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The Only Michigan State vs. Michigan Preview You Need

November 1, 2013

Michigan vs. MSU

Michigan vs. Michigan State

November 2, 2013 – 3:30 PM

East Lansing, Michigan 

What’s at Stake

In short, everything.  While the previous three or four contests between Michigan and MSU have been about bragging rights, continuing streaks and breaking streaks, this one doesn’t have that same cache.  With Michigan breaking MSU’s four game win streak last year all either team is concerned about (or at least should be concerned about) is winning this game so that they can sit atop the Legends Division and have the inside track for the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  For Michigan, with a loss to Penn State already on its record, this is an absolute must-win.  A loss to MSU would put them 2 games behind the Spartans in the division, and since MSU would hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning this game, Michigan would likely need 3 Spartan losses in the last 3 games in order to win the division (not happening).   For MSU, a loss tomorrow puts the teams even in the division, but gives Michigan the tiebreaker.  Though the Wolverines could still lose another game, it means MSU would have to win out, which requires them to win at Northwestern and at Nebraska.  Possible, but a tough task.   I think the winner of tomorrow’s game goes to Indianapolis.  So yeah – it’s a big one.  

When MSU Has the Ball 

Four weeks ago, the best way to refer to the MSU offense was a QB Carousel, or if you’re a little less kind, a dumpster fire.  Mark Dantonio couldn’t find a QB he was comfortable with, and rightfully so – none of them had figured out how to put up more than 300 yards of offense or more than 26 points unless they were playing an FCS school.  But during their bye week the Spartans figured something out with Connor Cook, and have gone from dumpster fire to slightly above average and bordering on decent.  It’s no secret what MSU wants to do when on offense – control the ball with the running game, complete short passes to keep the chains moving, and wait for a short field setup by their defense in order to score points.   They’ve managed to do that pretty well the last 4 games, with the emergence of Connor Cook as the clear cut starter. Through the first four games, Cook was only completing 53% of his passes and though he had a respectable 5/0 touchdown to interception ratio – 4 of those TD’s came against Youngstown State.  Since then he’s been a different QB, completing 65% of his passes while averaging a respectable 207 yards per game through the air.   He also has benefited from the improved play of running back Jeremy Langford.  Langford has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games with an average of almost 5 yards per carry.  Langford isn’t a homerun type of back, but he’s a bruiser who will consistently move the chains.   When MSU does look to go to the air they’ll focus on short and intermediate manageable passes.  Macgarrett Kings Jr. has become Cook’s favorite target, with 26 catches on the year.  He, along with senior Bennie Fowler have some big play potential if you let them get into space.  

Defensively, Michigan has been one of the better units in the Big Ten, though some late game meltdowns against Penn State and a track meet style game versus Indiana have skewed those stats a bit.  Michigan’s plan against everyone is to force the offense to drive the field in small chunks and protect against big plays.  In an odd way that may play right into MSU’s hands as Connor Cook as suddenly become incredibly accurate and efficient throwing the ball (15/16 last week) and Jeremy Langford just looks to move the chains.  Michigan will need to get some pressure on Cook to rattle him early.  He’s a young QB, and despite playing on the road against Notre Dame, this will be the biggest game he’s played in.  For Michigan though, the key has to be to stop the run and slow down Langford.  He’s not a great back, but if he can set Cook up in 3rd and less than 5 yards, Cook will have the ability to pick up first downs.    The other thing to look for is turnovers.  Michigan is forcing 2 turnovers per game while MSU has been especially good at protecting the football with only 3 interceptions from their quarterbacks total all season.  Michigan’s ability to pick up an extra offensive possession, potentially in MSU territory, could have a big impact on what should be a low scoring game.  

When Michigan has the Ball 

Seven games into the season and Michigan’s offense and MSU’s defense couldn’t be in more different places in terms of stability.  MSU has known from day one of the season what they want to do on defense, and they’ve done it.  MSU will shut down the run and intermediate passing game and force you to beat them downfield with big pass plays – something most college teams can’t do on a regular basis.  They are aggressive with their blitzes and hope to turn the ball over by pressuring you into bad decisions.  The defense is led by linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen two of the better linebackers in the country.  The defensive line may not have the star power of a guy like Will Gholston or Jerel Worthy, but they are a solid unit who don’t take plays off.  The other player to watch out for in the front seven is Shilique Calhoun, who has 3 touchdowns himself, as a defensive lineman!  In the secondary, Darqueze Dennard will be playing on Sundays in the future and is a top end cornerback.    All in all, this will be by far the best defense Michigan plays all season, and one that has quite frankly had Michigan’s number the last four years, despite last year’s win.  

For Michigan, we still don’t have a good feel for what we have offensively.  The upside is that despite the ridiculous amount of turnovers and the revolving door at interior offensive line, Michigan is putting up 42+ points per game and has a Top 10 offense.  In fact, Michigan has hit the 40 point mark in every game except Akron and UConn – where they had 4 turnovers in each game.  The problem is that Michigan still can’t decide if they want to be a power offense or a spread offense, and still find themselves bouncing back and forth between the two.  Against Indiana the spread it out, let loose, and put up 63 points.   Obviously Michigan won’t be able to replicate anything close to that against MSU, but they may have found a game plan that works based on the Indiana game.  

The emergence of Devin Funchess at wide receiver has opened up things for Jeremy Gallon again – who should become Michigan’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Mario Manningham in 2007.  The ability to throw downfield to both Funchess and Gallon will mean that Michigan should have a matchup they can take advantage of, depending on who Dennard is not covering.   Toussaint also looked more comfortable from a mostly spread offense two weeks ago putting up 150 yards on the ground.   

The real X-factor here will be Devin Gardner though.  When he’s been good (see Notre Dame and Indiana) he’s been unstoppable.  But when he’s been bad, we’ve almost lost to UConn and Akron.  We’ve seen what the MSU defense has done to Denard Robinson the last couple of years, but Devin is a different QB than Denard.  Unlike Denard, Devin has a better arm and actually has some real downfield receivers who can make plays at his disposal.  Beyond that, Denard wasn’t all that great at the read option play.  Gardner is very very good at the read option and I could see that giving MSU some challenges since it will leave Gardner one on one with a linebacker.  Which leads me to my last point – Denard was a fast runner, but he didn’t have great “shake” like Devin does.  Gardner can make a couple of guys miss and turn a 3 yard gain into a 15 yard gain.  Don’t be surprised to see that happen a couple of times tomorrow.  Gardner also runs off of designed pass plays better than Denard ever did – he has a knack for knowing when to tuck and run.  MSU will account for this, but again, if Gardner makes one guy miss, we could see some long QB runs.    This MSU defense is a very good unit, but individually they aren’t the most talented or athletic guys.  That’s not a knock, just the truth.  The sum is better than the parts.  

Putting all that aside to me this matchup comes down to two things.  1) Can Devin Gardner protect the football and not turn it over?  If he can, Michigan will eventually move the ball and score points.  If he can’t, the Michigan State defense will eat him alive and it will be a long afternoon for the maize and blue.  2) Can Gallon, Gardner, and Funchess make enough plays in one on one opportunities to create enough offense for Michigan?  If Gallon and Funchess can make a few plays downfield, does MSU have to change up its pressure defense that leaves its corners on an island?  And if Gardner breaks a few long runs will MSU adjust their blitzing?    MIchigan doesn’t need to score a ton of points to win this game, but they will need to get in the endzone more than they have in the past 4 years. 

Special Teams

Both teams potentially have the chance to be very good in this area.  For MSU, punter Mike Sadler is one of the better punters in the Big Ten.  And he’s been known to create some excitement with a fake punt here or there.  Freshman Mike Geiger has done a nice job kicking in recent weeks and has the ability to be both consistent and hit a long kick too.  For Michigan, the hero from last year’s game Brendan Gibbons started the season very strong, but after a late game collapse against Penn State he has looked a little shaky.   Michigan will need him back in top form against an MSU defense that limits touchdowns.  The other concern for Michigan is punting and kickoffs, where Matt Wile has been inconsistent.  Michigan needs to be able to control field position to keep MSU’s offense from a short field.  Neither team has been particularly successful on kickoff or punt returns, but Michigan’s Dennis Northfleet always looks like he’s one man away from breaking a big one.  Perhaps this is the week? 

Intangibles 

As noted before, with no chips on the shoulder about breaking streaks or winning where you haven’t won in a long time, this will just be about Michigan and MSU lining up and playing football.  The one major intangible could be the weather.  Right now the forecast is calling for a 50% chance of rain and weather in the 40’s.  That’s not ideal for Michigan, who is going to want to pass the ball a little more.  That being said, Michigan managed to do that very well against Indiana, so they may feel comfortable in bad weather.  The other real intangible that I’ve already discussed will be the turnovers.  It’s part of the game, but sometimes fluke things happen.  For MSU, a fluke turnover here or there could put their defense in a bad spot.  And for Michigan, will an oddly tipped pass that turns into an interception ruin Devin Gardner’s confidence?  

Recipe for a Michigan Win

  1. Downfield Passing Success – It’s clear that MSU’s defense is designed to force you to complete downfield passes.  Michigan has the ability to do that with Funchess and Gallon.  If Michigan can hit a couple of those plays early, it should soften up the MSU defense and will likely lead to points.  
  2. Get Ahead Early – The MSU offense is not designed to play from behind.  They tried it against Notre Dame and struggled.  If Michigan can get an early touchdown (or two) and make MSU play catchup, they’ll be in good shape.  Additionally, MSU seems to get stronger as the game goes on, so Michigan might need a cushion. 
  3. Limited Turnovers – I’m not naive enough to think Michigan won’t turn the ball over.  They will.  It’s just a matter of limiting it to 1 or even 2.  If Michigan can pull a few turnovers back from MSU to offset any losses, that’s even better. 
  4. Run the Ball – 40 of the last 43 games in this rivalry have gone to the team with the most rushing yards.  If Michigan lines up with two tight ends and a fullback and runs into the line all day, I’ll go insane.  But sweeps, read option, QB scrambles can all add up and move the chains.  Trying to throw downfield all game isn’t going to work – this isn’t Indiana.  
  5. Composure! – Playing in East Lansing is a tough assignment.  It’s even tougher with a later start.  Throw in the way MSU likes to push the lines of on-field decorum and cheap shots and Michigan is going to have to stay calm for 60 minutes and just play football.  I’m not as worried about retaliatory penalties as I am about just focusing on the next play.  

Prediction

If you’ve been paying attention all week, you’d think Michigan has no shot to win this game.  MSU has a defense that can’t be stopped, and despite its 6-1 record, Michigan might as well pack it in for the season.  And to be fair, lackluster performances against Akron, UConn and Penn State warrant some of that – but not all of it.  MSU has had its fair share of struggles this year – including slow starts against Western Michigan, South Florida and just two weeks ago against Purdue.  In short, Michigan and MSU are more similar than anyone is admitting.  While MSU has the best defense, Michigan is no slouch.  Offensively, Michigan’s offense is as prolific as any in the country – the only problem being you have no idea whether that offense or the offense determined to give games away will show up.  MSU brings a more consistent approach to their offense, but even when consistent there is questions about how good that offense is.  Last week’s performance against Illinois will need to be repeated before it is classified as a anything other than an aberration.  

My gut is telling me that much like 2005 and even 2007, this is a game where conventional wisdom goes out the window and Michigan comes into East Lansing and surprises everyone.  My head however reminds me that conventional wisdom knows that Michigan has scored an average of 15.75 points against MSU in the last 4 contests and that number drops to 13 points per game since Al Borges came to town.  Losing 4 of the last 5 doesn’t help either.  Throw in the fact that Michigan is 5-6 in true road games under Brady Hoke and 6-8 overall in games away from the Big House and conventional wisdom sounds a little more compelling.  Since none of those 5 wins have come against teams with a winning records you have to come to the conclusion that Michigan beating MSU would be a departure from the past.  Past results are not necessarily an indication of future results, but I’m going to need to see Michigan do it before I can predict that they’ll do it.  

So yes, I’m pinching my nose and picking MSU.  

Michigan State 19

Michigan 16

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bill Costello permalink
    November 2, 2013 10:20 AM

    Andrew, How could you do this?

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