The fact that Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series means nothing when the two hated rivals set foot on the Big House turf tomorrow afternoon. Nor does Michigan’s 68-34-5 all-time series lead. What matters is how the two teams are playing right now. Despite Michigan State’s higher ranking (7th to Michigan’s 12th in the AP Poll) it is Michigan that is favored by at least a touchdown and receiving most picks to win by college football experts.
|Michigan Stadium – 3:30 p.m. EST – ESPN
|MSU Head Coach:
||Mark Dantonio (9th season)
||99-48 overall (81-31 at MSU)
||Dave Warner (3rd season)
Jim Bollman (3rd season)
||Mike Tressel (1st season)
Harlon Barnett (1st season)
||MSU 35 – UM11 (2014)
||UM leads 68-34-5
|For the Paul Bunyan Trophy:
||UM leads 35-25-2
|Record in Michigan Stadium:
|Jim Harbaugh vs MSU:
|Last Michigan win:
|Last MSU win:
||Michigan State 2
Michigan State’s record is unblemished but the way in which the Spartans arrived at 6-0 certainly isn’t. A 31-28 win over then-No. 7 Oregon in Week 2 looked great at the time. But Oregon’s meteoric fall from the rankings since then have cast doubt on just how good Mark Dantonio’s squad really is. Oregon is just 2-2 the last four weeks with wins over Georgia State and Colorado, a 62-20 throttling at the hands of Utah, and a 45-38 embarrassment on their home field by Washington State. Suddenly, Michigan State’s best win looks about as good as spelling bee win over an illiterate person.
But it’s not so much what Michigan State’s opponents have done outside of their matchup, it’s what Michigan State hasn’t done to them: win convincingly. Of their six wins, only one — a 35-21 Week 3 win over Air Force can be considered convincing. In the season opener, Western Michigan pulled within 10 points early in the fourth quarter and racked up 383 total yard — 365 through the air — against MSU’s defense. That remains WMU quarterback Zach Terrell’s best game of the season. In Week 4, Central Michigan was within seven until the Spartans scored two touchdowns in the final 8:37 to pull away. The following week against Purdue, Michigan State jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead but then had to hold on as the Boilermakers — winless against FBS competition — nearly made it into position for a game tying field goal in the final minute. Last week, the Spartans needed a touchdown with 43 seconds left to stave off mighty Rutgers, which is just 1-3 against FBS competition.
So what does that mean? It means they are ripe for the picking; they just haven’t played anyone good enough to do it just yet. Their six opponents are a collective 13-20 (.394) and five of those 13 wins have come against FCS schools. Michigan, meanwhile, is playing as well as anyone in the country since a season opening loss to now-No. 4 Utah. Michigan’s six opponents are a combined 20-14 (.588) with four of those wins against FCS schools. And in the past five weeks Michigan has left no doubt about who the better team was on the field.
So what can we expect when Michigan and Michigan State meet tomorrow? Let’s take a look at the Spartans.
|When Michigan State has the ball
In the third season with Jim Bollman and Dave Warner sharing offensive coordinator role, Michigan State ranks 72nd nationally and sixth in the Big Ten in total offense (397.3 yards per game), 67th and 9th in rushing offense (173.3 yards per game), 72nd and 6th in passing offense (224 yards per game), 24th and 2nd in passing efficiency (151.2), and 56th and 4th in scoring offense (31.3 points per game).
The past few years the Spartans have relied on their running game with Jeremy Langford rushing for about 1,500 yards in each of the past two seasons, Le’Veon Bell with 1,800 in 2012 and a hair under 1,000 in 2011, and Edwin Baker with 1,200 in 2010. But that’s not exactly the case this year as Michigan State brings the Big Ten’s ninth-best rushing offense into tomorrow’s matchup.
The load is shared between freshman L.J. Scott and redshirt freshman Madre London. Scott, who has drawn comparisons to Bell, leads the team with 418 yards and six touchdowns on 70 carries (6.0 yards per carry), while London leads with 95 carries for just 399 yards (4.2 ypc) and three touchdowns. But London suffered an injury against Rutgers last week and may not be available tomorrow. That takes away the one-two punch, leaving sophomore Gerald Holmes (21 carries for 120 yards and three touchdowns) and junior Delton Williams (two carries for six yards) to spell Scott.
While the running game hasn’t been its usual self this season, the passing game has been better. Still, it ranks just sixth in the Big Ten and 72nd nationally, but has an experienced senior quarterback in Connor Cook who doesn’t make mistakes and relies on the big play. Cook ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 1,334 passing yards (222.3 per game) and is tied with Nebraska’a Tommy Armstrong for the conference lead with 12 passing touchdowns against just two interceptions. He’s second behind Rutgers’ Chris Laviano in pass efficiency, though his 59.9 percent completion percentage ranks sixth, including behind Jake Rudock. He had a big night against Rutgers last Saturday, completing 23 of 38 for 357 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick.
Cook’s receivers are talented, but it’s clear that senior Aaron Burbridge is the top dog and the rest are the supporting cast. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Burbridge ranks second in the Big Ten in receptions per game (5.7) and yards per game (93.3). He has caught 35 passes for 570 yards (16.3 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. No other receiver on the team has half as many receptions or yards. Junior R.J. Shelton is second with 17 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown, while senior Macgarrett Kings has caught 14 passes for 179 yards and a score. Junior tight end Josiah Price is tied with Burbridge for the team lead with four touchdowns — one in each of the first four games — but missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He’s hopeful to return tomorrow and as the Spartans’ all-time leader in tight end touchdowns, he’ll pose a big threat to Michigan’s defense.
Three starters from 2014 returned along the MSU offensive line, but it has been banged up this season. Junior left tackle Jack Conklin, who entered the season with 26 career starts, missed the last two weeks with an injury, while fifth year senior center Jack Allen — a first team USA Today All-American in 2014 — injured his knee last week against Rutgers. The status of both is up in the air, but Michigan is preparing as if they will play. If not, that leaves numerous configurations the Spartans could use, as described by The Only Colors. Senior right tackle Donovan Clark and sophomore Brian Allen — Jack’s brother — are the two who have started every game this season. If Jack Allen can’t go, Brian will likely man the center spot. Junior Kodi Kieler is the other who will play at one of the tackle spots, depending on whether Conklin is healthy or not.
|When Michigan has the ball
Michigan State’s calling card during the Dantonio era has been its defense, which has ranked among the nation’s best the past few seasons. But the architect of that defense, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh in the offseason leaving Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett to step up and assume the job. While both had been on the staff, they haven’t managed to maintain the level that Narduzzi left.
Six games into the season the Spartans rank 56th nationally and 9th in the Big Ten in total defense (372.2 yards allowed per game), 34th and 7th in rush defense (130.2 rushing yards allowed per game), 88th and 10th in pass defense (242 passing yards allowed per game), 81st and 10th in pass efficiency defense (132.3), and 43rd and 9th in scoring defense (21.3 points allowed per game).
The problem is not the front four which are as good as any in the Big Ten. Senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun has been a first team All-Big Ten and second team All-American each of the past two seasons. He leads the team with six tackles for loss and five sacks so far this season and is a terror as a pass rusher. The other end is senior Lawrence Thomas, who has a lot of experience and has 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks this season. Sophomore tackle Malik McDowell is the disrupter in the middle with five tackles for loss and three sacks, while senior Joel Heath has three and one.
Junior Riley Bullough leads the team with 55 tackles as the middle linebacker. He’s effective as a blitzer with 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. The outside linebackers are missing senior Ed Davis, who is out for the season, and was an All-Big Ten performer in 2014. Sophomore Jon Reschke took his place and ranks second with 38 tackles, while senior Darien Harris mans the other outside spot and ranks third with 37 tackles. Both Reschke and Harris have 2.5 tackles for loss.
Beyond the front seven is where things get dicey for Michigan State’s defense. A lockdown corner was a staple of Narduzzi’s defenses, but Trae Wayne’s departure to the NFL hasn’t been able to be replaced. Senior Arjen Colquhoun and Darian Hicks are the starting corners, but Hicks suffered a head injury last week and it is still unknown whether or not he will be able to suit up tomorrow. Colquhoun has 21 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one sack, and three pass breakups, while Hicks has 13 tackles, a half of a tackle for loss, and two pass breakups. If Hicks can’t go, junior Jermaine Edmonson will get the nod. He replaced Hicks against Rutgers, but was a liability on several plays.
The secondary is also missing safety R.J. Williamson and corner Vayante Copeland, both of which suffered season ending injuries. That led to junior Demetrious Cox moving from corner to safety this season, where he has 32 tackles and leads the team with five passes defended. Sophomore Montae Nicholson has struggled big time this season and has been benched twice.
Junior kicker Michael Geiger is in his third year on field goal duty. After setting an MSU single-season record by making 15 of 16 in 2013, he made just 14 of 20 last season and is 5 of 9 so far this year. His long this season is 47 and he has had two blocked. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger is the punter, averaging 42.7 yards per punt with nine of his 22 punts traveling more than 50 yards and eight downed inside the 20. Shelton handles kick return duties were he is averaging 19.5 yards per return, while Kings is the punt returner, though he has only one return all season and it went for just a yard.
If Michigan’s passing featured Chad Henne, Braylon Edwards, and Jason Avant going up against this Michigan State secondary it would be easy to pick Michigan to win big. But Jake Rudock has yet to show he can throw deep, and it won’t matter if Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh get behind the safeties if Rudock can’t hit them. Yet history tells us that this rivalry is won on the ground. In the last 45 meetings, the team that rushed for more yards has won 42 of them and that’s another advantage Michigan has in this game.
De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson can take advantage of Michigan State’s aggressive defensive line, allowing Michigan to sustain drives and keeping the Spartans from loading the box. That should give Rudock time to hit the short and intermediate routes that he has done a pretty good job of so far.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is essentially a three-man team: Cook, Smith, and Burbridge. Fortunately, Michigan’s defense matches up really well. Jourdan Lewis has become one of the best corners in the nation and will lock down Burbridge. Michigan’s front seven hasn’t allowed anyone to run on it all season, ranking third nationally against the run. That means Shelton and Kings are going to have to come up big against Jabrill Peppers, Jeremy Clark, and Channing Stribling if he’s healthy enough to return from injury. That’s a big if to rely on.
Michigan’s defense will control the line of scrimmage against a banged up MSU offensive line, and although the shutout streak will end, Michigan State won’t be able to put up enough points to keep up. Michigan’s offense will be effective enough to grind out yards, move the chains, and test the shaky secondary. Michigan wins going away and puts Ohio State on notice.
|Michigan 31 – Michigan State 13