Preview: Michigan State

Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
October 15, 2011, 12:00 PM

TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Chris Spielman, Urban Meyer, Quint Kessenich)
Radio: WWJ-950 AM, WTKA-1050 AM, Sirius 135/XM 91 (Frank Beckmann, Jim Brandstatter, Doug Karsch)
Line: UM +3
Over/Under: 49
Series Record: UM leads 67-31-5
Last Meeting: 2010: MICH 17 - MICH ST 34
UM Record/Rank: 6-0 (2-0), #11/10 (AP/Coaches)
MSU Record/Rank: 4-1 (1-0), #23/19 (AP/Coaches)
Gametime Forecast: Mostly Cloudy, 52ยบ, Winds W 20-25 MPH

The 59th battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy – IMO one of the uglier trophies in college football (and that's saying something), will take place in East Lansing on Saturday. According to UM, the trophy will be making a return trip to Schembechler Hall this year, where it has not been since 2007.

In recent years, streaks have ruled this series with MSU winning the last three, and Michigan winning six-straight before that.

Relevant links from sites we trust
MZone's Know Your Foe. Previews from MGoBlog, TWB, BWS, and Big House Blog. MSU offense/defense breakdowns from Ace from MGoBlog. Newly-refurbished annoying billboard for Spartan fans via MVictors. Pro-combat uniform bashing from Midnight Maize.

A little did you know...a first-year Michigan coach hasn't beaten Michigan State since Benny Oosterbaan did it in 1948. 

Statistical Breakdown (based on stats through week 6)
Remember that Michigan's week 1 stats against WMU are not taken into account here.

MICHIGANValue (Nat. Rank)Value (Nat. Rank)MICHIGAN STADV.
Rushing Offense (ypg)270.40 (7)64.00 (3)Rushing Defense (ypg)PUSH
Passing Offense (ypg)221.00 (69)109.40 (2)Passing Defense (ypg)MSU++
Pass Efficiency155.51 (23)83.40 (2)Pass Efficiency DefenseMSU
Total Offense (ypg)491.40 (14)173.40 (1)Total Defense (ypg)PUSH
Scoring Offense (ppg)38.80 (19)10.20 (3)Scoring Defense (ppg)PUSH
Rushing Defense (ypg)141.60 (58)128.80 (79)Rushing Offense (ypg)MICH
Passing Defense (ypg)206.40 (39)269.20 (34)Passing Offense (ypg)PUSH
Pass Efficiency Defense117.43 (32)142.25 (43)Pass EfficiencyPUSH
Total Defense (ypg)348.00 (39)398.00 (61)Total Offense (ypg)MICH
Scoring Defense (ppg)13.00 (9)28.00 (62)Scoring Offense (ppg)MICH+
Net Punting Yards35.93 (82)5.86 (84)Punt Return YardsPUSH
Punt Return Yards8.43 (53)33.68 (110)Net Punting YardsMICH+
Kickoff Return Yards18.50 (110)25.16 (108)Kickoff Return DefensePUSH
Kickoff Return Defense21.28 (62)26.89 (10)Kickoff Return YardsMSU++
Turnover Margin0.60 (29)0.60 (29)Turnover MarginPUSH
Penalty Yds/Game36.30 (10)47.00 (37)Penalty Yds/GameMICH
Sacks1.80 (74)1.00 (24)Sacks AllowedMSU+
Sacks Allowed0.40 (1)2.80 (21)SacksMICH
Redzone Offense (%)92.86 (16)80.00 (46)Redzone Defense (%)MICH
Redzone Defense (%)57.89 (3)72.00 (104)Redzone Offense (%)MICH+++
Redzone TD %78.57 (8)60.00 (63)Redzone TD % DefenseMICH+
Redzone TD % Defense42.11 (7)56.00 (78)Redzone TD %MICH++
3rd Down Conv. %57.35 (3)29.23 (8)3rd Down Defense %PUSH
3rd Down Defense %38.96 (57)35.21 (95)3rd Down Conv. %MICH
1st Downs Per Game21.70 (51)11.80 (3)1st Downs Allowed Per/GmMSU+
1st Downs Allowed Per/Gm18.50 (40)21.60 (53)1st Downs Per GamePUSH

Difference less than 20 in national rank = Push
Difference more than 20 in national rank = Team
Difference more than 40 in national rank = Team+
Difference more than 60 in national rank = Team++
Difference more than 80 in national rank = Team+++

Common Opponents
W 35-31
Sept. 17
L 13-31

When Michigan has the ball
This game will be the toughest test all year for the Michigan offense. Michigan State's defense is very good in all aspects. Ranked in the top 3 nationally in rushing, passing, pass efficiency defense, scoring and total defense, no other defense comes close to being this talented on our schedule. But are those rankings skewed?

Sparty runs a traditional 4-3 set pretty much all the time unless they switch to a nickle when the offense loads up on WRs. MSU statistical leaders are: total tackles LB Max Bullough (33), sacks LB Denicos Allen (3 for 20 yards), and INTs SS Isaiah Lewis and FS Kurtis Drummond both with 2 each.

Those names are obviously not the ones everyone recognizes. But it illustrates that this defense is not only deep, but talented all-around. DT Jerel Worthy is the superstar – no question their best player on that side of the ball. Our interior line will probably not see a better DT in a game all year. Another huge threat is William Gholston at defensive end. Yes, William is the cousin of OSU's Vernon Gholston, who we all remember quite fondly.

But let's get back to the numbers real quick. Yes, MSU boasts the #1 overall defense in the nation. Howeva! Who have they played? Youngstown State (FCS), Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame, Central Michigan and Ohio State. The best offense they've seen all year was Notre Dame (#20 in total offense), and they hung 31 points on the Spartans. So yes, take that into account when you see those lofty rankings.

For Michigan to be successful, we need to do everything well. Holding onto the football, no poor passes, no stupid penalties. Basically, we just can't beat ourselves. Last week in Evanston in the first half, that's what we did. We need to start this game how we ended the last one. It's going to be imperative for the offense to come out relaxed. I think we got a little carried away last week, but once we settled down, out playmakers were finally able to make said plays.

I fully expect MSU to key on Denard much like NU did last week. They will blitz a lot to try and rattle his confidence early. MSU doesn't really run a ton of either man or zone, so they are pretty flexible that way.

Playing a defense with such a strong line, it's going to be important to keep them honest by using a ton of misdirection and mixing up the play-calling as much as possible. If Al Borges has a magic hat, this is the week to put it on. But I think he does, and I think he will.

Up front Michigan is relatively healthy. Left guard Ricky Barnum has been said to be involved in practice, but not to much extent. So I don't expect to see him back this week. The rest of the line is looking good though.

Devin Gardner showed us his scrambling ability last week, which can only help make our offense that much tougher to gameplan for should Denard get dinged up. Borges also introduced what he called the Heavy I formation. This basically involves two tight ends on the line, two fullbacks (the first one going in motion over the left guard) and a tailback in the I with the QB under center. This is a good goaline set, but Michigan debuted it on their own 47-yardline on a 3rd and 1 play when we were down 14-7 in the second quarter. The play was unsuccessful because NU had defended it perfectly, and Steve Watson didn't block well. The play was a pretty simple setup and it wasn't difficult to see where it was going.

We did go for it on 4th down the following play, but only after sending out the punting unit and calling a timeout, which we did against San Diego State earlier in the year.

But remember Gardner's scrambling ability I was talking about? Remember that one play on the 1-yardline when Gardner faked a handoff and ran a naked bootleg to the right? It was that same exact Heavy-I formation. Only this time, Steve Watson went in motion again, but pulled to the right and gave Gardner the option to either pass to him, or just run for the touchdown. Watson is the key here. He keeps the LB honest, and makes it possible for Gardner to get the edge.

Yes, it's just one play, but it shows the ingeniousness of Borges' playcalling in a game situation. BWS's takeaway:
In reality, knowing that the offense can almost always get one yard with a QB draw, Borges used this opportunity to show off this formation and pre-snap motion. The knowledge that Denard could convert the first down allowed Borges to reveal a play that was intentionally ineffective in order to set up an easy touchdown near the goal line.
We're going to need more moves like this to be successful this week.

When Michigan State has the ball
Well here's the good news. Michigan State is downright mediocre on offense. They can move the ball in spurts, but lack any overall consistency.

The strength of this offense is senior QB Kirk Cousins. He's done very well in East Lansing, and done very well against Michigan. The thing on Cousins is he's a very prototypical pocket passer. He has a strong arm and he's pretty smart, but will not hurt you with his legs. If you just look at his numbers, you don't see anything special. But a senior QB at home in a rivalry game is always dangerous.

Running the ball is the lesser of MSU's offensive strengths. La'Veon Bell is their leading rusher with 52 carries for 267 yards and 6 touchdowns. Edwin Baker has 62 carries for 252 yards and 1 touchdown. Neither back ranks in the top 10 of B1G leading rushers.

Catching the football, MSU has only two real threats – BJ Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Cunningham is Cousins favorite target by far with 38 receptions for 582 yards and 2 touchdowns. I would put his right up there with Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and WMU's Jordan White as one of the best WR's we've seen so far this year.

For Michigan, it's all about controlling the line of scrimmage and forcing Cousins into bad throws. I really don't see the MSU rushing game causing any problems for us, so it will probably boil down to our secondary coverage and our pass rush.

The OL for MSU is not very strong. They're big dudes, but big doesn't always mean good. Last year MSU totally abandoned the running game halfway through the year and weren't very good at keeping the pressure off Cousins (see: Capital One Bowl).

For Michigan, the defense has been getting better and better each week. Guys up front like DT Ryan Van Bergen and DE Craig Roh have improved as the season goes on. And linebacker Jake Ryan and safety Jordan Kovacs have proven to be honest-to-goodness play makers wreaking havoc all over the field.

I've been really impressed as well by safeties Marvin Robinson and Thomas Gordon. And the depth at corner with JT Floyd, Troy Woolfolk, Courtney Avery and Blake Countess is a huge bonus. This group has been a delightful surprise this year. Actually not sure how to feel about a secondary that's, ya know, good.

Gut Feeling
I read a stat that said something like the team with more rushing yards in this game has won like 15 games in a row. I don't know how legit that is, but I believe it. Games like this are won and lost on the line of scrimmage.

I really don't have a gut feeling one way or the other as far as who will win this game. I know it's going to be extremely physical. And the winner of the game will be whoever makes the least amount of mistakes.

It's going to be very windy in EL on Saturday, so that could impact Michigan State more than it impacts Michigan, as the Spartans will need to rely on the pass more than we will. But make no mistake in thinking we won't need to throw the ball around. If MSU can key in on our running game and not worry about it throwing, it could be a long day for our backs. But we played in a pretty windy game against Minnesota a couple weeks ago and Denard looked as sharp as ever.

Last year's matchup of 5-0 teams in Ann Arbor was decided by turnovers. Michigan State forced Denard into making some pretty poor decisions. Part of that was a lack of confidence on our part once things started to fall apart. Clearly, this Michigan team has shown a resilience that past teams didn't have. That could come back to help us in a game like this. Second half adjustments are great when they work, but not needing to make them is better. But you can't underestimate a team that is playing with confidence. Right now, that's what we're doing.

If we can keep the mistakes to the minimum, not turn the ball over, no special teams breakdowns, and run the ball effectively...I don't see how Michigan State beats us. It will be a physical game, maybe the most physical game we play all year. Hostile environment, poor weather, tough defense – we're going to know exactly how good our offense is after this game is over. We're also going to know just how overrated Michigan State's defense is as well.

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