Michigan State’s road trip to Nebraska towards the end of 2018 was one of the more interesting matchups of the season in the Big 10. The Spartans were 4-3 in B1G play heading into the game and eliminated from contention for the East division title after dropping a home game to Ohio State the week prior while Nebraska was 2-5 in the B1G and hunting for their first big win of the season. There wasn’t a ton on the line in this game save for pride but there was a lot at play in terms of tactical trends in the Big 10.
The Spartans are still playing their 4-3 Over quarters defense with a few tweaks to keep them current against the spread offense. Mark Dantonio’s vision on defense continues to be a refusal to allow opponents to run the football and they make as few accommodations against spread sets as they can get away with in order to keep their middle linebacker in the box and plugging downhill. That player over the last two years, Joe Bachie, has consecutive 100 tackle seasons with another likely coming in his senior season in 2019.
Of course Scott Frost wants to run the football and uses a wide variety of spread tactics to create angles for the run game. The Cornhuskers lead rusher in 2017, Devine Ozigbo, had 129 carries for 493 yards at 3.8 ypc with three TDs. In 2018 in Frost’s system he turned 155 carries into 1082 yards at 7.0 ypc with 12 TDs. The setting for this showdown was Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, packed with nearly 90k screaming Husker fanatics who were heedless of the 27 degree weather, 16 mph winds, and snow flurries that came down with increasing volume over the course of the game.
Throwing the ball with a freshman QB (Adrian Martinez) was going to be tough sledding, the game had to come down to Frost working his spread tricks to try and create leverage to run the football against Dantonio’s Spartans.
After a lull in 2016, the Michigan State defense has recovered their form in recent years. One key to that is an improved CB room that has been able to get back to their “no fly zone” standards. That’s essential in the Spartan defense which still regularly plays a lot of press-quarters with the CBs on islands outside.
Other crucial developments include the defense getting back to their traditional identity after a brief flirtation with being a defense with more recruiting star power. In classic Spartan fashion, Dantonio found a couple of families that produced multiple brothers with Michigan State grit and defensive prowess. Andrew and David Dowell manned the “star” linebacker and free safety positions to the field while Jacub and Mike Panasiuk took over at weakside DE and 3-technique DT. Finally, a walk-on defensive end named Kenny Willekes (RB and LB in HS) came out of nowhere in 2017 to lead the team with seven sacks and finished as an All-American in 2018 after securing 78 tackles, 20 TFL, and eight sacks. In 2019 Willekes might be the best defensive player in the country.
Their formula for the sorts of spread-option tactics that a coach like Frost tries to bring to bear is still to build a wall in the middle of the field to prevent uncovered gaps. The Huskers started the game by immediately aiming to try and create gaps in the box and force the Spartans out of their six-man fronts.
Against 11 personnel trips sets the standard procedure for the Spartans is to split their “star” linebacker out wide but then ask him to get back into the run fit. But one of the tweaks that Sparty has made has been to play their strongside end in a 7-technique rather than the wide-9 they’ve often used in the past so that he can play the C-gap and not force the star to get all the way to the C-gap from his station out wide.
It also allows the star to sit on the quick route passing window a minute before coming to clean up. Things go predictably with the ball cutting back before hard-charging run support minimizes the gain with physical tackles.
The Cornhuskers followed that up with their ace in the hole, the QB run game. They ran a tackle-lead draw play while swinging the RB out to the trips side to make Bachie choose between playing in the box or helping his outnumbered teammates on the perimeter.
He slow-played it, but the Huskers muffed the screen pass anyways and no damage was done.
Normally against a team that will either leave the MLB in the box or keep him as close as possible like State does, a spread offense can get good mileage from trips formations that combine an inside run with a bubble screen to the third receiver. The Spartans’ answer for that is basically just grit and toughness, their “star” linebacker (Andrew Dowell) plays really physically on the perimeter and will fight hard to block up WR blocks and take away the angles in space.
The Huskers would flex out their TEs to try and block the star but to no avail, Dowell would fight to blow up the play and allow the Spartans to rally to the ball.
The passing game
The “easiest” way to attack the Spartans is with the passing game, particularly their OLBs and Ss who are often bigger guys and who will yield some space in order to attack the run. If an offense has a star outside receiver they can try and work them against the corners as well, but Nebraska didn’t have any big guns there.
One tactic that Nebraska utilized heavily was to attach out routes from the slot to their runs. Some quarters teams will play a “2-read” coverage in which the nickel OLB may crash hard on the run but the CB will pick up the slot on a quick out and let his man go up to the safety like in traditional cover 2. But the Spartans don’t play that style, usually sticking the CB on his man all the way and leaving the quick out to the free safety.
A fair amount of Martinez’s meager 145 passing yards on the day came from throwing these quick out RPOs.
The other common way to attack a team like Michigan State is with corner routes from the slot. Nebraska mixed in some “snag” and some “smash” combinations designed to allow them to try and attack the safeties with the corner route but didn’t hit them.
Finally, the Huskers took some shots against the Spartans for the way they ask their star linebacker to blow up perimeter screens. They’d swing out a RB and have Martinez pump fake to hold the linebacker before taking a deep shot on the isolated safeties. They landed one of these that proved crucial for winning the game.
Frost walked away with the win, a 9-6 victory achieved primarily because Michigan State’s back-up QB Rocky Lombardi completed only 15 of 41 passes for 146 yards at 3.6 ypa with an INT and a fumble. The Spartan back-up was totally unready for a classic Nebraska home game in the snow with a struggling cast of teammates and that defined this game more than the high level chess games.
Mark Dantonio had the better of Frost in the battle between his defense and the Husker spread-option attack in terms of actual production. However, the Huskers regularly had them whipped on the chalkboard only to be beat on the field because RS sophomore TE Jack Stoll couldn’t block Andrew Dowell, or because they couldn’t block Kenny Willekes...
This was a really nasty spread-option concept. The Huskers have their TE running a pop pass down the seam and the RB running a sweep across the formation and then presenting a threat on a swing screen. Most likely the Huskers didn’t ask Martinez to read all that though but simply attached those options as distractions from their QB running a tackle-lead iso/draw play on a five man box.
If the RG maintains his block on Willekes, or if Martinez had looked for the cutback lane, this play does real damage on a crucial third and long. Instead Willekes stuffs it and it’s pidgeon-holed as a failed attempt.
Dantonio and Frost don’t rematch in 2019 unless they meet in the Big 10 championship (plausible, really) but there’s some things on film to suggest that the Huskers may be able to land their gloves on the B1G’s toughest run defense once Frost has been able to further develop his young roster. Frost’s battles with the Big 10’s defensive coaches should make for good viewing in the coming years.