After facing dual threats quarterbacks the first two weeks of the season, the Irish face a more traditional offense from the Michigan State Spartans tomorrow. It's pretty easy to tell what you'll see from the Spartans: straight-up power football. What makes MSU dangerous is their ability to mix an effective passing game off of that power running game. Kirk Cousins is a third year starter at quarterback and B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin are dangerous receivers. But the offense is based off of the run game and MSU's stable of talented running backs.
I didn't get a chance to watch MSU's opening game against Youngstown State, and to say the Spartan offense was vanilla in their game against Florida Atlantic would be a lie because vanilla is much more interesting and flavorful than what the Spartans put on the field. They didn't have to show anything interesting against an overmatched FAU team, but it did give a look into how their power run game works.
Michigan State's offense against the Owls consisted mostly of a heavy dose of Power O, a little outside zone, an occasional weakside inside zone, and then a pass every so often to keep things fresh. This isn't much different than what the Irish have already seen this year. What is different is MSU's use of multiple tight ends. The Spartans love to put two or even three tight ends on the field and throw a ton of blockers at the line of scrimmage.
MSU ran this play a lot against FAU. I mean a lot. I didn't bother to count, but I would guess as much as a third of their running plays were Power O.
Here's MSU lined up against the Owls with Edwin Baker in the backfield. The Power O already requires a tight end and fullback on the field, but MSU lined up another tight end as an H-back to the play side.
The H-back clears out the outside linebacker off the edge. The backside guard is still pulling around, but the fullback is available as an extra blocker.
The guard blocks one of the middle linebackers while the fullback whiffs on the safety. FAU has the play stopped but can't bring down Baker who keeps moving for a ten yard gain.
That's basically the Michigan State philosophy: line up with a lot of blockers and run straight at you. That, of course, sets up the play action with receivers streaking down field and those tight ends releasing to the flat or running up the seam.
Here's another play, this time an outside zone.
Le'Veon Bell is in the backfield now and MSU has three tight ends lined up to their right. In a zone run, the goal of the back is to watch his gaps and wait for a seam to appear. If the defense doesn't stay in their gaps, the back will shoot through it for a big gain. If you bring more blockers to the play side, that creates more gaps and puts more pressure on the defense to defend all of them. (As a side note, this is becoming very popular in the NFL, where teams go unbalanced and run the zone to the strong side where that extra lineman creates more gaps.)
Bell takes off outside after receiving the handoff. The line does a good job for the most part, except the defensive end is able to get a bit of penetration.
That DE is able to get in Bell's way and stop him for no gain.
Let's be honest. I have no idea how Michigan State is going to look tomorrow. They played two tin cans to start the season, so I'm sure they held a lot back for their game against the Irish. But it will definitely be tough and physical. Michigan State ran for 203 yards last year and wore out the Irish defense. The depth on the front seven is better this year, so hopefully the line can stand up against this running game. If the Irish aren't ready to play tough in the trenches, it could be a long day tomorrow.
That said, I wasn't overly impressed with the blocking of the Michigan State offensive line. If we ignore the quarterbacks, the Spartans picked up 198 yards on the ground at "only" 4.1 yards a carry. I say "only" because this team should have run all over FAU. Instead, a number of times the running backs had to bounce it outside and picked up yards simply by outracing defenders to the edge or shedding poor tackles. If the Michigan State offensive line can't open holes, the Spartans may have a difficult time running the ball. Of course, then the defense needs to stop Martin and Cunningham, but that's another story. This game will probably be won or lost on the lines, so the Irish better bring it on both sides.