This is the moment that Michigan fans have been anticipating for 12 months.
Last season, Michigan was on the brink of ending its seven-year suffering at the hands of its in-state rival, Michigan State, when all it needed to do was punt the ball away with 10 ticks left on the clock. Instead, you know what happened, and the Spartans pulled off one of the most miraculous last-second wins you will see in college football.
On Saturday, Michigan can avenge that stunning loss. During the summer, many projected the Wolverines would open the 2016 season 7-0 due to a home-heavy slate and relatively soft schedule and have their perfect record first tested by the Spartans. Though Michigan is 7-0 as predicted, the caliber of Michigan’s early opponents has been higher than expected, while Michigan State spiraled down into a five-game losing streak for the first time in over two decades. Therefore, not only do the Wolverines have the chance to improve to 8-0 and exact revenge on Michigan State, they can crush the Spartans’ spirit and all but eliminate their hopes of being bowl-eligible.
Yesterday, Trevor Woods introduced you to Michigan State, and, today, we take an in-depth look at the Spartans by speaking to someone who knows them best. McLain Moberg (@McLainMoberg) is a contributor at The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors), SB Nation’s Michigan State site, and has followed the Spartans throughout the season. McLain agreed to participate in a Q&A during which we asked him why Michigan State has collapsed this season, whether Spartan fans have resigned to the likelihood that Michigan should win significantly on Saturday, to break down various matchups between the Wolverines and Spartans, and offers his prediction as to who will win. We have published his responses to our questions below. Read on for McLain’s insight!
Maize n Brew: From 2013 through 2015, Michigan State was 36-5 (87.8%), captured two Big Ten titles, won two BCS/New Year's Six games, and appeared in the CFP semifinals. The Spartans were at the pinnacle of the college football world. This season, though, they are 2-5 and have lost five straight games for the first time since the 1993-94 seasons. Why has there been such a free fall? And is this a one-year blip or will this be a longer rebuilding project?
McLain Moberg: Right now, the Spartans are clearly not the same team they have been in recent years. I've stated in the past that this is highly due to losing many seniors and other players from last year's team. They lost a total of three starting starting offensive lineman, three defensive lineman among other core pieces on defense including a few linebackers and corners/safeties. The players that are absent from this year's team that seem to be taking a toll on the Spartans are namely quarterback Connor Cook, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. Another reason there has been a free fall is because of Michigan State's inability to land the four and five star recruits. They were changing 2 star recruits such as LeVeon Bell and Darqueze Dennard into extremely talented players. It took that entire 36-5 record, all the accolades that came along with that record to get the four star recruits to come to Michigan State. Right now, the 2017 ESPN Football Class Rankings has the Spartans ranked No. 29. With good recruits coming in, I would not expect this to be a long rebuild for the Spartans at all.
MnB: On a similar note, what is the feeling surrounding Michigan State and its fans heading into this weekend? In recent years, #HateWeek has consisted of intense chatter from both sides of the rivalry, with a heavy dose of disrespect. However, that chatter seems more mellow from East Lansing. Is there a sense of resignation of what will happen given Michigan is a big favorite? Or is this weekend viewed as a chance to salvage the season?
MM: The Spartans have now lost five games in a row. The fans are quiet and rightfully so. There isn't a whole lot to cheer about when your team goes on a five game losing streak, and then the following week you play your rival. The fan base is split, and that includes myself. Some fans feel as though Michigan is a much better football team than the Spartans and will easily cover the spread of three scores or more. While the other side of the spectrum believes that emotions will run high because of the rivalry, which will end with Michigan State rising to the occasion and giving the Wolverines the game of their lives. In my opinion, this weekend is a chance to put a huge bright spot on what has so far been a dark and forgettable season. Should the Spartans win this weekend the players, coaching staff, and fans will all have something proud to hang their hat on at the end of the year.
MnB: Michigan State has shuffled its quarterbacks throughout the season. Tyler O'Connor was the starter in Week 1, Damion Terry received limited reps in the loss to BYU, and Brian Lewerke has opened the past two games against Northwestern and Maryland. The Spartans did not release a depth chart this week, but I will assume Lewerke will get the nod. How would you evaluate his performance this season? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do you think MSU will try to do to be successful against Michigan's top pass defense?
MM: From my view, Brian Lewerke has done very well for being a freshman. He clearly has a lot of potential. The games he has started and played in he has shown good pocket presence, the ability to pick up first downs with his legs, and throwing the ball on the run. All of which he has done quite well for not having very much experience. His biggest weakness is his inexperience and lack of reps with the starters, there are times where he looks really good and drives the team down the field. Where other times he will make careless mistakes such as throwing into bad coverages or holding the ball too long. Those kind of errors are fixed with practice, time and playing in live games. For being a young player I have been impressed but going against the Michigan defense that is still currently No.1 in the nation, my expectations are not extremely high.
MnB: Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has tended to feed the backs and run between the tackles. That continues to be the case this season, particularly on standard downs (17th in run rate per S&P+). However, that success has not been there for the Spartans as they are 71st in Run Offense S&P+ and 79th in yards per carry. Why have they struggled to run the football this season? And what can they do to best Michigan's ferocious run defense?
MM: Michigan State's offensive line has been unable to hold blocks all season, they are currently ranked 44th in tackles for loss allowed and ranked 78th in sacks allowed. While the sacks do not have anything directly to do with their running game, it tells me that this offensive line has an inability to hold blocks for very long. The penetration other teams are getting is disrupting this entire offense, the run game included. Mark Dantonio has stated in the past that a quarterback change was imminent because there was a lack of flow and production from the offense. Well in my opinion, the offensive line is also causing a kink in this offense's production. Michigan State's run game has always been a strength, Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott are tremendously talented and should be performing at a higher level but factors such as line play, lack of production from the Quarterback spot, and three and outs are stunting what this offense can truly do on the ground (the Spartans are currently ranked 88th in 3rd down conversions, only converting them 37.1% of the time, meaning their offense is not on the field long enough to have consistent production).
MnB: One of the biggest surprises of this season has been the docility of Michigan State's defense. For years, the Spartans developed a reputation for being nasty defensively, bringing the pain, and causing chaos. That has been absent. The Spartans are 106th in S&P+s defensive havoc rate, tied for 116th in tackles for loss, and tied for 119th in sacks, even with future first-rounder Malik McDowell. What happened to MSU's front seven?
MM: The bottom line is this front seven has been gutted. Shilique Calhoun was the biggest name they lost, but others such as linebacker Darien Harris, defensive end Joel Heath, and defensive end Lawrence Thomas are huge losses to try and overcome. These guys were all vital pieces to the Spartans success up front. Losing Raequan Williams and Jon Reschke really hurt this team's defense as they were both quality starters and made a good impact. Riley Bullough was also out a few games due to injury, a guy who is thought to be the vocal and emotional leader of this defense. Since then Malik McDowell has been consistently getting double teamed, that has made it difficult for him to have any sort of impact. The other guys on the defensive line like Demetrius Cooper, Kevin Williams, and Brandon Clemens have been unable to get any pressure to opposing teams. Three of the four starters on the defensive line are gone this year, so once again lack of experience and development are a huge contributing factor. These guys haven't seen enough of the field in the last three years to truly be prepared for starter reps this year.
MnB: For the second straight season, Michigan State has had issues in the secondary. Last year, teams were not always able to capitalize, but they have this year. The Spartans are 113th in Pass Defense S&P+, tied for 72nd in YPA allowed, and 90th in defensive passer rating. What have been the biggest red flags of Michigan State's pass defense? And will that unit be able to contain Wilton Speight, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt?
MM: The biggest red flag I see with the pass defense is Demetrious Cox. It is time to give someone else a chance because Cox blows coverages left and right. Last weekend when Maryland quarterback Perry Hills passed for a 36 yard touchdown to D.J. Moore he was wide open just outside of the endzone. After the game Dantonio was asked who blew that coverage and his answer was Cox. Time and time again I have seen Demetrious miss tackles that resulted in big gains, miss coverages that resulted in touchdowns. If it was me I would head in another direction, senior or not he is not performing at a high enough level to keep his job. Out of all the defensive backs he worries me the most and with the receiving core that Michigan has he may very well be exposed again. This unit will be extremely tough to cover, the Spartans are going to need to play their hearts out to keep up with them. That being said, seven games into the season the secondary has given me no indication that they can keep up with a quality offense such as Michigan's.
MnB: For Michigan State to upset Michigan, the Spartans must do the following three things:
MM: The Spartans need to improve upon things I have yet to see a whole lot of production from. In order for an upset to take place in East Lansing this weekend Michigan State must get pressure on Wilton Speight. Which will prove to be difficult considering this team has seven sacks through seven games. While sacks would be nice to have against Michigan I truly do just mean pressure, make Speight have to roll out of the pocket, scramble for first downs, and hurry his throws. If the Spartans can make him uncomfortable while landing a few sacks they will be in good shape. Second, quality production from the offense needs to be had. The Spartans will not win this game if they can't manage to put up an abundance of points. Brian Lewerke needs to be hitting on all cylinders and truly show he has the ability to lead this team down the field for touchdowns, Michigan has been able to score at will this year and Michigan State needs to be able to keep up if the defense continues to break down. Finally, the defense needs to make stops and get off the field on third downs. The defense is allowing teams to convert third downs 46.2% of the time. If they plan on beating Michigan staying fresh and getting off the field on third downs when they can will be a huge contributing factor.
MnB: Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?
MM: Michigan will undoubtedly show why they are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation and remain No. 1 in total defense in the entire nation. I do not foresee Michigan State being able to overcome its many flaws and beat hated rival Michigan. The final score will be 35-14 in favor of the Wolverines.
And that wraps it up! McLain predicts that the Wolverines exit East Lansing with a 21-point win. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with McLain’s response hereinabove? Do not hesitate to post your thoughts in the comments section below!
To end it, we would like to thank McLain for devoting his time to answering our questions. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter for his Michigan State coverage.