quarterback Payton Thorne, who excelled in the play-action passing game last season. Their defense has also struggled to consistently stop teams, especially early leading to them chasing big leads in all three of their losses this season.

For the Buckeyes, if they maintain their physical style of play, they will be able to overmatch the Spartans like Minnesota. If they dial in their passing game, they can attack like Washington did. The strategies to win are there, and as long as Ohio State plays disciplined football on both sides they should find ways to exploit the Spartans.

Michigan State’s Offense

Last season Michigan State relied heavily on Kenneth Walker III and his ability to make something out of nothing. Walker averaged 6.6 yards per carry compared to the combination of Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard at 4.9 this year. If you only include Michigan State’s matchups against Power 5 teams, this number drops to 3.0 yards per rush on 55 carries.

This is where the problems start with Michigan State’s offense. There is no balance, and it shows in two places. The offensive line has struggled early in the season, and Michigan State has fallen behind early in all three losses this season. By not showing a willingness to commit to the run, teams have been able to sit back and make sure the passing game is just as ineffective. Last season, the down field passing attack was made possible through the run game.

If Ohio State is able to limit the run and the offense can get out to an early lead, the defense could have one of its most complete games yet.

Struggles in the run game

The already mentioned Walker is no longer at Michigan State, and the Spartans are feeling the pain in that area. Despite having a decent season per carry average, the struggle to find anything consistent on the ground has plagued Michigan State. Without being able to run the football, MSU is unable to set up their downfield play-action passing game that made them so successful last season.

To take a look at how negatively the run game is affecting Michigan State’s offense, there are three plays that stood out in the previous games. In the first, Michigan State is in an obvious run situation with 3rd-and-1 in their own half. The running back goes the wrong way and Payton Thorne is left in no man’s land with no one to hand the ball off to. This may seem like a one-off type of play, but this is just one play in a grander issues for MSU.

In the next play, Michigan State is backed up inside their own end zone on the 2-yard line. They run a traditional zone run play, and the timing of the hand off is incredibly awkward. What makes the situation worse is the hand off side right guard gets pushed back two yards at the snap. This forces the back to jump cut in the end zone, and he slips and falls behind the line of scrimmage. The penetration from the lack of physicality, and the awkward hand off led to a safety.

The last play is a little later in the game. Michigan State executes the hand off, and the running back is able to stay on his feet. In this 3rd-and-3 situation, Michigan State decides they are going to run the ball. Washington blows up the offensive line at the snap and the Michigan State’s right guard gets pushed back to the mesh point. This forces the back to cut, and he runs directly into the filling linebackers. This has been the case in every game Michigan State has played against a Power 5 opponent, and with how Ohio State is playing the run, expect the Buckeyes to find success in stopping Michigan State.

Inconsistent passing game

Michigan State’s passing offense last season was dynamic and they were able to attack downfield with consistency. This year, that has not been the case for the Spartans. In the first clip, Minnesota is in a look Ohio State shows quite often. Showing pressure from the entire box and then backing off into coverage. By doing this, Michigan State checked into their max-protections, leaving the tight end and running back in to block. Having only three routes downfield, the only open receiver was the drag route, who catches the ball significantly short of the first down.

The check downs have plagued Michigan State this year, and their quarterback Payton Thorne has had no confidence attacking downfield with his receivers. In this play, Michigan State is in a 3rd-and-long passing situation. They have to throw the ball downfield to keep the drive alive, and this means the quarterback needs time to throw. Michigan State runs a standard protection with the running back staying in to block. This should work to stop Minnesota’s four man rush, but the Gophers get pressure anyway. The offensive line has really created a lot of problems for Michigan State’s offense, and that stands true in both the run and pass.

How will Ohio State defend against Michigan State?

Ohio State will just need to continue to play at the level they have played in recent weeks. The Buckeyes effectively stopped Rutgers’ much more dynamic running game last week, and there won’t be an added quarterback run dimension this week. With the strength of Jim Knowles’ defense being the front-6 defenders, the physicality of that group will be the difference in this matchup.

Michigan State’s Defense

Michigan State’s head coach Mel Tucker built his reputation at the college level coaching defensive backs. So far, he has been unable to use that reputation to build a functional secondary. On top of that, there hasn’t been a single game-altering player on Michigan State’s defense since Tucker’s arrival.

The patchwork secondaries over the first three seasons under Tucker have created a glaring weakness teams have taken advantage of. The Buckeyes had 400 yards passing at halftime last season, and the secondary has not taken any meaningful steps forward. In the run game, they have struggled just as much this season, which has been a huge contributing factor to the Spartans giving up early big leads.

Without putting much pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, the basic scheme from a coverage stand point has been easy for opponents to attack.

In coverage

Michigan State under Mel Tucker has ran a variety of coverages with Cover-4, man-to-man, and Cover-3 looks. At the halfway point of the regular season, Michigan State has played predominantly man coverage. Last year against Ohio State they were in their Cover-4 look when Ohio State was ripping them apart.

In the first play, Michigan State is in Cover-0 on first down, meaning there is no safety help over top. This is strange because there is no additional pressure coming from the second level with the linebackers. Minnesota lines up in 11-personnel, meaning they have a tight end and have trips with that tight end to the right side of the field. Minnesota runs a double post concept, and the tight end wins his route due to the outside leverage Michigan State’s safety played. With no safety help, Minnesota’s quarterback has a huge window to throw to, leading to a big play given up.

In the next play, Michigan State is in Cover-3 and blitzes both linebackers against Washington, who is in an 11-Personnel Wing look. Washington keeps their tight end in to block, creating a max-protection. This cancels out the pressure that Michigan State decides to bring. Washington send their three receivers vertical and the goal of this coverage is to not get beat deep downfield. This means the corners are supposed to keep their cushion and keep the receivers in front of them. Michigan State does not do that in this scenario, and this poor technique has led to multiple big plays this season.

Struggles against the run

Washington is by no means a powerhouse running program, but against MSU in the first half, they got all the rush yards they needed. Washington runs a traditional inside zone concept on this play from 11-personnel. Michigan State’s defensive line gets blown off the ball and Washington is able to reach the second level with ease. A big reason Washington gets to the linebackers so effortlessly is the passive fill by the linebackers. At the snap, Michigan State’s linebackers hop multiple times, and slowly react to the run action. By the time the back is contacted he already has the first down and then some.

The physicality is a significant part of Michigan State’s defensive problems, and the overall defensive performance this season by the Spartans starts with poor tackling. As we saw in the play before, the passive run fills from the linebackers allows for the opposing offensive line to get to the second level and create an even greater running lane for the running back. Minnesota runs a wide zone and they easily block every Michigan State defender in the box. Once the MSU defenders shed the blocks, they are unable to tackle Minnesota’s running back who then goes 15 yards untouched down the field.

How will Ohio State attack against Michigan State?

The Buckeyes can handle this game one of two ways: the first being to continue building off the physical run game bullying your way into the idle week, or use this opportunity to put on a downfield passing clinic like last year. Ohio State attacked downfield aggressively to start the game, and the Spartans will do their best to stop that from happening again.

For the Buckeyes, the goal should be continuing with their balanced play-calling. Michigan State has struggled against the three FBS teams on their schedule because those schools attacked the Spartans in a variety of ways run or pass. Ohio State is fully capable of doing that, and the expectation should be another performance like last years for the offense.

Ohio State has had Michigan State’s number in the last two meetings, and there is nothing on film that shows this matchup will be any different. The Buckeyes have all the offensive weaponry to put Michigan State’s defense into a bind, and the way Ohio State’s defense has been playing the Spartan offense should continue to have trouble.

Michigan State gave up close to 400 yards passing in the first half of last years matchup against the Buckeyes, and they look even more vulnerable defensively than last year. This is a nightmare time for the Spartans, because C.J. Stroud is coming off one of his worst performances and is poised for a bounce back game. After looking how Michigan State’s linebackers filled in the run game, they could also run the ball for 200 yards on Saturday.

The Spartans have struggled this year, and despite a lot of offseason momentum their season is already falling apart. Their lack of physicality on both sides of the ball should have Michigan State fans fearful. If Ohio State shows up with the same physicality as last week on both sides of the ball, the score of the game should look similar to last years.