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Michigan Football’s Six Biggest Questions: MSU Edition

U-M is 7-0 and rolling. MSU is ... not. But what does that mean in a rivalry week?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

You know, when I started writing the “six biggest questions” pieces on Michigan football, it was because there were six major questions to address. I also liked the format, too - something about it worked, so I stuck with it.

As Harbaugh started doing his magic, the ‘major’ concerns started shrinking. Four, then down to two - the offensive line and the linebackers. What are Michigan’s biggest concerns now? How soon will Speight turn into a demon-murdering All-American force of nature? Will our second-best defender win the Heisman? Is our third-ranked offense maybe only the tenth-best offense in all the land? I mean, dang. That’s not a lot to work with when it comes to ‘actual concerns.’

But, we are playing Sparty this week, and that game has some interesting questions on its own level. So I decided to resurrect this column back from the dead, in just a slightly different way than I used it before. Without further ado, here are the biggest questions about Michigan-Michigan State on Saturday:

#6. How will a young Michigan State team manage their emotions?

Honestly, this will be fascinating from both a short-term and long-term perspective. If you’re Mark Dantonio, you have to keep this team believing in itself. That’s his #1 job on Saturday and throughout all of the rest of the season.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Nowhere is this more true than at signal-caller. Over the last couple games, Dantonio has turned to a redshirt freshman quarterback, Brian Lewerke, a 6’3”, 202-pound QB who is a genuine threat to run the ball: 6.9-yard average, 125 yards on the year. The downside, though: I’m not sure he has the arm strength to really challenge U-M’s DBs.

Dantonio hasn’t said who will get the start on Saturday - the staid senior Tyler O’Connor, who started the first 5 games, or Lewerke - but the odds seem to be in the freshman’s favor. And that will make his self-admitted nerves and gutty competitiveness a storyline of this game.

#5. How will their linebackers handle the thunder and lightning of Michigan’s run game?

Michigan is pretty darn good at running the ball. But all of Michigan’s guys still feel they have something to prove. All of them feel they can perform a little better, do a little more, make a bigger play.

What’s even scarier from Michigan State’s point of view: they’ll have to contain both the big (Ty Isaac, De’Veon Smith) and the small (Karan Higdon, Chris Evans if he’s ready to play) of Michigan’s rushing attack. This is a spectacular challenge for any defense, particularly if these guys really are getting better every week.

What’s even scarier from Michigan State’s point of view: their linebackers have been a bit of a trainwreck, to be honest. Overly aggressive, leading to big gains, not physically imposing enough, not sure tacklers. They look like they’re playing in spring football, and it’s late October.

So, not sure how to handle that one. Good luck.

#4. Can Mark Dantonio find some way to confuse Wilton Speight?

Again, I’m not really sure what Dantonio can do - MSU only has 5 interceptions on the year, which ranks them 78th in the country, but there is some athleticism and experience to work with here. If Michigan State does get aggressive on their routes, hoping to connect on a major blow, Michigan’s coaches will certainly have something cooked up to counter.

Dustin Johnson, Maize ‘n’ Brew

#3. Does the rivalry give them any kind of X-factor?

Fans have talked about this one a lot. It’s the vague ‘what if,’ and on some level, you’ve got to respect what a rivalry game can do on both sides. Michigan and Ohio State are great examples of teams that give each other hell even if they’re not doing well otherwise.

Still, I’m firmly of the mind that any rivalry X-factor will belong to Michigan in this game. They’re likely going to be the angrier ball club, they’ll be more motivated and better organized; heck, the fans will even be invading the stadium, meaning chants of “Doooom” will be heard whenever #13 gets the ball. Yes, Michigan is literally trying to invade the stadium to make it a soft home game.

As for Michigan’s players, I’m not sure that anything will throw them off from attacking Michigan State all game long. If Sparty gets a first down, or a touchdown, that might only make Michigan angrier.

And the Spartans haven’t quite come to grips with any of this yet to be able to regroup. I don’t see a lot of vague what if’s going in Sparty’s way.

#2. How well does Michigan play on the road?

This is a more tangible concern. Of course, the main culprit of Michigan’s once-vexing problems - Brady Hoke - is out of town. Plus, it’s also likely that the U-M freshmen who play in this game will be feeding off of positive energy rather than negative energy, despite it being in Spartan Stadium.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan
Not much of a home-field advantage: MSU has scored 22.0 points a game at home, along with 342 yards per game - both less than they average on the road. Michigan is averaging a curious 78.0 points and 600 yards on the road - both higher than average.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, it’s a little stale to say Michigan hasn’t proven themselves on the road, even though it’s technically true. But this game will be something valuable for Michigan’s players - going into a foreign stadium and feeling like it’s yours to own is a good addition to their season and their psyche. So, how they handle this will be important.

#1. Will MSU’s offensive line show tangible improvement?

Various Spartan players can talk about “motivation” all they want; it won’t do much good if the offensive line isn’t playing well. And as much as anything else, that has been the problem with Sparty’s season.

Over the first six games, Michigan State’s running game was downright anemic: 817 yards, 3.8 per carry, 6 touchdowns. Last week against Maryland, the running game finally found its rhythm, with 44 carries, 270 yards, and 2 scores. This was a critical step for them, because when they couldn’t run, they had to pass, and that did not suit anybody’s skill set.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State
LG Benny McGowan (6’3”, 333) has good strength, but he lacks speed and smoothness out in space. He’s backed up by a solid redshirt freshman, Tyler Higby.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The inability to run the ball came from poor technique, lack of comfort with one another up front, and ultimately the inability for anyone to manhandle their assignment, make it to the second level, and pop a linebacker for a big gain. Physically, though, they’re better at attacking defensive linemen with their strength and only settling into pass coverage periodically. That’s their skill set, if only they can get their technique down.

Now that they’re finally getting a little better at running the ball, this opens up some options for them this season - but there’s still the matter of executing against U-M. It should go without saying that the Michigan defensive line and blitz package led by Don Brown will be a different beast than anything Durkin or the Terps could cook up. And it will be a very different challenge for these linemen who are still a bit of a sore spot for this team.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Michigan State
C Brian Allen (6’2”, 304) is one of the only returning starters on this line and one of Dantonio’s most trusted linemen, but his skill level has never quite matched his experience.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

But Dantonio’s salvaging hope comes from the guys up front. If Michigan State is going to stay in this game, it will come from controlling the clock, handing off to L.J. Scott who can potentially break some tackles against Michigan’s linebackers or at least get numerous 3-yard gains, and give whoever is in at quarterback another split second or two to react and make plays. All of that starts with their offensive line.

So, while it may not be the matchup that gets all the headlines after the game, the battle between MSU’s OL against Michigan’s DL will determine how much of a chance Sparty has.