Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mississippi State: Defense vs. Auburn

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all of this content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings

For scouting purposes, Michigan couldn't get much luckier than to have a full game of film of Mississippi State playing a team with a similar offensive style (and personnel) to Michigan. As such, the early-season game between Mississippi State and Cam Newton's Auburn squad can give at least a little information on how the Bulldogs might try to defend Michigan's attack.

Mississippi State's defensive formations were a little unorthodox in this game upon first look. Most of the game, the Bulldogs were in a defensive front with two down linemen and two others in a two-point stance on the line:

As you can see, the two defensive tackles are both in a three-point stance with the defensive ends standing up in a two-point stance. At first, I thought that this was in an effort to get more speed on the field, but when I started to look at the personnel, it was a little more confusing: the stand-up defensive ends are actually defensive ends, not faster linebackers to match Auburn's speed. At times, this allowed the DEs to diagnose the play and attack the proper gaps, but for the most part, it played almost exactly like a traditional 4-3, which is what Mississippi State was in for the majority of the game. They also showed a fair amount of 3-4, but primarily, they were in a 4-3.

More interestingly, however, is that the Bulldogs' defense looked fundamentally unsound for a lot of the game. To steal from Chris Brown at Smart Football again, "football begins as arithmetic". Over and over again during this game, Mississippi State was giving Auburn numbers in the screen passing game. For example:

I'll talk about this play later this week (Auburn faked the screen and ended up throwing a vertical route similar to the Roundtree touchdown against Notre Dame), but you can see from the alignment that Mississippi State is conceding the screen pass. And oddly, they seemed content to run this all game. There was one play in which they baited Newton to make a bad throw (I'll discuss this later this week as well), but for the most part, they sat back and gave up seven-yard screen passes all game. Much of this was because they needed to compensate for Newton's speed and put extra players in the box, but there's no reason to think they won't have to do the same against Denard.

Mississippi State was pretty blitz heavy throughout the game. I didn't take note of their blitzing percentage, but safe to say it's high. For most of the game, they blitzed from only one side of the field, trying to force Newton out of the pocket, which he exploited either by scrambling for large chunks of yards or rumbling in the pocket long enough to find an open receiver. Denard's increased tendency to run out of the pocket against Ohio State (despite the one fumble) may being the Achilles heel of Mississippi State.

How did they slow down Cam Newton?
They shut him down occasionally with blitzes, but that was about it. The reason this game was as close as it was is because Mississippi State slowed the game down pretty significantly, reducing the amount of possessions Auburn had (that and a muffed punt that lost Auburn a possession, as well as a recovered surprise onside kick). Auburn had the ball nine times excluding end-of-half possessions. Those resulted in two touchdowns, one made field goal, an interception, a missed field goal, and four punts.

The punts largely came on the heels of big negative plays resulting from Mississippi State's blitzing. But those same blitzes also cost them on a number of plays. The Bulldogs' defensive scheme was primarily to put pressure on Newton and live with the outcomes. For the most part, it was successful, but with more time to prepare, Michigan may be able to counteract a lot of these blitzes.

The interception wasn't really anything other than a bad throw by Newton. Mississippi State didn't bring pressure or show different looks, but Newton threw into double coverage against cover-2, and it ended about as you'd expect.

What does it mean?
With the caveat that this is only one game early in the season, Mississippi State's defense looked vulnerable against a similar offense with a similarly dynamic player. They repeatedly had schematic holes, primarily in the screen game, that Michigan's offense will aim to exploit. The Bulldogs didn't do anything all that interesting, aside from their faux-4-3 with stand-up DEs, but otherwise, they ran a blitz-heavy scheme that sold out on the run. IMO, Rich Rod's gameplanning to counteract this sort of attack throughout the year was far superior to Gene Chizik's in this game. But this was early in the season and we can presume that Auburn didn't have its full offensive arsenal. Regardless, this was an encouraging display, despite holding Auburn to just 17 points.


CooperDawg said...

An OK analysis...

What you aren't taking into consideration is that the Auburn game was only Mississippi State's second game with a new defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, a name that will haunt Wolverines in a few weeks. The scheme was fairly basic for that reason, and Diaz held back some tricks for SEC games later in the season. And if you only saw us blitz from one side, how much of the game did you actually watch?

The guy that will make the difference is Chris White, the Bulldog MLB. An unheralded player at the beginning of the year, White ended the season making most every All-SEC team out there. Combined with a likely NFL draft pick in WLB KJ Wright, Denard Robinson may be in for quite the long afternoon. They WILL be in your backfield, along with Charles Mitchell (SS), who Diaz loves to bring on delay blitzes. Also, our D-line is one of the better ones in the SEC, which means that it would likely be one of the best in the Big 10. =)

Another thing you guys don't appreciate is the difference in the State offense from the first half to the second half of the year. If you look at the year as a whole, yes, it looks like State doesn't pass much; in fact, we beat Florida in Gainesville passing only 9 times, and basically zero in the second half.

Let me say that again: WE BEAT FLORIDA IN THE SWAMP WITHOUT PASSING THE BALL FOR THE FINAL 42 MINUTES OF THE GAME. (Ok, there was one shovel pass to a RB in the 3Q, but that was basically a running play and lost 5 anyway. And ok, Florida wasn't great this year, but any SEC road game is tougher than any other conference. Ask Ohio State.) Our O-line is one of the best in the SEC, meaning it would DEFINITELY be the best in the Big 10. =) =)

Now, given that: when State played Arkansas, Chris Relf nearly out-passed Ryan Mallett. You guys remember Ryan Mallett, don't you? Relf had more attempts, more completions, and if you take away one long play, more yards, more YPC. We play a bunch of young guys that matured through the year, and the offense matured with it, becoming much more balanced in the latter half of the season.

State is down its two best WRs, but one of those guys has been out for 6-7 weeks, so we're used to playing without him. Losing Chad Bumphis, our top WR, in the Egg Bowl is a blow to our offense, yes, but we have RBs that can catch and then fly down the field, and we have a wealth of talent at WR, just without as much game experience as coaches would like.

As far as special teams, speed kills, and SEC speed wins. Our punter averages ~42 YPK, which is decent, and tends to come up with that 65 yarder when it is most needed. Our punt coverage is in the top 5 in the nation. Kickoff coverage could be better; more touchbacks would be nice. Overall, our special teams are quite solid, and are coached by Dan the Man himself.

And finally, the SEC gives you a collective "You're Welcome" for us consistently drubbing tOSU in anything they play us in, something that has seemed to escape Michigan in the Jim Tressel era.

P.S. If you make the game, I promise you're going to HATE cowbells by the end of it. You've never heard anything like it, and every State fan there will have one. Have fun!

Chris Gaerig said...

CooperDawg, thanks for the input. This is the first part in what will be a lot of scouting of Mississippi State. I began with this because of Auburn's offensive similarity to Michigan's. To your points:

Michigan has heard every single game that Denard Robinson is going to get more than he can handle. But Michigan has moved the ball fluidly against all of the great defenses they've played this year (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, and Michigan State). They've stalled only when they've killed themselves, something the opposition achieved by sitting in a cover-2 shell and waiting for Michigan to make a mistake. Michigan has been masterful at taking advantage of blitzing schemes this year and if you're too aggressive, this game will end poorly for you (at least on that side of the ball).

While you may feel the offense has changed throughout the year for Mississippi State, the numbers don't lie. The Bulldogs have thrown the ball approximately 30% of the time with a quarterback only completing 56% of his passes. Consider me unswayed.

I'm surprised to hear you say that your offensive line is any good at all. They looked consistently overmatched in this game and DT Nick Fairly was demoralizing your line. Michigan's defense is pretty terrible this year, but Mike Martin is on par with any DT in the country and projects to wreak similar havoc on your offensive line. I'll have to see if they got better throughout the year, but the Bulldogs' O-line was woeful.

Meanwhile, you're wildly underestimating Michigan's offensive front. Michigan is one of the national leaders in sacks allowed for a reason (and not the one you think, Denard). Denard has scrambled, I believe, less than 5 times this year. While he makes people miss in the backfield occasionally, it's Michigan's offensive line that has shut out opposing defensive fronts. And in case you haven't heard of Adrian Clayborn, JJ Watt, or Ryan Kerrigan, I suggest you look them up. All them of them are first round picks this year and are unquestionably three of the best defensive players in the country. Michigan has dealt with its fair share of powerful defensive lines.

Relf vs. Mallett is irrelevant and dismissed as a sample size issue. Relf >/ Mallett as a passer. To argue otherwise is lunacy. Relf's season-long numbers speak for themself: dude can't pass.

Keep checking back, though, and let me know if you see problems in my analysis. Having input from the enemy is valuable.

Jase said...

A few quick points.

First, CooperDawg is exaggerating. I suspect to just have some fun. The way he talks MSU should be 12-0.

Second, the state defense is going to be aggressive. That is just who they are. You will be hard pressed to find a team that blitzes more than them (I suspect they might dial it down a notch against Michigan for obvious reasons. Even dialed down a notch they still blitz more than most.) Michigan will undoubtedly take advantage on several occasions, but State will count on negative plays and turnovers caused by their aggression to balance that out somewhat. Lets be honest though, Michigan is going to put up some points regardless. The offense is just too good if not always efficient.

Third, State's o-line is in fact quite good. They are much better run blockers though and only average to above average pass blockers except for Sherrod. Michigan's pass rush is nonexistent though so that probably won't matter. If you see more of their games you won't view them as woeful, although they are not the best in the SEC and wouldn't be the best in the Big 10. Probably somewhere in the top half in both conferences.

I'd be shocked if Martin wreaks similar havoc as Fairly. He'll make some plays though, he is very good when his ankles aren't betraying him.

Also, Mallet is better than Relf, although Relf did improve as the year progressed and really stepped up big in the last two games. Was that an aberration or the Relf we will see in the bowl game and beyond? Time will tell, but even still Mallet > Relf as a passer.

Finally, thanks for the analysis. You do a darn good job.

CooperDawg said...

Hey guys,

Good feedback. I want to say first that, yes, I was highlighting the positives while conceding a few things. So, in the interest of fairness, I'll give you some ammo.

Our WRs are young, as I noted. Having watched all our games, I can tell you, a pass that hits a guy square in the numbers and is dropped, at the end of the year, makes the QB look like a "bad passer," but it isn't necessarily true. That goes for any QB. And when you have a ground game that effectively moves the ball so well (16th nationally, 2nd in SEC behind the wrecking ball that is sCam Newton), why put the ball in the air when you can grind your opponent into mush? The stat to look at to really see pass effectiveness in a run-heavy offense is 3rd down conversions. State is 27th nationally, at just over 45%, 10% off the national leader, Stanford. (More on 3DC later.) And again, take the passing stats from the last six games of the year, and the passing rate goes up to nearly 40%, which is a reasonable balance for a team with three talented runners in the backfield, each with different styles.

Also, the season passing stats include some play by a freshman, Tyler Russell, who got some series in smaller games and garbage time, and ended up handing off or passing deep. Skews the stats just a bit, if the total passing stats were what you were looking at. I could be wrong about that, of course.

Since a very talented TE went down injured very early in the season, our TE play has been nearly non-existent. We have an average FB at best. We have a true freshman at FS. Our CBs sometimes play a cushion so soft you'd think they work for the Ritz-Carlton. And we're literally TWO PLAYS away from being 10-2, but if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, right? How's that for being critical? =)

And shit, one of our best DEs (Nick Bell) DIED OF CANCER in the middle of the season. It hasn't been an easy go of it.

CooperDawg said...

To the point about the O-line... There's a reason Nick Fairley is SEC defensive player of the year, and will likely win the DT of the year nationally. He didn't just destroy us, he destroyed EVERYONE. And when he was out in that game, we had no problem with everyone else on the line. The other 11 games we had this year, our O-line was never a weak spot, and carried the team for a number of games (see note about rushing offense above). I understand your only reference point was seeing us in the second game against the best D-lineman hands down in all of college football this year, so I understand how that skews perspective. The Florida, Georgia, or Kentucky games would be excellent counterpoints, but I also understand you probably have a life that doesn't involve watching teams named MSU. =) =)

I will not claim Chris Relf is a better passer than Ryan Mallett. That is obviously not true, and I didn't claim such. But since you were only talking about stats, as above, I thought it relevant to see how stats can be a bit misleading when judging a player. After all, more than 70% of Mallett's "passing yards" in that game were really gained after the catch by the WR's talents, more than a typical YPC ratio.

About Denard Robinson... you say he "scrambled" fewer than 5 times this season.... man, early in the season, I swear I saw him scramble nearly five times in an episode of SportsCenter, recapping the games of the day. Did I miss something? However, based on my own criteria, Michigan is doing quite well when one looks at 3rd down conversions, ranked a few spots higher than State at just over 46%, 1% over us.

I admit, I haven't paid the closest attention to Michigan football, and also admit I am unfamiliar with the guys whose names don't get called on Top Plays. Having looked at a few things, that trio you mentioned is quite good and best of luck to them in the League.

And yes, I am having a bit of fun at the Big 10's expense, and it is meant in good fun. I mean, after all the SEC leads college football in so many categories, like deplorable moral situations involving preachers' sons. (Remember, State was the school that wanted nothing to do with a pay sCam and reported it.) But one joke I will stand by...

Aren't you glad when the SEC smacks Ohio State? =)

CooperDawg said...

BTW, all stats provided by either cfbstats.com or mstateathletics.com.

Chris Gaerig said...

Thanks again.

I don't know what game I'll watch next, but Georgia and Florida were definitely games of interest. I'll be watching for O-line play from MSU as well as the progression of Relf as a passer. Fortunately, I've got three weeks to figure all of this out, which is plenty of time to watch and analyze.

Re: Denard/scrambling. I define scrambling as dropping back for a pass but running the ball when nothing is open. With his sort of speed and shiftiness that Denard has, you'd expect that he would have more of a tendency to run, but he simply doesn't (which is both good and bad). He keeps his eyes downfield and always looks to pass despite every Michigan fan on the planet screaming "JUST RUN!" The highlights you saw may have looked like scrambly broken plays, but they were almost all designed runs that Denard just went Denard on.

CooperDawg said...

With the seriousness that you take this, are you on the coaching staff? =)

And as far as highlight reels, the context of the play is of course lost, and often the clip starts after the snap anyway.

The short of it is this should be a good game, and I'm glad to go against a classic program like Michigan, instead of going against the 3rd team from the MAC in the Ridiculously Named Corporate Bowl.

For us, the best irony of the matchup, is our main rival, we refer to as TSUN (that school up north), whose initials are UM, wears blue, and has a clawed mammalian mascot.

Who, by the way, we beat. =) =)

Chris Gaerig said...

Yes, the MSU's of the world have gotten lucky the last few years...

I don't watch highlight reels, though. I download torrents of the entire game and rewatch them multiple times (like I did with this Auburn game). I wish I was on the coaching staff. I feel like I could teach Greg Robinson a thing or two about defense.

But you're right, this should be a good game, likely of the shootout variety Michigan specializes in.

CooperDawg said...

From the effort you've put into these posts, you probably should be on a coaching staff. =) I tease, yes, but you've done good work.

And speaking of work, at least for Mississippi State, we've seen the results of "the harder we work, the luckier we get." Can't speak for any other particular MSU out there.... =)

And speaking of which, there is a free online game called QuickHit in which you coach a (pro-style) football team; make roster decisions, boost up certain players, and call the plays, but you don't actually control an individual player during a play, a la Madden. Since you're obviously into the deep end of the Xs and Os, you might enjoy.


Lankownia said...

"Mike Martin is on par with any DT in the country"

Mike Martin, in fact, didn't even make 1st or 2nd team all conference according to the media (Honorable Mention) and was just 2nd team according to the coaches.

He's a good player, but he one of the most overrated (by Michigan fans) players in a long time. The only reason I can think of is that the rest of the defense is just so terrible his general competence make him look great by comparison.

Chris Gaerig said...

It's difficult to quantify how good Martin is because of his lack of stat production and the general ineptitude of the defense. Martin won't get elected to any of these all-conference teams unless he puts up numbers, something he's unable to do given how bad the rest of the defense is. As such, he has to deal with triple teams and basically never has time to rush the passer because there is no coverage. Mike Martin is a legitimate talent.

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