Defense: 4-3 Over Cover 4, 3-3-5 on passing downs.
Cook continues to show he has the accuracy and ability to move in the pocket, as he made some very nice throws. However, I think he struggled a bit in this game to read the defense. Oregon is a very multiple coverage team. They run essentially all the coverages, and at times, I thought this threw off Cook's timing and also made him put the ball in the wrong places.
I've noted in the past Cook's improvement in reading defenses. Here, I think he's still alright at getting through maybe the first and second key (say: safeties, then first key defender). But he isn't getting the next key, the key necessary to be that QB that can just march up and down the field. MSU tends to run a lot of fairly simple and traditional 2x2 route concepts and the ocassional bunch concept which offer some simplified reads, but with Oregon switching up zones, it caused Cook some confusion.
For instance, there was a play in the 2nd half where MSU essentially ran what we call a Hawk concept or a diagonal 9. Both plays are a 2-high safety beater and feature a streak from the outside WR and an out or bench from the TE. It works to get a high-low on the sideline. On the otherside, MSU is likely running a single-high beater. Well, Cook correctly identifies the two-high safety look, but then he keys the LB who gets beat outside by the Price route. But he fails to identify to CB, who isn't carrying the outside WR deep, and instead is sitting in his flat zone. Cook throws a pass that leads Price directly into that zone. What Cook was likely reading was a Cover 4, in which the CB would have dropped off. That was just one instance where he didn't get into his full keys before throwing. Again, Oregon makes it hard because they pretty much run it all, but on several instances he made some poor throws/decisions, most of which didn't end in INTs, but resulted in incompletions.
MSU has themselves a true number one WR in Lippett. Not only does Lippett look the part with his size and speed, but he ran a lot of well crafted routes to get open. From a closed set, he did a great job getting diagonal to the sideline and really sold the streak once on the outside. Once the CB flipped, Lippett quickly sank his hips and ran an excellent comeback route. There were examples of this throughout the day, but his combination of size, strength, and route running will force defenses to key on him throughout the season, he's a good player and likely one of the best WRs in the B1G.
Of note though, one of the big changes for MSU between the first half and the second half: Oregon CB Dior Mathis (Detroit native). Mathis got absolutely abused against MSU, and MSU was obviously keying him. They worked to the field side repeatedly and targeted whomever Mathis was defending on any particularly play. If Mathis played in the 2nd half, it was sparingly. MSU receivers just bodied the 5'9" CB and were able to get inside and comeback on routes repeatedly, something that was much more difficult in the 2nd half.
I've stated before that I think the inside zone is an easier play to block against a 3-4 defense than Power O. MSU has been more a Power O focus since last season, but against Oregon, they were almost all IZ. It's easier because it punches right into the "bubbles" presented by the 3-4 look and doesn't force the OL to identify a man, but rather just block through their zone. The success was inconsistent from the look. I don't think Langford is as good of an inside zone runner as he is a Power O runner. He's more of a patient back that lets blocks develop before showing his burst and power. In IZ, he kind of tip-toes to the line a bit and doesn't press the hole as hard as needed, which allowed Oregon to get penetration and didn't force them to commit to a gap to give Langford good cutbacks. Langford looked better on OZ where he knew he had to have his speed immediately at the snap to press the TE spot, but I thought he struggled a bit on the IZ.
What was very nice though was the play call for the first Langford run, and something I look to highlight at a later time. MSU went back to a Power O run play back to the RB alignment. MSU basically ran to strength all night, and did again on this play. But why it works is because the LBs from Oregon see the down blocks as IZ blocks, especially because MSU almost always runs IZ across the QB's face rather than veer runs. They don't identify the pulling OG on the near side, and Langford can cut back with a huge gap to run through (the EMOL must respect the read, so the gap between the EMOL and the next DL is huge). Unfortunately, Oregon would later score one of their 2nd half TDs on the same exact play, from pretty much the same formation, for the same reasons.
I thought the defensive line was disruptive, and disruptive repeatedly, with the DEs being much more consistent than the DTs (the DTs generated most of their pressure with a lot of T-T stunts and LB twists, whereas the DEs mostly did it on their own). Particularly, I think Rush stood out heads-and-shoulders above the crowd. Calhoun again displayed good hands and improved moves, but it was Rush that was the most consistent. But, as I noted in the game, the DL spent way too much time getting their heads down and leaning into tackles. They didn't keep their feet moving, they didn't get in front of Mariota, and they didn't then set a base, wrap up, and drive through a tackle. It's hard for big guys because they have so much momentum carrying them, and they also want to make a big play, but on an athlete like Mariota, you can't reach out at him, otherwise you end up grasping air, which hurt MSU on several key points in the game.
Defensive Back Communication and Eye Discipline
Almost every big play from Oregon stemmed from either poor eye discipline or poor communication from the defensive backfield. This was an area where I thought Oregon was going to try to exploit, particularly because of the stress put on safeties in the Cover 4 scheme. Oregon responded with a lot of bunch sets, and MSU responded by flipping the CB to press the #2 (leaving the safety on the backside TE, or in some cases, on the backside OT when Oregon went unbalanced). I think this was the right move, but MSU struggled to communicate through a lot of rub routes and switches presented by Oregon's bunch. Depending on the split, MSU will switch so that the outside man still has #1, middle CB always has #2, and safety picks up first inside. This is all done post-snap. At other times, depending on the split, defenders will lock on their man.
But one long reception from a slip bubble screen had miscommunication between the safety, Waynes, and the OLB. Another slip screen saw Hicks allow too much separation from the #2 (they were locked) and allowed #1 to successfully pick him out of the play (need to maintain contact with #2 throughout that play so that if #1 gets a rub, he also rubs his WR). And on the Power O TD mentioned earlier, the safety, attempting to be patient on the "backside" of the play, wasn't able to get downhill quick enough to force the WR to that side to declare his crack block rather than maintain the look of a route. That sucked both Waynes inside and got the safety blocked, and Waynes and the safety didn't successfully crack exchange because the receiver never had the appearance of declaring the crack block.
MSU is known for their heavy 3-3-5 blitz package. Typically behind that blitz package, MSU runs either a 3 Over, 3 Under Cover 3, or even a 3-Over, 2-Under Cover 3. However, MSU most of the night (likely due to Oregon speed and how good Mariota is as a QB) dropped back into their standard Cover 4 look, where I think they have been much better and tighter in the past (one of my minor complaints is that I think MSU CBs have struggled a little bit in their deep third zone as compared to being able to stick to a man). However, when they did bring pressure, to me it looked like they went to a Cover 0 look rather than a Cover 3.
I'll talk specifically about the second Oregon TD. On this play, you see MSU run what I call a "Gut Blitz", something Michigan ran against App St and came to Monte Kiffin made popular. A gut blitz is a little different than a Double-A gap blitz, in that all three LBs are going to bring interior pressure, two through the A-gaps, and then a third in the A/B gap to his side (depending on how the OL opens up). But MSU does not zone drop, they do not drop any DEs, meaning it's a true 7-man pressure (likely a DE would peal if a RB leaked). To be a cover 3 look, MSU would have to have 3-Over, and only 1-Under. That would be way too big of an area underneath against a team that loves to attack the edges through the air and would way too easily allow Oregon to get into space. So either someone missed their zone drop, or, they're running a Cover 0. So why do I think Cover 0 then? Because the CBs aren't bailing at the snap, but are instead locked on #1. Waynes even bites a little at the run fake and gets beat, but much less so than the safety.
This is why I think Drummond, who is in man-coverage over the slot, is the main culprit here. Yes, he'll still have some run support, but his man is his first priority. Williamson, who I don't think had a man declare for him to cover, is trying to bust over the top to help, but takes a poor angle in doing so. That's when the WR gets behind them. I think after that MSU mostly settled on sticking with Cover 4 and backed out most of their pressure looks.
On said on twitter following the night games that MSU "had the best win for the B1G". That's despite the 19-point loss that was much closer than the final score indicated. But that's a product of just how bad the B1G looked overall on Saturday. MSU looked good. They looked fairly consistent on offense, and showed their youth and inexperience in the defensive backfield in areas where communication both pre and post snap need to be flawless to successfully execute a Cover 4. And if one team will exploit such things, it's Oregon. That's why I didn't like the match-ups for MSU coming into the game so much, because the area of probably primary concern can be exploited by the way Oregon runs their offense.
But this is a team that looked good. Speed was never an issue against Oregon, regardless of what the media will say. It was merely communication and eye discipline breakdowns. MSU easily looked like the best team from the B1G Saturday. That doesn't mean they'll coast to a championship, but they are most prepared to win it at this point. Coverage needs to be cleaned up, as do some other aspects, but most teams won't be able to exploit those things as Oregon was, and most teams won't be able to confuse Cook with multiple coverages as Oregon was. MSU will continue to improve, but I think the perception of the B1G is in the dumps, and unfortunately for Spartan fans, I think it's to the point that MSU won't be able to jump into the playoff spot (as they would have last year) with this early season loss, unless lots of other teams slip up a couple times.