Michigan vs. Michigan State Preview

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

I have been going back and forth on my pick for this week's game over the last few days. That isn't to say I think Michigan is over matched; the Wolverines are in the best position to win this game that they have been in the last five years. But the fact remains that I am dealing with a great deal of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the Spartans, and things probably won't improve until sometime late Saturday afternoon.

Michigan vs. Michigan State

Ann Arbor, MI; 3:30pm, BTN

Enemy Blog: The Only Colors

I don't think I am the only one similarly afflicted. Michigan State entered the season as the trendy pick for the conference title after two years of coming up short of winning the thing outright. It was thought that the Spartan defense, a commanding unit that returned nine starters from one of the nation's most suffocating defenses a year ago, would lead the way through a Big Ten that was suffering from all different kinds of coaching turmoil and NCAA sanctions. The Leaders division didn't figure to be much of a threat as its two most high prestige teams would be forced to sit this round out and Wisconsin would have to replace a few key cogs in its offensive machine. The winner would most likely emerge from the melee in the Legends division, and nobody looked better prepared for a grind-em-out beat-em-down march through the midwest than Michigan State.

The defense wasn't the only thing Michigan State had in its corner. Junior running back LeVeon Bell was back after two years of marginalizing the talented Edwin Baker to the point that the elder Baker decided to bolt to the NFL while the getting was still good. Bell had grown into the offensive equivalent of the Michigan State defense -- a big, punishing football player whose size and strength belied his speed and quickness. Behind an offensive line that had survived a trial by fire a year ago, Bell would be the alpha and omega of the Spartan offense as talented program quarterback Andrew Maxwell acclimated himself to the starting role and an exciting batch of young receivers got their chance to shine.

However, there were warning signs, and it was possible to look at this edition of the Spartans and see a potential backslide. The most obvious place was in the passing game. While there were plenty of talented pieces available to step up in place of the departed Kirk Cousins, BJ Cunningham, Keyshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol, that group of young players would still be looking at replacing the vast majority of the Spartans' pass offense from a year ago. Growing pains were bound to happen.

Less talked about was the effect that the losses on defense would have on the unit as a whole. While Michigan State lost only two players, they played two of the most important players on the defense and were both multiple year starters. On the defensive line, Jerel Worthy made everything up front work. He was a matchup nightmare for interior linemen. Big and strong yet quick with an eye for snap counts and an ability to make devistating plays in the backfield at the most opportune times (for instance, the safety on Russell Wilson in the first MSU/Wisconsin game a year ago). Worthy's presence in the middle made everyone's job easier. He occupied blocks and large sections of opposing offensive coordinator game plans, allowing those around him to take on single blocks and flow fast to the ball in order to make big plays. The last line of defense, free safety Trenton Robinson, was also gone. He was the elder statesman of the Michigan State secondary, and the player that had been there every step of the way in that unit's impressive turnaround from years prior.

Looking at all of that -- good and bad -- it isn't necessarily surprising that Michigan State sits where it does today at 4-3 (1-2). The Spartan's have largely shut down inferior opponents while being unable to match better teams in the scoring department. One worrisome half against Indiana was followed by a dominating half that allowed the Spartans to storm back. The only real shocker remains the loss to Iowa in the rain last Saturday.

So is this Spartan team as bad as its record would make it seem, or as good as the sum of its parts (great defense, great running back)? Is this all just bad luck catching up with the Spartans or a regression to the mean by a team that has played pretty much at its best for the last two years?

I just don't know, man. I've been scratching my head all week trying to figure it out.

When Michigan has the ball

The Spartan defense is still one of the better units in the country, and arguably the best in the Big Ten, but whether it is quite as good as last year's version isn't known yet. Holding Ohio State to 17 points is looking more and more like a statement game, but turning around and getting torched by Indiana for 27 in the first half went a long way toward casting doubt on the abilities of the Spartans to be the shutdown unit of yesteryear. Even a week ago against the hapless Iowa offense, Michigan State's defense allowed Iowa to score on two of its last three drives in regulation (76 yards for a FG and 67 for a touchdown with under a minute to play) and send the game to overtime.

Still, I can't help but think that this matchup still favors Michigan State to some degree. Gone are the days of Jerel Worthy jumping snap counts and taking up residence in the Michigan backfield, but the MSU duo of Anthony Rashad White and James Kittredge are capable interior linemen that can hold up at the point of attack. Yet on the defensive line it is at the ends where Michigan State is most fearsome. Will Gholston is widely regarded as one of the top defensive end prospects in the nation, and at 6'7, 280lbs there is little doubt why. His production this year has lagged from the outsized hype he received coming into the year; his five TFLs are barely in the top 25 in the conference, and he has recorded just one sack this year. Opposite him is Marcus Rush, a similarly productive player with 4.5 TFLs and one sack thus far.

Therein lies the first big surprise of the year for the MSU defense. The unit finished last year as the seventh best defense in sacks per game and 14th best in TFLs per game. This year the Spartans are 111th in sacks per game, averaging less than one per, and 82nd in TFLs per game. For reference, those numbers put Michigan State last and eighth in the conference respectively. While losing Worthy didn't directly cut into the defense's production from a year ago, it reoriented the way opposing teams could attack the defense now that the most dangerous weapon wasn't lining up on the interior. Friend of the blog, KJ at TOC on the shift in the defense:

Big picture, I am steadfast in my defense of the defense (the calls to abandon the fundamental nature of Pat Narduzzi's scheme because the cornerbacks are getting beat by good throws on occasion make no sense given that the defense is holding opponents to 5.0 sack-adjusted yards per pass attempt on the season), but the defense isn't quite the force of nature we might have hoped for. This was the sixth straight game with the defense posting a single sack, and obviously the dropped interceptions aren't helping.

34 combined tackles for Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Taiwan Jones indicate the defense consistently prevented big gains Saturday, but they came up one big play short of bailing the offense out.

The Spartans have failed to produce the kinds of big negative plays that put other teams well behind the chains. If this trend continues in the Michigan game it could be a big advantage for the Wolverines. A year ago MIchigan State had nearly a dozen negative plays including seven total sacks. This was good to rack up 69 yards in losses for the Michigan offense on the ground, as well as force both Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner into a few less than ideal passes. Michigan State's reliance on the double A-Gap blitz to harrass Robinson and the running backs was a constant theme of the game, and in the end was a large part of the final score. Whether the Spartans can bring that kind of heat again -- recent history indicates it isn't likely -- will be a big factor in Michigan's moving the ball.

At this point the MIchigan offense is what it is: a grind it out quarterback-centric rushing offense that relies on heavy doses of the inverted veer and QB isos to keep the chains moving. Three bits of good news for Michigan. First, if Michigan State isn't forcing negative gains and making plays in the backfield, it will help keep Michigan in running downs and play into the offense's strengths. Second, against a somewhat similar offense, Michigan State gave up 136 yards (5.9 ypc) to Braxton Miller and more than 200 yards on the ground overall to the Buckeyes. Third, Michigan has struggled the most in the run game against teams with dominant interior defensive linemen (Bama, Notre Dame, somewhat Purdue since Kawann Short was still making plays but nobody else was). Michigan State's dominant DT is now gone.

Luckily for the Spartans, once things do get past the line the team has perhaps the best group of linebackers in the conference to clean things up. Max Bullough in the middle is a prototypical Mike LB. He is big, smart, and capable of tackling anything smaller than a compact car. He is flanked by last year's Most Dangerous Man, Denicos Allen, and sophomore Taiwan Jones who seems to have gotten the leg up on senior returning starter Chris Norman for the starting role at the Star LB position. This group is the best Michigan will face from here on out, and will do a good job bottling up most of Michigan's longer runs. Don't expect any of Michigan's running backs to have big days as grinding out a 3.0-4.0 ypc against this group of linebackers is a solid goal. The idea is to keep the chains moving, not beat them with big plays.

Behind the strong front seven is a very good secondary that returns three starters from a year ago. The corners are third year starter Johnny Adams, and second year starter Darqueze Dennard. Both are physical, lockdown types that excelled last year as Michigan State's front seven harried opposing offenses into quick, ill-advised passes. However, with less of a pass rush, solid passing teams have been able to find more openings down the field. There isn't a lot of room to work here, but if the run game is working for Michigan and Robinson can get time to throw the ball, Michigan can get some big plays out of this part of the game (assuming Ann Arbor isn't hit by a trash tornado).

The Outlook

This is going to be a very even matchup between a defense that does a great job corralling opposing offenses and an offense that has a singular mission to run the ball, then run it some more.

The Spartans have a couple things going for them. First of all, the defense has a history of containing Denard Robinson. Two of the enigmatic quarterback's worst games have come against Michigan State. He has never surpassed 100-yards rushing in a game against the Spartans and thus far has four interceptions to just two touchdowns and a combined 330 yards passing. Michigan State, as much as any team in the Big Ten, has found the way to contain Denard Robinson. This leads to the second point: Michigan is still very one dimensional in the running game. With Fitzgerald Toussaint still struggling and no real hope on the horizon (sorry, Rawls fans) Michigan will be forced to rely on a heavy dose of Denard. This too plays into Michigan State's hands.

However, with the Spartans not creating as many negative plays and the interior of the defensive line going from "probably first round draft pick" to "eh, well they're there" Michigan should be able to do a better job grinding out short to intermediate gains on the ground against this defense and avoid being forced into a lot of long passing downs to convert on second- and third- down.

This should be a hotly contested battle, and one that neither team looks to run away with.

Advantage: Even

When Michigan State has the ball

The Spartans are in a weird place right now offensively. The run game obviously works as LeVeon Bell is sixth in the country in rush yards per game at 130. Through seven games his is knocking on 1000 yards for the season, and if his body doesn't completely break down in the next few weeks from overuse -- he has 200 rushes, 23 receptions, and one spike attempt (lol) after just over half the season -- it isn't inconceivable to see him go over 2000 yards from scrimmage this year in 12 games.

All of this is on top of the fact that Michigan State's offensive line has been a heaping pile of injuries and disappointment so far this year. Already lost for the year are right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson. Now Michigan State is trotting out two backups, and even with Bell doing everything but blocking for himself, the Spartans are 84th in the nation in rush yards (144 ypg, a mere 14 more than Bell gets on his own) and 10th in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, Michigan has just proceeded to shut down three straight run focused offenses, holding Notre Dame to 94 yards on 31 carries (3.0 ypc), Purdue to 73 yards on 26 carries (2.8 ypc), and Illinois to 123 yards on 37 carries (3.3 ypc) (all sack adjusted). Michigan's defensive line has taken a huge step up in the last few weeks and is now controlling the point of attack and allowing the linebackers to roam free and make plays at the line of scrimmage. In the last three weeks Michigan has held those teams to 33%, 9%, and 21% conversion rates on third down.

It doesn't get much better when Michigan State looks to pass the ball. Despite spending three years in the program as Kirk Cousins' backup, Andrew Maxwell has come out shaky so far this season. His overall yardage numbers have been solid (four games with 248 or more pass yards), but he is completing just 54 percent of his passes and only has six touchdown passes -- four of which came against the rock solid defenses of Indiana and Central Michigan.

Michigan State fans mainly blame the playcalling of offensive coordinator Dan Roushar who took over for Don Treadwell to start the 2011 season. Roushar did a solid job a year ago with a fairly loaded offense, and you have to feel for the guy when he has to replace the production of his top four receivers, a very good running back, and one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history. However, the results this year have been painfully bad, and when Michigan State loses two games in which the defense holds the other team to 17 points or less in regulation, a large chunk of the blame falls to the offense.

Part of the passing game's woes can probably be traced to the injuries on the offensive line. Earlier in the year Michigan State had an easier time feeding Bell the ball and letting him rack up big yardage numbers. However, with the injuries along the line yards have been harder to come by. Furthermore, this doesn't explain the decision to mostly shelf Bell against Notre Dame (he rushed only 19 times) in favor of the pass.

So, in the laundry list of "why the Michigan State passing offense stinks" so far we have 1) Andrew Maxwell's youth and inexperience, 2) Dan Roushar being in over his head, and 3) injuries to the offensive line putting more pressure on the passing game. There is one more spot that deserves some blame: the wide receivers.

Michigan State lost basically everyone worth a damn from last year, and the new guys haven't exactly stepped up. The one early bright spot was TE Dion Sims who is still second on the team in receiving yards with 313 on 24 receptions despite not playing in the last two games due to injury. His status is still undetermined for this weekend, but considering it was just a couple weeks ago that he suffered the high ankle sprain, even if he gets on the field one has to imagine his production will be severely limited because of the injury.

Outside it has been only Keith Mumphery that has shown anything approaching consistent production. He leads the team with 330 yards. Opposite him will be true freshman Aaron Burbridge who has needed all of two games as a starter to jump to fourth in receiving yards. The rest of the receiving corp has been plagued by a severe case of the drops all season.

The Outlook

Before pronouncing this one the runaway advantage for Michigan that it looks to be on paper, we have to drop a couple obvious caveats: Purdue and Illinois. Both are pretty bad. Notre Dame isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut itself, preferring more to strangle the opposing offense and coast by with what Everett Golson and Tommy Rees can cook up on the other side of the ball. However, Notre Dame has a talented stable of running backs, as does Purdue and neither team was able to do anything on the ground.

In fact, every game that moves us farther away from Alabama (lol) and Air Force (wut?) gives more credence to the idea that this version of the Michigan defense is pretty damn strong. The line is doing the yeoman work up front holding the point of attack and swallowing up cutback lanes and the linebackers are able to flow to the ball. The pass defense has been solid with the Wolverines keeping everything in front of them except that one dropped seam route against Air Force when Jordan Kovacs was simultaneously responsible for the pitch man and the deep middle (lolwut?).

Michigan's defense may not be as good as the numbers state right now (10th in total defense, 23rd in scoring, and probably better than 55th in rush defense if you excuse the Bama debacle and Air Force being Air Forcey), but this is still the best defense Michigan State has faced since Notre Dame held the Spartans to a measly three points. I wouldn't expect Michigan to recreate that -- you know MSU has some tricks up its sleeve -- but if the game comes down to a race to 17 points, you have to like Michigan's odds of keeping the Spartans from getting there at all.

Advantage: Michigan

When someone is kicking the ball

Gibbons = accurate to 40ish yards. Hagerup = Zoltan. Wile = jack of all trades. This we know.

Michigan State's kicking situation is pretty solid. Dan Conroy is 14 of 19 on field goals this season, is starting for the third year, and has multiple FGs of over 50 yards. He's good. Punter Mike Sadler is a second year starter averaging 44 yards on 39 punts. Michigan State as a team has a net punting average of 38th, so there are yards to be had there. In punt returns (7.1 ypr, 76th) and kick returns (22.3 ypr, 52nd) the Spartans are basically average.

The return games cancel out and in a defensive battle you give the advantage to the kicker with the longer, more accurate leg.

Advantage: Lean MSU

Coaching

Mark Dantonio has a singular mission each year: crush Michigan. Now, I know he wants to win the Big Ten and all that, but honestly you get the feeling with him that if someone offered him a chance at an undefeated season, or ruining Michigan's undefeated season that he would at least pause for a second before answering.

The thing is, Dantonio and his staff have done a great job dealing with Michigan so far. The 2007 game was all but wrapped up until Chad Henne went HAM on the Spartans, then the next four years were all classic Big Ten beat downs where the Spartans won the rushing battle and played good defense down the stretch. No defense has been better prepared for Denard Robinson outside of the killing machine residing in Tuscaloosa. Dantonio and Narduzzi have successfully dialed up the blitzes at the right times and put Michigan behind the chains in an effort to force Denard Robinson out of his comfort zone.. If you excuse the rhetoric of "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness", Dantonio and staff have prioritized physical play and winning the game on the line of scrimmage. All of it has worked.

Now, I think that last year's trash tornado game was an anomaly, and that Al Borges won't get the wool pulled over his eyes a second time when it comes to the A-gap blitz. Furthermore, Michigan wasn't running the inverted veer a whole lot a year ago (if at all) when these teams met, and that play is not only Michigan's best, but it can specifically neutralize the athleticism at DE and LB that Michigan State depends on.

Still, these previews are as results based as I can reasonably make them, and until I see otherwise, I have to give the advantage to Dantonio and his staff for having the right call at every turn over the last four years.

Advantage: Michigan State

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

  • Denard Robinson vs. his demons - Remember before the Notre Dame game when I talked about Robinson cementing his immortality against the Irish? This is kind of the opposite of that. He has one last chance for redemption, and everything is set up for him to get the last laugh. It is going to take a monster game to get there.
  • Fitz/Rawls/Smith/Hayes vs. >3.0 ypc - Michigan isn't going to see a running back go over 100 yards this game. If anyone hits that mark it will be Robinson. However, Michigan is going to need 15-20ish carries from its running back position, and those player had better be able to at least pick up positive yards more often than not. If Michigan's running backs combine for 1.0-2.0 ypc, this game doesn't end well.
  • Michigan vs. Michigan State's inability to generate negative plays - Last year MSU lived in the UM backfield and Michigan's offense couldn't get moving. This year MSU is much worse statistically at getting negative plays. If Michigan can guard against those, it will set the offense up to move the ball steadily with short and intermediate gains and not force long conversions.
  • The Defensive Line vs. LeVeon Bell's one man show - The key to Michigan's defensive dominance the last four games has been the defensive line doing the little things to muck up the line of scrimmage and keep the linebackers free to make plays. MSU's offensive line is in a bad place, but Bell is the kind of runner that can make something out of nothing. Michigan's linebackers need to be able to focus on making contact with him early, since he will still lumber forward for two or three yards.
  • The Secondary vs. the inevitable trick play - With the passing game ineffective, Michigan State's back against the wall, and the fact that the streak means more to the Spartans at this point than anything else this season, you know Roushar and Dantonio are going to have some tricks up their sleeve. If Michigan can bottle up the funny stuff and not give up cheap scores, it could help lead to an almost complete shutdown of MSU's struggling offense.

Alternate Programming: At noon tune in to watch a scrappy Minnesota team take on Wisconsin in what could be a close one. When Michigan-Michigan State is on commercial break flip over to see Nebraska take on Northwestern as this game will be a big deal for Michigan down the line. In the evening you might as well drink because there aren't many games of interest on. WVU takes on Kansas State and tries to atone for whatever in the hell that was last week and Alabama looks to make Derek Dooley cry (probably).

Inanimate Object Threat Level: Um, 11? Seriously, if I was watching this in my own house I would definitely surround myself with cheap, breakable objects. Thanks to this being a BTN broadcast, I have to go to someone else's house or a sports bar (yet to be determined). Inevitably this will add to my desire to break things, but take away what small sliver of it being an acceptable thing to do since there will be (sane) people around.

Predictions:

- Denard Robinson inverted veers his way over 100 yards on the ground for the first time against the Spartans, but he also turns the ball over once, setting Michigan State up on a short field that leads to one of the Spartans' scores.

- Jake Ryan does his best Jake Ryan impression and halts at least three MSU drives with big plays.

- Andrew Maxwell passes for over 200 yards, but does so at around a 55 percent completion rate and also throws a pick.

- LeVeon Bell is just shy of 100 yards on the ground but doesn't surpass 4.0 ypc.

- Dennis Norfleet almost breaks one.

Finally, I'll go with the prediction I gave Chris Vannini at The Only Colors in my Q&A over there.

17-13, Michigan wins, and I still don't know what to think of the Spartans when it's all over.

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