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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Dantonio’

Same game, different culture: Michigan State

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

(Derick Hutchinson, M&GB)

As die-hard Michigan Football fans, my friends and I consider road trips the best part of every fall. Nothing is more exciting than packing up the car and heading out to campuses around the Midwest to cheer on the Maize and Blue.

Well, that isn’t always the case.

While trips to Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana have left us with lasting memories regardless of the team’s performance, few places are less fun to travel to than East Lansing. And this year’s trip followed the trend.

For many students, tailgating in East Lansing means reuniting with old high school friends and hanging out all morning. For a kid that went to high school just north of Toledo, there’s not a friendly face in the crowd. After spending the majority of the morning in a maize-heavy parking lot, we migrated towards Spartan Stadium and saw the real action.

There wasn't much to smile about in Spartan Stadium on Saturday (Derick Hutchinson, M&GB)

Michigan State fans definitely have the verbal abuse aspect of the rivalry down, as nearly every group of white and green we passed had something clever to spit out. As well-travelled college football fans, however, the taunting was nothing new and the “Walmart Wolverine” shots went largely unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the most significant event of my day was the football game. Although the Spartan defense looked extremely strong early in the season, I wasn’t quite prepared for the performance I witnessed on Saturday.

Devin Gardner held the ball too long, the offensive line was a sieve and the wide receivers couldn’t get open. All three of these factors contributed to the seven-sack phenomenon that had the back of Gardner’s white and blue jersey looking brown and blue by halftime.

Michigan did hang around for the first half. After stalling and kicking field goals on two drives, the Wolverine defense gave up the most crucial score of the game: a quick touchdown drive to put Michigan State up 13-6 at the break.

A seven-point lead never seemed so insurmountable. Michigan’s inconsistent offense was sputtering against the Spartan pass rush and after the debacle that was the second half, Michigan sent us home with a 23-point loss and no touchdowns to cheer about.

Wet, cold and embarrassed, we trudged back to the RV and began the quiet drive back to Ann Arbor.

Though admitting Michigan State’s superiority is painful after experiencing the hostility of their fan base, there was nothing we could say after Mark Dantonio’s squad completely dominated our Wolverines. Spartan fans easily made up for the surprising lack of brutality we saw in Happy Valley after the quadruple-overtime loss a few weeks ago.

Considering the way Michigan played, I expected every bit of it.

Overall, it was one of the most miserable football Saturdays of my almost 20 years of attending Michigan games. The team couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, or even threaten to for that matter, the rain rarely relented the entire day and we ended up with a blowout loss to our in-state rivals.

I told myself that these are the days in which we earn all the great things that come with being a Michigan Wolverine. In my years as a student we have beaten Ohio State, pulled off two incredible night game victories and won a Sugar Bowl. We haven’t lost at home in 19 straight games!

But we’ve also failed to win the Legends Division, blown an Outback Bowl and lost six of 13 road games under the Brady Hoke regime. And now we’ve lost five of six to our in-state rivals.

It hasn’t been easy, and games like the one on Saturday can make you hate how much you care. But at the end of the day, Michigan football will be back next Saturday, and there’s always the game that matters most against those Buckeyes on November 30th.

Embarrassed in East Lansing: Michigan State 29 – Michigan 6

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

(Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Late in the third quarter, Raymon Taylor stepped in front of the intended receiver and picked off a Connor Cook pass, returning it to the Michigan State 41-yard line. It was just the play Michigan needed to jumpstart a comeback. I let out a nice shout, something along the lines of “YES! Go, go go go go, wooooooo!!!!” but my daughter, who was playing on the floor in front of me, immediately tensed up and said, “Stop yelling at me, daddy.” I spent the next few minutes explaining to my two-year old that I was cheering for Michigan, not yelling at her, all the while watching what should have been a game-turning moment go from first down at the Spartan 41 to 4th-and-31 from the Michigan 38. It was that kind of day.

Two weeks after breaking several offensive records against Indiana, the Wolverines broke another one, but this time it’s not one to be proud of. Thanks in large part to seven sacks and an overwhelmed offensive line, Michigan totaled negative-48 yards rushing, two fewer than the previous worst in Michigan history. It was that kind of day.

Final Stats
Michigan Michigan State
Score 6 29
Record 6-2 (2-2) 8-1 (5-0)
Total Yards 168 394
Net Rushing Yards -48 142
Net Passing Yards 216 252
First Downs 12 19
Turnovers 1 1
Penalties-Yards 3-39 5-25
Punts-Yards 8-327 5-204
Time of Possession 27:39 32:21
Third Down Conversions 2-of-13 9-of-18
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-1 0-of-0
Sacks By-Yards 1-16 7-49
Field Goals 2-for-2 3-for-3
PATs 0-for-0 2-for-3
Red Zone Scores-Chances 1-of-2 3-of-3
Full Box Score

The talk leading up to the game centered around needing to match Michigan State’s physicality. Brady Hoke and Al Borges likened it to a street fight. Taylor Lewan said Michigan got bullied two years ago in East Lansing: “If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face would you take that personally? Yeah, I take it personally.” Lewan was determined not to get bullied this time around, but Michigan State’s defense did the bullying in a clean, hard-nosed football sort of way, and Lewan resorted to, well, hitting a Spartan right in the face, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was that kind of day.

Trailing 6-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan showed signs of moving the ball. A Fitzgerald Toussaint nine-yard run – Michigan’s longest of the day – followed by a Gardner six-yard run and an 11-yard completion to Jeremy Gallon got Michigan across midfield. On 1st-and-10 from the Michigan State 49, Graham Glasgow’s snap sailed over Gardner’s head and the quarterback had to fall on it for a 20-yard loss. Gardner lost another yard on the next play and was sacked on third down. Lewan’s penalty moved Michigan back another 15 yards and the Wolverines faced 4th-and-48 from their own 13. Matt Wile’s punt went 43 yards – three more than his season average – and still didn’t reach the first down marker. It was that kind of day.

Midway through the second quarter, still trailing 6-3, Jehu Chesson went up and snatched a 58-yard pass from Gardner. It was just his eighth reception of the season and by far his longest and it put Michigan 1st-and-10 from the MSU 22. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-2 from the 14, Borges called a zone read and Gardner was stopped for a loss of seven, prompting former Michigan linebacker Larry Foote to tweet “That was the worst call I’ve ever seen on 3rd and short!!!!!!!!!!” Michigan settled for a field goal, which Brendan Gibbons banked in off the right upright. It was that kind of day.

Taylor Lewan losing his cool embodied Michigan's performance (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Jeremy Gallon, who set the all-time Michigan and Big Ten single-game receiving record two weeks ago, caught three passes for 57 yards on Michigan’s first five plays of the game. He caught just two for 10 yards the rest of the game, one of which was caught at the first down marker then fumbled backward, turning what would have likely been a first down on 2nd-and-5 into a 3rd-and-6, which Michigan didn’t convert. In the fourth quarter, needing two touchdowns with two-point conversions, Michigan put together it’s longest drive of the day. Gardner tried to connect with Gallon down the left sideline near the end zone, but Gallon was outmuscled by Darqueze Dennard, who picked it off, effectively sealing the game. It was that kind of day.

On Michigan State’s first play of the game, after Michigan had opened with a field goal, Cook rolled to his right. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had fallen down making a block, got up and leaked out to his left. As Michigan defensive end Brennen Beyer was closing in, Cook turned and lobbed it back across the field to Pendleton who was wide open and raced down the left sideline 49 yards to the Michigan 26. It was the fifth reception of his career and the longest pass play of the season for the Spartans. It was that kind of day.

When all was said and done, Michigan removed itself from contention for the Big Ten Legends Division title, gaining a season low 168 total yards – just 13 more than Youngstown State of the FCS managed against the Spartans. To make matters worse, it was Michigan’s fifth loss in the past six meetings with the in-state rival and because of the divisional realignment with Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference Michigan has to travel to East Lansing once again next season.

What a strange, strange season it has been, from the elation of the Notre Dame win to the depression of the Akron, UConn, and Penn State performances to the record-breaking thrill of Indiana to the embarrassment in East Lansing. With Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State remaining, the ups and downs are likely to continue the next four weeks. And with no shot at Hoke’s stated goal – to win the conference – we resort to playing spoiler, especially when Nov. 30 rolls around.

M&GB staff predictions: Michigan State

Friday, November 1st, 2013

While we all knew it would be an offensive battle, none of us predicted such a high scoring game against Indiana two weeks ago. It was certainly fun to watch the Michigan offense go up and down the field with ease, shattering records in the process, but it was equally as concerning watching Indiana do the same to the Michigan defense. The good news is Michigan got a week off to fix what went wrong defensively and now gets to face one of the worst offenses in the conference. The bad news is Michigan’s offense has to go up against the best defense in the conference and perhaps the best in college football.

Can Michigan win its second straight against its bitter rival and win in East Lansing for the first time since 2007? Or will the Spartans win for the fifth time in six years? Let’s take a look at our picks:

Justin: The way this season has gone, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Michigan win by ten or lose by ten in this one. But neither is likely. As I mentioned in the game preview, Michigan will look to jump out early and dictate the way the game is going to be played, forcing Michigan State’s conservative offense to play from behind, and keeping the vaunted Spartan defense from being able to dictate. Look for an aggressive Michigan offense to start with before settling down into more of its base offense. Defensively, Michigan will play somewhat conservatively, looking to stop the run and make Connor Cook move the ball down the field.

As long as Gardner plays under control and doesn’t turn the ball over in Michigan’s territory, there’s no reason to think Michigan can’t win this game.

Michigan 24 – Michigan State 17

Staff Predictions
Michigan Michigan State
Justin 24 17
Chris 20 21
Josh 17 27
Sam 24 20
Derick 19 17
Katie 24 27
Drew 20 16
M&GB Average 21.1 20.7

Chris: Michigan State 21 – Michigan 20

Josh: See yesterday’s Friend vs Foe for my full breakdown.

Michigan State 27 – Michigan 17

Sam: It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the 2013 Michigan football team will ever have a true identity, or whether they will ever manage to pair together a solid display both offensively and defensively in one game.

As it stands now, this Michigan team is not unlike my golf game. If my driver is working well, my irons and short game are undoubtedly off. If my touch around the green is at its prime, I’m probably approaching the hole from somewhere in the woods to the right of the fairway.

Whatever the case may be, the time for the Wolverines to get it together is now. Over the next month, Michigan will face Nebraska and Ohio State at home in addition to away games at Iowa and Northwestern. If the Wolverines hope to compete for the Big Ten title and make it to a relevant bowl game, some consistency must be found – and soon.

Now, after the second bye week of the year, Michigan will travel to East Lansing for one of its three rivalry games after a 63-47 heart attack victory over Indiana.

Fortunately for the Michigan squad, the coaches should know exactly what to expect against a Michigan State team that shines on defense and sports an offense that some grade schools would be ashamed to field. Most agree that it will come down to the points each team is able to score this Saturday, and if Michigan is able to break down the Spartan defense for three or more touchdowns, the Paul Bunyan trophy should find its way back to Ann Arbor.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the Michigan State defense is exceptional yet again, giving up just 12.3 points per game. Indiana, who gave Michigan fits all day with a quick-fire offense that put up 47 points, is the only team all season, with 28 points, that has been able to put up more than 17 points on Michigan State. Michigan State’s last two opponents, Illinois and Purdue, combined to score three points while gaining just 354 total yards.

This weekend, the key is in Devin Gardner’s hands yet again. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi loves to bring pressure via the blitz; if Gardner cowers at any semblance of defenders in the backfield, Michigan will be in for a long day, but if he can stay calm and find Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess over the top of a vulnerable Spartan secondary, the Wolverines will be successful. Of course, early gains through the air should also open up some holes for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but the run game will not be Michigan’s weapon of choice. Gardner will connect with Gallon, Funchess, and Drew Dileo just enough to keep Michigan State’s offense playing catch-up, which it will fail to do, as Michigan wins.

Michigan 24 – Michigan State 20

Derick: The two sides if the bye week couldn’t be more different. Michigan entered the break with a win that featured 110 total points scored and countless school/conference records broken.

In East Lansing, two scores could be enough.

One of the most bipolar offenses in the country faces off against potentially the stringiest defense as Devin Gardner attempts to continue the ball security that resulted in 63 points against Indiana.

Unfortunately, Michigan State’s defense not only forces turnovers, they score on them. It is critical for Gardner to keep the Spartan defense out of the endzone and force an anemic passing attack to move the ball on offense.

If he can accomplish that, the defense should be able to contain Connor Cook and the Spartans.

Statistically, of all Michigan State’s 2013 opponents thus far, Michigan most closely resembles the offense of Indiana, scoring just over 42 points per game. If that is any indication, Michigan will post around the same score (28) in East Lansing.

Given the intensity of this in-state rivalry I doubt Mark Dantonio’s defense will be so generous. To keep the Big Ten Championship aspirations alive Michigan will have to win an ugly low-scoring game.

Michigan 19 – Michigan State 17

Katie: What will happen when the Wolverine offense plays a defense that doesn’t allow 63 points in a game? We shall see. I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I don’t think Michigan is going to pull this one out, mainly because of the stat differences in when the Maize and Blue are at home versus away. The defining matchup will likely be Gardner and the offensive line against the touted Spartan defense. I think that the bye week has done the Wolverines good. Time to look at the tape, fix holes, and drill. Then again that’s what I said after the last bye week, and the play wasn’t spectacularly better after that respite.

Michigan State 27 – Michigan 24

Drew: On Monday, I asked my followers on Twitter whether they viewed tomorrow’s heated matchup with Michigan State as the most important game of Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. Although the majority of the responses ranked U-M’s 2011 victory over Ohio State at the top of the list, an argument certainly can be made for tomorrow’s game against the Spartans.

First, after having a stranglehold on this in-state rivalry from 1969 to 2007, winning 30 of 39 contests, Michigan needed a last-second field goal by Brendan Gibbons in 2012 to prevent Michigan State from winning an unprecedented fifth straight time in this series. Tomorrow, MSU has an opportunity to win five of the last six games in this series for the first time since 1962. If Michigan wants to continue to be the “big brother” in this rivalry, it needs to start stringing wins together now.

Second, although Michigan is unbeaten at home under Hoke, the Wolverines have been notoriously bad on the road. With Hoke on the sidelines, Michigan holds a 5-6 record in true away games. The best opponent U-M has beaten in that span was a 2011 Illinois squad that lost its final six games of the regular season. This is Hoke’s last opportunity of 2013 to earn his first signature win in a hostile environment. To not have one in his first three years would be worrisome.

Third, and most importantly, Michigan’s Big Ten championship hopes are on the line. If Michigan loses, it essentially would be three games behind the Spartans in the loss column because MSU would win the tiebreaker. Only one MSU win or U-M loss thereafter would eliminate the Wolverines. For a Michigan program whose top goal every season is to win the Big Ten, missing the conference championship game for the second time in three years because it lost to its in-state rival would be a big black mark on Hoke’s first three seasons at U-M.

So will Hoke and the Wolverines earn a critical victory in East Lansing?

Despite a slow offensive start, Michigan finally realizes in the second half that the shotgun and pistol formations are the core of its offense. As a result, U-M becomes the first team this season to surpass 300 total yards against MSU. Defensively, Greg Mattison holsters his blitzes, forcing the inaccurate Connor Cook to force throws into tight windows. The strategy pays off as MSU struggles to sustain extended drives all game. After throwing a fourth-quarter interception that hands the Spartans a three-point lead, Gardner redeems himself, scrambling for the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes to keep U-M’s Big Ten championship dreams alive.

Michigan 20 – Michigan State 16

For more coverage of this week’s game, see: Michigan-Michigan State game preview; this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe with Chris Vannini of the Spartan SB Nation blog The Only Colors; Monday’s First Look: Michigan State, and this week’s Five-Spot Challenge. Drew (@DrewCHallett) broke down Michigan’s running game through the first seven games and explained what it should do to have success going forward.

Also check out game previews from MGoBlogMaize n Brew, Touch the Banner, Maize n Blue Nation, The Big House Report, and The M Block.

From the other side, game preview from The Only Colors. Also, eight out of ten of them pick MSU to win and their average score is 26-18.

Michigan-Michigan State game preview

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Last season Michigan got the Michigan State monkey off its back with a 12-10 win in the Big House. But tomorrow’s meeting carries even greater implications since Michigan already has a conference loss. There is no margin for error left if the Wolverines want to win the Big Ten Legends Division as a loss would effectively put Michigan two-and-a-half games behind the Spartans with four games remaining. It would also be Michigan’s fifth loss in the past six matchups with the hated rival, something nobody in maize and blue wants to face.

Fans in East Lansing want to believe the tide is turning, or has already turned. They’ll tell you that Michigan no longer owns the state. But this isn’t the first time Michigan State has gained a brief upper hand in the rivalry. Yes, Michigan holds a 68-32 advantage (plus five ties), but from 1950 to 1968 MSU went 13-4-2. Enter Bo Schembechler.

He replaced a coach who was, at the time, the worst in program history. Sound familiar? Bo promptly lost to Michigan State in East Lansing his fist season – Michigan’s fourth loss in five meetings. But from there, Michigan won the next eight against the Spartans and went on a 30-8 run under Bo, Gary Moeller, and Lloyd Carr.

The series finally turned back in State’s favor when Rich Rodrigeuz took over, and by the time Brady Hoke was hired to replace the new worst coach in program history Michigan had lost three straight. Like Bo, he lost his first meeting in East Lansing, but turned the tables a year later.

Quick Facts
Spartan Stadium – 3:30pm EST – ABC
MSU Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (7th season)
Coaching Record: 76-46 (58-29 at MSU)
Offensive Coordinator: Jim Bollman (1st season)
Defensive Coordinator: Pat Narduzzi (7th season)
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Last Season: 7-6 (3-5, 4th Legends)
Last Meeting: Michigan 12 – MSU 10 (2012)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 68-32-5
Record at Spartan Stadium: Michigan leads 17-12-1
Current Michigan Streak: Won 1
Last MSU Win: 2011
Last Michigan Win at MSU: 2007

Our neighbors up I-96 want you to believe they own the rivalry now, but if Michigan could regain the series dominance once after a few lean years there’s no reason to think it can’t do so again.

Michigan State comes in as the leaders of the Legends Division with a 7-1 record overall and 4-0 record in conference. The lone loss was a 17-13 defeat at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 in which the Michigan State offense was limited to just 254 total yards – their lowest of the season.

The seven wins, however, have come against six FBS opponents with a combined record of 15-30 and an FCS foe. Not exactly a formidable group of opponents.

The nonconference slate included wins over Western Michigan (26-13), South Florida (21-6), and Youngstown State (55-17) in addition to the Notre Dame loss, while the Spartans opened conference play with with four of the worst teams in the Big Ten – Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. If any team in the top half of the Big Ten was anything worse than 7-1 at this point it would be a major disappointment.

Michigan has the advantage of coming into this one off a bye, which means Hoke and staff had two weeks to prepare for the Spartans. But Hoke’s teams have struggled to win on the road since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Can Michigan pull off the win and put themselves in the Legends Division driver’s seat? Or will Michigan State regain the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the fifth time in the last six years? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Michigan defense vs Michigan State offense: When Michigan State has the ball

Offense is not what wins the games for Mark Dantonio’s squad this season, but after a sluggish start to the season, it has shown some signs of life the past few weeks. Early on, it seemed the Spartan offense was struggling to find its identity after losing Le’Veon Bell to the NFL. Dantonio and first-year offensive coordinator Jim Bollman shuffled through quarterbacks trying to find the right one to simply move the ball without an every down workhorse to carry the load.

In the first two games of the season, Michigan State’s offense scored just 19 points combined (two touchdowns, a missed extra point, and two field goals) against Western Michigan and South Florida. The 26 total points MSU scored against WMU are the lowest the Broncos have allowed all season, and 14 of those came from the Spartans’ defense. The 21 total points MSU scored a week later are the third fewest scored against USF this season, but again 14 of those came by way of the MSU defense. The two teams that scored fewer than 21 points against USF – Cincinnati (20) and UConn (10) – did so with their offense, which means no offense has scored fewer points agains the Bulls than Michigan State.

Connor Cook's arm has been inconsistent, but he has avoided turnovers (Rey Del Rio, MSU Athletic Communications)

The Spartan offense seemed to get going, scoring 55 against Youngstown State, 26 against Iowa, 42 against Indiana and Illinois, while being held to 13 by Notre Dame. But then Purdue came to town and the MSU offense of the first two games returned. Purdue’s defense allows 34.4 points per game but Michigan State’s offense mustered just seven. Even Indiana State of the FCS, which hasn’t won a game against Division 1 competition, scored more offensive points against the Boilermakers.

As mentioned above, much of the early season scoring troubles originated from the quarterback position. Last year’s starter, Andrew Maxwell, began the season as the starter but completed just 15-of-30 passes for 114 yards in the first two games. Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor got a shot, but was equally as ineffective, failing to record a touchdown. Dantonio finally settled on redshirt sophomore Connor Cook who fully grabbed the reigns against Youngstown State and has been up and down since, but has proven most capable of managing the offense.

Cook has completed 59.9 percent of his passes this season for 1,238 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Against Notre Dame, he completed just 16-of-32 for 135 yards and against Purdue he connected on just 13-of-25 for 107, but in the other four games he has completed 68.1 percent of his passes. The most impressive performance was last week against Illinois when he missed on just one of 16 throws for 208 yards and three touchdowns.

The Spartans don’t throw downfield a lot, instead using the run to set up a lot of crossing routes and underneath passes, which is a big reason for Cook’s rather pedestrian but mistake-free numbers. He also doesn’t have a many standout targets to throw to, but redshirt sophomore Macgarrett Kings Jr is his favorite target. Kings leads the team with 26 receptions for 303 yards and has big play ability on crossing routes. Senior Bennie Fowler is the second leading receiver with 20 catches for 278 yards and leads the team with four touchdowns. He had a big game against Iowa, catching nine passes for 92 yards and a score, but hasn’t caught more than three passes in any other game. Redshirt junior Tony Lippett is the tallest receiver at 6’3″, while Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphrey are the only others that have double digit receptions.

The running game is headlined by redshirt junior Jeremy Langford who has really come on in Big Ten play. After failing to reach 100 yards in each of the first five games, the 6’0″, 206-pound back has eclipsed 100 yards in each of the last three. He leads the team with nine touchdowns, and his 141 carries are third-most in the Big Ten behind Fitzgerald Toussaint (155) and Iowa’s Mark Weisman (149). He has averaged 23 carries a game in the last three.

The only other back that has more than 50 carries is redshirt junior Nick Hill, who has 55 for 289 yards. True freshman Delton Williams is the bruiser of the bunch at 6’1″, 220. He saw his first action once Big Ten play started and leads the team with a 7.2 yards per carry average. Against Indiana he ran 12 times for 92 yards and he had five rushes for 78 yards and a touchdown last week against Illinois.

While there aren’t a lot of big time playmakers on the Spartans’ offense, the line might be its best unit. It has paved the way for a respectable running game and most importantly has protected Cook, allowing a conference best six sacks, which is half as many as Michigan has allowed. The main reason for the consistency is the lack of major injuries which have plagued the MSU offensive line the past few years. The line is anchored by fifth-year seniors, right guard Dan France and left guard Blake Treadwell who have a combined 50 starts on the line.

Overall, Michigan State’s offense is the definition of conservative and that’s by design. With such a strong defense and a first-year starter at quarterback, there’s no reason to take too many risks offensively. Michigan hasn’t had much success at getting to the quarterback this season, so don’t expect many blitzes to try to attack the stellar offensive line. Look for Michigan to sell out to stop the run and force Cook to make throws to beat them. That’s essentially what Notre Dame and Purdue did and Cook wasn’t very accurate.

Michigan offense vs Michigan State defense: When Michigan has the ball

Defense is the reason for the excitement in East Lansing as Pat Narduzzi’s group leads the conference and ranks in the top three nationally in most defensive categories. As mentioned above, the Spartan defense has scored five touchdowns, singlehandedly keeping MSU in some games early on. They give up just 12.3 points per game and have allowed just three total points in the past two weeks. Only Indiana’s high-powered offense has scored more than 17 points, but the 28 the Hoosiers scored were still well below their season average and 19 fewer than they scored against Michigan two weeks ago.

Michigan's line will have its hands full with Marcus Rush and the rest of the MSU defense (MSU Athletic Communications)

It’s an aggressive defense that doesn’t do anything outrageous, but is well coached and plays good fundamental football. Despite losing two very good players on the defensive line, tackle Jerel Worthy and end William Gholston, the unit might be even better this season. Redshirt sophomore Shilique Calhoun is certainly an upgrade to Gholston. He currently has eight tackles for loss and four sacks and leads the nation with three defensive touchdowns. The other end is redshirt junior Marcus Rush who has started 34 career games and has three sacks of his own this season. Nineteen game starter Tyler Hoover is also a veteran on the line and redshirt sophomore Damon Knox rotates in as well.

The linebackers are a very smart and talented group led by seniors Denicos Allen and Max Bullough who are the team’s leading tacklers with 48 and 47, respectively. Allen has three sacks and is tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, while Bullough has one sack and 6.5 TFL. Junior Taiwan Jones is another experienced player who starts at the Star linebacker position.

The secondary may be the best, and certainly the most aggressive unit on the team. The corners play press coverage and are prone to pass interference penalties, but are a big reason the defense is so good. Darqueze Dennard may be the best cover corner in the Big Ten and has two interceptions and seven pass breakups to show for it. The senior has started 34 career games and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season. Redshirt sophomore Trae Waynes has performed well despite being a first year starter. Safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond have a combined 49 career starts and 13 interceptions.

There’s no question this will be the best defense Michigan will face all season, and for an offense that struggled against the likes of Akron and UConn, that’s more than a bit worrisome. But the problems that plagued the Michigan offense in those games – most notably turnovers – have been more under control since Michigan’s last bye week, and this offense has more weapons than any team Michigan State has faced yet this season.

Michigan has had trouble moving the ball against the Spartans the past couple of years, but it was also much easier to defend with Denard Robinson’s inability to make the throws that Devin Gardner can make. State was able to load the box and force Denard out of his comfort zone. With Gardner, that can lead to big plays.

The other third: Special Teams

Michigan State has used a pair of kickers for field goals this season and they have combined to make 10-of-13. Senior Kevin Muma made 4-of-6, but was replaced by true freshman Michael Geiger who has made 6-of-7 with a long of 49. Muma handles kickoffs and has a touchback rate of just under 50 percent. Redshirt junior punter Mike Sadler is one of the Big Ten’s best, currently second with a 43.1-yard average.

Nick Hill and Macgarrett Kings handle the kick returns, which have been few and far between this season. The Spartans have only returned nine kicks through eight games for a meager 17.4-yard average. Receiver Andre Sims Jr shares punt return duties with Kings. Sims has 15 returns for an average of 8.6 yards, while Kings has 11 for 8.5.


Gardner will pick up yards with his feet but if he takes care of the ball Michigan will win (

The absolute biggest key to this game will be turnovers. If Gardner avoids the bad mistakes that he made against Akron, UConn, and at the end of the Notre Dame game, Michigan will have a very good shot to win this game. If he feeds right into the Spartan defense, it will likely spell doom. Michigan State’s offense likely isn’t going to put together many long scoring drives, so the last thing Michigan can afford is to give up a defensive touchdown or turn the ball over in its own territory giving MSU a short field.

It’s vitally important for Michigan to get off to a quick start. Michigan State’s offense isn’t built for playing from behind and its defense gains momentum as the game goes on. If Michigan falls behind and has to get out of its normal offense, State’s defense can tee off on Gardner. A couple of early scores will change the game and force the Spartans back on their heels, opening things up, and take the crowd out of the game.

Look for Michigan to start the game with the shotgun and pistol looks and try to dictate the way the game goes before settling into its more traditional under center offense. As Drew pointed out in his Inside the Numbers post earlier in the week, Michigan has had twice as much success running the ball out of the shotgun/pistol than under center, but it will need to run about half of its offense from under center simply to have a balanced offense. Michigan State hasn’t allowed a team to rush for 100 yards yet this season, but I think Michigan will eclipse that mostly because if there is one thing State’s defense has struggled with the past couple of years it’s dual threat quarterbacks. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez both had big games last season, and Indiana’s Tre Roberson had a good game a couple weeks ago. Gardner is less one-dimensional than Denard Robinson and will be able to extend plays with his legs while making throws Denard couldn’t make.

Defensively, Michigan will force Cook to pick apart the defense. Jake Ryan, who is in line to make his first start of the season, will be key in stopping the quick screens and jet sweeps that Bollman likes to run. This isn’t a big play offense, so as long as Michigan can stop the run it shouldn’t have much trouble holding the Spartans to less than 20 points, which will be enough to allow Michigan to win the game.

Michigan 24 – Michigan State 17

Friend vs Foe: Michigan State

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

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 (

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.

Inside the Numbers: With MSU looming, Michigan must not make “Manball” mistake

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013


Ladies and gentlemen, it is State Week.

The big question many Michigan fans have been asking this week is whether Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges will finally solve the complex puzzle that is Michigan State’s defense. Despite a dramatic, last-second victory for the Wolverines last October, no team has given their offense more fits than the Spartans. In the past two contests against MSU, the Maize and Blue averaged 13 points and 288 total yards. Those numbers are the worst Michigan has averaged against any opponent it has played more than once since U-M hired Borges.

Do not expect the puzzle to become any easier this Saturday. If anything, it has become even more challenging. Statistically, Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the country, if not the best. The Spartans’ national ranks in each relevant defensive category speak for themselves. They are ranked in the top three in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, rushing yards allowed per carry, passing yards allowed, passing yards allowed per attempt, and passing efficiency defense. MSU is the only team in America to have such a high ranking in all of these categories. Other than Michigan State’s tendency to force referees to throw an inordinate number of yellow flags—MSU is ranked 109th in fewest penalty yards per game—the Spartans’ defense has no weaknesses for Borges to exploit.

The team that rushed for more yards has won 40 of the last 43 meetings in this rivalry (Leisa Thompson, The Ann Arbor News)

Borges will run into roadblocks whether he tries to run or pass against Michigan State, but if he wants to walk out of Spartan Stadium with a win on Saturday, he needs Michigan’s ground game to be successful against the nation’s best rushing defense. Why should Borges bother testing the teeth of MSU’s defense? Because in the last 43 meetings between the two in-state rivals, the team with more rushing yards in the game has been the victor 40 times.

So what should Borges do to give Michigan the best chance to execute against a rush defense that has held all opponents to less than 100 yards and all but one opponent to less than three yards per carry? Simply, Borges needs to shelve his “manball” formations and make the shotgun the core of U-M’s offense.

Michigan entered this season with a mission to deemphasize the spread formations that U-M employed the last two seasons when former quarterback Denard Robinson took the snaps. The goal was to preach “manball,” feature tight formations, such as the Ace and I-formation, and run the ball down defenses’ throats. Through the first seven games of the season, Borges and the Wolverines have not deviated from this goal. Sixty-eight percent of U-M’s 281 relevant running plays—which exclude those that featured Michigan’s backups—have been called from formations in which quarterback Devin Gardner has lined up under center.

Yet, there are times when people must realize that their goals are not in their own best interest. For Borges and Michigan, this is one of those times. Despite Borges’ preference to run the football when under center, the Wolverines are much more productive when running from spread formations, such as the shotgun and pistol. Evidence of this production can be seen in the table below, which breaks down Michigan’s rushing totals by formation:

Michigan rushing – by formation
Under Center Shotgun/Pistol
Carries Yards YPC Carries Yards YPC
CMU 30 180 6.0 8 50 6.25
Notre Dame 21 80 3.81 15 95 6.33
Akron 21 78 3.71 8 110 13.75
UConn 25 92 3.68 16 137 8.56
Minnesota 31 104 3.35 3 19 6.33
Penn State 34 65 1.91 17 110 6.47
Indiana 29 125 4.31 23 145 6.30
Totals 191 724 3.79 90 666 7.40

There is no denying how much better the Maize and Blue’s rushing attack is when running from the shotgun and pistol. Not only has Michigan recorded more yards per carry in those spread formations than when under center in every game this season, it has averaged 3.61 more yards per carry overall. If U-M ran well from both types of formations, there would be no need for Borges to rethink his offensive game plan, but this is not the case. Instead, the Wolverines have exceeded six yards per carry in shotgun and pistol formations in all of their games, while averaging less than four yards per carry overall in all but two of them.

Borges may have finally realized this after the debacle in Happy Valley, where Michigan ran a season-high 34 times under center while averaging a season-low 1.91 yards per carry. The following week against Indiana, U-M posted its highest percentage of running plays from the shotgun and pistol this season (44.2 percent), including a season-high 13 runs from those formations for running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Not only did Toussaint have his most productive game of 2013 with 151 rushing yards, the shift to more spread formations contributed to Michigan’s season-high 248 rushing yards and helped the Maize and Blue set a school record for total yards in a single game with 751.

Michigan has averaged nearly twice as many rushing yards from shotgun/pistol than under center this season (Eric Upchurch, MGoBlog)

This was a step in the right direction for Michigan’s offense, but Borges needs to leap even further away from under center and towards the shotgun and pistol when it faces Michigan State this weekend.  To give U-M the best chance to win, more than half of the Wolverines’ runs must be from spread formations. Although there is no guarantee that running mostly from the shotgun and pistol will be effective against the mighty front of the Spartans’ defense, the odds that it will are exponentially greater than if U-M lined up under center. Plus, there are two additional benefits to running from the shotgun and pistol.

First, those formations provide Michigan a second rushing threat in addition to the running back: Gardner. He has been U-M’s most effective rusher this year. When one removes his sacks, Gardner has carried the ball 80 times for 625 yards and an average of 7.81 yards per carry. When one then removes his scrambles, Gardner still has averaged 6.84 yards per carry—about three yards per carry more than both Toussaint and backup running back Derrick Green.

If the Wolverines want to utilize their best rusher properly, they need to put him in a formation that does not restrict him only to scrambles and bootlegs. The formations that expand the arsenal of quarterback runs that Borges can call are the shotgun and the pistol, and the Michigan quarterback has used his legs best when lined up in those formations. In the shotgun and pistol, Gardner has recorded 54 carries for 484 yards—averaging 8.49 yards per carry—and recorded seven of his nine total rushing touchdowns. With Gardner lined up a few yards behind the center, MSU’s defense won’t be unable to focus all of its attention on Michigan’s running back, opening up lanes for both Wolverines in the backfield.

Why would the Spartans focus all of their attention on Toussaint when Michigan goes under center? The reason is because Michigan tips its play calling when it lines up in the Ace or I-formation. When U-M lines up under center, defensive coordinators know that U-M usually plans to handoff to its running back. This season, Michigan has run 270 relevant plays from under center, and 70.7 percent of those plays have been runs. Further, 84.8 percent of these runs have been handoffs to the running back.

It is even worse in third-and-short situations. When the Maize and Blue need three yards or less to move the chains on third down, Borges has called a run 15 of 16 times (93.75 percent) when under center, earning the first down only nine times. In these situations, Borges practically is telling the defensive coordinator that the ensuing play will be either a handoff to the running back or a bootleg by Gardner.

Defenses have adjusted accordingly by placing eight or nine defenders in the box when they see U-M line up under center. Without an audible, these plays generally have been dead before Gardner even received the snap. Of the Wolverines’ called runs when under center, 35.8 percent have resulted in no gain or a loss, while only 15.3 percent of their runs in the shotgun and pistol have had such poor results. This has been a critical reason why Michigan’s inconsistent offensive line—which will have its ninth different starter of the season against MSU—is 115th in the nation in tackles for loss allowed.

Fitz can expect a swarm of Spartan defenders if Borges chooses to spend the game running from under center (

Thus, the second benefit of lining up in spread formations is that Michigan likely will no longer tip its plays to opponents. Michigan’s play calling has been much more balanced when lined up in the shotgun and pistol. In these spread formations, the Wolverines have run the football 45.5 percent of the time. Although Michigan’s run-pass balance likely will skew more towards the run if Borges decides to feature more spread formations, the balance should be much closer to a 50-50, meaning defenses should be less likely to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on U-M’s formation.

Additionally, an emphasis on the shotgun and pistol should not negatively impact Michigan’s aerial attack. Gardner’s accuracy has been nearly identical when throwing from both types of formations, completing 61.3 percent of his passes when under center and 61.2 percent in spread formations. Also, Gardner’s yards per passing attempt in both formations are no less than 8.6, so U-M should still maintain its vertical passing attack.

The only potential drawback for U-M is turnovers, particularly interceptions. Michigan’s battle with Michigan State likely will be a low-scoring affair, meaning points will be a premium. Turnovers not only waste an opportunity for a team to score, but they also put the opponent in a great position to capitalize with points, especially in Michigan’s case. This season, eight of Gardner’s ten interceptions have been the result of plays in the shotgun and pistol. To make matters worse, five of those eight led to an opponent returning the interception for a touchdown or starting the ensuing possession in the red zone.

However, of those eight interceptions in the shotgun and pistol, seven occurred when Michigan faced second or third down with a distance to go of seven yards or longer. These are difficult situations for Michigan to throw the football because defenses expect U-M to pass. Yet, the Wolverines are in these difficult situations mostly because U-M has lined up under center for 71.4 percent of its first-down plays. As aforementioned, this has led to defenses adjusting and stuffing Michigan’s runs at the line of scrimmage. If the Wolverines utilize more shotgun and pistol on first down, they should be able to gain more yards on first-down plays. Thus, Gardner will not be placed in a position in which he has to force risky passes to extend drives nearly as much as he has in the first seven games.

As much as Michigan and Borges want to go “manball,” it is time for them to cut their losses and put “manball” on the backburner. This Michigan squad is not a “manball” team, no matter how much Borges wants it to be one. The personnel of this offense best fit in the spread and are most productive and efficient when operating out of the shotgun and pistol. If Borges wants to finally solve the puzzle that is MSU’s defense, he needs to call the majority of plays out of these formations. But if Borges chooses to stick with “manball” against one of the best defenses in the country, he likely will put Michigan at a severe disadvantage in a heated rivalry game and a game that would, for all intents and purposes, extend U-M’s Big Ten championship drought to 10 years with a loss.

Three Notes You Should Know Before Michigan-Michigan State
  1. Michigan’s defense should keep blitzes to a minimum against Michigan State. Although MSU has below average national ranks for most offensive statistical categories, the Spartans have exceled at not turning over the football—MSU is fifth in the nation in interceptions thrown—and have been one of the best ten teams in the nation in not allowing tackles for loss. Thus, the Wolverines should stay back in coverage, forcing quarterback Connor Cook to fit throws into tight windows to extend drives and hoping Cook will be unable to make those throws.
  1. Dating back to 2001, Michigan is 10-1 in its last 11 games after a bye week. Saturday’s contest against Michigan State will be the second such game this season for the Maize and Blue—the Wolverines beat Minnesota, 42-13, in Week 6 after a bye. U-M’s average margin of victory in those 10 wins—three of which were away from Michigan Stadium—is 19 points. The lone defeat was a 10-point loss to Penn State in 2010.
  1. Under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines have not lost a game that has started at 3:30 PM ET, holding a 9-0 record in such games. Eight of those games were in Ann Arbor, with the only road game resulting in a 31-14 win against Illinois in 2011. Michigan and Michigan State will kick off at 3:30 PM ET on ABC this Saturday.

First Look: Michigan State

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Four weeks ago, Michigan came out of a bye week and trounced Minnesota 42-13, a win that has looked better and better the past couple of weeks. This time, however, the quality of opponent has been turned up considerably and instead of a home game it’s on the road against a hated in-state rival. The Spartans look to be the best team in the Big Ten Legends Division at this point, and this game is absolutely critical for each team’s hopes of winning the division.

Last year, Michigan ended its four-game losing streak to the Spartans with a 12-10 victory in Ann Arbor on Brendan Gibbons’ last second field goal. Michigan State had taken advantage of Michigan’s struggles during the Rich Rodriguez tenure, winning by a combined total of 123-72, including a 28-14 victory in East Lansing two years ago in Brady Hoke’s first season. Prior to that, Michigan had won six straight in the series. Now, the Wolverines look to build upon last year’s victory to start a new winning streak, but it won’t be easy considering Michigan’s road woes under Hoke. Let’s take a look at how the teams compare.

Michigan State Statistics & Michigan Comparison
MSUMichigan Rank Opponent Rank
Points Per Game 29.9 | 42.4 65 | T-8 12.2 | 26.7 3 | 63
Rushing Yards 1,5721,287 439 | 699
Rush Avg. Per Game 196.5 | 183.9 37 | 49 54.9 | 99.9 1 | 8
Avg. Per Rush 4.6 | 4.2 2.1 | 3.2
Passing Yards 1,4471,838 1,285 | 1,788
Pass Avg. Per Game 180.9262.6 106 | 42 160.6 | 255.4 3 | 97
Total Offense 3,0193,125 1,724 | 2,487
Total Off Avg. Per Game 377.4 | 446.4 87 | 45 215.5 | 355.3 1 | 27
Kick Return Average 17.4 | 23.0 118 | 42 20.7 | 21.7 52 | 72
Punt Return Average 8.9 | 7.0 50 | T-78 8.6 | 7.6 71 | 61
Avg. Time of Possession 34:3933:07 2 | 15 25:05 | 26:53
3rd Down Conversion Pct 48% | 49% 26 | 23 28% | 40% 3 | 72
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 6-40 | 12-98 T-7 | T-47 18-166 | 16-103 T-46 | T-43
Touchdowns Scored 30 | 39 12 | 21
Field Goals-Attempts 10-13 | 8-13 5-9 | 14-19
Red Zone Scores (24-29)83% | (29-34)85% 66 | T-51 (12-15)80% | (20-24)83% T-49 | T-67
Red Zone Touchdowns (16-29)55% | (15-34)74% (9-15)60% | (12-24)50%

It’s no secret to anybody who has seen Michigan State play this season that defense is what defines them. Looking at the defensive numbers and national ranks above, it’s obvious that the Spartans boast the best defense in the Big Ten and one of the tops in the country. Only one opponent – Indiana – has managed to score more than 20 points (28) and three of seven have been held to six points or less. The Hoosiers are also the only opponent to gain more than 300 yards of total offense (351), while three have been held to 172 yards or fewer. None have rushed for 100 yards. Indiana came the closest with 92.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Michigan State’s defense has been its ability to score. The Spartans lead the nation with five defensive touchdowns and three different players have scored at least one. That’s something of great concern for Michigan fans given Devin Gardner’s turnover problems through the first half of the season. But Gardner has taken better care of the ball the past couple of games, and when he does Michigan’s offense is dynamic.

Pat Narduzzi's defense ranks in the top three nationally in most defensive categories

Michigan State’s offense, on the other hand, could be described as anything but dynamic through the first few weeks of the season, but has started to show signs of improvement in recent weeks, scoring 42 points against Indiana and Illinois in two of the last three games. However, the one game in between those two, a 14-0 win over lowly Purdue, which allows 34.4 points per game, was anything but a solid offensive performance. Prior to the Michigan State-Purdue game, the Boilermakers were giving up over 42 points per game to FBS schools. They held the Spartans to less than 300 total yards and the Spartans’ offense to just seven points (the other seven were on a 45-yard fumble return by linebacker Denicos Allen).

Michigan State’s offense does most of its work on the ground, averaging 196.5 yards per game, which ranks 37th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten. Notre Dame and Iowa held the Spartans’ ground game to just 119 yards and 135 yards, respectively, on just 3.5 yards per carry. This past Saturday, MSU turned in its best rushing performance of the season against an FBS foe, gaining 269 yards on 55 carries against Illinois. But the Illini feature the Big Ten’s second worst rush defense.

The passing game has left a lot to be desired, averaging just 180.9 yards per game. That ranks 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Minnesota, and 106th nationally. The best performance of the season was a 277-yard output against Iowa, which is impressive as the Hawkeyes boast the conference’s second best pass defense. Notre Dame limited the Spartans to just 135 yards on 16-of-36 passing, while Purdue held MSU to just 112 yards through the air.

Despite the lack of a consistent passing game, Michigan State does a great job of keeping its quarterbacks upright. The Spartans offensive line has allowed just six sacks through eight games, which is best in the Big Ten and seventh nationally.

Another area that the Spartans excel in this season is turnovers. They have given the ball away just nine times through eight games, second only to Ohio State’s eight, and the defense has taken it away 15 times. Conversely, Michigan has turned it over 17 times and has also forced 15 turnovers.

On thing Michigan State does not do well is penalties. The Spartans rank last in the Big Ten, averaging 6.5 penalties and 65.1 penalty yards per game. By comparison, Michigan averages 5.1 and 40.3.

As you can see from the stats and rankings above, Michigan State does a lot of things well, most notably on defense, but despite the lack of a flashy offense the Spartans protect both the quarterback and the ball. But what hasn’t been mentioned yet is the quality of opponents Michigan State has faced thus far. The seven FBS opponents have a combined record of 21-32 and the team MSU has faced with the best record (Notre Dame, 6-2) handed the Spartans their only loss of the season. The next three weeks, beginning with Michigan, will tell us just how good this Spartan team really is.

Regardless, this is Michigan State’s Super Bowl, the game they prepare for all season, so it’s sure to be close. The outcome will likely come down to Michigan’s ability to move the ball on State’s defense without turning it over. The weather figures to be cold, windy, and possibly rainy, so a low scoring affair is in order.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the big battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy the rest of the week.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Long
Connor Cook 118-197 1,238 12 2 47
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Avg/Carry
Jeremy Langford 141 655 9 32 4.6
Nick Hill 55 289 1 35 5.3
Delton Williams 29 210 1 42 7.2
Connor Cook (QB) 44 137 0 20 3.1
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Avg/Game
Macgarrett Kings 26 303 3 46 37.9
Bennie Fowler 20 278 4 37 39.7
Tony Lippett 19 190 0 20 23.8
Aaron Burbridge 17 146 0 26 20.9
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Denicos Allen (LB) 22 26 48 8.0-25 3.0-16 (1 FR TD)
Max Bullough (LB) 13 34 47 6.5-17 1.0-7
Darqueze Dennard (CB) 15 18 33 2.0-4 0 (2 INT)
Shillique Calhoun (DE) 11 5 16 8.0-41 (1 INT) 4.0-24 (3 FR)
Kicking FGA FGM Long XPA XPM
Michael Geiger 7 6 49 17 17
Kevin Muma 6 4 30 13 12
Full Stats

Big Ten power rankings: Week 8

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Iowa 34-24 This Week: Saturday vs Penn State (4-2, 1-1), 8pm, ABC

Fans in the Horseshoe got an unexpected scare on Saturday when the reeling Hawkeyes forced the Buckeyes to rally in the fourth quarter to stay undefeated. Though the Ohio State defense yielded three passing touchdowns, Braxton Miller’s efficiency through the air was enough to overcome that, as the junior completed 22 of 27 passes for two touchdowns.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 56-32 This Week: Bye (11/2 at Iowa)

The Melvin Gordon show was on full display in Champaign this weekend as the running back scored three times and totaled 142 yards. James White and Corey Clement jumped in to give Wisconsin a total of six rushing touchdowns on the day and Joel Stave led a turnover-less offense to another easy victory.

3. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at #4 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), 8pm, ABC

Following a huge quadruple-overtime win against Michigan on homecoming, Penn State had a bye week to prepare for another huge game in Columbus. If the Nittany Lions can pull another upset on Saturday night then the season will be a success regardless of the current bowl ban. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg will need to be almost perfect for Penn State to have a chance against the Buckeyes.

4. Indiana (3-4, 1-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Michigan 63-47 This Week: Bye (11/2 vs Minnesota)

No matter what happens to the Hoosiers, their offense is always explosive. After dropping 28 points on a Michigan State defense that ranks among the best in the country, Indiana walked into Ann Arbor and scored six touchdowns and 47 points in the rain. Unfortunately, the defense had a record-breaking day en route to allowing 751 yards. Indiana’s fast drives allowed the Wolverines to possess the ball for almost 40 minutes.

5. Illinois (3-3, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #25 Wisconsin 56-32 This Week: Saturday Michigan State (6-1, 3-0), 3:30pm, ABC

Despite scoring 32 points against a top-10 defense, Illinois got blown out by 24 at home on Saturday and remain winless in the conference. No matter how well Nathan Scheelhaase plays, Illinois needs to gain more than 72 yards on the ground and 2.5 yards per carry to control the clock and give their defense a chance.

6. Purdue (1-6, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Michigan State 14-0 This Week: Bye (11/2 vs Ohio State)

Purdue put up its most valiant Big Ten effort on the road this weekend, holding Michigan State to 14 points. It’s impossible to win without scoring, however, and when a bad offense meets a great defense things can get ugly. The Boilermakers had just 66 yards rushing and completed only 14 passes; failing to put anything on the scoreboard.


1. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 14-0 This Week: Saturday at Illinois (3-3, 0-2), 3:30pm, ABC

Nobody expected Michigan State to get much resistance from the lowly Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday, and despite the meager 14-point victory, there were no surprises. The Spartans had control of the game from the moment they scored their first touchdown, but concerns arose in the bigger picture. The offense failed to score a touchdown on a terrible Purdue defense, and quarterback questions continue to be a problem for Mark Dantonio heading into the most crucial part of the schedule.

2. Michigan (6-1, 2-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Indiana 63-47 This Week: Bye (11/2 at Michigan State)

Coming off a close loss in one of the toughest atmospheres in the nation, Michigan used an offensive onslaught to get back on track. Quarterback Devin Gardner broke Michigan’s total yards record with 584 and helped Jeremy Gallon set the Big Ten receiving yards record with 369. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint woke up and had his best game at Michigan, piling up 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan has another week off to figure out what went wrong on defense before traveling to East Lansing to take on in-state rival Michigan State.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at Minnesota (5-2, 1-2), 12pm, ESPN

Nebraska had an off week in the middle of a three-week stretch in their schedule that includes Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. The Cornhuskers have won the first two of those games handily and haven’t had much competition six games into 2013 besides losing to UCLA 41-21. Nebraska is a top-10 team in terms of points scored and boasts one of the strongest rushing attacks in the conference.

4. Iowa (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #4 Ohio State 34-24 This Week: Saturday vs Northwestern (4-3, 0-3), 12pm, BTN

Despite suffering their second straight conference loss, Iowa looked strong in Columbus and took a tie into the fourth quarter against No. 4 Ohio State. A stagnant offense got back on track after faltering against Michigan State last weekend as Iowa looks to play spoiler in a division that is likely out of reach with two losses.

5. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 20-17 This Week: Saturday vs #24 Nebraska (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, ESPN

The Golden Gophers were the surprise talk of the Big Ten Saturday when they beat Northwestern in Chicago. Minnesota’s defense led the charge, holding Northwestern to 17 points and forcing three turnovers. James Manuel’s pick six in the third quarter helped cover up for a weak offensive effort.

6. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 20-17 This Week: Saturday at Iowa (4-3, 1-2), 12pm, BTN

Things have spiraled out of control for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats after entering the conference schedule with more promise than any other season in recent memory. Northwestern let Minnesota get away with 89 yards of penalties and a 4-of-13 third down conversion rate. Three losses has pushed this team way out of contention for the conference championship, and it will have to overcome the disappointment to become any kind of threat to the rest of the division in 2013.


Big Ten power rankings: Week 7

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Iowa (4-2, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC

Urban Meyer didn’t have to worry about his undefeated record as Ohio State Head Coach in week seven, as his team had a bye to prepare for the visiting Hawkeyes. Realistically, the Buckeyes won’t have to worry about that record for the next several weeks as Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana lead up to the showdown in Ann Arbor against Michigan on November 30th.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat #19 Northwestern 35-6 This Week: Saturday at Illinois (3-2, 0-1), 8pm, Big Ten Network

Wisconsin had the most impressive week of any team in the Big Ten, trouncing No. 19 Northwestern 35-6. Despite three turnovers, the Badgers held the ball for over 38 minutes of game time and more than doubled the total yards of the Wildcats. By holding Northwestern to just 44 yards on the ground, Wisconsin shut down Trevor Siemian allowed just two third down conversions in 17 attempts.

3. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat #18 Michigan 43-40 4OT This Week: Bye (10/26 at Ohio State)

With less than six minutes left in the game against Michigan, things were looking pretty grim for Penn State. Down 10 after laying an egg in the  third quarter, Bill O’Brien’s crew somehow managed to tie the game with under 30 seconds left and took advantage of some poor Michigan kicking to win in four overtimes. The most electric atmosphere in the Big Ten is still a difficult place to play with or without a bowl ban in place.

4. Indiana (3-3, 1-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Michigan State 48-28 This Week: Saturday at Michigan (5-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

The Hoosiers continue to put up impressive offensive performances, this week putting up 28 points on the best defense in the conference. The Spartans, who hadn’t given up more than 17 points in a game and average 15.8 points allowed per game, allowed four offensive touchdowns to Indiana. Surprisingly, this Hoosier team was still in the game in the fourth quarter and could have picked up an impressive road win had any sort of defense showed up.

5. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs #25 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1), 8pm, Big Ten Network

Illinois needed a bye week after a 20-point loss to Nebraska on the road, but things aren’t going to get any easier for Nathan Scheelhaase and the Fighting Illini offense. In the next two weeks, Illinois will welcome No. 25 Wisconsin and Michigan State into Champaign; two of the strongest defensive teams in the Big Ten. For Illinois to avoid battling Purdue for the cellar of the Leaders Division it must find a way to win at least one of these games.

6. Purdue (1-5, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Nebraska 44-7 This Week: Saturday at Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

2013 has not been easy for first-year Head Coach Darrell Hazell. Purdue continued to be the punching bag of the Big Ten on Saturday as a Taylor Martinez-less Nebraska offense managed to put up over 40 points on the Boilermakers, who couldn’t find any rhythm on offense. Purdue has now lost four of their six games by more than 30 points (including the last three contests) and currently stands at 1-5 overall.


1. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Indiana 42-28 This Week: Saturday vs Purdue (1-5, 0-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Mark Dantonio took advantage of a lowly Indiana defense to work on a more balanced offensive attack in week seven. Quarterback Connor Cook had a solid game and the Spartans had almost as many yards through the air as they did on the ground. Defensively Michigan State gave up a little more ground than usual, but the 42-28 shootout proved that this team can win in any fashion and is a real threat to win the Legends Division in 2013.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 44-7 This Week: Bye (10/26 at Minnesota)

The Husker passing attack struggled in its third game without star quarterback Taylor Martinez as Purdue was able to intercept quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. three times. Fortunately for Nebraska the Purdue offense hasn’t improved and managed to put up just over 200 yards on the day. Four rushing touchdowns lead the charge in Nebraska’s 44-7 win against the Boilermakers

3. Michigan (5-1, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Penn State 43-40 4OT This Week: Saturday vs Indiana (3-3, 1-1), 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

Michigan traveled into State College on Saturday night and should have come out with a win in one of the toughest atmospheres in college football. Unfortunately, untimely penalties and questionable coaching decisions led to a blown 10-point fourth quarter lead and poor field goal kicking cost Michigan in the four overtimes. The inconsistency of the Wolverines finally came back to bite them.

4. Iowa (4-2, 1-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at #4 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0), 3:30pm, ABC

Heading into the toughest game of the season in Columbus, Iowa had a bye week to prepare for Braxton Miller and Ohio State. The bye week isn’t exactly an advantage, as Urban Meyer’s squad took the week off as well and have been much more impressive offensively than the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s offense will need to come up with something really unexpected to give the Buckeyes a game in the Horseshoe.

5. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Wisconsin 35-6 This Week: Saturday vs Minnesota (4-2, 0-2), 12pm, ESPN2

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Northwestern Wildcats. Just two weeks ago they were undefeated, ranked in the top 20 and battling Ohio State in the fourth quarter for the inside track to the Big Ten Championship game. Now after two extremely difficult cross-divisional games the Wildcats are 0-2 in the conference and grasping for some kind of hope after losing by 29 in Madison.

6. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday at Northwestern (4-2, 0-2), 12pm, ESPN2

Jerry Kill received some much-needed news during the bye week when the team gave him leave without specifying a time table. Kill had his fourth game day seizure last week before the Gophers’ game in Ann Arbor. On the field Minnesota has begun the inevitable slide that comes with the conference season and a terrible rushing defense has left it no chance to get to Indianapolis in 2013.


2013 opponent preview: Michigan State

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Our opponent preview series has boiled down to the final three, and not so coincidentally they are the three rivals. Today, we take a look at who we feel will be the third-toughest opponent on the schedule, the Michigan State Spartans. Previously, we previewed AkronCentral MichiganUConnMinnesotaIowaIndianaPenn State, Northwestern, and Nebraska.


After back-to-back 11-win seasons and the league’s top defense intact, Michigan State entered 2012 with expectations of winning the Big Ten. Instead, the Spartans struggled to find an offensive identity and win close games. A 7-6 finish was embarrassing, but a closer look reveals just how close Mark Dantonio’s squad was to a better record. Five of the six losses were by a combined 13 points – one of them in overtime – and none by more than four points.

Dantonio shook up the coaching staff, hiring former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman to guide the offense along with Dave Warner, who spent the past six seasons coaching the quarterbacks.


Andrew Maxwell won't have the luxury of handing off to Le'Veon Bell 30 times a game this season (Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic Communications)

Bollman and Warner hope quarterback Andrew Maxwell can take a step forward in his senior season after a rocky 2012 in which he completed just 52.5 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. But Maxwell will be pushed by sophomore Connor Cook, who led the Spartans down the field for the game-winning score in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor, and incoming freshman Damion Terry.

The Big Ten’s leading rusher last season, Le’Veon Bell, is gone, and his replacement will likely be a committee. No back on the roster gained more than 50 yards a year ago. Nick Hill is the only back who found the end zone and will be the leading candidate for playing time, but the 5’8”, 190-pound junior carried the ball only 21 times for 48 yards. The most intriguing option is Riley Bullough, who converted from linebacker to running back to fill the need. The big redshirt freshman led all backs with 46 yards in the spring game.

The one area the Spartans have the most experience offensively is receiver. Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett combined to catch 119 passes for 1,431 yards and seven touchdowns. Aaron Burbridge and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett are promising youngsters that will find their way into the mix. Tight end Dion Sims is gone, so Dantonio will have to find a replacement for him among the group of Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert, Evan Jones, and Josiah Price.

The offensive line is also extremely experienced, returning three starters and getting two back from injury. Senior Fou Fonoti had started 13 straight games at right tackle before a foot injury ended his season after week two. He was slated to move over to left tackle so Skyler Burkland, who filled in for him, could retain his spot on the right, but Burkland left the team in late May. The offensive line shuffle may send Fonoti back to right tackle and keep Dan France, who was going to move inside, at left tackle. Either way, that leaves an opening. Blake Treadwell has started 10 career games at left guard and center.


Only six starters return on defense, but it should remain a strong squad. Pat Narduzzi is considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the conference and still has some stars to build around.

Senior middle linebacker Max Bullough – Riley’s brother – recorded 111 tackles and 12.5 for loss last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and will likely be one of the leading Butkus Award candidates heading into 2013. Senior Denicos Allen has started 26 straight games and has 14 career sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. The newcomer to the starting lineup is junior Taiwan Jones who played in all 13 games last season, starting four, and recorded 38 tackles. Pat Rhomberg and Darien Harris will also be in the rotation.

The line has the most to replace, returning only defensive end Marcus Rush, but there is a lot of talent waiting in the wings. Sohpomore Shilique Calhoun figures to fill the vacancy left behind by William Gholston’s early departure for the NFL. Calhoun played in all 13 games last season and recorded a sack in the bowl game, but his spring performance has Michigan State coaches expecting big things from him this fall. With a superior pass rush ability, he may be able to live up to the hype Gholston was supposed to.

Date Opponent
Aug. 30 Western Michigan
Sept. 7 South Florida
Sept. 14 Youngstown State
Sept. 21 @ Notre Dame
Oct. 5 @ Iowa
Oct. 12 Indiana
Oct. 19 Purdue
Oct. 26 @ Illinois
Nov. 2 Michigan
Nov. 16 @ Nebraska
Nov. 23 @ Northwestern
Nov. 30 Minnesota

The middle of the line will feature Tyler Hoover and Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge, but rising sophomore Lawrence Thomas will make a strong push for the starting job. The former five-star recruit started at fullback last season, but is moving back to the defensive line. Senior Micajah Reynolds will provide depth at the position with six career starts to his name.

The secondary is led by All-Big Ten cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who may be a first round draft pick next April. On the other side, Trae Waynes will replace All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams, who is now in the NFL. Waynes performed well in place of Adams in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and Narduzzi hopes he will continue to get better. Senior Isaiah Lewis and junior Kurtis Drummond are both back at strong and free safety, respectively. Lewis is a third-year starter and was All-Big Ten honorable mention last season. Former four-star recruit Demetrious Cox will push Drummond for his spot, while R.J. Williamson will provide depth.

Special Teams

Kicker Dan Conroy is gone, leaving a three-way battle for the job between senior Kevin Muma, redshirt freshman Kevin Cronin, and incoming freshman Michael Geiger. The latter was the top kicking prospect in the country. Punter Mike Sadler is back from an impressive season that saw him lead the Big Ten with an average of 43.3 yards per punt.


In order to improve on last season’s record, the offense will have to be better, which could be hard without Bell in the backfield. The defense will be strong, but may not be able to carry the Spartans again. The good news is Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are all off the schedule, and the Spartans get Michigan at home, so the schedule sets up nicely. They do have to travel to South Bend, however.

What it means for Michigan

The main reason I have this game ranked “easier” than Notre Dame is because Michigan gets the advantage of a bye week before heading to East Lansing. That means Hoke and Co. have two weeks to prepare for the Spartans. But as long as Dantonio is in East Lansing, beating State will never be easy. Dantonio prepares for Michigan with a manic obsession and will be looking for revenge after last season’s last-second Michigan win.

The good news is now that Michigan got that monkey off its back, the Wolverines will be much more confident for this year’s matchup. In addition, Jake Ryan should be back from injury by then. This is the start of a brutal five-game November, and there’s a decent chance both teams could be unbeaten coming in. The winner could be in the driver’s seat for the Legends division.