Intriguing matchups abound in the Big Ten title game. How will Michigan State’s stellar defense deal with Wisconsin’s super-charged ground game? Can the Badgers slow down the hot hand of Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins? Will Michigan State be able to run against an underrated Wisconsin defense? I talked to some Big Ten coaches to get their frank, off-the-record comments about how they attacked and defended the two Big Ten teams that will meet on Saturday night in Indianapolis in the inaugural Big Ten title game.
ON MICHIGAN STATE
“I don’t think Michigan State is that good up front (on the offensive line). We were able to commit a lot of guys to coverage, double their wideouts and survive the run. We thought we may be a little soft at times vs. the run, but we were gonna take (B.J.) Cunningham out of the game for sure. We just matched up with them really well in the secondary. We worried if MSU would know we weren’t really concerned about the run and would try to pound us. But they never really did.”
“We felt we could handle the run with five or six guys and commit everyone else to the wideouts. When I watch Wisconsin, it’s a team that just does what it does on defense. They don’t change a whole lot week to week, just make their calls and play a very vanilla defense. Michigan State isn’t great up front on the offensive line. They don’t handle pressure well in the protection game and they don’t knock you off the ball in the run game.
Will Wisconsin just play that normal stuff, or will they play it a little differently? If Wisconsin schemes a little bit defensively, it could win this game by two or three touchdowns. But if they just go out and do their normal thing on defense, they will give Michigan State a chance where they really don’t have to be balanced and it will be a close game.”
“Wisconsin is good against the run. They are very physical. Michigan State matches up to them better because of their passing game. Cousins is an experienced quarterback and Wisconsin is a zone-drop team, real vanilla, you know where the windows are gonna be. I think Michigan State will move the ball better on them than most people.
Michigan State is a gap-penetration team up front. They are looking to run up field and force vertical seams in the defense. We are completely different. We are a two-gap team that’s there to muddy things up. Against a team that pins and pulls and runs outside, penetrating defense is the way to go.”
“And they play that wide-nine technique. When you see Michigan State get beat defensively, you see a lot of cut backs, a lot of vertical inside seams. But Wisconsin, the way the play on offense, to play that wide-nine technique, seal that edge and keep that running game constricted which is how you wanna play it.”
“That’s why TCU was effective against them in the Rose Bowl last year. TCU plays wide ends and runs them up field. I hate that. It hurts you in so many ways against so many offenses. But against Wisconsin and the way they run, it’s the way to go.”
“Defensively, as beat up as we were in the front seven when we played them, I don’t think we matched up well against Wisconsin. You are less able to deal with matchups in the back end because you have to deal with their running game. How do you stop the Wisconsin offense? You need someone to match up with (Nick) Toon, or he’ll kill you. That would have made us more effective without changing anything else about our defense when we played them. But we couldn’t match up with Toon.”
“The second thing you need to do is get penetration. Their run game is so based on pulling linemen. They get those multiple linemen on the edge. Penetration is the key, which is what Michigan State does. I don’t like how Michigan State plays defense. I really don’t. But I do believe this: Against a team like Wisconsin, that’s how you play it.”
“You also have to be disciplined and commit your safeties to helping against the run, but you have to be disciplined on play-action.”
“We had pressure on (Russell) Wilson a lot, but he made our guys miss and bought time; then it’s difficult on the back end in coverage. For me, the way Michigan State plays up front, with the pressure they can get in a four-man look kinda takes that away. You keep him confined, but at the same time you have more men committed to coverage and his scrambling doesn’t affect you as much.”
“Here’s the difference between us and Wisconsin: We are a matchup team. That’s what we do. We double guys, we play that bracket coverage and (Michigan State) struggles with it. The throwing teams struggled with us, the Iowas, the Michigan States, because they are used to playing against zone-drop teams and finding holes in the zone.”
“What we have found in our time in college football, when you match up with guys, your coverage doesn’t even have to be perfect. Those quarterbacks are used to throwing into open windows. And we aren’t giving them any windows.”
“Wisconsin is a zone-drop team. That’s what’s why I think Michigan State will have success against them because you’re gonna find holes. And they don’t match personnel, so you are gonna have Cunningham working the middle of the field on a linebacker. That’s why I think Michigan State will move the ball.”
“How do you explain those two Hail Mary passes that beat Wisconsin? I don’t think the team allows it. You had plenty of guys there to stop that. You have to practice that play. We have one jumper who jumps with the receiver, and everyone else boxes out like in basketball. The worst thing you can do is what happened in that game. When you see that ball coming in, look at the Wisconsin players. Everyone is looking at the ball. Every one. The Michigan State guy slips in and catches the rebound. That’s the exact wrong way to coach it, I think. I do know you have to take the rebound away. And you do it by boxing them out. They didn’t do that.”
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.