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.
|Spartan Stadium – 3:30pm EST – ABC
|MSU Head Coach:
||Mark Dantonio (7th season)
||76-46 (58-29 at MSU)
||Jim Bollman (1st season)
||Pat Narduzzi (7th season)
||11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
||7-6 (3-5, 4th Legends)
||Michigan 12 – MSU 10 (2012)
||Michigan leads 68-32-5
|Record at Spartan Stadium:
||Michigan leads 17-12-1
|Current Michigan Streak:
|Last MSU Win:
|Last Michigan Win at MSU:
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 (MGoBlue.com)
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