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Friend vs Foe: Michigan State

October 31st, 2013 by Josh DeMille


It’s Michigan State week, and for this week’s Friend vs Foe we asked Chris Vannini of the Michigan State SB Nation site The Only Colors to answer a few questions about the upcoming game. He was gracious enough to provide his thoughts on his confidence level, Michigan State’s advantages, what Michigan will have to do to move the ball, and more. He also provides his prediction. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVannini and the site’s main feed @TheOnlyColors.

1. On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you in this game, and why?

I’ll go with a 7. In a rivalry game with two good teams, you say a five. Add a point for home field and add a point for the fact I think MSU has more advantages than Michigan, and I get 7. That still means I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Michigan win.

2. Michigan State’s offense struggled through the first few games but has seemed to come alive recently. What has the difference been?

More than anything, it’s Connor Cook making throws. The offensive line has been the best in the Dantonio era and the receivers are getting open and making catches, which they couldn’t do a year ago. Now, it comes down to Cook. He made the throws against Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, but he didn’t against Purdue.

3. Following up on the previous question, what happened against Purdue? How were they able to hold the MSU offense to just seven points despite having a defense that allows 34.4 points per game?

MSU's offensive line has been great at pass protection, but Connor Cook's ability to make throws can make or break the offense (Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications)

It was Cook’s throwing and Purdue’s punting (no, really). MSU’s yards-per-drive was among its highest in the past two years, but MSU’s average starting field position was its worst of the season. For a team that doesn’t get many big plays, requiring long drives to score, the longer they had to go, the more difficult of a time they had. But Cook did miss a number of wide-open guys, including one that would have been a touchdown.

4. What specific matchups do you see Michigan State having a big advantage in this week?

I do see MSU shutting down Michigan’s running backs. The Wolverines have had enough of a problem getting the backs going, and MSU is one of the best rush defenses in the country. If Michigan moves the ball on the ground, it’s going to be Gardner making something out of a pass play that breaks down.

5. Are there any specific matchups you’re worried about, where you think Michigan might have an advantage?

Similar to above, I worry about Gardner’s abilities to make plays out of nothing. He’s very strong and has a knack for breaking tackles and getting out when the pocket breaks down. If he can escape the pressure and make a few big plays, that will go a long way for the Wolverines.

6. Everyone knows MSU’s defense is one of the best in the country. It gave up 28 points to Indiana, and Michigan’s offense – when it doesn’t turn the ball over – can be even more explosive. What will Michigan have to do to have success against your defense?

They’re going to have to take care of the ball and make some of those big plays. Not many can dink and dunk down the field against this MSU defense. Whether it’s a bomb on a pass play or a big run from Gardner, they’re going to need to make some big plays, which MSU has been prone to giving up, due to its aggressive style.

7. What’s your prediction? Explain how it will happen.

I’m going 27-21 MSU. I think both teams will be able to move the ball at times, but MSU will be more slowly down the field, while Michigan will be all or nothing. A turnover or two from Gardner would go a long way.

Ah, Beat State week. I’ve never liked MSU but the contempt has grown into almost Buckeye proportion since the Rich Rod years and their recent rise to defensive supremacy. I respect what Pat Narduzzi has up there and I’d love to see our defense play that way (sans the cheap shots and overall dirty play) but I still can’t stand them.

This is, and will be, the best defense Michigan will come across all year, period. For an offense that hasn’t been consistent and at times has just been downright awful, this will be a big test. With that let’s move on to what Michigan needs to do if they not only want to walk away from East Lansing with a win over a bitter rival but also put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Legends division.

On Offense

Devin Gardner's ability to take care of the ball will determine Michigan's fate against MSU's top-ranked defense (MGoBlue.com)

Sparty is third best (yardage-wise) against the pass and they are tops against the run. Michigan has yet to show a serviceable run game and Gardner often gets happy feet and makes bad decisions in the face of pressure. This presents a difficult challenge. Not to mention State’s proclivity for defensive touchdowns. MSU likes to blitz and they often run a double a-gap blitz, which puts immense pressure on the center and guards – both of which are positions Michigan has not played well at this year. Graham Glasgow, Erik Magnussen and Kyle Bosch (or whoever else plays on the interior) need to bring their A-game. They don’t need to negate or stop these blitzes to be successful, they just need to buy Gardner or the running backs a little bit of time by slowing up linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.

Okay, assuming the interior of the line holds up their end of the bargain we’re still not in the clear. Gardner has to keep his poise and not make bad decisions. He needs to take the sack more often than not. Lost yardage is better than turning it over. Sparty has seen the tape and they will bring pressure and try to get Gardner to make bad decisions that lead to turnovers. If Gardner can play mistake-free football and get the offense into the end zone a couple of times Michigan will win. Michigan can probably win with 21 points, but they will be very hard to come by if Gardner loses his poise and starts turning it over. To reiterate, Garnder cannot turn the ball over against Michigan State’s defense. It wouldn’t be impossible to overcome but if Michigan wants to beat Sparty it needs to hold on to the ball.

On Defense

Luckily for Michigan, the Spartans’ offense is, well, offensive. They’ve found their quarterback in Connor Cook but they still struggle to put up points even against terrible defenses (see: Purdue). Cook is mobile enough to extend plays but I wouldn’t call him a threat to run. That said, Michigan will probably sit back and play their bend but don’t break style of defense. Sparty has been pretty good running the ball and that’s exactly what they will try to do Saturday. It’s not an unstoppable rushing attack but it is very good.

Michigan needs to stay in their assignments, wrap up with solid fundamental tackling and not give up the big play. If they do this they should be able to keep it a game. As with any team that pounds the run game Michigan needs to be aware of the play-action threat. Michigan has given up several big plays this year so the secondary needs to be careful not to peer into the backfield too often looking to make a big stop lest they get beat deep for a touchdown. If Michigan can just play average defense and not let anything get into the second level they should be okay against this State offense.

On Special Teams

Once again, field position will be paramount. Despite their less than stellar offense, if you give Sparty too many short fields they will score. And if Michigan needs to march 70-plus yards each time against a stellar defense they won’t put up 30-plus points. Michigan needs to manage the field position game and keep it in their favor. I wouldn’t expect Norfleet to be able to take it to the house but if he did it could be a huge, momentum swinging event.