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The first thing we have to talk about in any discussion of Michigan State is the defense. Statistically it looks even better this year, giving up over a full yard less per rush and on pace for almost 1.5 times the sacks as a team. Meanwhile, the defense has scored five touchdowns itself while allowing just 12. What has helped this defense take another step forward?
The biggest step is the amount of negative plays they're making. Sacks, TFLs, turnovers. The 2011 defense was one of the best in the country in sacks and TFLs. That took a step back in 2012. This year, they're getting those plays. The defense didn't score a touchdown last year, and it has five this season. MSU's defense has always been aggressive, but stuff like quick throws were ways to try to negate that last year. Now, Pat Narduzzi has come back with adjustments of his own. That's not to say the 2012 defense was slacking. It was still one of the best in the country, but this year's D is making those big plays it didn't last season.
By the time the season started, just about the entire defensive gameplan was available. That's a result of so many veterans, and we're seeing the rewards so far this season.
Notre Dame succeeded by throwing the ball down field, but even that strategy was largely helped by MSU's penchant for PI penalties - both deserved and not - and no one has found any success running the ball against MSU. If Michigan is going to score points on this defense, what will it need to do well? Is there any area in which MSU isn't really good?
The way to attack MSU's defense is always to use its aggressiveness against itself. That means screen passes, draws and attacking those cornerbacks deep or linebackers in passing game. Screen passes can work, but the safeties eventually pick them up and make up for the attacking linebackers. I guarantee Michigan will run that throwback screen to the running back in this game, and I think it's going to be a successful play. You can throw deep like Notre Dame did, but part of the reason they got those pass interference calls was because Tommy Rees was putting the ball in a spot where a play was there to be made. Usually, MSU's pressure causes a bad throw. That's why MSU can live with cornerbacks by themselves. They rarely have to defend a perfect throw. But Notre Dame's OL was able to hold off MSU's blitzing, giving him the opportunity to make the throws. Will U-M's line be able to protect long enough and will Gardner be able to make those throws?
If there's any one thing Michigan has to do on MSU's defense, it's simply to break tackles. Turn a small play into a medium play. A medium play into a big play. MSU's defense is rarely straight-up beat. A play is made, but maybe a cornerback can't make a tackle. Or a blitzing linebacker can't wrap up, and the quarterback makes a play. This includes Gardner making something when the pocket collapses in on him, which is a situation that's going to happen. That's what any team needs to do against MSU.
Early in the season Michigan State's offense looked like an unmitigated disaster, but it has come a long way since then. Minus a speed bump against Purdue, Michigan State's offense has settled into a comfortable rhythm running the ball and using Connor Cook as both runner and play action threat. How much has Cook helped shape the direction of the offense, and how is the offense different than what MSU tried running in the beginning of the year?
Last year, nothing was right on offense: the blocking, the passing, the receiving, the playcalling. This year, it's all in place, and it comes down to Cook making the throws or not. It took time to get settled in and pick a quarterback, but once they did, it has been quite successful, averaging 32 points per game since the first two ugly games and Cook completing 62 percent of his passes after going 15-for-16 against Illinois.
The offensive line is the best it has been under Dantonio. The receivers are getting open, holding onto the ball and making plays after the catch. The running game is at its highest yards-per-carry in the Dantonio era, and Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams are a formidable 1-2 punch.
So now it comes down to Cook making the throws. He did against Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. He didn't against Purdue, when he missed a number of wide-open guys. His accuracy comes from his footwork, which can be rushed at times. Which Cook will show up? We've seen more positive than negative. after an ugly start.
The biggest difference between this year's team and last year's is the offensive line. Michigan State is much better up front and it shows in the run game. Tell us a little about the bad luck of the last couple years and how this line has come on this season.
We've had a running bit for a year that MSU has an angry offensive lineman-hating god, a relative of Iowa's famed AIRBHG.
Offensive line is the only position MSU hasn't had a player drafted into the NFL in the Mark Dantonio era, due to many factors, but none bigger than injury. MSU hasn't recruited at a Hoke-like level in terms of linemen, but there have been some heralded guys who didn't make it to the end of their career. You can read all the career-ending injuries here, but, of note: Nate Klatt, David Barrent and Skyler Burkland were four-star recruits who retired due to injuries. Throw in a few starters always missing time, MSU rarely has its first-string offensive line together and playing.
There were injuries early this season, but there are now seven solid guys who are in the rotation and healthy. As a result, MSU is at all-time highs under Dantonio in YPC, sacks allowed/game and TFLs allowed/game this season, though the schedule up to this point as also helped. We keep knocking on wood, but this is the kind of offensive line we expected when Dantonio came in to return MSU to power football. With them mostly healthy, we're finally seeing the results, even if it took seven years.
One of the keys to this game in my mind is how well Michigan State can string together drives. The Spartans have one of the better average third-down distances in the country (5.5 ypa, 21st), but an Adj. third-down rate that is almost rock bottom nationally (-11%, 123rd) (per the Mathlete at MGoBlog). Michigan hasn't been great on third down, but it has done a good job of forcing teams to string together long drives to score (you know, against everyone but Indiana). How well do you think Michigan State does if it has to go 10-12 plays to score?
Not well, and that's basically how MSU is scoring this season, unless the defense itself gets into the end zone. Like you listed, they do a good job picking up yards on first and second down, mostly from runs and short passes, setting up manageable third down situations. Against Illinois' weak defense, MSU went 14-for-16 on third down, which was the best number from any team this season, and it was actually 14-for-15, with the last one being a kneeldown to end the game.
But when you're relying on 10-play drives, you're not going to have consistent success, and the Spartans haven't. MSU has just 10 plays of 30-plus yards, which is No. 107 in the country. During this surge of offense, they've made the short plays and created long drives, but they still aren't often getting the big plays, and that only works for so long.
With MSU, it's always possible they've been holding things in the bag. They usually wait until Big Ten season to start using everything in that bag, but the struggle to do the easy things early and the backloaded schedule has resulted in a lot of vanilla this year. Is that because the coaches don't trust them to do more or is it because they wanted to wait until November? We'll see this Saturday.
On the other side, the Michigan offense seems to be at a big disadvantage. The OL is a mess of youth inside, the run game is ineffectual (you know, against everyone but Indiana), and Michigan is bad on setting up and executing third downs. This one is going to come down to Devin Gardner's ability to manufacture big plays to Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess. How do you see this matchup playing out?
This is the biggest key to the game, as I mentioned above. It's hard to really say. We've seen Gardner produce a slew of turnovers, but he's also pulled rabbits out of his hat escaping many a sack. I told a friend of mine that Gardner against Indiana looked like Vince Young in the Rose Bowl against the Wolverines with the way he was getting out of trouble, but again, that was Indiana's defense.
MSU did a great job stopping Denard Robinson, but he and Garnder are obviously different players. I haven't seen many designed runs for Gardner. His big plays on the ground seem to come when nothing is open downfield, and that's a different animal for a defense. Gardner's stronger than Robinson, and he breaks more tackles, while Robinson was about straight speed.
MSU has typically done a good job against dual-threat quarterbacks because of their ability to contain them. But last year, Braxton Miller's shiftiness created a lot of missed tackles. MSU needs to keep Gardner in the pocket, whether that's linebackers from the outside or defensive ends when the linebackers come up the middle. And when they get to him, they have to hold on.
Michigan State has four games left, and it seems that a win vs. Michigan is the biggest obstacle to the Spartans going undefeated in conference play. MSU has the best unit on the field and a big advantage in turnover margin and rushing offense. However, Michigan has been a fireworks show - both good and bad - all year long. Does Michigan State win this one at home, and how do you see the game playing out?
In East Lansing, this game is always close, and I see that happening again. I think Gardner makes some magic. I also think he turns the ball over. I see MSU being able to move the ball in between the 20s, but they'll have a number of drives stall due to a lack of big plays. I think MSU is able to control the clock and the defense keeps the damage to a minimum in a 27-21 MSU win. I'll also predict Michigan scores a TD on its opening drive.