Maneuvering the Battle with the Spartans

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One of the premier non-conference matchups of the season is a rematch from last year. This time though, the Ducks are traveling to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans. Last year’s matchup at Autzen set the Ducks on the path to the National Championship Game. This year’s game could have the same ramifications.

Now something you might notice in my articles this season is that I may show you the same play that I showed last season. If I do this it’s because the opponent has continued to use this play and it is still one you should look out for this season. The first example is the counter play from the Spartans.

The counter is a staple for the Spartans.

From video

The counter is a staple for the Spartans.

Michigan State is a run-first team with a defense that is suffocating — similar to the Stanford teams, who have given Oregon trouble in the past. Offensively, although their opponents gear up to stop the run, the Spartans still find success due to their ability to be versatile in their formations.

For example, we see how MSU runs a counter out of the shotgun on 3rd & 1 (above). For any team, this is often a passing formation, but MSU likes to run counters and other “out-of-the-ordinary” plays to keep the defense from cheating.

The crack block from the receiver and the block from the pulling guard are big time.

From video

The crack block from the receiver and the block from the pulling guard are big time.

A counter is a slow-developing play, and there are a couple of key components that the Spartans execute extremely well. The left tackle blocks the right defensive end, the left guard is immediately pulling and blocking the outside linebacker, while the three other players on the line are blocking down or blocking toward the open field.

As you can see, the hole opens wide for Langford.

From video

As you can see, the hole opens wide for Langford.

This creates a hole big enough for the running back to squeeze through and get to the second level.

Here, he will either have to beat the safety, who is the last man or, if the receiver blocks the safety like he does in this play, the running back can just walk into the endzone.

Touchdown Michigan State.

From video

Touchdown Michigan State.

The Spartans lost their No. 1 receiver, Tony Lippett, who had 35% of their receiving yards last year, but their veteran QB, Connor Cook, is returning. So expect the routes to be easier because the offense will be trying to adjust to life without Lippett. Here is one of the plays to look for.

The simple out and go routes can be very effective.

From video

The simple out and go routes can be very effective.

As you can see in the screenshot above, the Spartans are lined up in the shotgun with a two-tight-end set and two receivers on the right. The defense across from the Spartans is lined up in a 4-3.

The Spartans line gives Cook a ton of time to throw.

From video

The Spartans line gives Cook a ton of time to throw.

The two tight ends are going to be pass blocking on this play to help keep the pass rushers off of Cook. The receiver on the outside is running a simple go route. This draws the cornerback covering him into the deep third of the field. The inside receiver is performing a five-yard-out route.

The correct read by Cook gets them 9 yards.

From video

The correct read by Cook gets them 9 yards.

Cook reads the defense pre-snap and determines what his first read is going to be. The cornerbacks covering the receivers are playing off of the receivers, so Cook knows he is going to throw the out route.

As you can see, the cornerback covering the receiver is behind the receiver when Cook throws the ball, so it is a relatively easy nine-yard gain.

The Spartans’ identity has always been defense first.

This year, though, may be a tad different. Michigan State lost two big-time defensive backs to the draft and are trying to rebuild. This is good news for the Ducks offense, which still is trying to figure out the quarterback situation.

In last year’s game against the Ducks, the MSU defense was able to slow down the Duck attack just a few times. Here’s what I think will happen this year:

The linebackers are going to be set up to make the play.

From video

The linebackers are going to be set up to make the play.

In the play above, the Spartans line up in a 4-2-5 defense. The linebackers are going to be the key to stopping the option, as they usually are, so keep an eye out for them.

Mariota has to choose who can make a linebacker miss.

From video

Mariota has to choose who can make a linebacker miss.

At the snap, the left defensive end is going to push upfield to force the running back toward the teeth of the defense. The two defensive tackles are trying to get left in order to be there to stop the running back when he is forced back into the center.

The right end, all-American Shilique Calhoun, is going to go right to create the hole for Mariota if he takes the ball, so the defense knows where he is going to go.

Tyner has nowhere to go with the ball and is dropped for a loss.

From video

Tyner has nowhere to go with the ball and is dropped for a loss.

Seeing that Mariota’s hole is filled by the right linebacker, Marcus gives the ball to the running back. The left side of the defensive line does a phenomenal job of getting up field, giving the ball carrier nowhere to go.

Great play from the Michigan State defense results in a loss for Oregon.

From video

Great play from the Michigan State defense results in a loss for Oregon.

The left linebacker is there to clean up the play and drop the ball carrier for a loss. This is an incredible Michigan State run defense, just 18 yards rushing last week against Western Michigan, in Kalamazoo. The Ducks and Vernon Adams must be prepared for one of their toughest tests all season long.

Last week, both teams were atrocious defending the passing game. The quarterbacks and receivers are going to be salivating at this matchup. The Ducks can’t get too complacent, though, throwing the ball everywhere. The run game must be consistent to keep the Spartan defense honest.

With all this being said, I think it’s going to be a relatively high-scoring game with both defenses still trying to figure it out. Ducks over Michigan State, 48-38.

“Oh, how we love to learn about our opponents on FishDuck.com.”

Rory Davidson
Football Opponent Analyst for CFF Network/FishDuck.com
Eugene, Oregon

Top photo by Kevin Cline

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Rory Davidson

Rory Davidson

Rory Davidson: Rory (Football Analyst) is a sophomore at Oregon in the fall (Class of 2018). He has been a devout Stanford football fan since he was 2 months old and is excited about the energy and greatness Oregon sports has to offer. For the past 6 years he has been doing advanced data analytics for his high school football team and working alongside the coaches to understand how they strategize about the game. He wants to integrate more statistics into his analyses and try to help readers learn about and understand the future of sports.

  • worldwidewebfoot

    Good analysis above, as always. The counter play: didn’t we see that run very effectively by Ohio State in the second half against the Ducks? What is the proper defense for that?

    • Rory Davidson

      I believe so. It’s hard to say there’s a right defense to stop the counter since the defense you would have to employ would most likely be effective against the counter and nothing else. That being said, to stop the counter, the outside linebackers and defensive ends can’t over commit as once they get sucked inside, the blockers can seal the edge for the running back which usually means big play. If you trust your corners in single coverage with no safety help, you can also bring one or both of the safeties up for run support, but I don’t see that happening as our corners are the suspect area of the defense. This is how I would make sure the counter doesn’t hurt us. Hopefully I’m right or the Ducks show us a new way of stopping it!

  • Boggs

    This is strange, but in the first play, the safety doesn’t get blocked by the receiver. Instead, the safety intentionally runs into the receiver, thereby missing the running back. Watch the gif again. You can see the safety wind up and slam his shoulder into the receiver. Thoughts on this?

    • Rory Davidson

      Ya, I noticed that, it seemed weird to me too, but after talking to some of my friends who play football now in college or played in the past, they said that sometimes safeties or corners getting crack blocked (when a receiver comes across field like he’s running a slant to block) will try to brace himself for the block if he isn’t sure he can make the play since getting crack blocked can be very dangerous. Also, if the safety doesn’t blow up the block and goes after Langford and fails to make the play, that means Langford can bounce outside which is the last thing the defense wants. The crack block is supposed to seal an edge and let the ball carrier get outside, so this way, the safety forces the running back back inside towards the teeth of the defense. Bottom line, if the safety isn’t 100% sure he’s going to be able to make the play it may sometimes be better for him to blow up the block then try to make the play.