The words Michigan State and offense have become synonymous in the final few games of the season.
The Spartans averaged 38.6 points per game in their past final five games, and Kirk Cousins has thrown for an average of 265 yards per game in that stretch — completing passes at a clip of 67.4 percent.
And against Wisconsin — and its No. 3 pass defense in the nation — in the Big Ten Championship Game, Cousins threw for 281 yards on 22-of-30 passing. And in the first meeting with the Badgers, he threw for 290 yards on 22-of-31 passing.
The game plan in those meetings, particularly the second one, was to run early, and then let Cousins go to work as it opened up the passing game against a spread-out defense. Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker touched the ball a lot in the first quarter, eight of 12 plays were run plays. In the second quarter, 15-of-25 plays went into Cousins’ hands and went to the air.
Expect a similar pattern against Georgia, if the Spartans find some success against the Bulldogs ninth-ranked run defense.
The Georgia defense bears similarities to Wisconsin in its secondary, and also in the way it works to apply pressure. Beyond the difference in formation, the biggest difference is Georgia’s defense is like Wisconsin’s on steroids — the players are faster and stronger. Where Wisconsin’s defense had slower linebackers, the Georgia linebackers are as big, but much faster.
And the epitome of this is Jarvis Jones.
Jones is the kind of defensive player that opposing coaches — in this case, Michigan State’s — have to game plan specifically to stop in order to have an effective offense. Georgia’s defensive coordinator Todd Grantham works his defense to make an opponent one-dimensional offensively, and the Bulldogs do this by being fantastic against the run because they get to the ball carrier so quickly and in bunches.
Georgia’s 3-4 defense is built on applying pressure from a big defensive line and blitzing linebackers, which is why Jones racked up 13.5 sacks and the other outside linebacker, Cornelius Washington had five. As the video above reflects, Jones spends a lot of time in the backfield and Georgia doesn’t really try to disguise him blitzing and you know he is coming.
On the ground
The MSU offensive line has not allowed a sack in five games and only 15 total, but they will be facing a lot of pressure from the Bulldog defense that had 34 sacks.
Which is exactly why MSU will run the ball early in an attempt to neutralize the blitz and keep Cousins on his feet and away from Jones. And when they run, it will be a lot more between the tackles than it was against Wisconsin because of the outside pressure.
In facing Michigan, who runs a 3-4 defense like Georgia’s, Baker saw a lot of touches to the outside and, at times, he likely will get those same touches in this game to stretch the defense across the field. And in running it outside, it probably won’t be in the direction of Jones unless a tight end is blocking him to the outside.
Georgia does a great job of getting after the ball carrier in the backfield, which will make running it to the edges a challenge. But if Baker or Bell breaks through into the secondary, they might well be gone because neither goes down easily and Georgia doesn’t tackle particularly well. Their safeties and corners mostly try to just crash into the offensive player and not wrap them up.
It figures Bell will be the featured back as he was in facing Wisconsin and, ideally, there will be some success for the big, physical back to allow for Cousins to open up the offense and utilize play-action effectively.
Through the air
The passing game is going to be the way the Spartans can come out on top, and because of the speed on the Georgia defense, offensive coordinator Dan Roushar will try to spread out the defense in a similar way to what he did against Wisconsin.
Keshawn Martin will be at the center of the aerial attack and will get the ball a lot in the flat, giving him the chance to make some plays with his quickness and shiftiness.
Against Michigan and Wisconsin, Roushar went to some four-wide sets in a diamond formation with Martin at the back of it. From that set, Martin often goes in motion and either takes a handoff, is used in play-action, or splits off wide to the other side. Formations like this, which allow Cousins to quickly get the ball out of his hands, will be a big part of the offensive game plan against Georgia.
Bell also went in motion often against the Badgers, and will play a part in the passing game once again.
The tight ends will come into play just like they did in the Big Ten title game, and Garrett Celek specifically will be very important in pass protection against Jones and Washington. Brian Linthicum will see plenty of playing time as a blocker who goes in motion from tight end into the backfield as a second fullback, as he did in the Big Ten Championship Game. Both of them also should figure in the passing game, on short curl routes as hot reads and check downs for Cousins.
If the lateral passing game can be effective — which is has proven to be consistently for the Spartans, it will force the Georgia defense to spread out to cover, and give Cousins some downfield chances to Cunningham.
He has to be wary of Bacarri Rambo, however, who has seven interceptions. Many of the interceptions Georgia has were forced mistakes, because of heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Cousins has struggled in this area despite cleaning that up mostly this season showing the smarts to hold on to the ball rather than throw it up for grabs. His decision making will need to be at its best Monday.
Backup quarterback Andrew Maxwell will be seeing a share of the playing time as well. This will be a real test for him in his decision making, given that he has not been on the field a whole lot. But what he does bring is a greater mobility, which against the rush of Georgia will be to his benefit. His presence will open up the run game and some bootleg play-action passes. The other advantage he holds is the lack of tape Georgia has of him, they can scout Cousins, but they cannot really prepare for Maxwell.
Roushar broke out the wildcat formation with both Bell and Martin in the Big Ten title game, and it might be used sparingly once again. The desire to go laterally would suggest Bell being the one taking the snaps, with Martin in motion to take the ball on a jet sweep, or for Bell to run up the middle after faking a handoff.
As far as other possible trick plays, still have yet to see anything involving Nichol, which is a surprise. Martin will be involved in his usual share of extra touches because of his ability to break into the open field. Maxwell brings an interesting twist to the offense, particularly in the wildcat as a possible receiver.
The Spartans will face one of the nation’s best defenses at a time when their offense is clicking and playing at an extremely high level. The amount of pressure the Bulldogs apply to Cousins will determine the success of Michigan State offense, so the Spartans will counter by trying to get the ball to its playmakers quickly. Martin and Cunningham have been playing incredibly well for many weeks, and will need to do so again. Bell and Baker have to find a way to churn out yardage and wear down a very large, physical defense. If they cannot do so, it will be a difficult game for the Spartans to win.