Who: No. 8 Michigan State Spartans
Time: 3:30 ET (ABC)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 25
Place: Spartan Stadium--East Lansing, Mich.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."
When U-M has the ball
This is not going to be good.
Michigan squeezed out enough production to beat a Penn State team with an offensive line that is, remarkably, even worse than Michigan's. As Spencer Hall and others noted in their postgame writings, this was a case of one team not losing, as opposed to winning.
Needless to say, Michigan isn't going to be able to bumble its way to a glorious not loss this Saturday.
Michigan State's defense is not quite as airtight as it has been in recent years, however -- the 2013 MSU D finished second nationally in defensive FEI, while they currently sit at 23rd. So, basically they've gone from being a school of sharks with lasers to just regular old sharks, which, is still terrifying.
They still rank 2nd in first down rate, 4th in the available yards category and 1st in the methodical drive category (i.e. the percentage of drives that go for 10 plays or more). Michigan is not going on any long drives anyway -- maybe to the corner store and back -- so don't expect too many 10-play drives, if any, because this is the best team in the country at not allowing those so far this season.
Sure, the Spartans did give up 46 at Oregon, but that's Oregon, so it's not necessarily surprising, even if most people (myself included) expected a better performance. More recently, Purdue dropped 31 one MSU in West Lafayette, albeit in a losing effort. Sadly for Michigan, the Purdue offense has looked far more potent in its recent three-game stretch against Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota than Michigan has at any point this season, so there might not be any hope to take from that game.
Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby dinked and dunked his way to 211 yards passing on 37 attempts (5.7 YPA), with one touchdown to one interception (plus a lost fumble). In the run game, Purdue averaged a misleading 5.7 YPC; most of that yardage came on an Akeem Hunt 52-yarder and a Kevante Green 36-yarder.
Even with Derrick Green, Michigan didn't have much in the way of big play ability on the ground. Barring some sort of light turning on for the offense vis-a-vis how to take advantage of Devin Gardner's legs or Justice Hayes's shiftiness and quicks, a YPC of 2-point-something is likely the reality in this one.
Other than the one unfortunate interception, Gardner was actually quite steady against the Nittany Lions. If he can somehow do that again and Michigan squeaks out a big play or two, maybe, maybe there's a chance at keeping it competitive heading into the half.
Any hope of that happening begins and ends with the offensive line giving Gardner a sliver of a chance to do anything. Unfortunately for Michigan, linebacker Ed Davis (6.0 sacks), defensive end Shilique Calhoun (5.0 sacks) and defensive end Marcus Rush (3.5 sacks) can all bring it in the pass rush department, to say the least. Linebacker Taiwan Jones also his 3.0 sacks to his name.
Fifth-year senior safety Kurtis Drummond brings the pain and leads the team in tackles with 33, and is also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two (corner Trae Waynes has two of his own). At 6-foot-1, Waynes will likely match up on Devin Funchess.
Up front, MSU doesn't seem to have a monster in the middle a la Jerel Worthy, as defensive tackle Joel Heath checks in at 277 pounds and nose tackle Lawrence Thomas tips the scales at 280. Does that even matter? No, probably not, as smaller interior linemen have given Michigan problems, even though the interior of Michigan's line is supposedly a tiny better better than it is at the tackle spots.
Basically, Gardner will have to have the best game of his career, probably including a couple of 2012 Sugar Bowl Junior Hemingway-esque touchdowns along the way from Funchess et al. Pretty simple, right?
When the U-M defense is on the field
While the Spartans have previously had the reputation of a team steamrolling a path through the Midwest solely on the back of its defense, that is really no longer the case. The Spartans are 45th in offensive FEI, but rank 21st or better in three of the advanced stat categories.
Quarterback Connor Cook has developed in a way Michigan players (on either side of the ball) simply have not in recent years. Cook has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,641 yards on 9.32 YPA and 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. Pair that with an offensive line that has paved the way for Jeremy Langford to run for 5.3 yards per carry (664 yards, 7 touchdowns), and this is an offense that can get things done.
Then you add a 6-foot-3 playmaker in Tony Lippett (39 receptions, 786 yards, 8 touchdowns), and this is far from your average MSU offense of yesteryear. Tight end Josiah Price is of the lighter variety (238 pounds), but is second on the team in receptions with 15, for 244 yards and four touchdowns.
If Michigan is to have any hope of avoiding the usual "defense holds relatively well for a while, offense struggles, defense eventually collapses" script, the Wolverines will have to stuff the run, a tall task five that Langford has run for 100+ yards in 11 of his last 16 outings (with two of those five games being blowouts against Jacksonville State and Eastern Michigan, and two others in which he racked up 86 against Oregon and 84 against Stanford in the Rose Bowl).
Michigan has been stout against the run (currently 4th in run defense), save for that Minnesota game; if they want to prove that is a real thing and not some fanciful schedule-based that will crumble when exposed to sunlight, they'll have to bring it in this one.
Cook hasn't made many mistakes, mostly because the running game has been so strong and he just doesn't put himself in a position to do so. MSU ranks first in the country in sacks allowed, with four (and without wading through box scores to see, I'd be willing to bet Cook didn't even take all of those, given the blowout nature of most of MSU's game's this season.
When Cook does pass, he'll look to get it out quick. This means it's on Michigan's back seven to simply make the tackles that are there. If 7 turns into 30 and 25 turns into 50 several times, this one is over.
Michigan got to Hackenberg through PSU's leaky offensive line six times in the Big House 12 days ago. A repeat of that performance is unlikely, but if Michigan doesn't get to Cook at all, it will get ugly very fast.
With everything that has happened in recent weeks, the spotlight has, strangely, shifted away from the play on the field, almost to the point that the games are just little Candy Land squares on the way to the Candy Castle, in which Michigan fans will be treated to the sweet treat of a new start. Like Candy Land, the rest of this season is a perfunctory chore.
With that said, this is a weird game, mostly because most Michigan fans have likely come to grips with the final outcome of this Saturday's rivalry game a long time ago. It isn't even a product of the stereotypical Michigan fan pessimism; this time, they're all probably right.
A much better 2011 team went to East Lansing and got thumped. Last year's squad, depressingly a shade or two better than this one, also was run out of the stadium. This year won't be much different.
The MSU defense is not quite as dominant as it has been, but it's still very good, and certainly good enough to throttle a direction-less, somehow not very talented Michigan offense.
Michigan could embark on the standard early game adrenaline-infused drive, probably en route to a missed field goal or something. After that, success will be hard to come by. No running game and a porous offensive line facing an MSU front that does what it does is a recipe for another massive defeat in the rivalry ledger.
Michigan State 34, Michigan 13.