Why Michigan State football's passing attack depends on a revitalized rush attack

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Mel Tucker’s poise may be his best asset. Not much rattles Michigan State football’s head coach.

But even he sweats a little.

The times Tucker felt the heat as a defensive coordinator remain ingrained in his memory, helping to shape the offensive philosophy that now guides his Spartans.

Tucker recalls being stressed when opponents could run the ball at will, blast his teams with explosive plays and routinely move the ball on the ground or through the air. That last part could be the most frustrating because then the play-action game materializes, creating nightmarish possibilities for a defense struggling to guess what’s coming.

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“I know what puts pressure on us,” Tucker said.

In an ideal situation, Michigan State would control the line of scrimmage with a steady of diet of runs and force the opposition to commit extra defenders to the box as a way to blunt the surge. Then, at the right moment, the Spartans would fake the handoff before launching a deep strike against an outmanned, unsuspecting secondary.

In theory, it’s a good strategy. But executing it is the hard part.

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins carries the ball during a spring practice session in East Lansing.
Michigan State running back Elijah Collins carries the ball during a spring practice session in East Lansing.

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Last season, the Spartans tried — and mostly failed — with a toothless ground attack. In a seven-game grind through a truncated Big Ten schedule, they averaged 91.4 rushing yards per game — the lowest figure in Michigan State’s annual logs dating back to 1947.

Further illustrating the Spartans’ struggles was their mere 17 carries covering 10 or more yards, tied for the fewest in the Big Ten.

That limited offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s ambitions. Wherever Johnson has coached, as he climbed the college ranks, he hasn't been conservative. The man is not afraid to take a shot downfield, whether it’s a deep post or a fly route down the sideline. The Spartans’ successful game plan in a stunning upset over Michigan last October spotlighted Johnson’s aggressiveness as now-departed Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi dropped one bomb after another. The prelude to some of those strikes was a play-action maneuver.

“It’s obviously a big part of what we do,” Johnson said. “And obviously that starts with having a successful run game. In this day and age, you’ve got to throw it and run it. You have to be able to do both. I feel like we have taken strides with that. The O-line is on a completely new level, and with the addition of the backs and our ability to run, you’ve got to help play-action and create issues for the defense. Where are they going to put their numbers? How do they choose to defend you? So, it’s been a big focal point for us and obviously needs to continue to be.”

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (10) practices at the team's facility Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in East Lansing.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne (10) practices at the team's facility Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in East Lansing.

Before transferring to Northern Illinois this offseason, Lombardi attempted to make Johnson’s offense go. Nearly a third — 50 of 157 — of the passes he delivered in 2020 came off play-action, according to Pro Football Focus. Although Lombardi only connected on 38% of those throws, he posted a healthy 7.9 yards-per-attempt average on those plays — a stat that shows the completions resulted in bigger gains.

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“I think it’s a trust thing with Coach Johnson,” receiver Jalen Nailor said. “We each showed him in practice and throughout seven-on-seven and everything like that, we can take deep shots when we have the guys to do it and do it consistently.”

According to PFF, 20.3% of Lombardi’s graded passes traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That’s a higher rate of attempts than he made at the intermediate level or behind the line of scrimmage. The expectation is that Lombardi’s successor, whether it’s Payton Thorne or Anthony Russo, will be asked to stretch the field as well.

“On offense, you want to make big plays,” Tucker said. “You can’t go every single series eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-play drives. It’s hard to do. Every seven plays an offense is going to make a mistake, on average. So, we want to get chunks — explosive plays in the run game and the pass game.”

Michigan State receiver Jalen Nailor catches a touchdown pass over Penn State cornerback Marquis Wilson during the second quarter Dec. 12, 2020 in University Park, Pa.
Michigan State receiver Jalen Nailor catches a touchdown pass over Penn State cornerback Marquis Wilson during the second quarter Dec. 12, 2020 in University Park, Pa.

To achieve that, Tucker plans to employ some age-old football subterfuge that works when an offense's execution is at its highest level.

“Play-action is a big part of what we do, because we run the football,” he said. “Our play-action pass game needs to match up with our run game so that it’s real. We need to be able to run the ball to make people honor that. And play-action is all about attention to detail and everyone doing their job. The run game and the pass game, they should match up.”

When that happens, balance is achieved. And as Tucker knows, that can be poison for defensive coordinators as well.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan State football's passing attack depends on its running