We all know the well-worn refrain about little brothers by now. Whether the statement made by Mike Hart following Michigan’s win in 2007 had anything to do with the following four years or not, the simple fact of the matter is that Michigan State has controlled the rivalry since then. It has certainly been quite a ride for our brethren to the northwest to the point that our green friends starting to forget that the first 100 years of the rivalry even occurred. But they did and Michigan hopes this is the year things get back on track.
Michigan State comes limping into Ann Arbor following a 19-16 double-overtime loss to Iowa, the Spartans third loss of the season so far. Their Big Ten title hopes are slim to none at this point and a loss to Michigan would essentially eliminate them from contention.
Michigan Stadium – Ann Arbor, Mich.
On the other hand, Michigan won its first two conference games in convincing fashion, outscoring Purdue and Illinois 89-13 and outgaining them 936-347. That Michigan’s defense has stepped up since the first two weeks of the season (it gave up 66 points to Alabama and Air Force but just 32 in the four games since) doesn’t bode well for Michigan State’s offense which ranks 104th nationally, and second to last in the Big Ten, in scoring.
So will Michigan end State’s four year run or will it continue? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
When Michigan State has the ball
The Spartans average just 21 points per game despite playing three teams (Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Indiana) that rank 92nd or worse in scoring defense. The 23 points State scored on Eastern Michigan are fewer than Ball State, Illinois State, Purdue, Kent State, and Toledo each scored on the Eagles.
Despite the offensive ineptitude, quarterback Andrew Maxwell has shown flashes of promise. Against Indiana, he completed 24-of-40 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. But he’s also been inconsistent. Last week, he completed just 12-of-31 passes for 179 yards and an interception. On the season, he’s completing 54.3 percent of his passes (half a percentage point worse than Denard Robinson) for 1,607 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions. He has thrown the ball an average of 37 times a game, compared to Denard’s 21.
One of his main problems has been inconsistency from his receiving targets. The leading receiver is Keith Mumphrey who has 25 receptions for 330 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Dion Sims is close behind with 24 for 313 and two touchdowns. Sims is listed as questionable with a left ankle injury, but if I had to bet on it, I’d say he’ll play. Bennie Fowler (20, 257, 2), Aaron Burbridge (15, 237), and Tony Lippett (19, 205) all have over 200 yards as well. Burbridge has been a pleasant surprise for Maxwell the past two weeks, catching 13 passes for 223 yards against Indiana and Iowa.
Of course, the running game is where the Spartans want to do the most damage and they have one of the best backs in the conference in LeVeon Bell. He’s been a workhorse so far this season, carrying the ball 200 times for 916 yards and eight touchdowns, an average of 4.6 yards per carry. He was a one-man show against Boise State and Eastern Michigan, toting the ball 80 times for 463 yards and three touchdowns in those two games alone. Michigan held him to his lowest total of the season (seven carries for 20 yards) last year, though his then-backfield mate Edwin Baker did the damage.
The offensive line has been a MASH unit for most of the season. Center Travis Jackson broke his leg and right tackle Fou Fonoti has a stress fracture. Guard Blake Treadwell is also recovering from an injury. It’s a unit that’s starting five won’t be solidified until gametime and will have the task of dealing with Michigan’s emerging defensive line.
When Michigan has the ball
Michigan State’s defense was expected to be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten this season, and possibly one of the best in the country. Through the first seven games, it has been very good, but not nearly what everybody expected. The loss of tackle Jerel Worthy leaves the defensive line without a proven anchor. James Kittredge and Anthony Rashad White have been okay at the position, but haven’t had near the impact Worthy did. The pair has combined for 22 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. Even so, the Spartans rush defense ranks eighth nationally, allowing just 91.3 yards per game.
The defensive ends and linebackers are the team’s strengths. Every Michigan fan is well aware of end William Gholston, but more for his hype and dirty antics in last year’s game than for his actual performance. So far this season, the junior has just five tackles for loss and one sack. His counterpart, Marcus Rush, has similar production with 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack. That’s not great production for a front four that was dominant last season.
I mentioned a minute ago that the Spartans rush defense has been stout this season, but against Ohio State, a similar offense to Michigan’s, State gave up 204 yards on the ground. Braxton Miller accounted for 136 of those on 5.9 yards per carry. The main reason State was so successful defensively last season is Worthy’s presence in the middle, allowing the rest of the front seven to get into the backfield, harass the quarterbacks, and make plays resulting in negative yardage. In last year’s matchup, MSU recorded seven sacks for 62 yards, keeping Michigan on its heels. So far this season, State has recorded just six sacks through seven games.
The linebacking corps is a good one though, led by junior middle linebacker Max Bullough who leads the team with 58 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, and Denicos Allen who ranks second in tackles with 42 and also has a sack. Chris Norman, who started last year and began this season as a starter, was benched in favor of Taiwan Jones.
The secondary has three returning starters from last season, most notably corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Neither has an interception yet, but both are solid corners. Safety Isaiah Lewis also returns,while Kurtis Drummond will get the start this week at the other safety spot. While State’s rush defense is stout, its pass defense is pretty good too, ranking 17th nationally.
The other third
Rushing Yards: 146 – Denard will pass Tyrone Wheatley for 4th in career rushing yards. With 80, he could pass Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick (2007-10) for 3rd in NCAA FBS history.
Kicker Dan Conroy is as experienced as there is in the Big Ten. The third-year starter is 14-for-19 so far this season with a long of 50. He has made 79 percent of his field goals throughout his career. Punter Mike Sadler averages 43.9 yards per punt, which is second only to Will Hagerup. In the return game, MSU ranks around the middle of the pack nationally in both areas. Sophomore running back Nick Hill handles both duties, averaging 22.3 yards per kick return and 8.9 yards per punt return.
By comparison, Dennis Norfleet is averaging 23.6 per kick return, and that’s an area to watch on Saturday. Michigan State’s kick coverage unit ranks 111th nationally, giving up 26.23 yards per kick return.
I actually have a good feeling about this one. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched most of every Michigan State game this season and haven’t been overly impressed. Maybe it’s because I watched Braxton Miller and Ohio State run all over them. Maybe I’m just overly optimistic this week. Regardless, this is going to be the year Denard finally breaks out and has a big game against the team that has bottled him up for the past two years. Look for a diversive offense aimed at taking advantage of MSU’s defensive aggressiveness. Screens like what we saw against Illinois last week can and will result in big gains.
Michigan’s pass defense will be tested by a downfield passing game for the first time since Alabama. We’ll get a chance to see how well the front seven has really improved at getting pressure on the quarterback, as well as whether the secondary that ranks in the top ten nationally is as good as its stats. But that’s not how State will try to beat Michigan. It will be with the run game and it will run Bell until he stops ringing. If Michigan can’t stop the run game, it will be a long day, but if the Wolverines are stopping Bell at the point of attack and forcing MSU to throw, it will be successful.
Michigan should be able to win the battle against State’s banged up offensive line, so I’m hopeful that Bell can be neutralized. So it will come down to whether Michigan can move the ball against State’s stout defense, and the success of OSU/Miller, as well as Iowa’s Weisman last week, gives me hope. If the weather forecast holds up without rain or wind, Michigan’s offense should be able to move the ball as it has all season. Hello 900 club, party of one.
Michigan 24 – Michigan State 13