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:
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:
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.