Jedd Fisch remembers seeing a Michigan State defense once before. It was Halloween 2009, when he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Minnesota.
That night, his offense racked up more than 500 total yards and 42 points, and quarterback Adam Weber finished 19-for-31 for 416 yards and five touchdowns.
That was a different Michigan State team, but Fisch, Michigan’s passing game coordinator, is also coaching a different team now. He and the 12th-ranked Wolverines take on the Spartans on Saturday.
In 2009, Michigan State stumbled to a 6-7 finish, as did Minnesota. Fisch spent only that year in Minneapolis before moving to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Six years later, he is in Ann Arbor, while former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is in Pittsburgh as a head coach.
Two things remain constant: Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio and the stingy defensive scheme he runs in East Lansing.
“They play similar fronts and coverages,” Fisch said. “Coach Dantonio, it seems like he’s kept the system the same from when Coach Narduzzi left. Very similar in what they do. They’re a quarters team, and they mix in some other coverages and play a four-down front.
“They’re very good at what they do. They have an identity. It’s very clear. They’ve won a lot of games with that defense. A lot of teams have tried to replicate that defense.”
Michigan State’s defense has dominated the Wolverines in each of the past two years, but the circumstances have changed now. Though they have escaped the first half of their schedule unscathed at 6-0, the Spartans have looked vulnerable.
Though their defense has remained relatively similar since Fisch last saw it, Fisch is focused on this year when preparing for this week. A win six years ago, or even film from last year, won’t give him an edge.
“You look at the games they’ve played this year, because you’re looking at the players they have,” he said. “It’s a totally different team. You just look at their defense and what they’ve had to defend, and they have defended it all.
“I think they have a great edge there. They’ve probably seen every possible run and every possible route combination and been able to find ways to defend all of them. They obviously have a great advantage of being in the same system for so many years.”
That system has given Michigan problems in past years, but it might see a few extra wrinkles this year. The Wolverines seem to have expanded their playbook every week to the point where it’s much more diverse than last year. It now includes plays such as end-around runs, more complex read progressions and a bevy of screen passes to get playmakers in space.
Halfway through the season, Michigan’s offense, much like its defense, seems to be playing its best football of the year. Fisch hinted at opening up the playbook even more this week, as the Wolverines might need more of it to finally crack Michigan State’s defense.
“We’re very game plan-specific. We’re going to try to come up with the best possible formations for the team we’re playing, and with that whatever concepts that go along with those formations. We have had a lot of different formations and personnel groupings and concepts.”
In that way, Fisch said, Michigan, too, has an identity.
“We’re going to be somebody that’s going to find ways the best we can to put our guys in the best possible position to succeed,” he said. “With that comes a variety of formations.”