Review: Has the Window Closed for Michigan State? The Growth, Dominance, and Future of the Spartan Defense

Back in January, Ian Boyd dropped the disrespect alarm on many within the Spartan fan base when he seemed to indicated that the Michigan State run of success may be coming to an end.

Review: Has the window closed for Michigan State

I don't necessary believe that Boyd was necessary calling the demise of MSU football with his article. Nonetheless, it's understandable for MSU fans, who have been hearing that same, repetitive rallying cry for nearly a decade, to attempt to shoot him down. In the process of doing so though, I believe some pertinent points have been missed. In this post I'll discuss my thoughts on Boyd's article, where I agree with him, and where I'd like to expand on his thoughts.

A Brief History of the Spartan Defense
Pat Narduzzi, then a LB coach, formed the seeds of his version of the Cover 4 defense while with Scott Shafer at the University of Rhode Island. Shafer, who was then the DBs coach for the Rams, would later take his iteration of this invention briefly to Michigan under Rich Rod (1 season) and almost to Maryland under the tutelage of DJ Durkin, among other places. Meanwhile, Narduzzi took what he had developed with him to Cincinatti, where he would become the Defensive Coordinator under newly minted Head Coach Mark Dantonio. Dantonio had had his own success as OSU's DC running predominately a Cover 1 and Cover 3 defense (and in general, a very multiple defensive attack) but was able to be convinced by the up-and-coming defensive mind to role the dice with this new wave defense. The wheels were set in motion on the development of one of the most successful and influential defensive schemes in recent college football.

Success was not immediate however. In 2005, Cincinatti featured one of the worst defenses in college football, where they fell from simply being a bad defense the year prior. The defense looked to be headed in the wrong direction for the Bearcats, when in 2006, Dantonio's final season at UC, the defense suddenly jumped into the top 25.

Dantonio turned the success of his program at Cincinatti into a gig as the Head Coach of Michigan State and he took much of his staff, including Narduzzi, with him to East Lansing to reset the foundation that had been put down in southern Ohio. Again, success was not immediate. His first season only showed marginal improvement on the defensive side of the ball and too often gave up big plays, particularly in the pass game. His second season was much the same. The third season showed a bit more promise on the defensive side but failed to live up to the significant leap the Bearcats had taken under this staff previously. The issue: there simply was not the defensive talent, particularly in the defensive backfield, to sustain success with such a scheme.

But Narduzzi had a huge luxury at his disposal. It just so happened that Dantonio was known as one of the best DB coaches in college football, formerly training under DB guru Nick Saban at Michigan State in the 1990s. Dantonio had a huge luxury himself. The Spartans had failed to have sustained success for decades (though the late Saban years showed a lot of promise before he bolted to LSU), and so he had time on his side. The fact that year three didn't produce the defensive results that were desired did not deter the two defensive minds from sticking it out with a scheme they believed in. And so in 2010 they became a good defense, and they parlayed that success into a run of dominance that would last from 2011 to 2013, where they fielded top 10 defenses each year. And it's not like the 2014 and 2015 defenses fell off the map, they simply weren't downright dominant like they had been previous years. But from those dominant years, not everything stayed the same.

For a long time, teams looks at the Spartan coverage, saw two outside CBs on a proverbial island, and decided that was the weak point of the defense and attacked there. Fans were left screaming at the coaching staff to give the CBs help on the outside. Michigan notably attacked the isolated CBs late to score the go ahead comeback TD in what seemed like a winning streak that would last forever. Fans weren't too happy with this stupid scheme.  This issue seemed to repeat itself over and over again, often at the hands of rivals Notre Dame. But by 2011, most of the issues seemed fixed. Dantonio had worked is DB coaching magic and pulled 2 star recruits out of no where to have one of the best defensive backfield in the country. Notre Dame notably maintained the same game plan through 2013. While they managed to provide MSU it's lone loss of the 2013 season, a season that would end in a Rose Bowl victory, they now succeed by chucking fades down the sidelines or posts and getting pass interference calls (at times questionably so) rather than completions. Teams also relied heavily on the old ideas of beating the classic Cover 4 coverage, namely, out routes from the #2 and attacking underneath coverage, and frankly, just running the football. But none of these things were working as well as they should have per the "Cover 4 beater cheat sheet".

That's because Michigan State's Cover 4 isn't like the old Cover 4 Quarters look. The safeties aren't deep, the CBs aren't playing soft, this ain't your cursing at the TV prevent defense.

No. MSU has their safeties stick their heals as far up as 8 yards off the LOS. The CBs are playing press. It's a 9 man box that attacks down hill and has extra defenders ready at the point of attack. But it's not just that. Narduzzi developed a simplified scheme, but an encompassing scheme. Rather than ask his defenders to do any and everything, he reduced what his players had to do. He implemented a blitz scheme that could utilize Cover 0 or a zone pressure involving 3 high and 2 low. It worked with 3 down DL or 4 down DL and brought to prominence the double A gap scheme they employed so brilliantly. In each of these schemes, his defenders were performing and executing much the same tasks as they would in their base. And because it was simplified in this nature, they could do it all fast, faster than offenses were prepared to handle it, faster and better than offenses could execute. When Iowa went up tempo on the Spartan's, this ability to execute allowed Darqueze Dennard to get a call from the sideline on the fly, change his coverage from MEG to MOD (both Cover 4 schemes), and get a key INT.

MSU's defensive players didn't need multiple undergraduate degrees in football to be successful, but they did need a PhD. It was defense that grew in depth rather than width. And it was always evolving. And that was the key to it's success.

So Is the Window Closing
The most salient idea coming from Boyd's article is the idea of attacking the safeties with the slot. I just talked about how initially offenses were attacking MSU like it was their Old Man's Cover 4. This was wrong. While the CBs are on an island, their technique and their position on the field force long, down-field throws to be completed in order to take advantage of their isolation. At the college level, many QBs struggle to throw into tight windows down the sideline. The limited arm strength and accuracy allows CBs with good technique to win the majority of these match ups. So while WRs continued to "get open", offenses failed to find success with regularity with these "open" receivers. On paper, offensive coordinators continued to look at this matchup, a matchup they were "winning", and simply looking for better execution. But on paper is a theoretical world, in reality, eventually you need to be able to execute, and most teams couldn't execute better than the Spartans in this match.

But teams started to adjust. Bunch and trips formations became more regular. In 2014, Oregon came out with a variety of different trips formations to overload the Spartan defense. Suddenly, all these teams started taking advantage of some of the defensive weaknesses, namely, communication breakdowns against trips formations...

And isolating receivers in more manageable positions. One way do the latter is by holding the underneath defenders with the play fake and drawing the safety help away.

The other method is to take advantage of the difficulty of playing safety within this scheme, and all the run/pass conflicts that are presented.

All this can be run with play action, or more recently, Run-Pass Options (RPOs) which are the fave rave of current college football (and will continue to be as long as illegal man downfield goes uncalled). And the teams that have managed to have success against MSU have repeatedly attacked these weak points. This is the point of Boyd's article. The blueprint for success against MSU is out there. Now you may say "but that success has been limited in the Big Ten." Yes, it has for now. 

So MSU Can Still Whip the Big Ten?
No, not with the same thing they've been doing. More and more teams are incorporating spread elements, specifically the elements that teams like Oregon, OSU, Baylor, and Alabama showed to have success against the Spartans. The last team on that list is the epitome of modern day "pro style" offense, and they managed to incorporate those aspects into their offense. Even heavier teams, like Michigan that utilizes a bunch of 21, 22, and 12 personnel into their offense, have figured out how to attack this isolated safety match up.

Iowa figured out how to take advantage of the blitz package.

They did that repeatedly, successfully, in that game, hitting that quick pop pass against the MSU 3 high, 2 low blitz package. And yes, much of that incorporates spread elements, but that's the point Boyd is making. Not all teams have evolved on offense enough or have the QBs to take advantage of the weak links in the MSU defense. But good teams have and will only continue to improve. 

Why is that something I'm comfortable stating as a fact? As MSU has had success, more and more defenses have copied them. Narduzzi famously called out OSU for "stealing" his defense when they won their national championship. Sure enough, the Buckeye's base defense (which Ash looks to take with him to Rutgers) is heavily based on Michigan State's. Football is a copy cat game. People copy and implement the best aspects of football all the time.

So now you have Rutgers, OSU, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, etc., all these teams running variations of Michigan State's defense. Not all are exactly the same, some only borrow elements to establish their own base, few run it as aggressively as MSU, but the fact remains that the Spartan defense has spread throughout college football. And offenses are adjusting to that. Before, offenses wouldn't implement a ton of their playbook for one team. But if half the teams they face have to same weak points they are almost certain to implement those aspects into their offensive playbook.

We've seen this in football time and time again. Cover 4 came about as a counter to Air Raid offense and 4 verticals. Saban developed his pattern match scheme because of the inability of the Cover 3 to stop four verts. The Tampa 2 was in large part a reaction to the growth of the West Coast Offense. The WCO was was a reaction to tight man-to-man coverage by running a lot of short, timing routes. You look at Rich Rod's read option spread, which at West Virginia was quite simple: read the DE, have a backside bubble. It worked like magic and no one could stop it, until they could. They ran scrape exchange and trap coverage on the outside to throw off the QB's reads. And Rich Rod had to evolve. He had to add a midline version of the read option play. And out of this came the OSU Power Spread, which in all honesty has very few reads and is more of a pro-style offense than most want to admit. Single-Wing to Wild-Cat to the Bear Defense. The chess game forever goes back and forth and back and forth as both sides counter the other side and both sides continue to evolve. And of course it all goes full circle.

And that's the point, the MSU defense won't remain as success if it just keeps chugging along. It can't. Because offenses are forever countering what successful defenses are doing.

So What Does That Mean?
First, what it doesn't mean: It doesn't mean that Michigan State's window is closed. It means that the Spartans have to continue to evolve. The question, then, is how do they look to evolve and remain successful.

When breaking down film of Vayante Copeland (the promising but still flawed RS FR in 2015) for another piece I'm planning on, it was reiterated to me that MSU ran a lot more zone last year. They utilized a lot more MOD coverage. This, of course, helps protect both the safeties in their isolated match ups (they aren't isolated if #1 doesn't threaten vertical) and to a degree the CBs. Teams attacked the flats more, and the Spartans looked more like a bend don't break defense than they have in years, but that's one reaction they've already made. I'm not convinced it is enough though.

Two things I'd like to see would return the favor to the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes often play with their safeties deeper. They don't expect their safeties to make their run fits near the LOS, but instead, allow for them to make a tackle at, say, 5 yards if the ball does in fact get to their level. That puts more emphasis on the front 7 to be sound against the run, it doesn't result in the offense getting behind the chains as often, but it does help prevent the big play. I don't expect the Spartans to do this consistently, but it's a nice changeup to throw at offenses (even having the safeties retreat briefly before flying into their run fits to disguise the look).

The second thing that Ohio State does in their blitz package, which borrows from Narduzzi's, is they also heavily utilize a 6 coverage, that is, 3 high and 3 low. If the Spartans utilize this look, combined with their 5 coverage (3 high and 2 low), the offense may pre-define their throw and throw right into coverage. The blitz forces a quick decision, the extra defender changes the voids in the zone to attack. It's another thing for the offense to think about.

The other option, which should not be dismissed entirely, is to start growing in breadth. This is a risk, it turns away from a philosophy that has made the MSU defense so successful in recent years. But it may be a necessary step. Incorporating some Cover 1 allows the Spartans to stay in man coverage on the outside, but it requires a bit different technique. So the defense has to learn to do more things. But the "beater" combinations that the offenses have been running to one-up the Spartan secondary no longer are as successful. Using at a periodic changeup may be enough to maintain the leading edge in this ever evolving game.

I honestly don't have a sure answer other than the knowledge that Michigan State needs to continue to evolve. You can't remain stagnant and expect to maintain success in this game. There are a lot of options for them to choose from, and surely, if they correct plan and manage those options, they can continue to be one of the premiere defenses in college football. But with that comes risk, and that risk needs to be managed. Luckily for the Spartans, while Narduzzi has moved on to Pitt, they still have Dantonio and his wealth of defensive knowledge; perhaps his way of stealing from the Buckeyes will be to harken back a bit to what made him successful while he was in Columbus. We shall see.

But it all comes back to what made Narduzzi's cutting edge defense so successful in the first place: it evolved out of a need and continued to evolve until it was one of the best defenses in the country. That evolution must continue going forward.


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