“60 minutes of unnecessary roughness.” — Pat Narduzzi after Michigan State dismantled Michigan with physical, smash-mouth defense.
The Spartans defense is really, really good. And really, really physical. Its physicality will have to be at a high level against Georgia if it wants to do its part in winning the Outback Bowl.
Narduzzi, the king of blitzing, has his work cut out for him against an offense with a solid quarterback and a good pair of running backs. But the strength of this defense all season has been staying true to itself and forcing an offense to change its game plan. Most recently, Wisconsin got away from running the ball in the second and third quarters — as they did in both meetings.
Because the Michigan State defense knows its strengths and plays within itself, the game plan will be the same as it has been — a lot of blitzing and hard hitting.
The Bulldogs offense is a pro-style offense and runs out of the I-formation as its base, but plenty of shotgun will be featured.
They like to run a lot, which makes sense based on the gargantuan Georgia offensive line — which has been talked about plenty. They average 6-foot-3 and 329 pounds, but they also allow a lot of sacks.
Georgia features a solid stable of running backs, led by SEC freshman of the year Isaiah Crowell and Richard Samuel. Crowell is the scarier back of the two, he has more speed than the bigger Samuel, and runs between the tackles with great cutback ability. He also has the speed to get around the edge, while Samuel mostly runs straight ahead.
Crowell clearly can present problems, but also has a tendency to go down with the first tackler — not reflected well in a highlight reel.
Because of an effective run game, the Bulldogs keep the ball for the majority of the game and consistently run more plays than their opponent. Also, they get the ball back a lot because their defense allows opponents to convert only 29 percent of third-down attempts.
As Narduzzi has noted, it is a quick passing offense. They do not run a tremendous amount of deep routes, and prefer to get the ball out of Murray’s hands quickly. He completes a little less than 60 percent of his passes to a variety of weapons. The scariest is All-American tight end Orson Charles, who is a quick and athletic weapon. Murray looks to him off play-action and down the hashmarks between the safeties most often.
Tavares King, Michael Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell are the leading wide receivers, King leads the team with seven touchdowns. A secondary tight end, Aron White, probably is the number one red zone threat. He has nine receptions, four of which went for touchdowns.
Murray has decent mobility, and Georgia will run some option-reads for him and the Bulldogs also like to run reverses once or twice a game, to Mitchell or King.
Against the run
Georgia is going to run behind its big offensive line and set up the play-action early — because Murray expects to air it out against the Spartans. The advantage Michigan State has is its secondary can effectively play man coverage against its wide receivers.
Oh, and the No. 12 rushing defense in the nation doesn’t hurt either. (Take out a couple games against Montee Ball, and it is a top-five rush defense.)
The Spartans have been great against the run primarily because they get into the backfield well. Jerel Worthy creates pressure and generally takes up two blockers, while getting a good push. This allows players like Will Gholston, Max Bullough, Chris Norman and Denicos Allen to make a lot of plays on the runners. Gholston uses his length to get leverage on blockers, and the three linebackers make a lot of plays on running backs. Opposing backs rarely get into the secondary.
The goal will be no different in this game: Stop the run. The game plan will center around good tackling on Crowell and not letting him break into the secondary, where he can be shifty and make moves.
The size of the offensive line will present a challenge to stop the run game in the Outback Bowl. If that offensive line gets a good push and wins the battle in the trenches, Crowell will have an outstanding game. Narduzzi is no fool, though, he will dial up run blitzes in the gaps between the tackles to plug up running holes.
Bullough and Allen both will be prominent in the schemes to stop the run, which is fitting, because they also will be central in the game plan to stop the Georgia passing attack.
Against the pass
Good news for Michigan State, Murray is somewhat bipolar in his performances. Bad news, when he is hot, he is fantastic and arguably the best quarterback in the SEC.
As mentioned above, the passing game is a quick one, where they try to have Murray to get the ball out quickly. That said, Murray takes plenty of sacks — averaging 26 in the past two seasons. Which plays directly into the strength of the Spartans defense which loves to get after the passer to the tune of 40 sacks — good for seventh in the country.
Michigan State will want to put Murray into third-and-long situations and force him to take more time to throw, giving the defense the chance to really put pressure on him and racks up some sacks — and force mistakes. Murray threw 12 picks this year, and seems to do what Kirk Cousins did a lot of last year with forcing throws.
The losses of Kevin Pickelman and Jonathan Strayhorn will have an impact on the pressure up the middle, but Anthony Rashad White and Micajah Reynolds will do plenty in replacing them. The only question will be if more snaps for Worthy and White will result in them wearing down toward the end of the game. Those three will be essential in plugging up the gaps and fighting off blocks.
Gholston and Marcus Rush will get chances to line up against Justin Anderson, who has struggled against quicker, more athletic defensive ends. Gholston will be an enormous key with his size and length to get by blockers. The more he gets in the backfield, the better the game will go.
Georgia will have to keep a tight end to block and use its fullback in pass protection, as well. Charles will not be used in pass protection as often as his backups, because Murray will look to him frequently. Norman will have his job cut out for him in stopping Charles in the short passing game on out routes, and he will do a good job of wrapping him up. If Charles gets down the seams, it will be up to Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson to cover him. A lot of attention is going to be paid to Charles.
The wide receiving core is reliable and good, but not great and not very scary. Given that Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are tremendous cover corners, they should have a relative lockdown on the wide receivers.
Narduzzi is going to trust his corners and bring pressure on Murray from every conceivable angle, and often. It probably won’t be anything that hasn’t already been seen — A-gap blitzes with Bullough and Allen, corner blitzes with Adams, and Allen blitzing off the edge.
The defense will seek to get into Murray’s face quickly and put him under pressure on nearly every play. Pressure turns into sacks and turnovers … see Oct. 15, 2011 against Michigan.
The greatest constant on the 2011 edition of the Michigan State has been the defense. It is characterized by its aggressiveness, pressure and physicality. And it will be nothing different against Georgia.
The size up front of Georgia will present a test, but blitzing in the usual manners, the Spartans should put ample pressure on Murray. The defense should win the battle against Georgia and put the team in a very good position to win.
**A Beautiful Day for Football did a bit of a film breakdown of Georgia here. It is worth checking out as it furthers my breakdowns.**