September 16, 2012

Breaking down the 4 plays that doomed MSU

EAST LANSING - The four main plays that sunk Michigan State on Saturday night, and what those involved said about them:

1. Bennie Fowler's dropped pass in the end zone.

The Situation: Trailing 7-0, Michigan State answered with a promising 11-play drive. On play eight, Maxwell delivered a perfect pass to Fowler in the end zone, down the left sideline. Fowler was reasonably well-covered, and a Notre Dame CB had a hand in Fowler's catch zone. Fowler let the pass, and seven points, slip through his hands.

MSU missed a 44-yard field goal attempt three plays later.

Quote: "Personally, I feel like I let the team down," Fowler said. "If had caught that touchdown, it'd be a different game. We'll be alright. We'll get better as a team and continue to get better. It's a long season, but personally I feel like I let the team down on that drop.

"I just didn't look it in, lack of concentration,'' Fowler added. "Maxwell threw a good ball and I just didn't finish it.''

"It was just a go route," Maxwell said, "and this was earlier in the game when we weren't getting a lot of Cover 2, so we had man matchups on the outside. I thought it was a catch when it kind of fell into him and when I saw it wasn't I was obviously disappointed. That's a play we are going to make in the future."

Comp's Take: Like I said in the V-Cast, Fowler has been a promising player for years, and has made big plays in practices and scrimmages, but these are still the first important passes sent his way as the No. 1 receiver on this kind of stage. We think of him as a veteran, but he's new to this role, and even talented redshirt juniors need to go through a process sometimes. It's just so expensive for MSU to lose seven points on a play like this as part of the process.

That being said, Fowler was not all alone in this situation. It would have been a difficult catch. But it will take difficult ball plays to beat Notre Dame this year, and Michigan State failed to finish several difficult and not-so-difficult ball plays on this night

2. Chris Norman's dropped interception.

The Situation: A sprint-out pass intended for Notre Dame WR T.J. Jones was thrown low, and deflected off of Jones, high in the air. Michigan State linebacker Chris Norman was in the area and suddenly was all alone to snag the bounding, free pass out of the air at the MSU 40-yard line, and possibly return it near midfield with 1:53 left in the half.

Norman got both hands on the ball and began to bring it toward his body to cradle it, when it slipped from him and fell to the field for an incompletion.

Quote: "We missed out on some big plays, and I contributed to that," Norman said. "I could have had that interception. I don't know how the game would have been different if I had caught that, but you have to get those. That's a play you don't want to lose out on the field, but I left it out on the field."

Comp's Take: With Michigan State trailing 14-3, in a game which turned out to be turnover-free, the Spartans desperately needed that takeaway and the potential lift it could give them, in hopes of cutting into the deficit by halftime. An interception there would have turned on the crowd, energized the sideline and - oh by the way - given the Spartans their best starting field position of the night.

Instead, MSU regained possession two plays later via punt, at its own 6-yard line, and ran out the rest of the half.

MSU started 10 of its 14 possessions inside its own 25-yard line. Four of MSU's possessions began inside the Spartan 12-yard line.

By contrast, eight of Notre Dame's 13 possessions began inside its own 25, and only one began inside the ND 12-yard line.

3. Everett Golson's deep TD pass.

The Situation: On Notre Dame's second drive, Golson rolled right, eluded the containment attempt by d-end Marcus Rush and heaved a jumpball from the numbers on the right side of the field, clear across to the numbers on the other side of the field, to John Goodman for a 29-yard TD pass.

Quote: "They sprinted him away from pressure," said Mark Dantonio. "He broke contain. Again, loose plays, sometimes that hurts you. He did a nice job throwing the ball to the wide side of the field, which is usually soft coverage."

Comp's Take: Did that one give anyone flashbacks to Russell Wilson? Pivotal play.

Johnny Adams allowed some separation, initially, while chasing the play from the backside. Adams had time to catch up, might have panicked a bit, and arm-barred him for pass interference. Not a bad decision for Adams.

But Goodman made a tremendous, one-handed catch despite the interference.

Contrast Goodman making the catch of the night in this situation to Fowler failing to secure an easier catch a few minutes later, and that's the 14-point swing which separated these teams for most of the game.

If Goodman doesn't make the catch, ND has it first-and-10 at the MSU 14-yard line. I give MSU a good chance of keeping them out of the end zone in that situation and limiting it to a 3-0 early deficit.


Notre Dame's edge in special teams play set the Irish up for this short-field, 51-yard TD drive.

ND had punted to the MSU 16-yard line, but an illegal block by Taiwan Jones moved it back to the MSU 11-yard line.

Three plays later, MSU's Mike Sadler merely managed a 37-yard punt.

With this game being played as a defensive struggle most of the night, ND enjoyed a decided advantage in punt exchanges.

4. George Atkinson's counter draw carry for 32 yards to the MSU 19-yard line, setting up ND's second TD.

The Situation: It was the first play of ND's fifth possession. ND had good field position after a 33-yard net punt (after an 11-yard return).

MSU walked its field safety Jairus Jones down into the slot area to give the Spartans man-to-man coverage on all three receivers. Michigan State rarely shows this coverage; like maybe once a game. This left the Spartans with a single safety deep, and 10 defenders up within four yards of the line of scrimmage in man-to-man, creating more room in the secondary for a run play to get loose.

This once-a-game defensive call happened to be the perfect defensive matchup from Notre Dame's point of view for the handback draw.

"We try to mix in a little bit of man-to-man and obviously it's not very good against the sprint-out," said middle linebacker Max Bullough. "It's just eye control. Someone has that back, so someone should be on that, and it might have been me, now that I think about it."

Comp's Take: Bullough rarely makes mistakes, and film study shows there wasn't much he could have done differently.

MSU was in an 'under' defense, which is also very rare for them. This put slot LB Chris Norman up on the line of scrimmage over the tight end, opposite of where the play went, again leaving MSU's safety net a bit thin at the LB level.

ND sold play flow hard to the right, Bullough's left. Bullough stayed true to his gap responsibility, flowing hard with the 'B' gap as that gap flowed to his left. Then right when Bullough saw the handoff and the play beginning to head the other way, boom, the Notre Dame TE had come off the line of scrimmage with Norman and had sealing leverage on Bullough. Bullough was trapped through no fault of his own.

Dantonio said after the game that the defense had prepared for the handback draw all week, but I doubt they prepared for it against 'under'/single-safety-deep, man-to-man.

Bullough was caught by the natural flow of the play and the perfect timing and positioning of the tight end.

On the play-side, defensive tackle Micajah Reynolds came out of his 'B' gap, trying to take a short cut in pursuing a play that he was sure was headed in the far direction. Reynolds came out of his gap, crossed the face of the left guard. But when the ball carrier came back in his direction, Reynolds needed to be on the other side of the left guard. By that time, the left guard had seal-leverage on Reynolds and pinned him inside as the RB squirted outside.

Bad defense? Not really. No one was plowed over or physically dominated on this play. It was the perfect play call for a one-in-60-chance defense. But film will show that even when you're sure the play is headed away from you, you still have to stay in your gap. That's why they call it gap discipline. MSU had a breakdown in that area on this expensive play.

Was MSU wrong to come out of its base on the first play of an ND drive? I wouldn't say that. MSU was trying to change it up, trying to get a young QB to make a freshman mistake on the road. MSU wanted to take away the free release of the ND slot receiver, which is often the one open target against MSU's base zone defense.


  • Andrew Maxwell on the dropped passes: "Those guys are going to be the hardest critics on themselves because every one of them is a worker, every one of them wants the ball, and every one of them wants to make a play. We can't make a bigger deal out of it than it is. It's one night and we can't lose our confidence, we can't lose our confidence in making plays down the field. We're going to come back, we're going to have a great week of practice and they'll get better there."

  • Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar on Maxwell's performance: "I think he's played pretty well to this point. He made some awfully good throws, they were well contested but could have been caught. I have been pleased with his poise and his overall leadership and understanding what we are trying to do. He will do nothing but get better because of how he works at it. I think he's throwing the ball accurately and he has been throwing it on time. There were a couple where we could have done things differently today but, overall I've been pleased with him."

  • Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: "Our defense continues to be the group that we had committed to in building when we started this process, and they're starting to get to that level that can play against anybody.

    "It's a big leap. It's a signature win."

  • Kelly on the impact of Manti Te'o playing despite the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend earlier in the week: "There's nobody [like Manti]. He's so strong for everybody that when he was at a time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I've never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players. It's a pretty close locker room."

  • Maxwell on himself: "I have got to go back and watch the film but I feel like a couple of them I rushed, a couple of them the protection was better then maybe I perceived it to be and rushed my read a little bit. That's just going to come with experience and getting more comfortable but that's a good defensive team and they put a lot of pressure on us."

  • Te'o on support he received, even from MSU fans: "My family and my girlfriend's family has received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. It goes to show that football is just a game that we play and have fun doing it, but at the end of the day what matters are the people around you and family."

  • Roushar said MSU right tackle Fou Fonoti will be out "at least six weeks" with a lower body injury.

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