(Head over to TOC to check out my Q&A with Chris, and be sure to give those guys a visit often -- its one of the best Big Ten blogs on the interwebs)
The story of Michigan State's season thus far isn't the defense -- which is still very good -- but the offense, which has taken a huge step back in the absence of basically all of last year's passing attack. The total offense is 80th in the country and the scoring offense is 102nd. I've heard a lot of blame thrown around (Maxwell, Roushar, the receivers, the line), but do your best to explain just what ails this unit, and what needs to happen for things to turn around.
It's really hard to explain what's gone wrong, because everything has gone wrong. Coming into the season the coaches and players hyped up that Maxwell wouldn't be much of a drop off from Cousins, the receivers were young, but very explosive, and the offense line was going to be the best in the Mark Dantonio era. They put up some good numbers over the first two games, picking up a win over a good Boise State and a road win at Central Michigan.
But then RT Fou Fonoti went down with an injury before Notre Dame, and the drops started coming in waves from the receivers. It was the same story the next two weeks, with center Travis Jackson going down for the season against Ohio State. They couldn't block and they couldn't catch. That's going to affect your playcalling for sure. It all culminated in last week's mess against Iowa. The receivers can't get open. That probably falls on the receivers, Dan Roushar, Maxwell and the offensive line.
To turn it around? There needs to be some confidence. Yeah, Indiana's defense is bad, but it was the only time since the CMU win that things looked like they were going right. You could feel the confidence growing as the second half went along. MSU needs to get off to a good start on offense and get some confidence. Because there's none right now. That doesn't mean score a TD on the first drive. But pick up a couple first downs. Don't go three-and-out, or else the "here we go again" feeling will be right back there. There's too much going wrong to say one aspect will fix things. It collectively needs to get some confidence early in Ann Arbor. When one thing goes right, the rest of it seems to follow, as infrequent that has been.
Lost in the ineptitude of MSU's offense is that the defense is nearly as good as last year. The Spartans are the best run, total, and scoring defense in the conference and have only given up more than 20 points once (Indiana two weeks ago). However, that Indiana game has to be worrisome, as does the ten points that Iowa was able to score down the stretch a week ago to force overtime. Is this defense as good as last year's? What are its weaknesses, if any?
The defense is not as good as last year, no, although the yardage/scoring numbers are a bit better against a clearly inferior base of opponents up to this point. But I am one of the people who believes they're getting a little bit more heat than they should. The sack numbers are down, but you can't ask much more out of the group. The only issue is that they blew second-half leads against Ohio State and Iowa. It's fair to criticize them for that, but they're under a heavy amount of pressure each game because the offense just does nothing.
Giving up 250 yards or 13 points in regulation should win you a game almost every time. If the offense is just in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten, there isn't as much heat on the defense.
As for their weaknesses, they've been getting beat deep a surprising amount of times. The biggest culprit of this Johnny Adams, whose draft stock continues to tumble. But it's not the defensive backs are playing THAT much different. It's the same scheme as last year, which is based on leaving man-to-man coverage on the outside and pressuring the quarterback. The pressure isn't getting there, so the cornerbacks are being victimized. Denard Robinson is going to get a few bombs off in this one, and the corners are going to need to make some plays.
MSU also was destroyed by Indiana screen passes. They made halftime adjustments and snuffed them out, but if Al Borges decides to use some bubble screens, they'll probably be effective.
LeVeon Bell is a bad, bad man. I watched him make pretty much all of Boise State's defense look like over-matched middle schoolers called up to varsity in the season opener, and he is still sixth nationally in yards despite having no passing attack to force defenses to respect a threat other than him. Michigan's defense has just come off three straight games of holding BCS conference teams to less than 115 yards. Can Bell do enough to carry the offense in this one? Does Michigan's rush defense scare you at all?
He's not going to be able to carry MSU to a win on his own. He's a running back who succeeds with enough competent blocking. The problem is that MSU hasn't gotten that against consistently. He ran well against Boise State and Iowa, but was stuffed by Notre Dame and Ohio State. The gameplan against is pretty simple: stack the box and dare MSU's passing game to beat you. It's not as much about the defensive line as it is the linebackers.
Bell isn't a running back who hits the hole up the gut. He's most effective on stretch plays to the outside and reading his blocks. If U-M's linebackers can go side-to-side and shed blocks, they'll get to Bell. Bringing him down is another story. Bad opponents or not, it's clear U-M's defense has stepped it up in recent weeks, and this is a major concern for MSU. They're not going to win with the passing game. They have to run the ball, and it's going to take a monster effort from MSU's offensive line.
The Spartans have had very good results containing Denard Robinson over the past two meetings, and with the Michigan offense looking to be cut from the same cloth (lots of Robinson runs, an inconsistent passing game, and little production from the rest of the backfield) do you think that trend continues again this year? What kinds of ways do you expect the MSU defense to attack Robinson this time around?
Run-first quarterbacks have typically been stuffed by MSU's defense, but Braxton Miller's performance was a real eye-opener for me. Miller had 23 carries for 136 yards, and the Spartans did a terrible job of containing him. Miller consistently bounced runs to the outside (even though it was quite obvious entering the game that's what he does every single time). William Gholston particularly had a rough time. (How much that was due to getting "the wind knocked out of him," I don't know). Marcus Rush has certainly been better at contain this season.
Miller is definitely a different type of runner than Robinson (more shifts, less straight bursts of speed), but I am actually worried about MSU's ability to contain him. I didn't think I'd be saying that entering this season. Without Jerel Worthy there to break down a play quickly, MSU's pass rush has been slow developing, so expect more blitzing again. It's certainly going to be a different schedule/set of blitzes than last year (you guys have to call a bubble screen, eventually, right?).
But overall, yeah, I don't expect the gameplan to be much different than in the past, because U-M's offense is no different than the past. They're not going to key on Fitzgerald Toussaint like Purdue did. All the focus is going to be on Denard. He's going to need to either make some throws or elude a bunch of rushers. I do give him a better chance than the last two years.
If Michigan State wins, what are the three things the Spartans will have to do to get there?
The first is going to be running the ball consistently, which is painfully obvious. Bell needs to pick up four to five yards a pop every time, and some end-arounds with Keith Mumphrey could be thrown in like they were against Iowa. It's been beaten into our brains that the team that runs the ball better wins this rivalry, but aside from that, it's the only way MSU can get into its offense. MSU has had success in the play-action game, even if they don't do it much.
They need to keep the big plays allowed to a minimum. I said it above, but Robinson is going to to have a few armpunt attempts in this one. Who will come down with the ball? I don't know. If the Wolverines come down with them, it might be enough on offense for the win. Despite the struggles against Miller, MSU still doesn't allow any huge pickups from running quarterbacks. Robinson has been known for his 70-yard runs against inferior defenses, and MSU will need to prevent this again.
I mentioned it above with the offense, but MSU needs to get off to a quick start. If MSU falls behind 14-0 early, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Spartans fold up their tent. This a fragile team right now, and they need a reason to believe. Getting an early score on offense would go a long way to keeping the confidence high for the rest of the game. There's going to be a lot of energy early in this one, and it needs to result in something positive, or at least not negative, for the Spartans.
Give me your final score prediction and your general feeling about the game. How close is it, is there any chance it turns into a bit of a shootout (i.e. both teams scoring in the 20s), and has MSU been sitting on enough offensively to show serious improvement this week and catch Michigan's defense off guard?
I'm not going to cop out, but I have no idea how this is going to go. MSU could come out flat and fall apart, like I mentioned above. They also might find a rallying point and take this down to the end and win. If I have to pick one, I see the former happening, as MSU has been terrible in the start of games, typically. Would I be surprised by an MSU win? Not exactly, but I'd be much less surprised by a dud from MSU. The Spartan D won't let it be a rout, but I'll say U-M gets a couple scores early, and MSU's offense doesn't get anything going. Stopping MSU's offense isn't that hard, and Greg Mattison is a smart guy. I've picked MSU to come through in a big situation too many times this year. I'll believe it when I see it. 21-10 for U-M.