Last year's early season Oregon v Michigan State contest was a very highly anticipated, prime time event as the Spartans were fresh off a dominant season and bringing their "no fly zone" defense into Eugene, OR to take on Marcus Mariota and his playoff-hopeful Ducks.
The Spartans' aggressive press-quarters defense predictably proved unable to maintain their restrictions on passing the ball against the Oregon up-tempo spread and Mariota decisively won the game. The eventual Heisman threw for 11 yards per attempt and three touchdowns and his counterpart Connor Cook couldn't keep up as Oregon dropped 46 points on the vaunted Spartan D.
Michigan State would then go on to have further problems with top spread squads and were gashed by Ohio State and Baylor as the season went along. They've had to adjust to those lessons as well as losing DC Pat Narduzzi to the Pittsburgh head coach vacancy.
Now the big question, what have the Spartans learned about defensing the spread and can they take out their vengeance on Vernon Adams and the 2015 Oregon offense?
What have the Spartans learned?
Dantonio's defense faced three major changes they were going to have to adjust for this offseason, the first was the loss of yet another NFL cornerback in Trae Waynes after losing Darqueze Dennard the year before. The cornerback rotation the Spartans are rolling out now lacks the star power of previous seasons.
The second needed adjustment was to the ways in which spread passing teams absolutely ripped their press-quarters pass defense. With Oregon and Ohio State both looming on the schedule again, a failure to respond could leave this team vulnerable to losing their standing.
Finally, Dantonio had to shuffle his staff around to replace Narduzzi, whom he had crafted this defense with over several years in Cincinnati and Lansing.
The Spartans seem to be responding to all three of these situations by placing less emphasis on the "press" element of their coverage scheme while still mixing in heavy safety run support and their patented "three deep, two under" zone blitzes.
You didn't see much off coverage like this from the Spartans in the last few years but they've adjusted their scheme some to protect their cornerbacks. In this set the boundary corner is still in press coverage and his help from the safety is somewhat conditional and limited so the Spartans are still putting a lot on their corners at times but not as consistently as in 2013 or 2014 under Narduzzi.
The result is that they look a bit more like a standard cover 4 team with some "bend don't break" tendencies mixed in with their usual aggressiveness. Their still frequent usage of six man zone blitzes makes this a reasonable compromise as these calls are very effective for putting an offense behind the chains and allowing a more conservative blend:
The 2015 Michigan State defense probably isn't going to dominate opponents to the same degree that the legendary 2013 unit did, but their purpose within the overall Spartan strategy will now be more about playing slightly more conservative pass defense, stopping the run, and forcing turnovers while the offense delivers the knockout blows.
Attacking the Ducks
The Spartans have a major question to answer in whether they approach first down against the Ducks in their base 4-3 defense or with their nickel package.
Their base defense relies on the speed and coverage ability of sam linebacker Darien Harris, the ability of safeties Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson to stay on top of slot receivers while still playing aggressively against the run game, and most of all on boundary corner Demetrious Cox being able to play on an island.
Last year the Spartans played a great deal of "solo" coverage, which is a cover 4 scheme designed to handle spread formations with three receivers aligned to one side by rolling the strong safety over to the field while trusting the boundary corner in "solo" coverage.
The advantage of this coverage is that it allows the Spartans to play RJ Williamson and Montae Nicholson over the top in manageable two-deep assignments, keep the Ducks in front of them, and rely on tackling and sound alignment to keep Oregon from lighting up the scoreboard. The problem is that it hinges entirely on the boundary corner holding up against a Bralon Addison or Dwayne Stanford in man coverage. In the Spartans' 4-3 base defense that would be Demetrious Cox, but in their 4-2-5 nickel package Cox slides inside and that position would be filled by a combination of returning starter Darian Hicks (coming off an illness) and redshirt freshman Jermaine Edmondson.
It's not clear that Michigan State should trust any of those candidates to hold up in isolated coverage against the Ducks' outside receivers, which would make "solo" coverage a shaky plan for handling Oregon's spread alignments in 2015.
The Spartan nickel package flips Nicholson over to the boundary safety position (he normally aligns to the field) while keeping the Williamson-Cox tandem together as the free safety and nickel to the field side of the formation, Harris steps inside to their weakside linebacker position while that player sits on the bench. With this package in the game the Spartans get a lot more speed on the field and they can bracket the solo side receiver with a more conservative pass defense:
Their nickel is also particularly effective in their big zone blitzes, such as this scheme that puts their best underneath coverage defenders (Nicholson and Cox) in the crucial hot zones:
Vernon Adams is a very athletic QB that should be able to execute much of Oregon's spread-option offense but beating these types of blitzes is very difficult to do with an option rushing attack because the outside blitzers play contain and force the ball inside to the teeth of the blitz. It's very difficult to beat this scheme with speed on the perimeter.
The best way to make the Spartans pay for these blitzes is with the passing game, but has Vernon Adams mastered the Oregon scheme well enough to make good decisions against big time pressure with a couple of DBs reading his eyes and parking in the windows where he wants to throw hot routes? How much time is the rebuilt Oregon line ready to provide Adams against one of the best attacking fronts in college football?
No doubt both the Oregon offense and Michigan State defense will each be much better by the end of the year than they are right now as they acclimate new playmakers into crucial positions. However, the Spartans have a major edge in this contest in that they have experienced players in the middle of the field with which they can be aggressive while the Ducks have a QB who lacks a great deal of familiarity either with his own offense or the zone blitzes that are going to be raining down on him along with a chorus of 75k screaming Michiganders.
The Spartans are still learning how to adjust their defense to the modern spread, but they're in good shape to get some payback on Saturday. If they do, the next test comes in November on the road.