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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with The Only Colors

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In the most in-depth Q&A that Maize n Brew has had this season, The Only Colors' Austin Smith discusses the Spartans' lackluster start, their injuries, how MSU will attempt to rattle Jake Rudock, and the disrespect that Michigan State feels yet again. Oh, and a score prediction, of course.

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In one of the most-anticipated meetings between these two in-state rivals in some time, No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0 B1G) will host No. 7 Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 B1G) at Michigan Stadium this Saturday. It's the first time that the Wolverines and the Spartans will face off as AP top-15 teams since 2003. The atmosphere in Ann Arbor should be electric. Fans and alumni will be pouring in from all over the country. College GameDay will be in attendance. And it's not like there's too much on the line: just the pole position for the Big Ten East and national-title-contender status. No biggie.

We at Maize n Brew gave you your first look at Michigan State yesterday, but we initiated a cease-fire with our enemies from The Only Colors -- SB Nation's Michigan State site -- to speak peacefully with a Spartan expert and gain his perspective on this weekend's showdown. His name is Austin Smith, and he certainly was not shy in his responses to our questions as this is easily the most in-depth Q&A we've done this year.

So sit back, relax, and learn what Smith thinks will happen this weekend in Ann Arbor.

Also, here is the Q&A that I did with Austin over at The Only Colors. Check it out!

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Despite a 6-0 record, Michigan State hasn't been very impressive in 2015. What was supposed to be a marquee win against Oregon has lost its luster. MSU was out-gained by Air Force and Central Michigan the next two weeks. And the Spartans followed that up by barely holding onto wins against Big Ten bottom-dwellers Purdue and Rutgers. Yet Michigan State still sits in the top 10 of both the AP (No. 7) and Coaches (No. 4) polls. What does MSU need to do to start resembling a team worthy of its ranking?

As much as I’d like to disagree with this assessment, I can’t. The closest I can come is saying that Oregon is clearly not the same team today as they were when they came to East Lansing. Since then, Vernon Adams has been limited or not played at all, Thomas Tyner has gone down for the year and it’s pretty obvious Jeff Lockie isn’t the answer under center. Also, their defense is REAL bad, but we pretty much knew that. It’s not a strong argument, but also hard to disagree that if Adams was healthy, Oregon would be better than their 3-3 record. Outside of that you nailed it. MSU has yet to put together a complete game and there are plenty of reasons for it.

Entering the season there were questions about secondary depth, the two new starters at linebacker and what effect losing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi would have. Not to mention who would take over for last year's offensive stars in Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery and Jeremy Langford. I would say MSU has actually overachieved on that side of the ball. Connor Cook is having his best year and coming off a career passing night against Rutgers, Aaron Burbridge looks unguardable at times and each member of the LJ Scott, Madre London and Gerald Holmes running back trio has looked more than comfortable. All of this while playing without their projected starting offensive line for basically the entire season.

Defensively it’s another story. With every passing week I put more stock into MSU missing Narduzzi more than I expected. Under him, breakdowns were minimal and the defense rarely repeated mistakes. This year, that isn’t the case. Missed tackles and blown coverages are a weekly occurrence although the former has improved, to the naked eye at least. I’m not in the meetings so I can’t say concretely that there’s a direct correlation but it seems to be the case.

That brings us to the injuries. Have you heard about those? I’m not sure anyone has mentioned them yet. We can talk about how unimpressive MSU has been, but really when you consider that at least 14 expected contributors have either missed or left games with injuries, it starts to make 6-0 – with five of those victories coming against bowl teams from a season ago -- look impressive, not disappointing. They haven't looked like a top 10 team, but they are still undefeated with chances to add impressive wins to their resume and get right back to where everyone expected them to be. It all starts with a win this weekend.

Let's get it out of the way now: Michigan State is injured. You know this. I know this. The entire state knows this. Which injury has had the biggest impact on MSU's season thus far? And which injury will have the biggest impact on MSU against Michigan?

I couldn’t even get through the first question without mentioning them so, yeah, they’ve been the main storyline of this season. Since there so many depressing choices, I’ll give you one for each side of the ball.

On defense, I’m going to go say senior safety RJ Williamson, with cornerback Vayante Copeland as an honorable mention. The initial Copeland injury forced guys like Darian Hicks and Arjen Colquhoun into bigger roles than they should be in, but the one that really undid the ball of yarn was Williamson tearing his bicep. The entire secondary had to be re-organized after that. Demetrious Cox shifted back to safety -- where he has played extensively in the past and is more than capable -- after starting the year as MSU’s top corner while the other starting safety, Montae Nicholson, took over Williamson’s spot. Hicks and Colquhoun, MSU’s nickel and dime corners entering the season, are now starting and behind each secondary starter is a true freshman. Oh, and Hicks left last weeks game and may not play Saturday. It's fine. Everything's fine. /sobs uncontrollably

Offensively, it’s Jack Conklin. Mark Dantonio must have forgotten to sacrifice a goat this year or something because #AMSUOLHG (Angry MSU OLine Hating God) is having his way with the hog mollies. Any time you lose a potential first-round pick it’s a big deal. When it’s your best offensive lineman AND his backup is ALSO out for the season with a broken leg AND your other starting tackle, Kodi Kieer, has only played in two games, you’re probably going to struggle as a group. Luckily, both Conklin and Kieler are expected to play this week, which becomes even more important since starting center Jack Allen may not be able to go Saturday after suffering an ankle injury late last week. (For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t bet against Jack Allen playing. He’s one of the toughest S-O-B’s to ever wear Green and White, and I don’t think he’ll let anything short of an amputation keep him from suiting up against Michigan one last time.)

Regardless of Allen’s status, if Conklin and Kieler are back and relatively healthy, MSU is in significantly better shape up front than they have been since the season opener. In this scenario, sophomore Brian Allen would presumably move to center -- where many feel he is best suited and is expected to take over next season -- and senior Donovan Clark to his more natural position of guard. Add in Benny McGowan at the other guard spot, where he has held his own, and all of a sudden you have, dare I say, an offensive line capable of hanging with Michigan’s stingy front. If Jack Allen plays, all the better, but those two tackles are the keys. Without them, the odds swing heavily towards Michigan.

Connor Cook is having himself a splendid senior season. He has completed 97-of-162 passes (59.9 pct.) for 1,334 yards (8.2 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. Further, he will be the best quarterback that Michigan has faced in 2015 -- by far. What are Cook's strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback? And, if Michigan's excellent defensive line is able to collapse the pocket against what could be an injury-riddled Spartans offensive line, how will Cook perform with pressure in his face?

Cook’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t get rattled. Last week against Rutgers, he was knocked down and hurried all night but managed to have his best game of the season and engineer another game-deciding drive late in the fourth quarter. He has been in every scenario imaginable during his three years as a starter and his experience pays huge dividends in close games. Cook has a mastery of this offense and a great rapport with this group of wideouts and his favorite redzone target, Josiah Price, will also be back for this game.

His biggest weakness would be that he isn’t the most accurate passer in the world. He’s never completed over 60% of his passes in a season and can let some easy ones get away. That said, he plays his best when the pressure is highest and doesn’t let his mistakes get him down. He’s thrown horrendous pick-six’s in both the Rose and Cotton Bowl’s and still managed comebacks in both. His errors are often glaring, but he almost always finds a way to atone for them.

This week, I expect offensive coordinator Dave Warner to help the line out by moving Cook around with a healthy amount of bootlegs and designed rollouts. Cook is an effective runner (just ask Delano Hill) and can take off if given room. Also, with Price returning I’d expect a lot of two tight end looks. Paul Lang and Price are both capable blockers and the line needs all the help it can get moving UM’s stout front off the ball, regardless of who’s playing. If they can keep Cook upright, I think he will have another big game.

Sticking with Michigan State's pass offense, one of the best match-ups will be MSU's Aaron Burbridge against Michigan's Jourdan Lewis. Pro Football Focus has graded Burbridge (34 rec., 560 yards, 4 TD) as the nation's second-best receiver and Lewis as the nation's best corner. Michigan runs lots of one- and two-man under coverage, which means Lewis will be pressed on Burbridge often. Whom do you like to win that match-up? And how will MSU's other receivers perform vs. U-M's talented secondary?

For all the talk about MSU’s soft schedule, UM hasn’t exactly faced a gauntlet of great passing attacks. Oregon State and UNLV look like two of the worst teams in the country, BYU started a freshman under center who was due for a letdown after three miracle performances, Maryland isn’t a bowl team and Northwestern is a run-first unit whose wideouts apparently forgot how to catch. Utah is a very good team, but Michigan lost that game.

More Michigan-MSU Coverage

Don’t get me wrong, Michigan deserves a lot of the acclaim they’re getting. Those wins are impressive because of just how thoroughly they’ve dominated, but if you think they’ve faced a quarterback or group of wideouts nearly as good as Michigan State’s, you’re in for a rude awakening. Go back and watch that Rutgers game (if you dare) and pay attention to the Spartan receivers. Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings Jr. and R.J. Shelton each made incredible catches throughout the game, often against tight coverage. MSU may not have lived up to expectations thus far, but you can’t blame the passing game. UM hasn’t faced a group like the one they’ll see Saturday. I’m definitely not saying they can’t hang with them, but this is their stiffest test by a landslide.

Individually, Burbridge has finally become the star Spartan fans have been waiting for since he came to East Lansing as an uber-recruit. He leads the team in catches, yardage and touchdowns; racking up double the amount of catches and almost 400 more yards than Shelton and Kings Jr., respectively. Lewis has had a very impressive season so far, but Burbridge is going to be a handful.

Jabrill Peppers is an impressive physical specimen who closes down on wideouts as fast as anyone I can remember but, in my observation at least, he can be beaten by savvy, experienced route runners. Assuming he plays his normal spot in the slot, he’ll face three of them this week. I also think the return of Price is a big deal. He’s Cook’s safety blanket, favorite red-zone target and a very solid blocker. Lang and Jamal Lyles have played well in his stead, but Price gives MSU their full complement of weapons and makes them very tough to scheme for.

If MSU is going to win this game, they need a big day out of the passing game. I think the pieces are there to make that happen, but if UM can get pressure and force Cook into some uncharacteristic mistakes it could easily go the other way.

Michigan State loves to run the ball on first down and when it's ahead of the chains. However, the Spartans are only 63rd in yards per carry (4.38) and 105th in Rushing S&P+. Further, L.J. Scott (70 car., 418 yards, 6 TD) was limited against Rutgers, while Madre London (95 car., 399 yards, 3 TD) exited with an ankle injury. What are their statuses? And will the MSU rushing attack move the football against a Michigan front that surrenders the third-fewest yards per carry (2.21) and is fourth in Rushing S&P+?

MSU preferring to run the ball isn’t exactly breaking news; Dantonio teams have always preferred to play this way. Last week they had a couple decent runs but weren’t all that effective because the patchwork offensive line couldn’t get much push. Are you sensing a theme yet?

Madre London is listed on the depth chart, but after leaving last week’s game with an ankle injury I’m not sure he will get a ton of carries in this one, if he plays at all. Despite his injury (I’m getting really tired of using that word) this will be the LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes show, which isn’t a bad thing. Scott possesses a combination of strength and make-you-miss that you don’t find in many true freshman and has been MSU’s best running back. Holmes has made some impressive plays of his own and is in line a bigger workload with London gimpy. Junior Delton Williams may get some touches as well after having his redshirt pulled.

The talent at running back, even down London, is not the issue. The issue is the offensive line. The Spartans need to at least have the threat of a rushing attack to win this game. With a semi-healthy line, they just might be able to do it.

Let's move to the other side of the ball, where, in recent seasons, Michigan State has terrorized Michigan. [has horrid flashback to minus-48 rushing yards] However, MSU's defense has slid back this season. After being in the top 10 in Defensive S&P+ from 2011-13 and No. 22 in 2014, the Spartans are 47th in that category in 2015. This is supported by the fact that MSU is 69th (nice) in yards allowed per play (5.57). How much would attribute this regression to the departure of Pat Narduzzi to Pitt? The loss of Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond in the secondary to the NFL? Injuries?

I’m going to pretend this year has just been MSU playing the long con to get to that coveted 69th spot in yards allowed per play. Yeah, that’s it! This has just been an agonizingly long and stressful joke! EVERYTHING IS FINE YOU GUYS! HAHAHA OH MARK, YOU TRULY ARE A SALTY DOG!

Unfortunately, this is no ruse. The defense isn’t as good as those past units. In RL, those numbers are a function of MSU surrendering a lot of big plays. It’s still a sound defense capable of playing winning football, but the big plays are much more commonplace than in years past.

As I explained earlier, the secondary is entirely different than it was to start the year and it shows up in both the running and passing games. The latter is obvious; there is a lot of inexperienced mid-depth-chart talent playing top-of-the-depth-chart snaps. That’s not ideal. In the past MSU could pull starters who were struggling and roll out talented backups in their third and fourth years in the program. With the injuries, that simply is not an option. MSU has had to stick with guys like Nicholson, who continues to take inexplicable routes to the ball at times, because the alternatives are all true freshman. Grayson Miller has played well in limited reps, so if Nicholson keeps struggling you will likely see him be the first man off the bench.

Teams have also popped a big running play against MSU about once a week and given UM’s scheme, I’d be surprised if that doesn’t happen Saturday. Rutgers’ 72-yard run last week happened because Riley Bullough got tripped up in the wrong gap and Nicholson got too aggressive and overran the play, allowing Paul James to get loose. The linebackers and safeties will need to be at their best if they want to keep Michigan from running up and down the field. The safeties also need to be aware of the play-action. They can’t get lulled to sleep and let Amara Darboh or Jehu Chesson beat them over the top.

Finally, losing Narduzzi is surely having an effect but it’s really hard to tell how big it is when your team is losing contributors left and right. Inexperience has as much to do with the errors as his departure, at this point at least. And yes, it sure would be nice to have Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond (…or Williamson…or Copeland…) back there in the secondary. If everyone was healthy, I don’t think you’d notice their departures as much, but as of today those holes are pretty glaring.

Michigan's offense has had more success running the ball than throwing it through the air. However, the Spartans own a stingier front seven than they do secondary. In fact, MSU's pass defense has been well below-average -- tied for 87th in YPA (7.5) and 82nd in passer rating (132.30). Who will be the Spartans that will lead the charge against Michigan's run offense? And how will Michigan State try to rattle Jake Rudock -- an up-and-down game manager coming off his best performance of 2015?

This will look really stupid if UM blows MSU out of the water, but I actually think the Spartans match-up relatively well against Michigan’s offense. I think every MSU fan would agree with me when I say I would MUCH rather face a run-heavy team than another spread attack.

The Spartans are significantly better at stopping the run than they are the pass. Guess why? The defensive line is actually at 100%! Huzzah! This is another unit that will be easily the best Michigan has faced so far. Northwestern was rated highly, but it's Northwestern. They don’t have guys like Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas lining the two-deep. MSU does. The line has lived up to its preseason billing and will need to continue to do so this week. Michigan’s offensive line is much improved over the past few years (no surprise given the man in charge) but they will be facing their biggest test of the year against this group.

At linebacker, Bullough, Darien Harris and Jon Reschke have each had solid years but my concern is they are not "thumpers". Bullough and Reshcke aren’t afraid to stick their noses in there but they’re each about 230 lbs. Harris is only 220 and main reserve linebacker, Chris Frey, checks in at 235. They aren’t built for old-school football as much as they are speed and coverage. This is beneficial when it comes to sticking with guys like Jake Butt, but it’s a big time concern in the run game, especially since all the Wolverine running backs are all about 230 lbs themselves. Tackling those big backs will be imperative and hasn’t necessarily been a strength of this defense so far. Definitely something to watch for.

If I’m the defensive coordinator (note: I’m not) my gameplan is to make Jake Rudock beat me. With how well Michigan has run the ball, that’s much easier said than done but it’s the only option. I expect them to load the box with eight or nine men, bring lots of A-gap pressure and dare Rudock to try and beat them over the top. With the current state of the secondary, it’s a boom-or-bust strategy but MSU is going to need extra help to keep De’Veon Smith and company from wearing down the front seven. This Michigan offense is built for long sustained drives, not quick strikes, so if MSU can keep their offense in 3rd and 7-ish scenarios by slowing the run game on early downs, the Spartans stand a much better chance to come away with a win. If not, Michigan will control the time of possession and there will be a lot more pressure on Cook and the offense to score quickly. With how good Michigan has been defensively, that is not a situation MSU wants to be in.

Fill in the blank: in order to beat Michigan, Michigan State must _______________?

Minimize mistakes in all three phases.

The offense is the least of my worries. Cook has won so many big games and thrives when under pressure. The key is to keep him upright. It is difficult to overstate just how big having Allen (maybe), Conklin, Kieler and Price out there would be for MSU. If this offense is close to full-go and can play turnover-free football they should be able to score enough to win.

Defensively, it’s more difficult. The linebackers and secondary need to be on the same page because run support is going to be critical. Again, I expect them to load the box and bring a lot of heat but if they miss too many tackles this game is going to end poorly for MSU. I’ll take a Cook/Rudock showdown every day of the week, but for all Rudock’s flaws he’s still an experienced quarterback who can make plays when he has to. The secondary just can’t make it easy for him.

Finally, special teams. This is the area that scares the daylights out of me, as MSU has been horrible on special teams for most of the season. The coverage units have quietly improved and did a nice job on Janarian Grant last week, but they have allowed multiple return touchdowns this year. If they give up one of those, the Big House will go bonkers and they might be in deep trouble. The punting situation started out fine, but Jake Hartbarger has shanked one each of the last two weeks, and long snapper Taybor Pepper has a case of the yips all of a sudden. UM’s offense isn’t built for huge chunk plays, so making them to execute 8-10 play drives spanning the length of the field will be key. That brings us to the adventure that is the Michael Geiger experience. Last week, he managed to bank in a 30-yarder but shanked one from 35, making him 5 for 9 on the season. Honestly, I was surprised when I saw he’s made that many. MSU can’t afford to leave any points on the board, so Geiger will need to hit when called upon. Boy, that was a disheartening paragraph.

Unlike a surprising amount of the fan base, I believe Michigan State can win this game. But make no mistake about it (puns!) they will need to play smart, sound, relatively mistake-free football in order to do so.

This is not the match-up that either Michigan or Michigan State fans expected in the preseason. It was presumed that the Spartans would be a heavy favorite in this game given MSU's success in the past five seasons and that U-M was a miserable 5-7 in 2014. This was supposed to be a season in which the Spartans would contend for a national title while Jim Harbaugh would begin the rebuilding process in Ann Arbor. However, Harbaugh expedited the rebuilding process to just one offseason, and Michigan State has limped through 2015. As a result, the Wolverines are a touchdown favorite. What will be the feeling in East Lansing if Harbaugh and the Wolverines spoil what was supposed to -- and still very well could -- be a dream season for Michigan State?

It wouldn’t be great! But I imagine if Dantonio comes in and beats Michigan for the seventh time in eight years, the mood in Ann Arbor won’t be very positive either.

Prediction time. Does Michigan State continue its recent superiority in the rivalry and win its seventh game in the last eight years against Michigan? Or does Jim Harbaugh become the first first-year Michigan coach to beat MSU since 1948? What's the score?

The stakes have not been this high in a Michigan-Michigan State game in ages and this could be a classic. For MSU, there have been stretches where you can see why they were picked my many to make the playoffs, but they have not yet been able to execute for an entire game. They face their biggest challenge this weekend and will need to play their best game of the season in order to win.

So far, this season has been about survival. This week, it’s about something more. More than beating a bitter rival. More than keeping Big Ten championship and playoff dreams alive. More than reminding everyone that there’s another program in the state whose coach’s name doesn’t end in "baugh" (or D’Antoni, for that matter). It’s about respect.

I realize most think the "chip on the shoulder" angle is played out for Michigan State but this week I couldn’t disagree more.

Think about this: the Spartans are a 6-0 team ranked in the top 10 despite being having the most "Murphy’s Law" season of the Dantonio era. They have a senior quarterback playing as well as anyone in the nation and the best coach in program history at the helm. But instead of being applauded for winning close games and fighting through adversity, they are openly written off as a fraud by pretty much every local and national pundit you can find. Despite all of their past success, despite winning 32 of their last 35 games, despite dominating this series for the better part of the last decade, Michigan State finds themselves touchdown underdogs and, once again, in Michigan’s shadow.

Now, I ask you: if you are a Spartan, how do you not have a chip on your shoulder?

MSU’s experience in close games on big stages will make the difference in this one. Connor Cook plays the game of his life, leading another late touchdown drive for the win and it's Michigan’s dream season that ends Saturday, not Michigan State’s.

Michigan State 24, Michigan 20. Go Green.

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Thank you to Austin for devoting time to share his extensive insight on Michigan State and this weekend's monumental match-up. You can follow Austin on Twitter here.