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5 Burning Questions – Michigan vs. MSU

October 14, 2011

Mike has the in-depth preview covered, so here are 5 Questions that I think are key to tomorrow’s game.  And of course a prediction…

#1    Is this MSU defense as good as their #1 ranking? 

If you haven’t heard about the vaunted MSU defense, you haven’t been paying attention.  Led by All-Conference defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, the MSU defense has laid waste to 4 of 5 opponents this year, with only Notre Dame managing to move the ball and put up significant points against the Spartans this year.  But as many pundits have pointed out, this MSU defense, while ranked #1 in the country, hasn’t really played anyone of substance.  Florida Atlantic, Youngstown State, and Central Michigan aren’t exactly a who’s who of juggernaut offenses.  And Ohio State looked more like a Keystone Cops operation than an offense when they played MSU.  There is no question that MSU’s defense is one of the better units in the Big Ten, but you can’t ignore that Notre Dame scored 31 points on them (even if one touchdown came via special teams).  Notre Dame had 3 scoring drives of 70+ yards on MSU, so there are some cracks in this MSU defense. 

ANSWER: Good?  Yes.  Great? We’ll see, but probably not. 

#2   Who needs this Game More – Michigan or Michigan State?

The Argument for MSU:  For year’s MSU fans and players measured their success by beating Michigan.  Win and it was unicorns and puppy dogs.  Lose and it was rain and sadness.  This year MSU keeps trumpeting that they have their sights set on another Big Ten Championship and that Michigan is just another step to that goal.  I don’t buy it for a second.  MSU is coming off of a Big Ten title, yet Michigan is destroying them in recruiting.  Sure Michigan is 6-0, but they are coming off of three of the worst seasons in the last 40 years, yet Michigan is still the team on the cover of ESPN.com and is getting all the national attention.  That does not make Sparty happy. An MSU victory stunts all that Michigan momentum and gives MSU its 4th straight victory over Michigan, something that hasn’t happened since 1959-1962.  This game may not be the entire season for MSU like it once was, but it will allow MSU to remind the rest of the country that they’ve been the better team the last 3 years, and now for the 4th year in a row they are the king of the state. 

The Argument for Michigan: Taking out the MSU part of the equation, if Michigan wins on Saturday and then holds serve at home against Purdue as expected in two weeks, they will be 8-0 and perhaps a Top 5 team in the country heading into  Iowa City the first weekend in November.  Considering where the expectations were when the season started, that would be unheard of.  But it is Michigan State, and though Michigan fans loathe to admit it, losing to Sparty hurts.  Maybe not the way losing to OSU hurts, but its a thorn in our side.  And since its been 3 years in a row, that thorn is growing bigger every day.  Despite MSU’s 11-2 record last year, Michigan still has managed to capture the momentum in the State of Michigan when it comes to recruiting.  Defeating MSU would put an exclamation point on that.  And since its Brady Hoke’s first year, it would put MSU  and its fans on notice that the good times of the last 3 years are over. 

ANSWER:  Michigan.  It may mean more to MSU, but Michigan has more to gain and to lose this year. 

#3  MSU Shut Down Denard Robinson in 2010, Can They Do it Again This Year?

In 2010, MSU’s defense held Denard Robinson to 86 yards on the ground, 215 yards in the air, and had 3 interceptions.  As good as Denard was last year, that constitutes shutting him down.  MSU seems incredibly confident that they can again contain Denard and will win the game because of it.  While there is no doubt that MSU found success against Denard last year, there were some mitigating factors that need to be considered.  First of all, by the time MSU came to Ann Arbor last year, Denard was pretty banged up.  He was nowhere near 100%, and it showed in his lack of explosiveness in the running game.  Second, Denard is a year older and a year wiser.  While he has struggled in the passing game a little more this year, his decision making in the red zone, a huge problem last year, has been much improved.  And finally, though MSU held Denard to just 300 total yards and had 3 interceptions, two of those interceptions came in the red zone when Robinson had open receivers to throw to and just made a bad read.  If he makes either of those throws for touchdowns instead of interceptions, who knows how the game turns out.  300+ yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception looks a lot better in the stat column.  Just like they aren’t the same defense, he’s not the same player. 

ANSWER: No.  While he may not go for more yards, he is going to have a bigger impact on the game and is unlikely to throw 3 interceptions. 

#4   More Important Matchup – Cousins vs. UM Secondary or Robinson vs. MSU Secondary?

With MSU struggling to establish a competent running game (only averaging 128 yards per game this year), they are going to have to rely heavily on Kirk Cousins to carve up the Michigan secondary with his arm.  Last year Cousins was an efficient 18/25 for 284 yards and a touchdown.  While the Michigan secondary has improved, they are still vulnerable to the passing game as Dan Persa demonstrated last week, passing for 331 yards.  Cousins is the type of QB that will absolutely beat you if given time, but he also is vulnerable to bad decisions when pressured.  The key matchup will more likely be about Michigan getting pressure on Cousins to keep him from making good throws. 

On the other side of the ball, Denard Robinson has been very shaky in the passing game this year.  Last week against Northwestern he had his best half, going 7/8 for 149 yards.  He also had a pretty solid 4th quarter against Notre Dame which you may remember.  But beyond that, he’s struggled.  Because Denard is such a dangerous threat to run, and because of his difficulties in the passing game, I fully expect MSU to stack the box with 8 players and force Denard to throw downfield.  As I’ve said before, if Denard is able to throw the ball well and avoid turnovers, this offense is almost unstoppable.  Last week Michigan had 3 first half turnovers, missed a field goal, and still put up 42 points.  Northwestern’s defense is not the caliber of MSU’s, but it’s clear that when Michigan’s offense is clicking, and that includes Denard’s passing, they are as good as anyone in the country. 

ANSWER: No question the key matchup is Denard vs. the MSU Secondary.  If Denard avoids turnovers and has a high completion percentage, MSU isn’t going to win this game.  It’s that simple. 

#5     So…..Who Wins? 

The Argument for MSU:  Beyond the storylines you’re sure to see on Saturday like “No Michigan coach since Bennie Oosterbaan has won his first game against MSU”, there are a handful of reasons to really like MSU in this game.  

  • To begin with, MSU has won 3 in a row; they’ve had Michigan’s number the last 3 years, even if the games were pretty close in 2008 and 2009.  That 3 game winning streak is sure to have given the Spartans a lot of confidence. 
  • Playing at home is also going to help the Spartans.  For the last 20 years, every game in East Lansing with the exception of 2 (1991 and 1997) has been a one score game, even when Michigan was clearly the better team.  There is no question MSU has a homefield advantage when playing at Spartan Stadium.
  • One of the reasons MSU has won the last 3 years is that they’ve won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  While the MSU offensive line is in pretty bad shape, their defensive line is very good, to go with an all around solid defense.  If Michigan struggles to win that battle, Denard Robinson is going to have to do it all by himself through the air, a scary proposition. 
  • Finally, this is an MSU team that went 11-2 last year, and won several close games.  The bottom line is that they know how to win the tight game, which I expect this to be.   Kirk Cousins, though perhaps not as good of a QB as some give him credit for, is a winner, and if the game is close in the 4th quarter on Saturday, don’t be surprised to see him pull it out. 

The Argument for Michigan: Michigan comes into this game at 6-0, with a chance to put themselves firmly in the driver’s seat for the Legends division of the Big Ten Conference and end a 3 game losing streak to MSU.  These facts have not been lost on Brady Hoke, the coaches, or the players.  Throw in the fact that you have several seniors, including Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, who have never beaten MSU, and I expect a highly motivated Michigan team to show up on Saturday.  Brady Hoke put the countdown clock to this game up for a reason – he knows how important it is.  We all know how dangerous Denard Robinson is, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against a team he did not play well against last year.  Surprisingly, it seems that Michigan may be the more complete team with MSU struggling to put points on the board against good opponents.  I don’t think the Michigan offense can be stopped when Denard is throwing the ball well, and he seems to have found his mojo in the 2nd half vs. Northwestern.  If that continues, he, and Michigan, will be tough to contain.  

ANSWER: On Sunday, when I first looked at this game, I was sure MSU would win.  They were the better team, had the better defense, the 5th year starting QB, and are playing at home.  But then I started looking into their decimated offensive line, their anemic rushing game, and their inability to put points on the board and I found myself becoming more optimistic about Michigan’s chances and searching for a reason to pick MSU. The sole argument for picking MSU seems to be the defense, which would require them to be an elite unit, which they aren’t.  MSU had their way with the Michigan defense the last couple of years, but this MSU rushing attack isn’t nearly as potent, and more importantly, this isn’t the same Michigan defense.   In fact, I expect Greg Mattison’s blitz packages to have a huge impact on the MSU offensive line and force Kirk Cousins into some bad decisions.  And if Michigan can get pressure on Cousins with just its front 4 rushing the passer, MSU doesn’t stand a chance.  But whether they can do that consistently remains to be seen.  

My gut tells me MSU pulls this out (maybe because I’m not ready to believe that Michigan could get to 8-0), but in a shocking change from the last 3 years, logic is telling me that Michigan wins.  I’m really at a loss as to what to do.  In the end, I think Michigan is on to something special here. 

Michigan 27

Michigan State 20  

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