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Q&A on the Michigan State at Michigan Game with The Only Colors

The Michigan State game is literally around the corner, so I figured we should probably get a little bit more detail on the Spartans. Especially after they waxed Big Ten favorite Wisconsin in East Lansing last week. Michigan State is somewhat of an enigma to me this year. Based on pre-season predictions, they're playing over their head. But watching them play you realize that this is a very good football team. That said, there are issues. Pass defense. Penalties. Syphilis. Interceptions. You know, the usual.  

So LVS from The Only Colors and I decided to go dueling questions to figure out how best to deal with one another's teams. My answers to his questions are m'ere. If you need more info, check out the Maize Pants Podcast or TOC Podcast wherein we do the same as below, just more of it.

On to the questioning. Enjoy.

Maize n Brew Dave:  I've watched some of MSU's games this year, but not all of them. Has MSU faced a spread-run offense (e.g., run first pass as necessary) this season? If so, how did the defense hold up? If not, don't worry about it. Nothing to see here.

The Only Colors:  Not this season, no. WMU threw the ball far more often than they ran it, Notre Dame is obviously a spread-pass offense, Northern Colorado had no offensive cohesion to speak of, Wisconsin runs their typically Paleolithic offensive scheme . . . and Florida Atlantic? Howard Schnellenberger thinks that the spread run is something that happens when your trousers are too tight in the seat.

MnB: Kirk Cousinsseems to be having a solid year as MSU's signal caller. He's already thrown for over 1,000 yards and has a 9-4 TD to INT ratio. However, in his last four games he's been picked four times, including two against Wisconsin. Is Cousins the kind of quarterback that can win a game on his own or would you qualify him as a game manager/Trent Dilfer kind of quarterback?

TOC:Probably somewhere in-between, though I'm becoming more confident about Cousins by the week. The physical ability is clearly there: he has a strong and accurate arm and he has the ability to pick up yardage on the ground when the opportunity presents itself. (Michigan fans will remember that he had 3 runs for more than 10 yards last season, including runs of 41 and 19 yards.) The knock on Cousins has been his decisionmaking, which is strange because he's clearly a very cerebral guy.

But, nonetheless, he had a terrible, killer interception at the end of the Notre Dame game last season, he was poor in the second half of our bowl loss to Texas Tech, and already this season he's thrown two interceptions in the endzone. His first interception against Wisconsin was a bad throw, but the second was tipped at the line of scrimmage by J.J. Watt and fell right into Devin Smith's arms. The upshot is that if Michigan can pressure Cousins, it's certainly possible that he'll make mistakes.

That being said, he's been nearly flawless in the second half against both Notre Dame and Wisconsin this season, and he should have a ton of confidence after making several really nice throws on the 84-yard fourth quarter drive last week which put the game away. So, while he's probably not to the level where he's going to win a game virtually on his own, he's a very, very solid college quarterback and Michigan will have plenty of trouble defending him on Saturday.


MnB:  Michigan State doesn't seem to be getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback these days, tallying only one per game so far. Despite that, the Spartans are 3rd in the conference in Rush Defense allowing barely over 100 yards a game. Can you explain the disparity? Is it all linebackers?

TOC:  I'd be a little skeptical of giving too much credence to those numbers, as I think they have as much to do with the  teams we've played as it does with the play of our own team. MSU was decent-to-good in defending John Clay but he still managed 4.7 yards per carry. James White-who is vaguely Denard-ish in his speed and ability to cut it outside-ran for nearly 10 yards per carry, and even if you removed his two big touchdown runs he was still averaging 5 yards per carry. Armando Allen averaged 5.5 yards per carry against us, but for some reason Brian Kelly only gave him the ball 13 times.

MSU has mostly done well defending the run against lesser teams. The defensive line is probably a bit better at stopping the run than rushing the passer; Jerel Worthy, in particular, is a pretty good at defending the run. MSU's linebackers are excellent and usually are able to prevent backs from getting into the secondary, but again, White's big runs last week are a concern. They're not bad by any means-I think they're probably comparable to Notre Dame in this area-but barring a breakout performance, I would expect Michigan to get their yards.

MnB: So Michigan State is the most penalized team in the Big Ten. The Spartans are ceding 72 yards a game in penalties. They've received almost double the number of penalties Michigan has. What gives?

TOC:  Holds, personal fouls, offsides, the usual. The figure is skewed by a horrible day against Northern Colorado, although many of those penalties were committed by backups playing in the second half. MSU had vast improvement in this area last week, when we were penalized only 4 times for 50 yards. It penalty problems could re-appear, of course, but it's fairly low on my list of concerns for Saturday.

MnB: Tell us a little about your pass defense. So far the Spartans have given up 1137 yards in the air this season. That's 9th in the conference. Strangely, you're only giving up 5.7 yards an attempt, good enough for second in the conference. You're also second in the conference in passing attempts against. I'm confused. Is MSU playing a bend don't break zone scheme, are you guys giving up a lot of cheap short routes, or are people picking on your corners and safeties? What's the status of your secondary and how comfortable are you with it?

TOC:  MSU has been playing mostly man coverage, though I confess that I don't pay attention to our defensive alignments as often as I should. I'll try to explain the statistics as best I can: first, we've played a whole bunch of teams that throw the ball a lot. Notre Dame is the primary example: yeah, they threw for 369 yards, but it took them 55 attempts to get there. I think that many coaches know how poor the MSU secondary was last season, and were eager to test them early in the year.

But I do think that our secondary is much better than it was last year. Without looking at the statistics, I bet that MSU has nearly as many pass breakups through five games this year as they had all last season. Additionally, teams aren't getting many yards after the catch because Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams have missed very few tackles following completions this year. In short, I think the secondary is the most improved part of the team this season.

For example, Scott Tolzien completed only 11 of 25 passes last week for 127 yards. Tolzien had a very bad game, but I don't think that the secondary is getting enough credit for the role it had in frustrating the Badger passing game. 5 of those 14 incompletions were pass break-ups, and there were several other drops by Badger receivers that were at least partially caused by good, blanket coverage by the Spartan secondary. Michigan will have its chances, but I think that teams which didn't torch the MSU secondary last year probably missed their best opportunity to do so.

MnB: Michigan State is easily the most balanced offense in the Big Ten right now (127 passes to 192 rushes, with both over 1,100 yards). Against Wisconsin you ran it 45 times for a 3.9 ypc and on the season you're running at a 5.7 ypc clip. What is the strongest aspect of your offense? Last week it was clearly the pass offense. In the past few games it'd been the running game. What are you most confident in, in this offense?

TOC:  Um, everything? I think, based on what we've seen so far this year, that this is the best Michigan State offense since 1999. While the team doesn't have a transcendent star like Plaxico Burress was that year, the running backs are outstanding, and the passing game is better, too, because Cousins thrives on play action. I think that any lingering doubts about the whether the State rushing attack was a fluke should have been erased by the performance against Wisconsin.

The Badgers have a solid defensive line, as usual, along with good linebackers, and MSU still gained 175 yards on the ground. MSU's wide receiving corps is similar to Michigan's: no superstars, but tons of depth and fantastic as a group. Cousins has established a great rapport with B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell, and Charlie Gantt, among others, and if Michigan tries to overplay the run, they'll be burned by the pass. Essentially: Denard Robinson and the offense had better come to play because MSU is almost certainly going to have plenty of success on offense. 

Greatstuff from LVS. See you guys on Saturday.