Coaching Points: Michigan State vs Western Michigan, 2015

All photos from: Mike Mulholland |
Offense: Mostly man/gap schemes with zone sprinkled in. Still lots of 2-man pass concepts. Multiple personnel/formations.
Defense: Still Cover 4 base, a ton more MOD coverage, particularly to the field. Lots of 5 zone behind 6 man pressure.

  • Cook looked mostly accurate, but seemed too relaxed and was a beat slow going through his progressions and tried to overcompensate with arm (resulting in high throws early)
  • London looks like the most improved player since spring
  • Run blocking very strong still, Kieler may get attacked in pass pro
  • DL very good as expected
  • LBs good in the box and on blitz, some struggles finishing in space
  • CBs were up and down, struggling in zone coverage and scheme designed to help them
  • Zone coverage was too soft on the back end.
Cook was a bit inconsistent on this day, almost as if going through the motions. His pocket was, for the most part, really clean, which allowed him to be patient and prevented some (not all) of the happy feet tendencies when he gets pressured. However, it almost seemed like he felt so comfortable that he started relaxing. I noted around the 2nd quarter that Cook's accuracy was mostly on when he threw on time, particularly over the middle of the field (which was nice to see him attack more consistently early, with nice throws on a dig to Kings and a couple to Price, who needs more targets); and he made some very accurate throws toward the sideline (a nice quick fade when a CB peeked into the backfield and a few corner routes come to mind); but unless it was his first read, he seemed to get his timing off, and once his timing was off he tried to force throws which often resulted in overthrowing the target. It was a half beat or a beat slow for each receiver in his progression; this was most evident on slants and digs, but also a bit on the corner routes. The accuracy allowed for the receivers to still make some catches in some instances, but even then they had to fight for the ball or come back to the ball and in many cases the YAC was limited.

Step into your throw...
We'll see if the urgency is picked up against Oregon. Last year against Oregon, Cook had some moments he was confused, particularly with Oregon's multiple coverages. He needs to avoid getting happy feet under pressure, but he needs to have some urgency and pace to his footwork as he goes through his progressions when the first guy isn't there.

Of note in the passing game: WMU played a lot of tight Cover 1 and ran some Bear front and a spy, they were designing their defense to take away the middle of the field. Because of this, MSU ran verticals, switch verticals, and smash concepts almost all day.

Running Back
London doesn't even look like the same back as the one we saw in the Spring Game. In the spring, I made the point that it seemed like he didn't always run with purpose, his shoulders kind of went where ever, his feet stopped moving on contact as his ducked his shoulders when tacklers came. He had some burst, but it didn't necessarily look like breakaway speed. Against WMU, he looked significantly improved. His shoulders got squared as he attacked the LOS. He lowered his shoulder but continued to churn his feet with purpose, allowing him to fight through contact. There are still some vision issues where he isn't completely comfortable with what is going on in front of him, but one of the advantages of having this group of OL blocking in front of you is that you can get into the 2nd level often as the play intends; he doesn't have to improvise much.

Holmes, on the other hand, looked almost exactly like the same player. That's not necessarily a bad thing, I was impressed with him out of spring, but he continues to be a guy that seems to be getting more comfortable with the position in some of the smaller details. But I like his footwork and I love how he fights through tackles. His feet have purpose when he runs.

LJ Scott had a nice debut. Still some obvious cases of being a freshman, trying to do some things that apparently don't work when everyone is bigger and faster than what you faced in high school. But Scott is a really big body with great balance for his size. The things that stuck out to me was how he took contact. When he was recruited, I stated he reminded me of former Michigan RB Chris Perry, and I still think that's fairly accurate. He doesn't have great lean, but his balance is simply terrific. He stays on his feet and just watches guys kind of bounce off of him. Now WMU is a smaller (and fairly fast) defense, we'll see what happens against some of the bigger defenses MSU still has to face, but he passed the first test.

I also want to shout out Pendleton, who had a couple great blocks on the first couple series. Some nice cut blocks, some nice arc blocks, really a bit of everything.

Wide Receiver
For not a ton of production last season (though some production), this group of receivers seems very well known and understood. Each of Burbridge, Kings, and Price (we'll get to him in a bit) are essentially who we thought they were. Burbridge had some nice catches, one with a long YAC and another one where he played the fade well (he gave cushion between himself and the sideline and used his hands in a non-obvious manner to help gain some last second separation). He was under control, and he was smooth. I'm not quite sure he's MSU's Lippett from last year, but it's a strong start.

Kings had a good start to the game and then dropped some passes later. Kings is a guy that flashes some really nice plays, and then seems to lose focus and have some inexcusable drops. He's a solid receiver though and a solid part of the group, but he needs to be more reliable

Troup still looks like all his injuries are limiting him a bit. He's a big body that has pretty good hands, but he just can't get separation right now. I expect Arnett to continue to take snaps from him.

I liked what Arnett did late, want to see more of him though.

Tight End
Price continues to show why he's one of the better TEs in the league. Good hands and a good blocker, can really do it all. Had some nice routes running the corner route, and even got targeted a couple times over the middle of the field. He needs to be targeted more in coming games though.

Was disappointed not to see more Lyles in this game. Keeping him under wraps for Oregon? I don't know. He's a guy that can create some mismatches as long as he's reliable. He had a really nice down block on a counter play that sprung London's first TD, but then also struggled a bit when asked to reach block. Still more of an H-back in my opinion.

Offensive Line
The top group is very strong. What's best about this group is how well each person pulls. Not just the guards - though both B. Allen and Clark are good blockers - but even the center J. Allen and both Tackles, Conklin and Kieler, had good pulls. On one TD, B. Allen got out of his stance extremely quick and sealed off the sideline about 7 yards downfield, allowing another puller behind him to lead all the way to the end zone. It's a group that just moves really well in space and identifies blockers in the run game very quickly. And MSU did what every they wanted on Counter F and Counter OG off of jet motion in this game.

I wouldn't be surprised if Oregon ran some Bear fronts. For whatever reason, Cook failed to check out of some runs against that, and that forced MSU to go to more straight zone blocking schemes. In those cases, MSU did struggle a bit more to generate movement when their interior OL had to try to get push with single-man blocks. When MSU didn't break free in the run game, that was often (probably more times than not) the reason.

There were some minor concerns in pass protection though. At times, they lost a bit of leverage, and I think Kieler is going to get targeted with some line games in coming games, as he struggled to position himself a bit and where to take his eyes at times, and resulted in Cook feeling some pressure (including the strip sack).

I also think there is a bigger drop off in the depth compared to last year. MSU likes to rotate about 7 guys on the OL, but McGowen seemed to have some struggles, and I guess I didn't notice much from the backup OTs. It just doesn't seem to be where it was last year, where MSU hardly missed a beat.

Defensive Line
One of the best groups in the nation, they did nothing to dispel that in this game.

I thought the most impressive player in this game was McDowell, which seemed to pick up at his peak from last year. At one point, he tossed a LG who was trying to double team him in pass pro and pressure the QB. He showed quickness on a few other snaps to get into the backfield as well. He's going to be difficult to handle for a lot of teams.

Other DTs played well too. I thought there were a few times when Heath and Knox, particularly the latter, got a little overzealous with trying to get into the backfield and got a bit too deep on plays away from them. I'd expect Oregon to come back with traps/whams next week to try to attack that a bit. Evans was exactly as advertised in the run game.

At DE, Calhoun is who he is. He didn't make a huge impact until late, but didn't need to. Other guys were getting home and it was clear there was a focus on him by the WMU OL. LT did some nice things opposite him, and MSU had a lot of success with TEX/EX stunts, where the tackle and end cross. I liked what Cooper did on one rush to really get skinny to split a couple blockers and make himself difficult to block.

One thing I do expect MSU to work on over the week is allowing pressure to escape out the back. There were more than a few times that WMU's QB was able to retreat around pressure and break contain, which puts a lot of pressure on the defense, particularly the coverage. Oregon was able to do that a bit last year as well, and I anticipate Barton (MSU's DL coach) to make that a focus this week.

This group I thought was the least consistent, but flashed both ways. Part of this is more responsibility that seemed to be given to them in the pass game, putting them in a little tougher position. Between the tackles, they mostly looked great. Bullough missed some tackles, but he got to the ball the way he did in the spring. He was very comfortable pressuring the QB, and seemed to be very comfortable picking through the wash to get to the QB. MSU had a ton of success with their 6 man pressure in this game up front (the back end was a little less stellar).

The Money LB spot didn't really standout, which is neither good nor necessarily bad given the circumstances. Both missed a couple tackles, but no more than anyone else. I'd take it considering both Reschne and Frey haven't played on the field much. I thought Reschne looked more instinctual as a LB at this point, and therefore performed a bit better.

Harris at STAR looked very good coming up in run support and very good taking on blocks on screens and things. But he really had some issues playing in space (Bullough as well had some issues with angles and tackling when he was forced to make a play in pursuit from inside-out). His zone drops seemed uncomfortable, and he got picked on again. But again, this is going to get back to the coverage, as he's now tasked with covering a lot more ground.

Copeland flashed a little bit, making some nice tackles on the edge and coming away with the INT at end, but I thought he struggled in coverage, particularly zone coverage. WMU was able to pick on both him and Cox quite a bit in this game, though the production didn't always show. It was interesting seeing MSU play their field corner nearly 10 yards off his man quite often, in the past when they played off man to the field it was only about 5 yards off. I think this is for a few reasons: 1) they appeared to be playing more MOD to the field (and at times to both field and boundary) much more often, but also because I think they actually wanted to give him time to turn and run with receivers. WMU ran a lot of fades, and Davis is one of the better WRs MSU will face this year, so from that point it's easy to understand, but Cox got beat cleanly deep a couple times, and Copeland seemed a bit uncomfortable controlling the receiver away from the end zone. He allowed separation and allowed the receiver to maintain spacing with the sideline and to peal off on the back shoulder throws, he needs to get stronger and reroute those throws more into the sideline and use his body a bit better and still needs to get better at defending a man in zone coverage rather than space.

I will say though that Copeland looked much better than he did in the spring. He's making progress, no doubt, as in spring he looked far away from being ready. I think he's mostly ready now, but still needs to refine things. My guess is he's still about a year away from breaking out.

Another interesting note is that MSU jammed much less often than in the past. There was still a lot of press, but they were much more focused on simply turning and running, particularly with Cox (who has struggled with his jam technique previously; Copeland did in spring).

Cox, as I said, also struggled a bit. He looked a bit slow (again, Davis is a really good WR), and seemed to really worry about inside breaking routes, particularly after getting beat on an in once where he failed to wall off the receiver (similar to what happened on a quick slant against OSU). Again, zone was a weakness for him as well. That 5 coverage (3 deep, 2 underneath) needs to get tightened up, because there were some large gaps in coverage back there when the pressure didn't get home immediately.

I thought Copeland looked better than he did in spring, but MSU is really focused on protecting their DBs more this year. MOD coverage and jam MEG (but not press) are a result of getting beat due to poor technique and getting more bodies behind the ball. This is putting more pressure underneath on the LBs, so they'll have to tackle better in space.

I think those to are the clear favorites at playing time going forward though (Hicks still didn't look like he was ready to play physical football, which Dantonio won't allow).

Nicholson still looks good, and I still like Williamson. Zones, again, were not a strength, particularly the underneath zones that the safeties are responsible for in the 5 coverage. But they looked good in their nominal coverage for the most part (hard to break on the underneath stuff and not risk getting beat over the top). Think the TD to the TE was on the backside safety, and some of the angles in run pursuit weren't as strong as you'd like them to be, but the safeties are solid. Communication will be essential against Oregon, where we'll really see what the safeties are made of.

Oye, kick return. Guys getting out of lanes and guys not making tackles. Nicholson is clearly the clean gunner in their scheme that they want to fly at the return man, so he has a little more freedom (I call him the Sting player, he's supposed to get in front of the ball and blow anything up in front of him as he approaches, allowing the lane filling players to finish the job), so while he looks like he's getting out of his lane at times, I don't think it's on him. But other guys weren't getting off blocks early and were losing their assignments.

Still interested in seeing if MSU mixes some things up in the Oregon game. I think seeing more MOD to field is a direct result of some of the struggles against spread teams last year. I thought they showed a little Cover 1 in the Spring Game, but didn't notice it against WMU. We'll see next week.


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