Game Eight Preview: Michigan at Michigan State

A pictorial representation of what Michigan State's defense does to other teams. - Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

This one is for the Legends division (probably, and also for now), as the path to the Big Ten title game runs directly through East Lansing.

Michigan at Michigan State

3:30pm, ABC | Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

Enemy Blog: The Only Colors

This preview could have been taken from any of the last three years. Let's see if any of this sounds familiar:

A Michigan team led by an electric, but error-prone quarterback, with no semblance of a power run game and best working out of spread packages, faces a Spartan defense that has been tearing teams to shreds. Michigan State, meanwhile, has used this powerful defense and a run focused offense to position itself for a chance at a Big Ten title. Michigan State will look to exert control on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and Michigan will look to use its play makers in space to win one on one matchups and create the big plays necessary to beat a Michigan State team that just doesn't let anyone sustain drives.

Outside of Michigan State's Year Where Everything Went Wrong last season, and the fact that the 2010 version of this game included a Greg Robinson coached defense, all of this is sounding pretty familiar. Hell, you could probably use the same generalized preview about the 2009 game as well. The year before that? We won't talk about that.

The thing is, Michigan is 1-3 since 2009, and while everyone talked up Michigan's chances in all of those years, each game decidedly belonged to Michigan State. Spartan fans won't hesitate to bring up the post game comments from Michigan players about getting pushed around in the game, being out-toughed. I can't say that I blame them. It has been all but obvious who the more physically imposing team was, and even this year — with Michigan's offensive and defensive lines a mix of youth and inexperience — it is clear who has the advantage in the trenches.

How does Michigan avoid more of the same? How do the Wolverines get past one of football's closest approximations of a brick wall? How does Michigan's bend-but-don't-break defense handle an offense that doesn't turn the ball over and runs consistent;y for over four yards a carry?

Do a lot of things right, make it count when Michigan State doesn't, and catch a few breaks.

Oh wait, you wanted more?

I guess...

When Michigan has the ball

PAIN

I'm only half kidding. One of our authors here (Big House Jack) thinks I am too congenial with opposing bloggers in our Q&As for the site. He has given me a hard time about it multiple times. To an extent I can see his point, and I think I do err on the side of objectivity.

Not in this one, because hooo boy do I really like the Michigan State defense.

I have a lot of friends who are Michigan State fans, and I am a pretty big fan of Big Ten football (because apparently I hate myself). Therefore, I watch a good deal of Michigan State's games. I have caught a few this year, and I really have to say that this version of Michigan State's defense might be the best version we have seen yet under Mark Dantonio.

Consider:

- Michigan State's run defense has yet to allow a team (A TEAM) to break 100 yards on the ground. The Spartans are allowing just 2.07 yards/carry on average this season, and MSU has given up just three 20+ yard rushing plays. One of which was a 64 yards run against Indiana that happened one minute into the game AND MICHIGAN STATE STILL DIDN"T GIVE UP 100 YARDS RUSHING TO THE HOOSIERS!

- Michigan State currently has intercepted more passes (9) than it has allowed touchdown passes (8). Opponents are averaging 4.7 yards per attempt — which wouldn't even crack the top 30 in average yards allowed PER RUSH.

- Despite facing more third down attempts than 86 other teams, the Spartans have allowed the 8th least third down conversions. That 27% is third nationally. Michigan State is also the best team in the country in not allowing first down conversions on early downs, with just 36%.

- Michigan State is doing all of this while still being only relatively good at racking up tackles for loss and sacks (int the 30s nationally in both stats).

- Finally, Michigan State has allowed just 12 touchdowns all year. The defense, in turn, has scored five of its own on takeaways.

Everyone fawns over Alabama's defense, and for good reason. But what Pat Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio have done in East Lansing is pretty damn incredible. This isn't a fluke, either. This defense has been this good for a few years now, and it seems to be reloading.

Corner Trae Waynes and DE Shalique Calhoun are both new faces to the starting lineup. Calhoun has been an upgrade over the departed Will Gholston, and Waynes has stepped in and held up well despite Michigan State's desire to play a lot of press coverage and leave its corners alone on an island.

Meanwhile, Michigan State got all of its impact players back. Senior LB Max Bullough is a monster in the middle and the quarterback of the defense while Denicos Allen is back to his havoc wreaking ways. Isaiah Lewis is the perfect ball-hawking safety for MSU's cover-4 defense, and Darqueze Dennard is probably the best cover corner in the conference for the second year running.

Probably the most striking thing about this unit is what TOC contributor Heck Dorland said in a Q&A with MGoBlog.

B. They learn as the game goes on and adapt

I cannot tell you how many times in the last three years I've watched an opposing offense go for 50, 60, 70 yards on their first drive, kick a field goal, score a touchdown, flip field position, whatever, and then absolutely get downloaded by this defense. It happened just this last weekend at Illinois. Sometimes it takes more than one drive, some days it takes a half of football or so. But I, for example, watched Purdue experience some early success throwing little 12-15 yard out patterns beneath MSU's retreating zone cornerback on two third downs in quick succession to keep drives alive, and then the third time Purdue tried it, not only was the corner right there in man coverage, but there too was safety Isaiah Lewis flashing in front of the receiver and nearly collecting a pick-six. Stuff like that is a joy to watch.

The Michigan State defense is every bit the un-killable horror-movie monster of your nightmares.

Michigan's offense, meanwhile, is the kind of unit that can self destruct against Akron, UConn, and Penn State but then hang 63 on Indiana and 41 on Notre Dame with Devin Gardner throwing bombs to receivers that only know coverage as an abstract concept they learned about in textbooks that talk a lot about theoretical physics and abstract math.

Here is what we know about Michigan (and after seven games, I feel it is safe to say that This Is Michigan, for better or worse):

1. The Wolverines will score on a big play. The offense has too much talent to stay bottled up forever, and every defense busts occasionally (even MSU's).

2. Devin Gardner will do 3-5 incredibly, unfathomably stupid things every game, and these could turn into anything ranging from the worst play in the history of football to red-zone field position for the other team to something like an intentional grounding or 20-yard sack. THESE THINGS WILL HAPPEN. We just don't know the severity and where they happen within the context of the overall game. It is like trying to forecast the damage that five sticks of dynamite will do when they are guaranteed to randomly go off on a journey through the jungle. They could blow when everyone is at a safe distance, or while each person in the traveling party is holding a stick. Why do you walk through the jungle with sticks of dynamite you know will randomly explode? Because that dynamite could explode at the right time killing your enemies or opening unmarked hatches. And because the alternative is no dynamite, upon which it is up to you to beat the hatch open with a coconut (also known as: what it's like to play a true freshman quarterback).

3. The only substantial gains Michigan will make in the run game will come from either quarterback runs, or the threat of quarterback runs. You still need a few under center plays just to build a coherent offense, but those will be the kind where you are pretty happy that you managed to pick up two yards unless you lost two, at which point everyone shrugs at hopes that second and 12 isn't a sack or something.

Against most defenses this is enough. Devin Gardner is maddening except when he isn't, and at those moments he is a joy to watch. He can make NFL throws and then wildly overthrow hitch routes five yards down the field. He has been playing better the last few weeks, but he hasn't seen this level of pressure yet this season — not even Notre Dame is capable of making a quarterback's life as miserable as Michigan State is.

Against the Spartans, Michigan is going to need everything to line up. Gardner's few horrible mistakes had better land helplessly on the turf or turn into bad but live-to-fight-another-day sacks. Michigan State's busts — and there will be a few, but not many — have to almost always be converted on with big plays from Michigan. Teams don't beat Michigan State's defense by playing anything less than the best offensive game of their season. Even then, it might not be enough. This defense is just that good.

Outlook

I wish I had good news.

Michigan will score in this one. The offense has enough big play threats, and while MSU's corners are very good, so are UM's receivers (this is going to be a battled all its own, and one worth watching), and that will lead to a few big plays from Michigan. Meanwhile, Devin Gardner will get free on a scramble or inverted veer and rip off a big chunk of yardage once or twice.

It isn't about Michigan scoring. It will happen, but not much. It is about what happens when Michigan doesn't score. If the Wolverines commit three or four turnovers, there is no way Michigan wins this game. That will almost certainly set Michigan State up for short fields which its offense can convert on. There is a pretty good chance the offense won't even need to touch the ball for MSU to get into the end zone.

If Michigan avoids turnovers (0-1) it wins the game. If the turnover bug once again becomes an issue (3+), then the Spartans win easily. Two turnovers? It could really go either way, but a lot depends on what happens...

When Michigan State has the ball

I was a lot more confident about this game when Michigan State's defense looked like a cross between a dead possum and a dumpster fire (a dead possum on fire in a dumpster?)

Those struggles are relevant, so let's quickly recount them.

Michigan State eeked out 26 points against a pretty terrible Western Michigan team, and while MSU went for 181 yards on the ground, 116 yards on 37 attempts was laughable. The next week, Michigan State put up 94 yards on 24 attempts. Two weeks later against Notre Dame it was 135 yards on 36 attempts.

What do all three of those games have in common? Scoring totals between 13-26 and yards/attempt averages less than four per pass.

The thing is, once Michigan State made it out from that stretch, settled on Connor Cook, and reshaped its offense to fit Cook's skills, the Spartans have done better. Granted, this has come against some of the worst defenses in the Big Ten (Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois were the last three victims), and even then, Michigan State had a severely off game against Purdue.

The book on Michigan State's offense is this: it is going to run the ball a lot on early downs in an effort to set up short third-down conversions. If it gets big plays, it will do it off play action. And while it is just outside the top 25 in third down conversion percentage (48%, 26th), it is near the bottom of the country in Adj. third-down conversion percentage (MGoBlog's Mathlete calculates that based on what a team is expected to do on each of its third downs given what happens on average nationally, and how a given team does. Those numbers are here).

Michigan State also doesn't turn the ball over. The Spartans have a +6 turnover margin on the season with just six fumbles and three interceptions lost.

Michigan, meanwhile, spends most of the game bleeding yards between the 20s and holding teams out of the end zone (other than when those teams get set up with red zone chances off turnovers. The Wolverines are seventh nationally in rushing yards per game (99.86) and ninth in yards per carry (3.16). Michigan is also 99th in passing yards per game (255), but 33rd in yards per attempt (6.6). The Wolverines give up yards, but in small chunks (only 9 plays of 30+ yards this season, most coming against Indiana's hurry up offense).

Michigan has also struggled to develop an organic pass rush and to stop teams with negative plays, although with Jake Ryan working back into destroyer of world's mode, that could be less of an issue. Currently the Wolverines are at 48th in sacks and 101st in tackles for loss.

Michigan's defense is built to slow down offenses, but Michigan State's is an offense built to move at a slow pace, protect the ball, and control field position (Michigan State is 32nd in avg starting field postion allowed).

It will be the battle of a stoppable force vs. a moveable object.

Outlook

Michigan's key here is simple: it has to win early downs. If the Wolverine defense can hold up on first and second down, it will force Michigan State to convert longer pass plays to keep the chains moving. The more failed conversions, the more punts, and the more offensive possessions that Michigan can get to try and find holes in the Michigan State defense. If this is a game where each team has 10 possessions, Michigan probably won't win. The Wolverines need a lot of cracks at this defense to break through, and the Wolverine defense needs to continually find ways to get Michigan State behind the chains so the Spartans have to punt. Michigan State won't turn the ball over much, if at all, and Michigan has to keep the Spartans from converting long drives into scores.

It is a matchup Michigan can win, and frankly, this is the biggest reason that it looks like Michigan can hang in this game. The Spartan offense will find some success — even Minnesota pulled off the longest drive in the history of football — but Michigan has to limit that and try to hold drives to field goals and punts.

The hope is that Michigan State's offensive resurgence is in part due to the level of recent competition (what thing do Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue's defense have in common?). Although, the same thing could be said for Michigan's defense. Is it really as good as the per play stats say?

When someone is kicking the ball

Little did we know, last year this was the match up that decided the game. It probably won't be another four field goal vs. two field goal affair (remember, one MSU field goal was missed), but if it is, the odds are in Michigan State's favor. Michigan's Brendan Gibbons is now in a certified slump after another woeful attempt against Indiana.

Meanwhile, Michigan State's two kickers combine for 10/13 on the season. One thing that could be important: Michigan State hasn't attempted a field goal since October 5th against Iowa.

Michigan State's punter is Mike Sadler, teen heart-throb. He is also reliable as hell, with a 43 yard average per punt. Michigan's Matt Wile has had some ups and downs this season — par for the course in special teams for the Wolverines this year.

The advantage in this one lies solidly with Michigan State until a Michigan kicker says otherwise.

Other Stuff:

Keys to the game:

- The severity and timing of Devin Gardner's mistakes. If Gardner coughs up a couple defensive touchdowns or red zone possessions for Michgian State, the Wolverines absolutely won't have a chance in this one. If his mistakes are only minor ones that only stop drives and lead to punts, Michigan will be in a good position.

- The offensive line can't melt. Michigan State's linebackers are the best in the business, and the Spartan defensive tackles are a deep and talented bunch. They are going to make life hell of Michigan's interior line. It doesn't have to be perfect, but Michigan can't afford big busts that lead to a lot of negative plays and potential turnovers.

- Jake Ryan being Jake Ryan. The Wolverines are going to need someone to dial up a big play or two in this one. Ryan is just the man for the job, assuming he is back where he needs to be as a player after his long summer on the bench.

- Jibreel Black and 3-tech du jour against the run. Michigan has to limit runs, and that starts with holding the point of attack. Quinton Washington should be able to handle himself, but Black and the other 3-techs have a tendency to get pushed around in the run game. That can't happen in this one.

Alternate Programming: The early slate features a pretty good Big Ten matchup in Iowa-Wisconsin. When Michigan-Michigan State is at commercial you can check out Georgia-Florida or Nebraska-Northwestern. The night games kick off with Okahoma State-Texas Tech at 7pm with FSU-Miami at 8pm. Not a really killer week, but that's probably fine because either football will sound terrible to you at about 7pm, or you'll be so busy partying and trash talking on facebook that you won't be able to concentrate on anything else.

Inanimate Object Threat Level - 10: Yeah, no explanation necessary.

Final Thoughts: This game has scared me for weeks, and nothing is changing now. Michigan State's defense is just as good as advertised, and will give Michigan all sorts of problems. The Wolverines — robbed of an abiliity to string drives together — will be reduced to attempting to score on a string of big plays where a Michigan player either goes HAM or a MSU player makes a mistake. Neither of these are things that happen very often, so you shouldn't expect that.

All week I have been trying to talk myself into the Wolverine's chances. Devin Gardner is very good and can make the kinds of plays that a team needs to win games against defenses of this level. He can also self destruct like something out of a cheesy 60s spy movie spoof. The defense is much more suited to handle an offense like Michigan State's than it was one like Indiana's. It also can't be expected to hold MSU out of the end zone completely, which would be about the best case scenario for the UM offense that won't find points easy.

In games like this you have to pick the team you trust more. I trust Michigan State to do what it does: play kick ass defense and churn out yards and a couple scoring drives on offense. I don't trust Michigan to do anything because to be totally honest, we have seen a different Michigan offense every single game this year. Depending on which one walks out of that tunnel on Saturday, Michigan could win by 10 points or lose by three touchdowns. Pick the one you know.

My head is saying Michigan State. My heart is saying Michigan. I hate my head, but it's better at this sort of thing.

Michigan State 20 - Michigan 17

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