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MnB Roundtable Asks Sparty to Be Gentle

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There's a Michigan football game this week, but it's not going to be fun.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are, back to that feeling of dread ahead of a Michigan game. What's Michigan's plan of attack going to be to go up against a -- pains me to say it -- faster, more-experienced team in East Lansing?

John: Play smart but mildly conservative on offense and make plays on defense. If Gardner can avoid turnovers, maybe make a few plays with his feet and just make solid decisions throughout the game Michigan can finally end the no-touchdowns-against-Sparty that is over 1,000 days now. On the defensive side I think Michigan can hang with the Sparty offense. Cook is a solid QB but Michigan should be able to handle him as long as the defense can stay home and avoid big mistakes. The #1 goal this week should be to keep this game in the teens.

Peter: John's correct--conservative is the way to go. If Michigan tries to open things up too much, I feel that they'll get blasted worse than they will with a conservative game plan. However! if MSU starts to open it up themselves, then I think Hoke and Nussmeier should say f***k it, and go all Lane Kiffin and try 72 yard field goals, two point conversions on any score, and go down in a blaze of "glory".

Atticus: Hmm, I'm also leaning toward a conservative philosophy, but unfortunately, with the way MSU is built, being ‘conservative through aggression' may be the only way to make gains in the field position battle. This MSU defense held Ameer Abdullah to under 50 yards rushing - and without a single 10-yard gain - but the secondary can get crossed up occasionally. I've been calling for more of the tailbacks for a while, but if it isn't working out there on Saturday, I think you have to go to a lot of 3-yard throwing gains and the occasional deep ball. There will probably be a spy for Devin Gardner, so I think you counteract that with a lot of short passes to the perimeter to move the chains. Get those corners cheating up, then hopefully blow by them deep.

Zach: As much as we all like to joke about it, Michigan State isn't invincible and Michigan isn't totally incompetent. Michigan isn't going to win this game on the ground, but if it can get a handful of positive rushing plays - likely from Gardner - and make use of field position, it will go a long way toward helping Michigan win. Take last year's game, where Michigan was thoroughly shut down but still somehow in the game until late. Michigan's defense is good enough to keep it close. Michigan's offense just needs to cobble together enough to let luck come into play.

Then Michigan just needs to pick up its first lucky bounce since 2011.

Kevin: Lucky bounces have been few and far between. I think if Michigan stays in it for the first half, there's a chance. If they get down by multiple scores quickly, forget about a comeback. The defense is going to have to win the game, since the offense basically runs around in circles with its hair on fire.

Zooby: As much as I would like to see Michigan shake things up to catch Sparty off guard, I don't think we can trust the youth on offense. I want to see Michigan get back to utilizing their best weapon, Funchess, but I imagine he'll be a focus of MSU's defense. I expect for blitzing from MSU so I want Gardner to be quick and decisive with his decision making. Win the turnover battle and maybe, just maybe, the Maize and Blue have a fighting shot. Looks like the weather won't be an issue as the forecast is a perfect Fall afternoon. Michigan has started to show some fight the last couple of weeks, and I'm hoping that continues.

Drew: Michigan needs to make Michigan State one-dimensional offensively. The Spartans have been productive on the ground this season -- their 5.45 yards per carry are 21st nationally -- but have yet to face a run defense as stingy as Michigan's. According to S&P+, the toughest run defense MSU has opposed is Oregon (#40), whereas Michigan is ranked #6. If Michigan can keep Jeremy Langford and co. stuck in neutral, the Spartans will need to rely on Connor Cook's arm to put up points. This is not nearly as daunting of a task for Michigan State as it used to be, but it makes the outcome of the game more volatile, which could give Michigan a chance if Cook is inaccurate or Michigan's defensive line can somehow break through one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines in the nation and pressure Cook.

Of course, Michigan then needs to find a way to score, which I have little to no confidence in them to do. Michigan State's defense is not elite like it has been the past two seasons, especially in the secondary, but Michigan's offense is much worse. Don't expect De'Veon Smith or Justice Hayes to experience success. MSU's run defense is similar to Penn State's, and the Spartans' defensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage. Michigan's best chance is to spread it out and hit quick passes into the flats before pressure can get to Devin Gardner. Then, once MSU's safeties begin to creep down, try to explode for a big play to Devin Funchess.

Will this happen? Very likely not. The only way I see Michigan somehow pulling of this upset is to hold Michigan State to fewer than 14 points. If the Spartans begin scoring points with ease, I do not see any way the Wolverines will be able to keep pace. This needs to be a dogfight.

Why have MSU and Michigan's programs become so vastly different (aside from the obvious: coaching stability) in terms of player development and success on the field?

John: To be honest I don't think there is anything other than coaching separating these two schools. College Football is more about coaching than perhaps any other sport and MSU has had one of the better coaches in the conference, and lately the country, for the better part of a decade while Michigan has sputtered with Rich Rod and Brady Hoke. If you don't have a good coach to develop talent you don't have a good college football team.

Peter: I'm going to steal John's answer again. It's the coaching. Obviously Michigan has the talent, but when you're changing coaches and philosophies as often as Michigan has, it sort of works against the talent. You can get around some of that with a good coach, but the Wolverines don't have a good coach. So, sorry, Kevin--I'm not sure if there is an answer other than the coaching staff. Short of Devin Gardner going out there and dismissing what has been called, I'm not sure what can change with this team.

Kevin: It does seem like a program stuck in reverse. Dantonio knows how to extract talent out of his players, which is what Michigan used to be exceptional at.

Zach: I think hubris has held Michigan's program back. All the talk of playing "Michigan football" tends to create a xenophobic approach to the game that often leads to the program cutting off its nose to spite its face. It isn't that Michigan refuses to be a spread team or anything like that; it is that Michigan refuses to acknowledge that 20 years of strategic development have happened since the era the people in charge want to recreate. On the small scale this is a coaching issue, but it is also a larger scale issue that led to the Hoke hire and has caused the athletic department to thumb its nose at the current reality of college football as Michigan has fallen behind.

Atticus: Yeah, well said. If you have big tailbacks, have a bruising offensive line so they can bowl over the linebackers and wear the defense down. If you have slower receivers, have a quarterback with precision, game management and good vision, because those are going to be a lot of contested jump balls and you have to make the right throw based on the situation.

But I don't think schematics really gets at why we've gotten so far apart. I think MSU's coaches understand how to get through to their players. They're undoubtedly great at scouting, but maybe it just comes down to finding kids with heart. They're obviously great tacticians, as they do things on defense that other programs around the country want to copy. But if they didn't have those things, they'd still be near where they are because they pull undiscovered kids out of Ohio and Georgia and Michigan and really educate them about the game and show them how to prepare and motivate them to execute the coaches' vision. Hoke is an old-fashioned person, and for all the cuteness of it I think that's hurt him in more ways than one.

Zooby: I completely agree with what Zach said. While coaching is an obvious difference, this more of a difference in the cultural environment for the athletic department. I'm not satisfied if Hoke is gone next season, if that means Dave Brandon is making the choice and still in charge as AD. A new AD, new coach and complete cleaning house is the way to go.

Drew: One part of player development is providing them with the proper strength and conditioning training and teaching them proper technique. Another part is to then evaluate what your players do best and put them in a scheme that allows them to flourish. Michigan State has done that. Michigan has not. Michigan could have one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in Devin Gardner, but Michigan's been intent on not calling designed or read-option runs for him. Michigan may want to limit the hits he takes, but they've robbed him of one of his best skills.

And, then, look at the defense. The shift from a 4-3 Under with soft zone to 4-3 Over with man press has removed Blake Countess and Jake Ryan -- two of Michigan's best playmakers in 2012 and 2013 -- from positions where they succeeded. Countess has been relegated to nickel duty because he can't jam receivers, and Ryan has been moved to the middler where he no longer can attack off the edge -- his greatest talent. There are other coaching issues Michigan is suffering from, most of which have been addressed above, but Michigan not putting its players in a position to success and showcase their talents is one of the biggest ones.

Let's play analyst. Three keys to a Michigan miracle, and final score guess. Go!

John: 1. No picks 2. Stay home on defense 3. Keep it in the teens. It's all obvious stuff but any big plays by the Sparty Defense or Offense could kill Michigan as even a 10 point deficit could seem impossible to overcome. However this is not the Spartan defense of last year, it's vulnerable. If Michigan plays well on offense 17 to 21 points isn't unreasonable and a strong showing by the Michigan defense could make it a ball game. Will this happen I don't know, so I have two predictions. If Michigan does all those three things then I pick Michigan 21 Michigan State 17, but I'm a realist. Give me Michigan State 51 Michigan 13.

Peter: 1. No turnovers. 2. No turnovers. 3. Convert on 3rd-and-short. That last one is really key; if Michigan can convert a couple of short third downs (seriously, keep ‘em short), that means sustained drives. Sustained drives means fewer scoring chances for Michigan State. If Michigan can hold Sparty to eight or nine drives, the score will be somewhere around 49-14 in favor of MSU. If Michigan can't sustain drives, it's going to be an even longer day.

Atticus: I'd mentioned plenty of throws to the flat - seriously, how is anyone going to stop Devin Funchess from getting five yards on an inside slant? On defense, discipline in the run game and athleticism from our linebackers, keeping MSU in 3rd and long situations. That might give Mattison a chance to blitz consistently and force Cook into a few bad throws.

And finally, it's pretty common for one team to come out with something they haven't shown yet all season and completely change momentum. If this offense can play tempo, it will help to neutralize a defensive line that is scarier than Ohio State, Iowa, or anybody else we will face this season. Do short throws, move the chains, don't let them substitute, and then throw in some runs between the tackles. Eventually, something might cave. Get Marcus Rush, Shilique Calhoun, and Malik McDowell worn out. Play four quarters.

Zach: win the turnover battle, win field position, and keep the ground game even.

Football is stupid simple like that. The best teams are going to win more opportunities for the offense, start in better position, and control the running game. Michigan can absolutely accomplish the first two, and holding MSU to under 100 yards on the ground would be a good way to mitigate the damage MSU's front line is going to do to Michigan's run game.

Zoob: Convert on third down, stay positive in the turnover margin and don't rush repeatedly on first down to set up 2nd and 3rd down issues with long rates to cover. Get success on first down, get some momentum and utilize that to keep going.

Kevin: Positive turnover margin, limit the sacks, and DOWNFIELD PASSES GOOD LORD.

Drew: 1. Shut down Jeremy Langford and MSU's rushing attack. 2. Pressure Connor Cook consistently. 3. Win the field position battle with the help of a positive turnover margin and no special teams blunders. Does it happen? No. Michigan State 31, Michigan 7.

The UM-MSU matchup is the sandwich game this week. What are you watching before and after around college football?

Kevin: Primetime Pac-12 football is back again with USC traveling to Utah at 10:00pm. Utah has only gotten better since beating Michigan, and has a real chance to win their division. And it's always fun to watch USC melt down and bask in the carnage their fans create afterward. Wanting Sarkeesian gone after one season is quite the overreaction.

Depending on how MSU-Michigan goes, I suggest flipping to West Virginia-Oklahoma State, because all of WVU's Big 12 games have been bonkers. Clint Trickett throws for hundreds of yards a game and Kevin White catches anything thrown near him.

John: Well before I'll be checking out Minnesota at Illinois. At 6-1 Minnesota has a chance for a great season but it will hinge on them winning trap games like this. After the game I'll be watching Game 4 of the World Series as I look to complete my time on the Royals Bandwagon. I'll also be watching Ole Miss take on LSU to see if Ole Miss is for real or not.

Peter: You guys know that my answer is going to be Minnesota. Ski-U-Mah! I've been so excited for this season, and I think the Gophers learned their lesson after how they played against Purdue last weekend; Illinois will not be a trap game. I'll probably watch a little bit of the USC/Utah game, too, but I'm disappointed that Wyoming/Colorado State won't be on TV. Seriously. I love the state of Wyoming, and there's something about that team I like to watch, regardless of how good or bad they happen to be.

Kevin: I did know your answer was going to be Minnesota, and I'm OK with that.

Zoob: I actually have to go to a wedding this weekend, so I'm going to miss pretty much all of the college football action. I set the list of games to watch in my College Football Preview Guide piece. I think the Ole Miss vs. LSU game will be more hype than substance, cause ‘College Gameday' will be there. The game to watch, if I was able to watch, would be the later game, USC at UTAH. Two Top 20 teams and the 10 o'clock kickoff could be the recipe to forget the Paul Bunyan game earlier in the day.

Drew: This week reminds me of some of the non-conference slates we had earlier this year: not-as-boring-as-you-may-think Big Ten games at noon with some very intriguing night games. We'll all get our Big Ten fix at noon with Nebraska-Rutgers, Minnesota-Illinois, and Maryland-Wisconsin, but I'll be more focused on the games kicking off after we are no longer forced to watch Michigan-MSU. Can Ole Miss survive Death Valley? Will Penn State rise up for its White Out against Ohio State? And what craziness will ensue in the Pac-12 with Utah-USC, Arizona State-Washington, and Arizona-Washington State? Should be fun.

Bonus Q this week: Think back to a happier time, when Michigan could regularly beat Sparty. What're some endearing moments, be they from wins or losses? Memorable run-ins with MSU fans?

John: How about some happy times with Basketball? I entered Michigan as a freshman in 2011, when Trey Burke was just some kid on the roster. When I told my Spartan Alumni Aunt and Uncle that I had basketball tickets they laughed at me, yet I saw Michigan beat Sparty and Ohio State on the way to a Big Ten Title. The next year they again mocked my basketball optimism as they claimed Sparty would return to dominance. But then we beat them on the way to the Final Four. Would this teach them? Nope. Next season all they talked about was how Stauskas and Walton were overrated and could never score against an "All-Time Team" like Michigan State. And then we beat them twice. And won the Big Ten. And HaHaHaHa. Don't worry Michigan fans, basketball will be here soon.

Peter: Oh, man, my memory for this stuff is so bad! But, the one thing I will never forget is Woodson's one-handed interception back in ‘97. To this day I'm not sure I've seen anyone jump that high in a football game. As for run-ins with MSU fans, I've never really had any troubles. However, my in-laws are State fans and they don't like me, so most of the obnoxious fans I run into are a part of the family. I'm comfortable saying that since I know they won't be reading this.

Atticus: That was strange. I almost saw ‘endearing' and ‘MSU fans' in the same sentence. I think I need to get some sleep.

Zooby: Woodson's INT and the Braylon TD catch in OT are the two moments that come to mind. Ironically, I had tickets to the Michigan/MSU game that ended up going to overtimes. My buddy and I sold our tickets because we had people coming to AA and had to entertain them, etc. The profit from selling the tickets was nice, but missing out on being there for a classic game sticks in my mind. NEVER AGAIN.

Kevin: I think that was Woodson's most spectacular play of his career, and it wasn't even in his Heisman year, Peter, that was 1996. I hadn't yet become a Michigan student, but I was at the 2004 triple overtime game. Michigan should've won that game anyway because they were better, but because it was such a Spartan meltdown, it was a game for the ages. A very loyal Spartan fan who bought that same seat each time the game was in Ann Arbor always sat behind us, and he was in an understandably good mood for much of that game. I distinctly recall him shouting "We got 'em now!" When MSU went ahead by three scores. Then the tide turned, and he got quieter and quieter.

I made a point to peek at him after the final overtime, and his face was ghost-white.

Drew: I think most Michigan fans would list Charles Woodson's one-handed interception -- the greatest interception I've ever seen -- and Braylonfest as No. 1 and No. 2 in some order. However, because I was not raised as a Michigan fan and did not enroll at the university until 2007, these are only retroactive Michigan memories for me, if that makes sense.

So my favorite Michigan football memory versus MSU was in 2007 when I was a freshman at Michigan. I watched it in my dorm (Baits II, represent!), and, when MSU took a 10-point lead with 7:40 left, my friends and I couldn't believe Michigan was going to let this slip away. But the hobbled Chad Henne reemerged and unleashed throws that made my jaw drop. Everyone recalls the 31-yard touchdown to Mario Manningham in the corner because it was the game-winner, but the touchdown to Greg Mathews a few minutes earlier was a perfect dime. And, once the comeback was complete, all of Baits II exploded into a frenzy and we celebrated into the night in a similar fashion to Henne's exit from Spartan Stadium.