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Inside the Play: Something is wrong with Michigan State’s rushing attack

The Spartans are traditionally great at pounding the ball up the middle, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Michigan State v Indiana Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film and break down the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

Without a Northwestern football game this weekend, we don’t actually have a play to break down, so instead we’re going to take a look at Northwestern’s opponent this week, Michigan State. The Spartans have been a major disappointment so far this season, as they are 2-3 and have lost three straight games. The most concerning thing has been the complete failure of the Spartans’ offense through five games. A team that is traditionally great at running the ball hasn’t been able to do that at all this season. So what exactly is wrong with Michigan State’s running game?

(All video via ESPN)

When the 2016 college football season began, there were three games that most people automatically chalked up as losses for Northwestern: Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. All were part of the brutal October schedule that would, on paper, sink the season after a good start.

Well, we’re almost halfway into the month of October and that thinking has been flipped on its head. Northwestern beat Iowa in Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 2009 and now the Wildcats travel to East Lansing to play what is suddenly a very winnable game.

This is because Michigan State’s offense is somewhere between not good and very bad.

Now, the Spartans haven’t exactly had high-flying offenses in recent seasons. Guys like Brian Hoyer and Connor Cook would get the job done, but always relied on the running game to beat defenses into submission. The only problem is that this year, Michigan State’s rushing attack is mediocre, at best.

The Spartans are currently 75th in offensive S&P+ behind such stalwarts as Illinois, Virginia and Hawaii. They’re even worse in rushing S&P+, ranked at 85th and averaging only 153.2 yards per game (88th) and 4.0 yards per carry (93rd).

Sophomore L.J. Scott and junior Gerald Holmes are talented players, but far cries from the likes of Jeremy Langford, LeVeon Bell and Javon Ringer. However, the issues have stemmed from more than just the play of the running backs.

To try and delve a bit into what’s going wrong, lets take a look at a Michigan State drive from the Spartans’ loss to BYU on Saturday:

The stats from that drive: 5 plays, 27 yards, 3:36 time of possession, 1 punt

Let’s go play by play to try and figure out what’s wrong with MSU’s running game.

The Breakdown

Play One: Gerald Holmes 3-yard run

Pre-snap alignments:

This is clearly a running formation from Michigan State, with seven lineman in the game, and BYU responds accordingly with essentially 10 men in the box. Given how close they are to the goal line, both teams know that this is going to be a run. Despite all of this, Michigan State usually is able to get a ton of push up front, especially against a team like BYU.

However, the linemen don’t get much push at all. They manage to open a hole nonetheless, and three MSU blockers stream through. Holmes follows them and it looks like he has a shot at breaking a big play if the blocks are right.

Except...all three blockers clump up and Holmes runs right into them, getting stopped for a short gain of three yards.

Play Two: Gerald Holmes 16-yard run

Pre-snap alignments:

Once again, a clear run formation from MSU which BYU appears ready for. While being able to trick your opponent is always nice, for most Michigan State teams, it doesn’t matter. You know they’re going to run the ball and you can’t stop it. This is not one of those teams.

Right off the bat, there’s a missed block up the middle that allows for immediate penetration from BYU, which Holmes is able to avoid. Then there’s another tackler in the hole opened up by his blockers. This should end the play, except two BYU players can’t make the tackle and another falls down.

This is Michigan State’s longest run of the day, and it’s all because of a lack of execution from the other team, not because of good blocking.

Play Three: Gerald Holmes 4-yard run

The two teams line up in practically the same formations as before, except this time Michigan State has one wide receiver and only six lineman. This does very little to unclog the the middle of the field.

The line does an fine job at the point of attack, but there’s no real hole for Holmes to run through. He just decides to follow his blocker up the middle, which is normally a good decision, except...

BYU’s linemen collapse on the play and push MSU’s lineman towards Holmes. The linebackers move up and he is trapped and taken down for a modest four-yard gain.

Play Four: Gerald Holmes 3-yard run

MSU, once again, lines up in a heavy set, with only one wide receiver. Apparently the only thing allowed on this drive is rushing attempts. For the fourth play in a row, BYU knows it will be a run and, this time, the Cougars blitz two linebackers. MSU tries a bit of trickery here with a fake handoff on an end around, but no one on BYU even remotely falls for it.

This is what Holmes sees as soon as he receives the ball: three BYU players coming towards him. The blocking has devolved into a clump in the middle of the field and Holmes is forced to break a tackle to even make it back to the line of scrimmage.

He manages to do that, but at this point all the blocking has broken down and he’s tackled after only a short gain.

Play Five: Gerald Holmes 1-yard run

This play comes on third-and-short, which one assumes would be Michigan State’s specialty. For some reason, though, this is the play that MSU decides to run out of a shotgun formation.

MSU goes three-wide for the first time all drive and only has five lineman up front. BYU is in the nickel because MSU might finally throw. Of course, the Spartans run the ball as Tyler O’Connor hands off to Holmes for a fifth straight time. The play develops nicely, except for off the edge on the near side.

The fullback is supposed to seal BYU’s defensive end but is unable to do so, causing him to collapse the hole that began to form. Combine that with a huge push up front from BYU’s defensive tackles and Holmes runs into a wall. MSU refused to pass the ball at all on that drive and wasn’t able to move the ball on the ground. If BYU tackles better on the one long run, that is probably a three-and-out.


Michigan State’s offense appears to be in trouble. The passing attack generally been inconsistent even with NFL-caliber quarterbacks, but if running the ball becomes difficult too, it’s unclear where the Spartans will get their yards from.

The current problem appears to be two-fold. Firstly, the Spartans’ offensive line just simply isn’t playing well enough right now. In these three losses, the line has looked nothing like it usually does and has gotten no push up front. They’re letting defenders penetrate too easily and not holding blocks long enough. Quite honestly, the unit looks a lot like Northwestern’s offensive line has looked for much of the season.

So the line is clearly not run-blocking well, but the other side to this is the play of the running backs. Although they’re athletic, they don’t appear to be running with good vision. There were plenty of plays in the BYU game where Holmes or Scott just ran right into a blocker when there was room to run elsewhere. It wasn’t just this drive either; Michigan State had plenty of other bad running plays.

What this means for Northwestern is that if the Wildcats can play like they did against Iowa, they have a real shot to leave East Lansing with a victory. Michigan State’s defense is still solid, but the offense looks like it can be shut down with the right preparation. If Tyler Lancaster and company can get solid push up front, it may be another long day for the Spartans.