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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Michigan State

New era for Michigan State. Same MSU-Michigan rivalry.

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

There’s a rivalry game on Saturday. It’s for the state championship, as Jim Harbaugh likes to say. The Michigan Wolverines vs. the Michigan State Spartans. One team just won a big game, the other is coming off a performance where they committed seven turnovers in a losing effort to Rutgers. However, strange things tend to happen in rivalry games, even if there’s a talent gap on the field.

To help us preview the game and give us some intel on Michigan State we spoke to Ryan O’Bleness from The Only Colors, who was kind enough to dish out thorough analysis.

Can you give us your initial impressions of Mel Tucker along with your thoughts on the Week 1 loss to Rutgers?

The Rutgers game was a bit of a disaster, but it wasn’t all on the coaching — the coaches weren’t the ones who gave the ball away seven times. With that said, there were definitely some questionable play calls, especially in fourth down situations. I am trying to remain patient with the staff — after all, this was Tucker’s first game at the helm for MSU after what can only be described as the strangest offseason of all-time — no spring ball, summer workouts canceled, fall camp cut short before re-opening, no real time to work with the team in that period, etc. Things will get better and I still have plenty of faith in the future.

But then again Rutgers was in the same boat with a new staff — granted, Greg Schiano had been there before as this is now his second stint with the Scarlet Knights and he was hired two months before Tucker was. Schiano and his staff out-coached Tucker and the MSU staff, and the Rutgers players out-executed the MSU players. With that said, I think if MSU had even three less turnovers, the Spartans win the game. This was the first time ever Michigan State has lost to Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014, and that is hard to swallow.

What does the offense and defense looks like schematically?

I think that is still being figured out to some degree, as the players are still learning the new systems under offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. I think we’ll see a lot of expansion from what we saw last Saturday moving forward this season, as the staff probably didn’t want to show all of its looks this early into the season. How much they’ll show this week still remains to be seen.

Offensively, against Rutgers, Michigan State used plenty of 11 personnel with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back sets. The tight end may play spread out wide in the slot, or as an H-back. The Spartans also rotated several different running backs into the game, and I think we can expect to see both of those trends continue on Saturday against Michigan. We can also expect a lot of shotgun or pistol looks, with not many plays coming from under center. The team wants to run the football “on their terms,” but the struggles of the offensive line may dictate passing the ball more often than not.

Defensively, you’ll probably see a lot of nickel looks with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. You may see one of the safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage with the other one in a single-high safety look, depending on what the offense comes out in.

But again, I would also expect some adjustments from last week and possibly some new looks this week on both sides of the ball.

Even in a losing effort to Rutgers, there had to be at least one or two silver linings, maybe?

I think the defense played well outside of the first drive against Rutgers. The rest of the game, the unit were essentially defending a short field due to all of the turnovers. There was definitely some promise on that side of the ball, and if MSU significantly cuts down the turnovers this week, and plays the field position game better, I think the defense could have a decent showing against a solid Michigan offense — but it’s a tough task.

The wide receivers also looked good — outside of the fumbling issues. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both dynamic playmakers with the ball in their hands. Reed just needs to do a better job with ball security. Also, true freshman running back Jordon Simmons flashed his potential last week and led the teams in carries and yards. The ground game struggled overall, but he caught the attention of his coaching staff and Michigan State fans alike.

What’s Michigan State’s biggest strength and weakness on both sides of the ball?

I think Michigan State’s biggest strength is, as per usual, on defense. The back-seven has a lot of talent, and while the front four needs to generate more pressure, there are some good players there. Offensively, the skill positions at running back and wide receiver look promising — again, they just need to put more emphasis on ball security, which is ironically what Tucker and the staff have been preaching all offseason long.

As for weakness, it appears to STILL be the offensive line. I really thought with all of the returning experience, finally being healthy in the trenches, and with a good position coach in Chris Kapilovic, there would be some improvement there. And yet, the offensive line couldn’t generate any push in the ground game, and didn’t pass protect well either...against a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder. This is disheartening, but still plenty of time to improve.

Who are Michigan State’s biggest playmakers?

As mentioned , wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are the playmakers on offense, with running back Jordon Simmons showing a lot of promise. Fellow running back Elijah Collins had trouble running the ball last week, and played a low amount of snaps, which was surprising since he was the Big Ten’s returning leading rusher. Look for him to try to bounce back. Connor Heyward, who actually started last week, will also be in the running back mix. Trenton Gillison and Matt Dotson are the names to watch at tight end.

Defensively, watch out for Naquan Jones and Jacub Panasiuk on the defensive line. Defensive end Drew Beesly had a nice game against Rutgers as well. of course, outside linebacker (and Ann Arbor’s own) Antjuan Simmons is going to be making plays all over the field. In the secondary, Xavier Henderson and Shakur Brown (who had an interception last week, although the touchdown was called back on a penalty) are the guys to watch.

What’s your Rocky Lombardi scouting report?

I’ll try to keep this brief since I can write an entire article on this topic, but basically Lombardi is a big (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), strong-armed quarterback who has shown flashes, but struggles with consistency. He was incredibly accurate last week and can take off and run with the football when needed. He was far from being the biggest problem against Rutgers.

With that said, based on last week’s performance, the biggest areas of improvement he needs to work on are:

-His pocket awareness : While the offensive line was a complete disaster, there seemed to be way too many times where Lombardi didn’t feel the pressure, didn’t step up in the pocket and made the wrong decision.

-Putting more touch on the ball: As mentioned, Lombardi has a cannon for an arm, but all he seems to throw are fireballs. Lombardi needs to do a better job of lobbing it in there or putting a little less on the ball in certain situations. As mentioned, he was actually really accurate against Rutgers, completing over 70 percent of his passes on 44 attempts, but the deep ball misses were obvious.

-Communication with his wide receivers: there were a couple of plays last week where Lombardi and the wide receivers were on completely different pages, including his first interception in which Lombardi thought the wide receiver was running a comeback route and the receiver ended up running a vertical route — the jury is still out on who was in the wrong there.

What are your initial and general impressions of Michigan after a week of Big Ten Play?

I thought Michigan played well and looked good against a solid — granted short-handed — Minnesota team. Joe Milton looked as advertised for the most part and the offense moved the ball with ease. He’ll probably only improve from here, but I’m not quite ready to call him “The next Cam Newton” just yet. The defense was tough, as usual, and seemed to be in Tanner Morgan’s face/in the backfield a lot. But Michigan tends to get off to these quick starts before eventually faltering, so I am withholding my outlook for now. Still, I think this team is poised to have a strong season — not quite on the Ohio State level, but possibly a second-place finish in the East Division seems within reach. We will see how things shake out.

Michigan’s the favorite by over 25 points. Do you agree with this type of betting line, or do you expect the game to be much closer?

Given MSU’s performance last week versus Michigan’s performance against a (likely) better team, I understand it. I think 25 points is a lot, though, and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t touch that line — anything can happen in this rivalry. The last time Michigan was favored by around that much was in 2016, and the Wolverines won that game by only nine points. Also, Michigan State is 12-6-1 against the spread in this rivalry game since 2001, and 6-3 in Ann Arbor.