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UW Opponent Defensive Preview: Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans’ reloaded defensive front will try to slow down the Huskies’ Aerial Assault... Part 2

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Michigan State at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot has changed since last fall when then-#11 Michigan State made the trip out to Montlake. Coach DeBoer & Co. were just two games into what looked at the time to be a rebuilding debut season at UW, and the Spartans were still flying high after an 11-win debut season in 2021 under Mel Tucker. The game between the two would be an inflection point in each program’s fortunes. UW would finish with an 11-win season of our own, and Michigan State never seemed to find their footing again in 2022, finishing with a 5-7 record. With all that being said, no two games are exactly alike, and even with a lot of familiar faces, the 2023 edition of UW vs. Michigan State brings something new to the table.

The Scheme & Personnel

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Michigan State at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Schematically, not a lot has changed since last year’s version of the Spartan defense. Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton runs a 4-2-5 base nickel defense that will look very similar to the 2022 version of the UW defense. Up front, the Spartans have a very aggressive and talented defensive line and edge rusher group that is looking to attack upfield to create chaos in the backfield. Behind them, the LBs and Secondary plays a mix of press and off ball Quarters zone match coverage with some single-high Cover 3 as a change up. As I mentioned in last season’s Defensive Preview of Michigan State, the defensive philosophy was designed to allow for a rapid install for the influx of incoming talent.

[Tucker, a defensive-minded head coach] understood that his roster lacked the talent to match up in man coverage against their Big Ten opponents, or having a sizable number of transfers who didn’t have the time to learn a complex scheme, Tucker pared down his playbook to focus on Quarters and Cover 3. These two coverages gave him the flexibility to pivot between 1-high and 2-high shells, and they were zone-based schemes that could be installed quickly but also had more complex variations that could be installed down the line... Regardless of which version a defense installs, a strong pass rush is absolutely necessary for these coverages to be effective.

Now in Year 3 of this defense, the roster turnover is less of a factor, but the core philosophy and defensive design remains the same. Michigan State wants to play fast and aggressive without becoming susceptible to giving up big plays due to any one weakness or missed coverage, and they will do that with a lot of zone coverage. Team speed is the key to effective zone coverage, and Michigan State has experimented with ways of improving that speed. Safety Malik Spencer has spent time at LB in certain sub packages and could return to that role to combat our pass-heavy 11 personnel sets. Out on the perimeter, CBs Charles Brantley and Dillon Tatum will present the toughest 1v1 match ups our WRs have faced this season. Both were blue chip recruits out of HS, and Brantley is a returning starter who has flashed at times.

Heading into last season’s game, DE/EDGE Jacoby Windmon was the focus of a lot of attention as he held an early lead for the nation’s sack leader, but this year, the Spartans have taken a more inclusive approach to their pressure package. Instead of just one stud pass rusher, six different Spartans have been credited by PFF with 4+ pressures over the last two games with 10 sacks overall. That’s good for the Spartans as it appears that Windmon may be out this week due to an upper body injury that sidelined him midway through their last game. Instead, you should keep an eye out for Zion Young, Aaron Brule, Simeon Barrow Jr., and Avery Dunn who will be asked to step up in the pass rush.

Keys to the Game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Michigan State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I suppose we should probably address the elephant in the room. As most readers are aware, Mel Tucker will not be acting as the HC for the Spartans this weekend after being suspended this past week pending a school investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. In his place, longtime Michigan State DBs coach and Mark Dantonio assistant Harlon Barnett has been appointed as the Interim HC with Dantonio returning to the staff in an active advisory role.

What does all of this mean in the context of a defensive preview? Probably not a lot. By elevating a position assistant, the coordinators should be able to continue their preparation and maintain their usual game day responsibilities without the added burden of the HC responsibilities. Scottie Hazelton will still be calling the plays as DC, and there’s nothing to suggest that dramatic schematic or personnel changes will be implemented this week.

We should expect the Spartans to stick to a familiar game plan that plays to their strengths along the defensive front and complements their offense. Creative defensive pressure and a heavy dose of zone coverage could throw our big play offense off of its game. Like Tulsa, Michigan State will likely use their two-high shells to take away the deep pass, and then use a variety of zone coverages underneath to cause just enough hesitation to allow their defensive line and pressure packages to force either a mistake or a sack.

If I were in Grubb’s shoes, I would do my best to force the Spartan defense into a man coverage check via formations & motions, and I would mix in the screen game and misdirection run plays to take the edge off of the defensive front. Quarters-based defenses do not adjust to trips formations to the field very well. This is because you always want to have an extra defender in coverage on the field side, and you can’t maintain a two-high shell and this extra defender without drawing a player out of the box. To combat this, Quarters defenses usually have a default MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) check against trips formations. A MEG check basically means that the field side CB converts his assignment into straight up man coverage and the nickel, safety, and SAM LB in the box can play three defenders over the two field side slot WRs. If we can draw that check, expect us to take our shots down the field against that man coverage to the field.