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Summer Scheming ‘21: Michigan State Spartans

MSU travels to Miami to face the Hurricanes for the first time since 1989. Miami is 4-0 on the series.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Mel Tucker is entering his 2nd season as the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans. Tucker has had a well traveled career that started off as a defensive back at Wisconsin in the early 90’s, and progressed into a GA position for Nick Saban at MSU.

Tucker then spent time at Miami (OH), LSU, and Ohio State before heading to the NFL. Tucker served as the Cleveland Browns DB coach and DC before a run with the Jacksonville Jaguars as DC and interim head coach.

After a two season stint as the Chicago Bears DC, Tucker returned to college football as the assistant head coach to Nick Saban at Alabama. Tucker then followed Kirby Smart to UGA, before becoming the head coach at Colorado and now MSU.

Info: Michigan State @ Miami Hurricanes in Miami Gardens, FL.

Day/Time/Channel: September 18, 2021 / 12:00pm / ABC/ESPN.

After two seasons as a head coach at the college level, Tucker’s record is only 7-12. However, he’s known to be one hell of a recruiter and brought talent to Colorado in only one season, and now is doing the same up in East Lansing, MI.

Miami is 4-0 all-time in the series, with the last game coming in 1989 with a 26-20 win for the eventual National Champion ‘Canes in Dennis Erickson’s first year in Coral Gables, FL.

2020 Record/Ranking: 2-5/Unranked.

2020 Data: 18PPG scored (117th in FBS), 35.1PPG allowed (100th in FBS).

Bowl Game: None.


Key losses: Rocky Lombardi, QB; Shakur Brown, DB; Antjuan Simmons, LB; and Naquan Jones, DL.

Michigan State has only five players on the Athlon Big Ten preseason team, with not a single player on the first team. MSU does return 14 of 22 starters on offense and defense, including the entire offensive line.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Michigan State v Wake Forest Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MSU’s first all-conference nod comes with the second team defense and defensive lineman Jacob Panasiuk. Panasiuk recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in MSU’s seven games in 2020.

MSU WR Jalen Nailor made the third team offense, while kicker Matt Coghlin made the 3rd team specialists. Nailor averaged an amazing 19.8 yards per catch with four TD’s a year ago. He’s the explosive threat a boring offense like Michigan State’s needs in 2021. Coghlin finished 13-of-13 on PAT’s and 9-of-12 on field goals last season.

The Spartans also had fourth team defender DL Drew Beesley, and kick returner Jayden Reed on the 4th team specialists. Beesley finished the COVID year with 5.5 TFL’s and a team high three sacks in ‘20.

Sparty Scheme on O

Sparty could get a shot in the arm on offense from Anthony Russo. The former Temple QB transferred to MSU this off-season and has flashed bright spots before, even after a rocky 2020. The six-foot-four, 235 pounder threw nine TD’s and six interceptions a year ago, but did complete 68% of his passes, but only for 6.4 yards per attempt.

Michigan State returns their top six offensive linemen and three wide receivers, as well as adding a couple of new running backs from the transfer portal. If the QB is Russo, freshman Hampton Fay, or returning back up Payton Thorne, they’ll at least have protection and weapons.

How do you lose to the MSU offense? Miami will lose to the MSU offense if they fall asleep on the deep ball. Tucker’s OC, Jay Johnson, is a veteran coach who has been nearly everywhere as an OC and QB coach in college football. Johnson has deep ball weapons in Nailor and freshman Ricky White (22.3 yards per catch in 2020). The Nailor-White duo will be great for stretching depth while Jayden Reed serves as more of a possession receiver (three TD’s).

How do you beat the MSU offense? Play with some cushion and force MSU to sustain a drive without a turnover. MSU only scored 18PPG in 2020 with an experienced QB and these same WR’s. Miami will have UGA transfer Tyrique Stevenson lined up over one, and some combination of Al Blades Jr and Te’Cory Couch on the other two receivers.

Will Miami be able to get to the Spartan’s QB without additional pressure? That remains to be seen. It depends on how good the new defensive ends are for The U. The Spartans added two transfer running backs in Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest (1,158 yards 17 TD’s in 20 games) and Auburn’s Harold Jones III. MSU could have a well balanced attack if everyone lives up to their hype.

Sparty Scheme on D

Scotty Hazelton returns as DC for the Spartans. Hazelton, like Johnson, is a well traveled veteran that has coordinated for the NDSU championship runs, as well as at places like Nevada, Wyoming and Kansas State. Hazelton stayed with MSU tradition and ran a 4-2-5 defense, even though Tucker has a ton of experience in the 3-4 defense under Coach Saban and Coach Smart.

Above- you can learn about the difference between spill and box fits. Spill fits were a common tactical maneuver used by Mark Dantonio on defense at Michigan State.

How do you lose to the MSU defense? Miami will lose to this defense if Rhett Lashlee tries to pound inside zone over and over again on short yardage situations. The hurry up on 3rd and 4th and short became moot when it was predictable what the follow up play was. The entire country knew Miami was going to run inside zone and the defensive ends sat on QB D’Eriq King while the other 10 players crashed down hard on the give.

How do you beat the MSU defense? Much like App State, Hazelton likes to blitz. If you can protect King pockets should be open in the intermediate passing game for TE Will Mallory, WR Mike Harley, and hopefully a breakout WR performance from someone like Charleston Rambo or Xavier Restrepo amongst others. In past pieces I talked about using Shallow Cross and Stick- those are two viable weapons.

Above- you’re seeing simple power that the RB bounces outside, but the linebackers aren’t there for it and neither are the DB’s. RPO’s will stretch the defense out and allow backs like Cam’Ron Harris and Jaylan Knighton to bounce plays and use their shift and speed to score.

What concept can Miami use against MSU? However, my true recommendation to beating MSU is to use a concept like outside zone or stretch with a back side RPO.

Take a look at this Stretch G concept from Bleacher Report. The offense can run this from any look, including the back in side car to the QB’s left (coming across towards the play) or to the right (almost a counter step for the RB). Coming across left could allow an RPO to the backside, while coming across right allows a front side RPO.

Above- you can see the rules on Stretch for bend, bang, and bounce. It’s similar to inside and split zone, except moved over two gaps because it’s a more outside run focused play.

Above- You can see how the stretch run is diagramed up, including the “pop” pass RPO. The read above is the back side linebacker, if he plays the run throw the pop, if he sits or drops- give to the RB. Fairly simple read that you can see below.

Above- you can see part of the RPO concept. The WLB vacated space and it’s now the slot WR’s job to beat his man. He has inside leverage on him and if the ball is thrown well it’s an easy 5-yard reception.

Canyonero keys to victory

1- Don’t give up the big play to MSU’s wide receivers. Clearly Sparty has a couple of formidable deep threat guys and there’s no reason to get gutsy and try to press them up. Make MSU work for every score by putting together a drive. They haven’t proven they can and this will be a relatively new starter no matter who is behind center for Tucker’s offense.

2- Don’t force it on offense. I have very few complaints about Lashlee’s offense but one thing he did too often was get really vanilla (Gus Malzahn influence) and try to force things to work. He doesn’t have the Auburn O-Line, yet, and when you have less talented guys you have to be a little less ground-and-pound than up at War Eagle. Stop running inside zone every 3rd and short!!

3- Beat someone with special teams. When is the last time Miami won a game where you stood back and said “Damn, that was a great game on special teams?” Miami stayed in games with Jose Borregales’ kicking and helped its defense with Lou Hedley’s great punting, but where is the big return game or blocked kick that used to break games open? Devin Hester, Kevin Williams, and Randal Hill are long gone for Miami in the return game, and someone like Tremain Mack or Ed Reed blocking kicks has been dormant for years.

Way too early prediction: Miami by 3.