Master Class – Michigan St. Part 1 (2018)

Sparty is known for its Press Quarters coverage & stingy defense. MQ reviews one of the best 4-3 Quarters defenses around.

When running a Quarters system, the Michigan St. Spartans are a go-to when looking for quality ideas. On the surface, the Spartans defense looks simplistic but has had major carryover throughout the years. Outside of the 2016 anomaly (#104 in Defensive Efficiency and 2-10), the Spartans have fielded one of the better defensive units in the country. The high water mark coming in 2018 when they finished #3 overall in DEff. Head Coach Mark Dantonio has kept the defense as one of the better units in the country even without his long-time side-kick in Pat Narduzzi (Pitt. HC and former Spartan DC) and losing another long-time assistant in Harlon Barnett (current Florida St. DC).

Narduzzi, on the other hand, has not fared as well as Dantonio. The Panther defenses fielded by Pitt have consistently been in the bottom half of all defenses in the country. Pitt’s four-year high water mark came in 2018 with a DEff finishing #65 (the previous three years? ’15 – 74th, ’16 – 97th, and ’17 – 74th). Narduzzi has yet to find the same recipe he had in East Lansing. The jury is still out on Barnett, who’s inaugural Florida St. defense finished 50th in DEff.

One major issue with the scheme Dantonio has been running forever is the overhang defender. In a traditional 4-3 defense, the field overhang (Sam) is most likely not going to be a Nickle type body, but rather a true LB. Although probably the most athletic LB and paying to the field, he is not going to be responsible for carrying the vertical of #2. The bigger body actually works in the Spartans’ advantage. Most defenses are trying to get “smaller” at that position and put a true cover man to the passing strength. Like any modern defense, the Spartans have the ability to put a true Ni at Sam, but Dantonio opts to stay with the bigger body near the box. Leading up to their 2015 Cotton Bowl match-up, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban detailed the difficulty of defending a bigger body on the perimeter:

…we could not block the guy, couldn’t block the linebacker because he was a bigger guy than what we were used to seeing. We need to be able to make those kinds of blocks this year because when a guy cheats in the box, you need to throw the ball out there so that he has to get out there and he can’t cheat in the box because you can’t block them all if you allow them to do that.” – Saban,

The Spartan 4-3

The diagram below illustrates the overall foundation of Dantonio’s scheme. The overhang to the field is going to be a quick force and more of a true Sam ‘backer, not a coverage Ni you might find in a modern 4-2-5. The Spartans are a 4-3 and are going to die on that sword. Phil Savage, former NFL GM, and Alabama color analyst noted in the same 2015 presser that the Spartans stay within their 4-3 base regardless of personnel, even if a team trots out three or four WRs. The Spartans live in their base. This base has also served Dantonio well over the years.

Notice the alignments below. The Sam is apexed between the Slot WR and Tackle. Even versus the Briles’ oversplit, the overhang will settle in the apex. This forces the Safety into what is basically blitz coverage, or what some refer to as a “scootch” technique. This overall scheme forces the offense to throw outside, either to the flat (away from the Safety) or outside (force the CB to cover his man deep). This puts the offense behind the eight-ball because these are the lowest percentage throws. Anything that comes inside, Slant/Crosser, can be walled by the overhang who is sitting in the Seam window.

01 Apex - Pass

The CB and Safety are essentially in pseudo-man coverage, but they are playing an aggressive style of Press Quarters. The diagram above has both the CB and Safety in MOD coverage. MOD stands for Man On Demand (or Man Outside & Deep). The Spartans play a zone-match defense, meaning there is a “no cover zone” or a hard deck for under routes. Most zone-matching teams will set this deck at around 5 yards. This is typically where most offenses will break their Hitch routes (Smash/All Stops) or under/crossing routes (Mesh/Shallow). This gives the defender a point of reference so they don’t chase routes.

The OLB in the diagram will eye the mesh of the QB and RB. If given a run read, the overhang will be quick to trigger back towards the box. The eyes of the Safety, even in Quarters, are on the Slot. The departure of the Slot will help him determine his fit. If it is up or out, the Safety will take the Slot man-to-man. If the Slot were to work inside, the Safety would stem with him. The overhang will cut under #2 late if the play is a pass. If the Slot engages the overhang (crack block for run), the Safety will snap his eyes to the mesh and fit off the leverage of the overhang. This is referred to as “fit support,” and how the Spartans can get nine in the box from a two-high Quarters scheme. In the same 2015 Cotton Bowl press conference Saban explained the difficulty of running against the Spartans run defense:

One of the things that they do is they try to play linebackers half in and half out of the box a lot and like to play Quarters coverage and get the safeties down in the box, and it makes it very difficult for you to run,” – Saban,

The CB is pressed, so any outside release by the #1 WR will trigger the CB to play man. Essentially, the CB is in man coverage regardless, only releasing direct under/crossing routes and “topping” any Slant (a Slant has a vertical stem to it, usually three steps). The way to attack this defense is to run routes right at the Safeties and CBs. Versus Baylor, in the 2015 Cotton Bowl, we saw a game of attrition.

The Spartans bet that the Baylor offense wouldn’t be able to live throwing the ball vertically on every throw. Though Baylor accumulated 603 yards passing and 4 TDs through the air (one by WR Jay Lee on a trick play), the Bears couldn’t run the ball (-20 on the ground). This lack of run game made Baylor predictable and allowed the Spartans to adjust. The end result was 42-41 win against the #5 Bears which saw the Spartans outlast the Bears. The Spartans outscored the Bears 21-0 in the 4th Quarter and won the game. Again, a game of attrition.

A Dominant 2018

Fast forward to 2018 and the Spartans’ defense is alive and well. The only major hiccup in the past three years was in 2016 after a deluge of injuries, transfers, and graduation on the D-line. Dantonio has the Spartans defense rolling again, even with an exodus of DCs. Though the Spartans finished 7-6 in 2018, the defense wasn’t the issue. The Spartans were also able to limit some high powered offenses.

One matchup, in particular, highlighted the resilience of the Spartan scheme, the 6-9 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Current Nebraska Head Coach Scott Frost has had a meteoric rise as an offensive genius. Since becoming the OC at Oregon in 2013, Frost’s offenses have been some of the best in the country. Only Frost’s first year at UCF saw his offense in the bottom half of the country (107th in OEff). The following year (2017), the Golden Knights would finish 8th in OEff and undefeated.

Though Frost’s offense in his first year at Nebraska wasn’t his best, it highlighted the evolution of the modern Spread offense. Frost’s use of unbalanced formations, Quads, and motion combined with Y-off formations and QB runs highlights a shift in modern football.

The days of 10 pers. Spread offenses are gone. Most high powered offenses are utilizing Y-off formations and basing in 11 pers. This allows offenses to match what they see from the defense, usually inline TE sets versus three-down fronts and Y-off sets versus four-down fronts. Frosts unique use of option stresses a defense to the max as well, especially one that plays their overhangs so close to the box, like Michigan St.

Watch the Spartans match up with Ohio St. the week before visiting Lincoln and you will see a lot of similarities between Frost’s attack and current Ohio St. Head Coach Ryan Day’s attack on the Spartans’ 4-3 Quarters scheme. The Buckeyes finished 7th in OEff with one of the best offenses in the country. Their use of multiple formations, packages, and unbalanced sets can keep a defense on its toes. Like Frost in Lincoln, former Ohio St. Head Coach Urban Meyer and Day have created a monster offense that features options, RPOs, and a modern passing game. They know Michigan St. too.

Run Fits

Michigan State runs a true single-gap fitting 4-3 defense. As Saban stated in his pre-game presser on the Spartans defense, there isn’t a lot of change from formation to formation. The purpose of the defense is to suffocate the box and let the LBs fill their gaps. In between the tackles, there is not much gap exchange. The 5 tech. to the Nose (away from the strength call) will fit outside and not run into a gap. This is pretty consistent with four-down play in the B1G Conference. Below, MQ breaks down base fits and alignments versus the modern Spread’s foundational plays and formations. With 11 pers. dominating the game, and Y-off/20 pers. also becoming a favored attacking formation, we will focus our study on that personnel grouping.

Inline “Y” Sets

Versus 11 pers. Trey (3×1), the Spartans align in an Over Front. The backside Safety plays Solo and will read the TE. If the TE blocks, the safety will cap the fit (inside) or work to the “D” gap to the single-WR side. The coverage over the two-speed (WRs) is your typical Press Quarters. In this particular play, Nebraska “jogs” or shifts the RB strong creating a Quads sets (four WRs on one side). No one moves. The play is a simple Zone to the weak side. The TE will attempt to wash the DE down creating a shorter edge for the cutback.

The most impressive thing about this clip is the ferocity the ILBs come downhill. There is no hesitation. The single-gap fits allow the LBs to be aggressive downhill. No need to read their anchor point as they work down to their gap. They simply fill it. This clogged interior forces the ball to bounce out the back door to the Star (Ni) who is working back to the box once he sees run. The backside safety caps the fit, first working down, then scraping for the cutback.

Coaching Point: Notice how the Star plays the RPO. With a tighter alingment by the slot (inside the hash), the Star can gain a relativly close cover down. As the ball is snapped the Ni “hangs” in his position. With the RB to him, the Star cannot be fast, instead must hang in his alignment to play the RPO. This gives the QB a give read. Had the RB been on the other side, the Star could have been quicker to trigger with now real RPO threat.

The above alignment is called Squeeze and refers to the ILBs. With the RB away from the two-speed there is no need to take the Ni out of the fit. This allows the Ni to be a fast-flowing support player on run action. The term “squeeze” tells the LBs to shift everything over one gap. The Mike becomes a “Zero” to 10 player (depending on back alignment) and the Will moves to a 50. This aligns each ILB in their gap and removes the boundary Safety (BS) from being primary support. The Sam (Ni) is reading mesh and will fold into the “B” gap with any run read. The Spartans mainly play from a Squeezed alignment.


Squeeze is the opposite of “Cheat” (both Squeeze and Cheat are discussed in detail HERE), which pushes the LBs towards the two-speed (below). This alignment combats RPO teams by placing the Ni in a full cover down. By removing the Ni completely, the extra gap is filled by the boundary Safety (DS). This type of adjustment is great versus teams that RPO from an inline TE set.


Y-Off Sets

The Y-off offense is becoming an increasingly challenging offensive set to defend. Regardless of what the offense is trying to achieve (option, zone, or power), the use of an extra blocker that not only can catch but can move post-snap is something that stresses a defense. When I was at Baylor, the offense really began to take off when Briles moved to heavier use of the TEs on our roster. The addition of an extra blocker in the box played on the natural gaps in the 4-2-5 schemes we saw in the conference and forced teams into spinning down a Safety. The results speak for themselves.

When teams went three-down, we just lined the TE up on the line. This versatility wreaked havoc on the Big 12. More and more OCs across the country are turning to this versatile scheme. The Big 10 is no stranger to these Y-off formations. Michigan St. has plenty of experience.

The below clip illustrates the Spartans’ base alignment versus Y-off formations. The  3 tech. is set the Y. The LBs are aligned in there Squeeze alignments (Will in a 30 and the Mike in a “Zero”). The Mike is essentially a free player in this alignment and will run throw the Center’s backside once he determines it is a run. Like in a Squeeze scheme versus an inline TE, the Ni will fold into the box reading the DE. In the case below, the DE peeks back inside once he sees the hand-off and the Star loops overtop the box all the way to the back door.

Coaching Point: The back side Safety is responsible for the slotted Y. When he disappears, his eyes go to the Post. This is to counter what many OCs do in this formation, play-action the Safety. If he were to bite down on a run motion, the offense could run a Post on either side to attack the MOF. In the clip, the Safety tracks teh Y across to the formation, then opens up to collect anything coming across the middle. Once he determines it is a run, he attacks the “D” gap. This aligns with the same teaching in the Spartan’s Solo coverage to 3×1 sets.

The Spartans primarily leave their Ni to the field. When teams decided to attack Michigan St. with formations into the boundary (FIB), the Will becomes the “Ni.” This may sound counterintuitive, but with the limited space, the Will is really only being asked to hold the Curl or fold in for the run. In this particular play, the 3 tech. is set away from the slotted Y. This puts the Star (Ni) directly in the “B” gap.

The DE to the boundary runs up the field to show the QB a “give” read. This pulls the Y to him creating a natural gap for the Will to fold into in case the RB cuts back. The field Safety checks the Y and sees him go away. This allows him to turn and work through the Post. He turns to the two-speed because that is where the greatest vertical threat is. The field CB plays off and inside for two reasons, a reduces alignment by the WR (think Post), and a FIB formation (he’s essentially in man with little or blind help). The result is a run into a constricted box.

As noted throughout, the LBs in the Spartan’s scheme is ultra-aggressive on run reads. At the sight of a run, both ILBs begin to work into their gaps. Below, the Star (Ni) is in an apex alignment and “hangs” in his post. This is due to the fact the RB is to his side. He is on the “read” side and will need to sit in his spot to negate the Snag route or force the tempo Slant (which is shown in the next clip) to run high. The goal is to sit in the QB’s window, forcing him to hand the ball off to a loaded box.

One key aspect of Michigan St.’s defense is how they play the backside Safety. As illustrated prior, he is poaching the Slot if the TE to him blocks or crosses the formation. The same is true in the clip below. As the TE blocks, the backside Safety’s eyes work through the mesh (see the QB’s intentions) through to the Slot. The front side Safety is responsible for the top of the Slot’s route and the boundary Safety will slide underneath.

This is a great concept to use when playing Press Quarters. With the CBs in essentially MEG coverage (Man Everywhere he Goes), the Safeties can work in tandem. Against a Y-off formation, there is no need to waste the Safety to the TE if he blocks, check the Slot away from him to support your partner. The RPO read is doubled and the early window is muddy due to the apex alignment and slight “hang” by the Star.

Penn. State runs a same-side Dart using the 5 tech.’s width against him. The slotted “Y” will cut the DE off and the Guard and Center will double the Nose. The Spartans run a stunt with the 3 tech., sending him into the “A” gap. This can be a great stunt to use in a four-down front that tends to line up the same way for a majority of downs. The O-line gets comfortable with these alignments and can fall asleep. With the 3 tech. darting into the “A” gap, he gains penetration and kills the play.

The play-side Tackle quick sets to give the illusion of pass and the DE bull rushes him down the middle giving himself a two-way go. As the RB bounces out, he moves to the outside shoulder of the Tackle to wall the edge. Had the RB bounced out, the Start was there to collect. The end result is the backside DE and front side DE meeting the RB in the backfield.

Coaching Point: The line stunt illistrated could also be a Pirate, or DE/DT stunt. In a Pirate, the front side gaps are eliminated by the stunting D-line, leaving the Mike free. In the clip above, the Mike seems to flow to the outside anticipating a bounce This could be due to him working to the “B” gap (3 tech. to “A”) or a Pirate if called. Either way, both stunts are great way to gain quick penetration and free up an ILB.

Here is a look at the fits from above if the Spartans had run a Pirate stunt:


When faced with a Pistol backfield, the front can either be set to the field or the TE. In this case, the front is set to both. As the Y motions across, there is no need to move the front of rotate coverage. The backside Safety will simply make the adjustment. One adjustment that is made, is to check to a 2-Read concept as the TE moves across. You can see the CB jump to the outside and open up to the field, looking for anything working his way. This is probably a game planned adjustment.

The Huskers run a pin-and-pull concept, using the TE to pin the DE while pulling the Tackle and Center. The Will works out with the Tackle, the Mike the Center, and the 3 tech. from the other side works off the backside of the backside Guard working to cut the Mike. The Guard misses the Mike and the 3 tech. closes down the line to vice the runner. The CB folds in late as the Cloud CB (force player in 2-Read).

Coaching Point: When playing a Pistol team, the overhangs can read the QB to know if they are in or out of the fit. In the clip above, the QB turns to the boundary, showing his back to the Star (Ni). This indicates he can be in the fit and he works to the box immediantley. Had the QB turned the other way (field), the Ni would have hung in his post (out of the fit).


Michigan State’s defense has stayed the course under Dantonio. Though the offense has struggled at times, the Spartans defense has rarely wavered. Even with the loss of trusted Dantonio’s trusted assistant in Narduzzi and Barnett, the defense has continued its dominant ways (Pitt has struggled and the jury is still out on the Seminoles). The ability of the Spartans to make slight adjustments to their scheme and stay true to what they do best proves that consistency is still important in today’s game. What has been considered an aging scheme has proven once again it has staying power.


Need some Y-off or 20 pers. resources?

  1. 20 Personnel — Over vs Under (Setting the Strength)
  2. How Don Brown (DC – Michigan) Defends 11/20p 2-Back
  3. Keying the H-back/Sniffer (vs Y-off Formations)


© 2019 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

Want more on the match-up with Nebraska?

My friend, Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall wrote an article about it in his Master Class Series from the 2018 season.

Go deeper than just X’s and O’s. Have a philosophy. MQ’s books are available on Amazon and Kindle:

Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense

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– Coach A. | #ArtofX


Author: MatchQuarters


5 thoughts on “Master Class – Michigan St. Part 1 (2018)”

  1. How would you teach your safeties and their respective LBs to take on a bubble-slant combo when playing Press Quarters?

  2. Coach, In your article you wrote, “The OLB in the diagram will eye the mesh of the QB and RB. If given a run read, the overhang will be quick to trigger back towards the box.” So he is triggering to a force position outside of the DE?

    Also you wrote, “If the Slot were to work inside, the Safety would stem with him.” Is the Safety staying at his depth when stemming with the Slot? Can you give an example?

    We base our defense on Michigan St. I was wondering where you get all of your info on them and if you could recommend any resources regarding this defense.


    Coach Burke

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