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Michigan vs. Michigan State Preview

October 14, 2011
Quote That Most Represents This Game
“Burning up, don’t know just how far that I can go.
Soon be home, only just a few miles down the road.
I can make it, I know I can..
You broke the boy in me, but you won’t break the man.”
— John Parr, song “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire Theme)”

Names To Know
1. Jerel Worthy (DT #99) — If you’ve watched ESPN at all this week looking for discussion on this game, you’ve seen the analysts gushing over Jerel Worthy.  He will likely be a high NFL draft pick and is the anchor of the Spartan defensive line.  Sparty is ranked #1 overall in the country in points allowed, and Worthy is a big reason why.  He destroyed the Ohio State offensive line in their last game getting pressure on the quarterbacks at will.  David Molk and our offensive guards will have their biggest challenge of the year this week in protecting Denard and opening up running lanes. 

2. BJ Cunningham (WR #3) —  Cunningham is the leading receiver for Michigan State this season grabbing 38 catches for 582 yards through 5 games, which almost matches his season totals for his first three years.  The senior is easily on his way to having his best year and has put up his best numbers in their toughest games getting 12 catches for 158 yards at Notre Dame and 9 catches for 154 yards at Ohio State.  He’s not a speedster, but is a big target who doesn’t drop the ball.  This will be a big test for JT Floyd this week, and expect Cousins to throw at him very often. 

3. Travis Jackson (OC #63) —  First time this year I am not going with a QB in the “Names to Know” section, but since it’s Michigan State I assume everyone has already heard of Kirk Cousins.  For the third person on my list I am going with the guy who could ultimately decide the game, center Travis Jackson.  Jackson is a redshirt freshman who won the job in camp, but split time with Blake Treadwell a bit due to injury.  Jackson is back this week and Treadwell will not play due to his own injuries.  Michigan needs to put pressure on Cousins and not let the Spartan running game get going, which means Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, Will Campbell, and our blitzing linebackers need to attack Jackson.  Watch Jackson early to see if Martin is beating him because it could give you a hint how the game will go. 

Offensive Strength
Kirk Cousins is a senior quarterback with a lot of experience and a great receiving target in BJ Cunningham.  To compliment Cunningham he has speedster Keshawn Martin, former-QB-turned-WR Keith Nichol, and a set of big TEs who cause matchup problems.  We have seen Michigan get abused by one-on-one by Jordan White from Western and Michael Floyd from Notre Dame.  Last week we saw them failing to stop the bubble screens against Northwestern.  Michigan State has the players to exploit those same weaknesses, and doing so is going to be their best chance to win.  Expect them to open it up early with bubble screens to Martin, deep passes to Cunningham, and seam routes to TEs Dion Sims and Brian Linthicum.  If they can spread out the Michigan defense it will give them more room to run than they’ve seen all year and would put Michigan in a very bad spot.

Offensive Weakness
Michigan State had a very good running game in 2010 with three backs who could all break big runs.  Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper all returned this year, but have not had the same success through 5 games ranking 79th in the country overall for rushing.  Given they have played three very weak opponents (FCS Youngstown State, 0-6 Florida Atlantic, and 2-4 Central Michigan), these numbers must be concerning for the coaches.  The reason for the struggles has been a very bad offensive line.  As I mentioned before, RS Freshman Travis Jackson and converted-defensive-lineman Blake Treadwell have split time this year at center, and with Treadwell out this week it will be up to Jackson to hold the middle. First-year juco transfer Fou Fonoti was the starting left tackle early in the year, but had to move over to right tackle when they lost starter Skyler Burkland to a season-ending injury, which put first-time starter Dan France, who played defense in 2010, at the critical left tackle position.  The starting guards are the best players on the line, but there hasn’t been any continuity this year with multiple first-year starters and former defensive lineman.  Michigan needs to exploit this weakness to have a chance to win. 

Defensive Strength
In their game against Ohio State two weeks ago, Michigan State had 9 sacks and was literally tackling the quarterback before he even had a chance to complete a handoff.  Ohio State’s offensive line wasn’t playing well and Michigan State had the luxury of knowing the quarterbacks couldn’t complete a pass so they were able to blitz continually without much worry, but it still points to very good defensive line play.  Jerel Worthy will be a high NFL draft pick, and DE Will Gholston was a 5* recruit and number one overall player in Michigan two years ago.  Gholston is 6’7″ and can fly which is scary because he has the size to bat down passes, but the speed to catch RBs and QBs from behind if he loses contain.  Outside of Ohio State, this will be the toughest defensive line Michigan plays this year, especially with Nebraska losing potential All-American Jared Crick to injury.  The Michigan offensive line needs to be ready this week and give Denard time to throw and the running backs some holes.   

Defensive Weakness
There really isn’t a weakness on paper for the Spartans, which is why they are ranked #1 in the country in total defense.  When I look at the roster though I do see a hole at linebacker.  Greg Jones made plays all over the field last year in the game at Michigan on his way to 100+ tackles for the third consecutive season.  He graduated though, and the starting linebacker core of Chris Norman, Denicos Allen, and Max Bullough had less combined tackles for their career than Greg Jones did for one season.  Norman is good and Allen and Bullough have played well this year so far, but they haven’t really faced a tough offense outside of Notre Dame.  When you are trying to defend Denard Robinson, the key for defensive success is the linebackers making a lot of plays.  Michigan has some hope here that these guys haven’t been tested yet by this type of talent and could make some mistakes. 

My Game Expectations
This game is very difficult to predict because you can’t really trust the numbers so far this season.  Michigan State is ranked #1 in total defense, but outside of Notre Dame they have played four of the worst offenses in the country that really skew the stats.  The Spartans have struggled offensively against the two decent defenses they played, only getting 13 points and 29 yards rushing against Notre Dame and 10 points and 71 yards rushing against Ohio State.  Michigan’s offense has done well this year, but outside of Notre Dame they haven’t played a stout defensive team.  Defensively, we’ve not allowed a lot of points, but have given up a lot of yards before forcing some key turnovers.  Michigan is ranked #11 in the polls, but Michigan State is at home and favored in this game by 3 points.  There isn’t one clear thing you can focus on, like the horrible Michigan defense in 2010, to give you a strong sense of who will win either way.  Most experts are picking Michigan State because of the defense and home field advantage, and likely because of the history of Michigan collapsing at this point the last three seasons. 

I’m looking at this from a different angle though because this season just feels different.  In 2009 with the second worst defense in Michigan history, we lost 26-20 in overtime in East Lansing with a freshman quarterback. In 2010 with the worst defense in history and a badly-injured-first-year-starting-Denard we lost 34-17.  This is the best Michigan defense we have seen in 3 years and the worst Michigan State offensive line they have seen in a long time.  That gives me hope we can slow down their offense and prevent a shootout.  Our offense comes in burning up college football, averaging over 30 points per game and showing the ability to overcome horrible starts against Notre Dame and Northwestern to still put up 35 and 42 points.  If Denard can stop throwing interceptions off his back foot, nobody knows just how far this offense can go. 

The coaching staff came to Ann Arbor and put a countdown clock up for this game, publicly showing the importance of the rivalry.  I have also heard that unlike previous years, they have spent parts of each week practicing since fall camp prepping for this game.  I fully expect to see new offensive packages rolled out, especially more with Denard being the man in motion with Gardner at QB creating mismatches, and new defensive schemes to really put pressure on Cousins.  Michigan State has the home field advantage, but only having a bus ride down the road to East Lansing doesn’t seem like it has as much of an impact as having to get on a plane. Coach Hoke, Coach Mallory, and Coach Mattison have all been a part of this game before and know the importance for team morale and future recruiting.  They also know with 3 straight losses, it’s more important than ever before. 

The other intangible for me in determining the outcome is the importance Coach Hoke has put on playing for the seniors.  The seniors are captains on the team, have been true leaders this year, and their success is the focus of every underclassmen on the roster.  In 2007 we had the same situation with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Jake Long coming into their game never beating Ohio State.  A big difference for me in that game, though, was that Henne could barely move his throwing arm, Hart wasn’t healthy, and Ohio State had been blatantly cheating for years to build up a roster that just plain had more talent than Michigan.  Michigan State is good, but I would not say their roster is stocked with significantly more talent than Michigan.  And 2007 was a disaster for Michigan with injuries and really ugly losses, so their chances for winning were not very high.  This year just feels different to me, and I’m going against the experts with my prediction.  Over the last three seasons, Michigan State may have broken Mike Martin, Kevin Koger, Michael Shaw, Martavious Odoms, Ryan Van Bergen, JB Fitzgerald, and the other seniors, when they were boys out on the field, but this year Denard and the coaches will not let them break them as men. 

Michigan wins 35-24

-Mike Randazzo

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