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Michigan vs. Michigan State Preview – A Return to Normalcy?

October 19, 2012

On Saturday Michigan and Michigan State will battle in what 8 weeks ago was projected to be a game between two Top 15 teams with a strong leg up in the Big Ten Legends Division title race going to the winner.  Then Alabama came along.  As did Notre Dame (twice) and Ohio State and Iowa.  Instead, we’re left with a 4-2 Michigan team just inside the Top 25, and a 4-3 MSU team whose fans are more concerned about getting to 7 wins than worrying about the Legends Division title.  Yes Michigan’s loss to Alabama was expected.  And though it hasn’t happened recently, Notre Dame has beaten both MSU and Michigan in the same season before.  

What wasn’t expected however was the apparent return to normalcy in the Michigan vs MSU rivalry.  For the last 40+ years, Michigan and MSU has usually been characterized by a Michigan team with its eyes set on a Big Ten title with MSU merely a speed bump (albeit usually the biggest speed bump of them all) standing in their way between a season ending showdown with OSU.  Likewise, MSU has spent the last 40+ years in Michigan’s shadow – hoping to defeat the Wolverines every year to not only garner another win towards bowl eligibility, but to garner some national respect and acclaim.  But for the last 4 years, the script has been flipped.  While Michigan floundered under Rich Rodriguez, Michigan State prospered with 4 straight winning seasons, including back to back 11 win seasons.   And in each of those seasons, they beat Michigan.  In some of those games they were favored, in others they were not.  But they were always expected to compete.  

Now here comes the 2012 matchup, and suddenly nobody is giving MSU a chance.  They are 11 1/2 point underdogs and some people think that line is too low.   In short, it feels remarkably similar to how things used to play out before Rich Rodriguez got the big office in Schembechler Hall.  Michigan is still in contention and is perhaps the favorite for the Big Ten title, and MSU thought not out of contention completely, will need to run the table and get a little help if they want to repeat as Legends division champs.

Does that mean we’re seeing a return to normalcy in the Michigan vs. MSU rivalry?  Perhaps.  Michigan righted its own ship last year with an 11 win season and a BCS bowl loss, despite the loss to MSU.  And even though there were bumps in the road earlier this season, Brady Hoke seems to have Michigan back on course.  While MSU certainly is a long way from the years of John L. Smith, the inability to translate the last two years of success into top notch recruiting classes is a concern.  Going forward, its unclear if MSU will have the horses to keep up with the elite of the Big Ten every year.

But instead of looking down the road, lets look at what is right in front of us.  Saturday’s game, and go through a brief breakdown of the matchups. 

WHEN MSU HAS THE BALL 

It’s no secret this MSU offense has struggled, and struggled mightily.  After a season low output of 3 points at home against Notre Dame, MSU only managed 23 points against an Eastern Michigan team that is giving up almost 40 points a game.  They followed that up with only 16 points against OSU – who has given up 38 points in 49 points (to Indiana) in the following two weeks.  Last week the Spartans only put up 13 points in regulation in the loss to Iowa.  The only bright spot was a 31 point outburst versus Indiana, but even those final 14 points came late in the game.  The MSU rushing attack has been serviceable, but not great.  Leveon Bell is a very good back, but with a depleted offensive line and very few other options on offense, teams have been able to key in on him defensively.  Plus, with Edwin Baker gone to the pros, Bell has nobody to effectively spell him, which means he’s carrying the ball far more than is desirable.

MSU has really struggled to pass the ball, with Andrew Maxwell completing just over 54% of his passes.  He still hasn’t found a rhythm with his receivers, and his best target, tight end Dion Sims, may not be available on Saturday.  Freshman Aaron Burbridge has looked good the last couple of weeks and may be ready to break out, but he still hasn’t proven to be someone Maxwell or MSU can rely on.

Defensively Michigan is as good as they’ve been since 2006.  They’ve held Purdue and Illinois to 350 combined yards the last two weeks and they shut out Illinois completely.  They are #10 nationally in Total Defense and #3 in Pass Defense.  The only chink in the armor is the rush defense, which ranks 55th nationally.  But much of that can be attributed to early season matchups with Alabama and Air Force.  

If MSU expects to move the ball against Michigan, they will either have to figure out a passing game quickly, or hope that Leveon Bell turns in a Tico Ducket/Hyland Hickson/TJ Duckett like performance.  He’s capable of it for sure, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  A ball controlling run offense is the only way MSU will be able to move the ball and score on Michigan.

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL 

Despite all of the accolades and gaudy numbers put up by Denard Robinson the last couple of years, the one consistent thorn in his side has been MSU.  Maybe its their schemes, maybe its their style of play, or maybe its just coincidence, but Denard is a different player against MSU.  In 2010, he actually played pretty well in the first half, with over 200 total yards.  But a costly interception in the red zone changed the balance of the game.  Last year, MSU held him in check for much of the game, and a pick-6 in the 4th quarter sealed the victory for the Spartans.  It’s no secret that if you want to stop Michigan you have to stop Denard Robinson, and MSU has proven they can do that. 

The MSU defense isn’t quite as good as they were last year.  The graduation of Jerel Worthy has opened some holes on the defensive line, and though the Spartans are still giving up only 15.7 points per game, teams have had success moving the ball on them when they needed to – including Indiana.  William Gholston is a freak on the defensive line who has learned to be disruptive in a variety of ways.  And linebackers Denicos Allen, Hank Bullough and Chris Norman are among the best in the country.  The secondary is led by cornerback Johnny Adams.  This standout defense is going to need to keep MSU in this game with a variety of blitz packages, pressure and all around chaos to keep Denard Robinson guessing.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Michigan special teams have been an advantage all year, and I expect that to continue.  Punter Will Hagerup is a weapon, kicker Brendan Gibbons is consistent, and return men Jeremy Gallon and Dennis Norfleet are the right combination of responsibility (Gallon) and excitement (Norfleet) that allow Michigan to be dangerous.

MSU kicker Dan Conroy was expected to be an All-American candidate this year, but has struggled with some routine kicks, missing one in every game until last week.  Mike Sadler has been consistent in his 2nd year in starting.  On the return side, Nick Hill has some burst to him, but isn’t exactly a game breaker.  He is very reliable though.  

INTANGIBLES

Like most Michigan vs. MSU games, the intangibles are the most fun part to me.  MSU is reeling after losing 3 of the last 4 and absolutely MUST win this game to have any chance of a Big Ten title. Michigan on the other hand comes into this game riding high, and has had it circled on its calendar all year as a game they had to have, for a variety of reasons beyond in-state bragging rights.  In short, four years is too much.  Rumors out of East Lansing suggest a team that is somewhat divided, with the standout defense upset that the lackluster offense can’t score enough points to win games.  If MSU struggles to score early, will that dissension play a role?  On the other side of the field, Michigan has enjoyed easy starts offensively in their last two games.  But its clear that if Denard gets rattled early, he’s usually tough to get back on track.  If he struggles against MSU early, will he end up with another Notre Damesque game?

RECIPE FOR A WIN

So if you’re Michigan, what do you need to do to win? 

  • Slow down Leveon Bell – MSU doesn’t have the ability to pass the ball well enough to win, which means that if you stop Bell, you stop the Spartans.  The nightmare scenario for Michigan is for Bell to get going early and end up with a 35 carry 200 yard day.  If that happens, MSU will likely win.  Fortunately for Michigan, I don’t think the MSU offensive line is good enough for that to happen
  • Get Denard in Rhythm – Denard Robinson is a rhythm quarterback.  When he’s hot, he’s incredibly hot.  When he’s not, he isn’t.  Michigan and Al Borges have to get Denard going early with some designed runs, some easy passes, and even a trick play or two to catch MSU off guard.  If Denard gets going, even the MSU defense won’t be able to shut him down
  • Own the 1st Quarter – As mentioned, this MSU team may be looking for a reason to quit.  On the other hand, a spirited early effort might be exactly what they need.  If Michigan can build an early lead, I believe it will crush MSU’s spirit and lead to an easy Michigan win.  And given the struggles of the MSU offense, playing from behind is exactly where you want them
  • Be Physical – One of the reasons MSU has dominated this series the last 4 years is that they have been the more physical team. Michigan can now compete on that physicality level, and needs to do so.  

PREDICTION

So what does any of this mean for Saturday?  Well let’s start here – from 1980 to 2006 Michigan and MSU played in Ann Arbor 14 times with Michigan going 12-2.  In those 12 wins the average margin of victory was 17.7 points.   But that was before MSU did something it hadn’t done in 40 years – win back to back games in Ann Arbor – both by double digits.  So its possible the aura of Michigan Stadium doesn’t faze the Spartans like it once did.

On the other hand, Brady Hoke is 10-0 as a head coach in Michigan Stadium, and Denard Robinson is 14-3 as a starter in the Big House. However one of those losses came to MSU two years ago in Ann Arbor.

Either way, history favors Michigan.  More importantly, recent history, as in this season, favors Michigan also.  MSU will give a good effort, but in the end they don’t have the horses to score enough points in this one.

Michigan 27

Michigan State 10 

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