There comes a time when you say to yourself enough’s enough. You’ve always dominated and gotten your way, but recently your little brother has snuck up and stolen a few cookies from the cookie jar while you were on a diet. Those cookies always looked so tempting, but you just couldn’t quite muster up the courage to take one. And little brother taunted you with them.
Then, one day, you’re not quite to where you want to be, but you decide to put a stop to it. By god, those are your cookies. and you’re sick of being taken advantage of. So you hired a new nutritional coach who gives you a great game plan that even includes an indulgence of a few cookies here and there. Little brother comes looking for his cookies and they’re gone. His short stint as the cookie monster is over and he’s relegated back to longing to be you.
Obviously that’s a silly example, but it’s by and large the situation Michigan faces tomorrow. For 103 years, Michigan has dominated the rivalry, winning two-thirds of the meetings. When the Paul Bunyan trophy was introduced in 1953, Michigan State won it, but Michigan has brought old Paul back to Ann Arbor 34 times to MSU’s 22.
In the past three years, however, Little Brother woke up…or, rather, capitalized on an advantageous situation. Rich Rodriguez was brought in to bring Michigan into modernity, and we all know the story. Michigan State swooped in and won all three meetings.
Now, Rodriguez is gone and Brady Hoke has brought a new attitude to Ann Arbor – one that hearkens tradition and values rivalries. He’s already one-for-one, having beaten Notre Dame in Week 2, and now he could become the first Michigan head coach since Bennie Ooosterbaan in 1948 to beat Michigan State in his frist season as head coach. Bo Schembechler lost his first matchup 23-12 in 1969, Gary Moeller lost 28-27 in 1990, and Lloyd Carr lost 28-25 in 1995.
Michigan State enters tomorrow’s matchup 4-1 and ranked 23rd nationally, boasting the nation’s No. 1 ranked total defense. Does Michigan have a chance to end the three-year drought? Let’s take a look at the matchpus.
Kirk Cousins is a senior three-year starter and three-time captain. He has a 20-10 record as MSU’s starting quarterback and has a chance to tie Jeff Smoker (2000-03) for the school record if he beats Michigan tomorrow. So far this season, Cousins has been accurate (67.8 percent) and has thrown for 1,197 yards and six touchdowns.
He’s not much of a runner, so Michigan won’t have to worry about a Northwestern-style offense that it had trouble stopping in the first half last week. He has a decent arm but the offense is more tailored towards short-to-intermediate passes and a power run game. He’s efficient and accurate with outs, slants, curls and the like and has the ability to throw deep every now and then.
He’s likely to be the best quarterback Michigan faces all season, but the Michigan defense has faced its share of good signal-callers so far in Alex Carder, Tommy Rees, Ryan Lindley, and Dan Persa. It gave up a lot of yards to Rees, but got the better of him in the end, and contained the others pretty well. All this to say that while Cousins is good, Michigan and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison certainly won’t be afraid of him.
Denard Robinson is arguably the most dangerous player in the country and the most important player to his team in the Big Ten. He hasn’t always been consistent this season, but he has displayed the ability to win with his legs or his arm. Most people think of him as a running back playing quarterback, but as he showed in the second half against Notre Dame and last week, he can put the ball in the air when needed. It’s just a matter of whether the good-throwing Denard or the back-foot-throwing Denard will show up.
Last year, Michigan State was the first team to bottle him up, holding him to just 86 rushing yards on 21 carries (4.1 yards per) and 215 passing yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. He’s still prone to mistakes when pressured, but he’s not the same player he was a year ago and this isn’t the same offense either. Rest assured Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges will have a good plan to neutralize State’s powerful front seven.
Michigan State features a pair of good running backs in Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. Bell leads the team with 267 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Baker is close behind in yards with 252 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, but just one touchdown. They’re a punishing duo because they give the Spartans two nearly equal bruisers to rotate in and keep fresh. In addition, junior Larry Caper has been a thorn in Michigan’s side the past two years, scoring the winning touchdown in overtime in 2009, and an eight-yard touchdown last season to break the game open. The big question, however, is whether Michigan State’s underperforming offensive line will be able to rise to the occasion, but more on that in a little bit.
Michigan also has a good stable of backs. Though individually they probably aren’t as talented as pure the Spartan trio, but they work well in Michigan’s offense, giving it plenty of versatility. Fitz Toussaint is the between the tackles back leading all UM running backs with 326 yards on 5.4 yards per carry and four touchdowns. But it’s Vincent Smith who is probably the Wolverines best all-around back. He has just 214 yards, but is averaging a whopping 7.4 yards per carry, is a threat as a receiver (seven catches for 104 and two touchdowns) and is solid at picking up blitzes. Michael Shaw is the speed back who can get to the edge as we saw in the second half of last week’s game.
Michigan’s running game ranks seventh in the nation, averaging 257 yards per game. Much of that is thanks to Robinson, but the backs can get the job done.
There’s no question who the go-to guy is for the Spartans. Senior B.J. Cunningham has 36 receptions (twice as many as the second-leading receiver) for 582 yards and two touchdowns. He ranks second in the Big Ten in yards per game and receptions per game and he’s a big-bodied NFL-type wideout who is hard to defend. He’s gone over 130 yards in three of the Spartans’ five games so far this season.
Keshawn Martin is the Spartans second-leading receiver with 19 receptions for 177 yards. He’s the slot guy who could terrorize Michigan’s defense tomorrow as it focuses on stopping Cunningham. Last season, he led MSU with six catches for 69 yards against Michigan. Outside of those two, only former quarterback Keith Nichol has more than 100 yards. He’s ok, but about as good a receiver as a former quarterback can be.
Michigan has several talented receivers with a lot of experience. Junior Hemingway is the number one guy and the main deep threat. He has become Michigan’s best jump-ball receiver since Braylon Edwards. His size allows him to outmuscle the defensive back and go up and get the ball. Sophomore Jeremy Gallon has emerged as Michigan’s second receiver and actually leads the Wolverines in receptions with 17. He has shown speed on the edge and an ability to turn a quick screen into yards. Roy Roundtree, last year’s leading receiver (and second-leading receiver in the Big Ten) has been quiet so far in his move to the outside, but is talented enough to demand respect from the defense.
As was discussed above, Michigan State’s offensive line has underwhelmed thus far. With a trio of good running backs, the line has only paved the way for 128.8 rushing yards per game (79th nationally). It mustered just 71 yards on 31 attempts two weeks ago against Ohio State and 29 (!) yards on 23 attempts in a 31-13 loss to Notre Dame. The line is solid in pass protection, allowing a sack per game, but redshirt freshman center Travis Jackson will have his hands full tomorrow with Mike Martin.
Michigan’s line has been an asset all season, helping lead the nation’s seventh-best rushing attack and allowing just two sacks through six games. Center David Molk is the leader of the unit and a mid-season All-American according to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach. Left tackle Taylor Lewan is a beast and the rest of the guys have been solid. The unit has allowed just two sacks all season, bu the big test comes tomorrow.
This is probably Michigan State’s biggest strength. The group is led by an NFL-caliber nose tackle in Jerel Worthy who practically lives in the backfield, as you can see in the photo. He’s impossible to single block and likes to jump the snap. How Molk handles Worthy will probably make a difference between good Denard and bad Denard.
The other star of the defensive line is sophomore end William Gholston. He’s always in the backfield as well and has the speed to chase down the running from behind on the backside, as he did a couple times against Ohio State.
Michigan’s defensive line is good too, led by senior Mike Martin. Ryan Van Bergen has blossomed into a good pass rusher and Craig Roh is improving weekly after a slow start. This may be the key matchup of the game – whether or not Michigan’s line can get consistent pressure on Cousins. If not, he’ll pick the defense apart.
Edge: Michigan State
Sophomores Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are very good linebackers, reminiscent of classic Ohio State linebackers, which makes sense given that MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio came from OSU. Allen leads the team in sacks (three) and tackles-for-loss (7.5). Bullough got a sack against Ohio State (but then again who didn’t?) and leads the team in tackles with 33.
Michigan’s linebackers have held up surprisingly well, much better than the past few years. It’s not a good unit by any means, but it’s slowly improving. Freshman Jake Ryan is going to be a great player at Michigan in the coming years but right now, he and Kenny Demens struggle to contain on the outside. Northwestern killed them in the first half before Mattison backed them up a step and put Ryan over the slot.
Edge: Michigan State
The Spartans are led by a pair of good safeties in Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson. Robinson was Second-team All-Big Ten a year ago, while Lewis, a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection last season, has two picks. Sophomore defensive back Darquezze Dennard had his first career interception against Ohio State. The safeties like to creep up to the line of scrimmage and move around a lot before the snap. It’s safe to say one will be pulled up until Michigan proves it can beat them deep.
Michigan’s secondary is at least consistent this season. Freshman Blake Countess has emerged as a playmaker and is getting serious playing time in place of banged up Troy Woolfolk. The safeties Thomas Gordon and Jordan Kovacs are the stars of the secondary. Kovacs leads the team in sacks with three, none more important than the fourth-down sack of Persa last week (regardless of whether it was a facemask or not).
Michigan State’s one weakness might be its special teams. Punter Mike Sadler has booted 18 punts for an average of 40.1, but the net is just 33.68, which is 110th nationally. Kicker Dan Conroy has been around forever and is 6-of-9 this season with a long of 50. Redshirt freshman running back Nick Hill is the main kick returner, averaging 26.9 yards per return, while Keshawn Martin is a dangerous punt returner capable of breaking one.
For Michigan, Will Hagerup has punted just three times since his return from suspension, averaging 37.7 per punt. Kicker Brendan Gibbons is 4-of-6, having had last week’s only attempt blocked. Gallon does a good job with punt returns, averaging 10.7 yards per, which is 23rd nationally.
Mark Dantonio is a Jim Tressel disciple. Since coming to East Lansing in 2007, he has turned the program around and instilled a toughness and focus on beating Michigan. He has succeeded with that in three of four meetings. He’s a defensive-minded coach, but always seems to prepare special offensive packages just for Michigan.
Brady Hoke has a chance to do something no Michigan coach has done since 1948: beat Michigan State in his first attempt. If he does so, he’ll have Michigan as the front-runner for the Big Ten Legends Division title. His coordinators, Al Borges and Greg Mattison, have been brilliant all season, especially in the second half. Whether you call it coaching or adjustments, the proof is in the pudding as Michigan has outscored its opponents 114-21 in the second half through six games (and 62-7 in the fourth quarter).
While I think Michigan has the better coaches overall, until they can prove they can clear the green and white mid-season hurdle, I can’t give them the edge.
Michigan State has the momentum in the series, riding a three-game winning streak over Michigan. The game is in East Lansing and the Spartans will be wearing some ugly shiny South Florida new pro combat uniforms. The weather calls for a windy day which favors running games and Michigan’s running game is seventh in the nation. State’s is just 79th. In this rivalry, the team that won the running game has won 28 of the past 31 meetings. That favors Michigan.
Spartan fans claim they’ve seen this story before for Michigan: Michigan starts fast, feasting on cupcakes, until State beat them and then it’s all downhill from there. The irony is that’s been the Spartans’ M.O. up until the past couple of seasons. But this isn’t the same team Michigan fielded the past three years. It has some of the same elements, but the offense is much more complex, the defense has actual coaching, and the head coach places a major emphasis on beating rivals. He’ll have the Wolverines focused.
I think it comes down to two factors: the offensive and defensive lines. Can Molk and company keep Worthy and Gholston from invading the backfield and pressuring Denard into back-foot throws? Conversely, can Martin, Van Bergen, and Roh get consistent pressure on Cousins? Michigan State likes to roll the pocket to hide the line’s protection weaknesses and throw a lot of short routes. Look for Mattison to change up the blitzes to try to force Cousins into some bad throws of which he is prone to make.
It’s important for Michigan to get off to a fast start to put pressure on MSU early, but either way, It’s going to come down to the end like most Michigan-Michigan State games do. I have no doubt Michigan will be able to move the ball pretty effectively by using a combination of quick screens and zone-read to neutralize the Spartan pass rush. If Michigan can finish off its drives like it has all season (with the exception of the first half last week) then it should be able to outscore MSU.
Prediction: Michigan 27 – Michigan State 23
Good to Know:
Michigan has forced multiple turnovers in all six games this season and has a plus-six turnover margin, which is best in the Big Ten and 14th nationally. The 17 turnovers forced are just two short of last year’s season total