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#2 Michigan vs Michigan State game preview

Friday, October 28th, 2016


um-msu-game-preview-header(Isaiah Hole, 247 Sports)

Nine years ago Michigan traveled to East Lansing ranked 15th nationally to take on a 5-4 Michigan State squad. Little did anyone know at the time that Michigan was about to take a severe downturn while the Spartans were about to see their fortune change for the better.

Michigan State hadn’t won the Big Ten since 1990 and had finished third or better only three times during that span, averaging just 5.6 wins per season. They had beaten Michigan just five times and just nine times in the previous 39 seasons.

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Quick Facts
Spartan Stadium – 12p.m. ET – ESPN
MSU Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (10th season)
Coaching Record: 107-55 (89-38 at MSU)
Co-Offensive Coordinators: Jim Bollman (4th season)
Dave Warner (4th season)
Co-Defensive Coordinators: Mike Tressel (1st season)
Harlon Barnett (1st season)
Last Season: 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Last Meeting: MSU 27-UM 23 (2015)
All-Time Series: Michigan 68-35-5
Record in East Lansing: Michigan 19-14-2
Jim Harbaugh vs MSU 0-1
Last Michigan win: 2012 (12-10)
Last MSU win: 2015 (27-23)
Current Streak: Michigan State 3
Michigan State Schedule to date
Opponent Result
Furman W 28-13
at #18 Notre Dame W 36-28
#11 Wisconsin L 6-30
at Indiana L 21-24
BYU L 14-31
Northwestern L 40-54
at Maryland L 17-28

On that early November Saturday in East Lansing, the Spartans held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter before Michigan rallied back for a 28-24 win behind backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and senior running back Mike Hart.

Every fan on both sides of the rivalry knows what happened next when Hart, in a post-game interview, likened Michigan State to a little brother that the older brother — Michigan — picks on. Nearly everyone on both sides are sick of hearing about it, but it coincided with a major shift in the rivalry.

Lloyd Carr retired after the season and Michigan struggled through seven seasons of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, dropping six of those contests to their in-state rival by an average of 16.3 points. Michigan went 46-42 during that span, finishing no better than second in their division. Michigan State, meanwhile, went 75-31, winning the Big Ten three times, winning two BCS bowls, and appearing in the College Football Playoff semifinal. The contrast could hardly be more distinct.

But Jim Harbaugh stepped into the fray and proceeded to win 17 of his first 20 games and Michigan catapulted up the rankings. Although the Wolverines lost Harbaugh’s first meeting with the Spartans a year ago, it’s eerily reminiscent of the coach’s mentor’s beginning. After all, Bo Schembechler took over a Michigan squad that had gone 2-9-1 against Michigan State in the previous 12 seasons. He won 17 of his first 20 games — one of those losses being his first matchup with MSU — but beat the Spartans the second time around. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth. And so on. He won eight straight and Michigan won 30 of the next 38 until 2008.

If Michigan beats Michigan State tomorrow, Harbaugh will surpass Schembechler’s win pace through his first 21 games. Bo lost game 21 — the 1970 Ohio State game.

Michigan enters East Lansing the heavy favorite, ranked No. 2 nationally with a 7-0 record and only five games standing between them and the Big Ten championship game. Michigan State, meanwhile, needs four wins in its final five games to reach .500 and earn bowl eligibility. In many ways the circle is nearly closed, but given the last nine years, it’s easy to understand why Michigan fans are in a ‘wait and see’ approach to Saturday.

Can Michigan stay in the championship hunt? Or will Michigan State continue their recent dominance with an all-time upset? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

When Michigan State has the ball

Michigan State’s offense has plummeted into the bottom half of the Big Ten this season. It ranks 12th in the conference and 106th nationally in scoring (23.1 points per game), 10th and 86th in rushing (155.3 yards per game), fifth and 61st in passing (235 yards per game), and eighth and 84th in total offense (390.3 yards per game).

The loss of quarterback Connor Cook to the NFL following last season has been one of the major reasons for the offensive decline as Mark Dantonio has been unable to find a quality replacement. Senior Tyler O’Connor started the season and completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 1,257 yards, 11 touchdowns, and six interceptions. But he has seen his playing time diminish the past three weeks in favor of redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, who has started the last two. Lewerke hasn’t fared any better, completing just 53.2 percent of his passes for 281 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Dantonio hasn’t named a starter for tomorrow, saying it will be a game-time decision. Junior Damion Terry is also in the mix. He went 6-of-10 for 63 yards and a pick against BYU and is the Spartans’ best dual-threat option.

The running game is lead by sophomore L.J. Scott, who averages 66.3 yards per game. He rushed for 128 yards including a 48-yard score against Maryland last weekend and will be key to Michigan State’s chances of winning tomorrow. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry against Wisconsin’s stout rush defense and if he can give MSU yards on first and second down, it will make things much easier for whichever quarterback starts. Junior Gerald Holmes is the second leading rusher with 272 yards and leads the team with four rushing touchdowns. He rushed 13 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame in Week 2, but they have the nation’s 81st-ranked rush defense. Unlike Michigan’s deep backfield, MSU’s basically just Scott and Holmes.

The best player on the Spartan offense is senior R.J. Shelton, who ranks third in the Big Ten with 77.3 receiving yards per game and fourth with five receptions per game. He has caught at least seven passes in four of the six games in which he recorded a stat, with two 100-yard games. He caught seven passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern two weeks ago. He’s also dangerous on jet sweeps, where he has averaged over 10 yards per carry on six carries. Freshman Donnie Corley and senior Monty Maderis have combined for 38 receptions for 534 yards, but have found the end zone just twice (both Corley). Tight end Josiah Price is a reliable pass catcher with 18 receptions for 202 yards and three scores.

Aside from not having a consistent quarterback, the offensive line is a major source of the problems in East Lansing. They allow 2.3 sacks per game and can’t consistently open holes for Scott and Holmes. Michigan’s defensive line, which has fueled the defense that leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally with 25 sacks, is poised for a big game.

When Michigan has the ball

During Michigan State’s surge over the past several seasons the defense has been the catalyst. Not so this season. The Spartans rank 12th in the Big Ten and 80th nationally in scoring defense (29.7 points allowed per game), ninth and 66th against the run (162.2 yards per game), 13th and 64th against the pass (225.4 yards per game), and 10th in total defense (388 yards per game).

The defense is lead by junior tackle/strong side end Malik McDowell, who has five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. After him, however, the defensive line is much less fearsome. Fifth-year senior tackle Kevin Williams has 20 tackles but none for loss. Senior nose tackle Brandon Clemons has started all seven games and has held up well. Junior Demetrius Cooper is the end opposite McDowell and has three tackles for loss and a half a sack.

The linebackers are the strength of the MSU defense, most notably junior SAM Chris Frey, who is tied for the team lead with 57 tackles and leads the team with six quarterback hurries. Senior MIKE Riley Bullough is third on the team with four tackles for loss, but is also prone to personal fouls, which got him ejected from last week’s game. Sophomore STAR linebacker Andrew Dowell has a nice stat line with 45 tackles, two for loss, one sack, an interception, two passes defended, and a pair of quarterback hurries.

The secondary is decent but gave up over 200 yards to Maryland’s 112th-ranked passing offense last week. Junior safety Montae Nicholson is tied with Frey for the team lead with 57 tackles. The other safety is senior Demetrius Cox, who is prone to giving up big plays. The corners, sophomore Vayante Copeland and senior Darian Hicks, are passable. They both have an interception and Hicks leads the team with six pass breakups and seven passes defended. Freshman nickel corner Justin Layne also has a pick.

The other third

Senior kicker Michael Geiger has made 5-of-8 (62.5 percent) field goal attempts this season with a long of 48. His misses have come from 40, 43, and 49 yards, one of them being blocked. He’s a fourth-year starter who went 15-of-16 (93.8 percent) his freshman year but then just 26-of-41 (63.4 percent) the next two seasons combined. Sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger ranks seventh in the Big Ten with an average of 40.7 yards per punt. He has downed 14 of 32 inside the 20 with just one touchback.

Shelton is the main kick returner averaging 22.4 yards per return, while sophomore receiver Brandon Sowards averages 4.8 yards per punt return.

Prediction

While Michigan is favored by more than three touchdowns I fully expect Michigan State to give Michigan a game early on. The Spartans may be just 2-5, but they’ll step on the field winners of seven of the last eight over Michigan. But this game is almost always won on the ground and Michigan’s defense is just too good for the Spartans to run on. Dantonio will try to get Scott going and will take some shots deep trying to catch the secondary by surprise. It may work once, but not with enough consistency to outscore Michigan.

Offensively, Michigan will pound the run and pick on the Spartan safeties through the air. I expect that we’ll see a little more utilization of Jabrill Peppers and that we’ll see the evolution of some of the plays that have been set up over the past couple weeks. Will he pass for a touchdown this week?

Michigan State keeps it close for much of the first half before Michigan’s talent, experience, and depth allows them to pull away in the second. It ends up a solid win, but doesn’t cover the spread. And we’ll be just fine with that.

Michigan 33 – Michigan State 13

#12 Michigan vs #7 Michigan State game preview

Friday, October 16th, 2015


Game Preview_MSU_banner

The fact that Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series means nothing when the two hated rivals set foot on the Big House turf tomorrow afternoon. Nor does Michigan’s 68-34-5 all-time series lead. What matters is how the two teams are playing right now. Despite Michigan State’s higher ranking (7th to Michigan’s 12th in the AP Poll) it is Michigan that is favored by at least a touchdown and receiving most picks to win by college football experts.

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Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 3:30 p.m. EST – ESPN
MSU Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (9th season)
Coaching Record: 99-48 overall (81-31 at MSU)
Co-Offensive Coordinators: Dave Warner (3rd season)
Jim Bollman (3rd season)
Co-Defensive Coordinators: Mike Tressel (1st season)
Harlon Barnett (1st season)
Last Season: 11-2 (7-1)
Last Meeting: MSU 35 – UM11 (2014)
All-Time Series: UM leads 68-34-5
For the Paul Bunyan Trophy: UM leads 35-25-2
Record in Michigan Stadium: 34-18-3
Jim Harbaugh vs MSU: 1st meeting
Last Michigan win: 2012 (12-10)
Last MSU win: 2014 (35-11)
Current Streak: Michigan State 2

Michigan State’s record is unblemished but the way in which the Spartans arrived at 6-0 certainly isn’t. A 31-28 win over then-No. 7 Oregon in Week 2 looked great at the time. But Oregon’s meteoric fall from the rankings since then have cast doubt on just how good Mark Dantonio’s squad really is. Oregon is just 2-2 the last four weeks with wins over Georgia State and Colorado, a 62-20 throttling at the hands of Utah, and a 45-38 embarrassment on their home field by Washington State. Suddenly, Michigan State’s best win looks about as good as  spelling bee win over an illiterate person.

But it’s not so much what Michigan State’s opponents have done outside of their matchup, it’s what Michigan State hasn’t done to them: win convincingly. Of their six wins, only one — a 35-21 Week 3 win over Air Force can be considered convincing. In the season opener, Western Michigan pulled within 10 points early in the fourth quarter and racked up 383 total yard — 365 through the air — against MSU’s defense. That remains WMU quarterback Zach Terrell’s best game of the season. In Week 4, Central Michigan was within seven until the Spartans scored two touchdowns in the final 8:37 to pull away. The following week against Purdue, Michigan State jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead but then had to hold on as the Boilermakers — winless against FBS competition — nearly made it into position for a game tying field goal in the final minute. Last week, the Spartans needed a touchdown with 43 seconds left to stave off mighty Rutgers, which is just 1-3 against FBS competition.

So what does that mean? It means they are ripe for the picking; they just haven’t played anyone good enough to do it just yet. Their six opponents are a collective 13-20 (.394) and five of those 13 wins have come against FCS schools. Michigan, meanwhile, is playing as well as anyone in the country since a season opening loss to now-No. 4 Utah. Michigan’s six opponents are a combined 20-14 (.588) with four of those wins against FCS schools. And in the past five weeks Michigan has left no doubt about who the better team was on the field.

So what can we expect when Michigan and Michigan State meet tomorrow? Let’s take a look at the Spartans.

When Michigan State has the ball

In the third season with Jim Bollman and Dave Warner sharing offensive coordinator role, Michigan State ranks 72nd nationally and sixth in the Big Ten in total offense (397.3 yards per game), 67th and 9th in rushing offense (173.3 yards per game), 72nd and 6th in passing offense (224 yards per game), 24th and 2nd in passing efficiency (151.2), and 56th and 4th in scoring offense (31.3 points per game).

The past few years the Spartans have relied on their running game with Jeremy Langford rushing for about 1,500 yards in each of the past two seasons, Le’Veon Bell with 1,800 in 2012 and a hair under 1,000 in 2011, and Edwin Baker with 1,200 in 2010. But that’s not exactly the case this year as Michigan State brings the Big Ten’s ninth-best rushing offense into tomorrow’s matchup.

The load is shared between freshman L.J. Scott and redshirt freshman Madre London. Scott, who has drawn comparisons to Bell, leads the team with 418 yards and six touchdowns on 70 carries (6.0 yards per carry), while London leads with 95 carries for just 399 yards (4.2 ypc) and three touchdowns. But London suffered an injury against Rutgers last week and may not be available tomorrow. That takes away the one-two punch, leaving sophomore Gerald Holmes (21 carries for 120 yards and three touchdowns) and junior Delton Williams (two carries for six yards) to spell Scott.

While the running game hasn’t been its usual self this season, the passing game has been better. Still, it ranks just sixth in the Big Ten and 72nd nationally, but has an experienced senior quarterback in Connor Cook who doesn’t make mistakes and relies on the big play. Cook ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 1,334 passing yards (222.3 per game) and is tied with Nebraska’a Tommy Armstrong for the conference lead with 12 passing touchdowns against just two interceptions. He’s second behind Rutgers’ Chris Laviano in pass efficiency, though his 59.9 percent completion percentage ranks sixth, including behind Jake Rudock. He had a big night against Rutgers last Saturday, completing 23 of 38 for 357 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick.

Cook’s receivers are talented, but it’s clear that senior Aaron Burbridge is the top dog and the rest are the supporting cast. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Burbridge ranks second in the Big Ten in receptions per game (5.7) and yards per game (93.3). He has caught 35 passes for 570 yards (16.3 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. No other receiver on the team has half as many receptions or yards. Junior R.J. Shelton is second with 17 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown, while senior Macgarrett Kings has caught 14 passes for 179 yards and a score. Junior tight end Josiah Price is tied with Burbridge for the team lead with four touchdowns — one in each of the first four games — but missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He’s hopeful to return tomorrow and as the Spartans’ all-time leader in tight end touchdowns, he’ll pose a big threat to Michigan’s defense.

Three starters from 2014 returned along the MSU offensive line, but it has been banged up this season. Junior left tackle Jack Conklin, who entered the season with 26 career starts, missed the last two weeks with an injury, while fifth year senior center Jack Allen — a first team USA Today All-American in 2014 — injured his knee last week against Rutgers. The status of both is up in the air, but Michigan is preparing as if they will play. If not, that leaves numerous configurations the Spartans could use, as described by The Only Colors. Senior right tackle Donovan Clark and sophomore Brian Allen — Jack’s brother — are the two who have started every game this season. If Jack Allen can’t go, Brian will likely man the center spot. Junior Kodi Kieler is the other who will play at one of the tackle spots, depending on whether Conklin is healthy or not.

When Michigan has the ball

Michigan State’s calling card during the Dantonio era has been its defense, which has ranked among the nation’s best the past few seasons. But the architect of that defense, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh in the offseason leaving Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett to step up and assume the job. While both had been on the staff, they haven’t managed to maintain the level that Narduzzi left.

Six games into the season the Spartans rank 56th nationally and 9th in the Big Ten in total defense (372.2 yards allowed per game), 34th and 7th in rush defense (130.2 rushing yards allowed per game), 88th and 10th in pass defense (242 passing yards allowed per game), 81st and 10th in pass efficiency defense (132.3), and 43rd and 9th in scoring defense (21.3 points allowed per game).

The problem is not the front four which are as good as any in the Big Ten. Senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun has been a first team All-Big Ten and second team All-American each of the past two seasons. He leads the team with six tackles for loss and five sacks so far this season and is a terror as a pass rusher. The other end is senior Lawrence Thomas, who has a lot of experience and has 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks this season. Sophomore tackle Malik McDowell is the disrupter in the middle with five tackles for loss and three sacks, while senior Joel Heath has three and one.

Junior Riley Bullough leads the team with 55 tackles as the middle linebacker. He’s effective as a blitzer with 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. The outside linebackers are missing senior Ed Davis, who is out for the season, and was an All-Big Ten performer in 2014. Sophomore Jon Reschke took his place and ranks second with 38 tackles, while senior Darien Harris mans the other outside spot and ranks third with 37 tackles. Both Reschke and Harris have 2.5 tackles for loss.

Beyond the front seven is where things get dicey for Michigan State’s defense. A lockdown corner was a staple of Narduzzi’s defenses, but Trae Wayne’s departure to the NFL hasn’t been able to be replaced. Senior Arjen Colquhoun and Darian Hicks are the starting corners, but Hicks suffered a head injury last week and it is still unknown whether or not he will be able to suit up tomorrow. Colquhoun has 21 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one sack, and three pass breakups, while Hicks has 13 tackles, a half of a tackle for loss, and two pass breakups. If Hicks can’t go, junior Jermaine Edmonson will get the nod. He replaced Hicks against Rutgers, but was a liability on several plays.

The secondary is also missing safety R.J. Williamson and corner Vayante Copeland, both of which suffered season ending injuries. That led to junior Demetrious Cox moving from corner to safety this season, where he has 32 tackles and leads the team with five passes defended. Sophomore Montae Nicholson has struggled big time this season and has been benched twice.

The other third

Junior kicker Michael Geiger is in his third year on field goal duty. After setting an MSU single-season record by making 15 of 16 in 2013, he made just 14 of 20 last season and is 5 of 9 so far this year. His long this season is 47 and he has had two blocked. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger is the punter, averaging 42.7 yards per punt with nine of his 22 punts traveling more than 50 yards and eight downed inside the 20. Shelton handles kick return duties were he is averaging 19.5 yards per return, while Kings is the punt returner, though he has only one return all season and it went for just a yard.

Prediction

If Michigan’s passing featured Chad Henne, Braylon Edwards, and Jason Avant going up against this Michigan State secondary it would be easy to pick Michigan to win big. But Jake Rudock has yet to show he can throw deep, and it won’t matter if Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh get behind the safeties if Rudock can’t hit them. Yet history tells us that this rivalry is won on the ground. In the last 45 meetings, the team that rushed for more yards has won 42 of them and that’s another advantage Michigan has in this game.

De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson can take advantage of Michigan State’s aggressive defensive line, allowing Michigan to sustain drives and keeping the Spartans from loading the box. That should give Rudock time to hit the short and intermediate routes that he has done a pretty good job of so far.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is essentially a three-man team: Cook, Smith, and Burbridge. Fortunately, Michigan’s defense matches up really well. Jourdan Lewis has become one of the best corners in the nation and will lock down Burbridge. Michigan’s front seven hasn’t allowed anyone to run on it all season, ranking third nationally against the run. That means Shelton and Kings are going to have to come up big against Jabrill Peppers, Jeremy Clark, and Channing Stribling if he’s healthy enough to return from injury. That’s a big if to rely on.

Michigan’s defense will control the line of scrimmage against a banged up MSU offensive line, and although the shutout streak will end, Michigan State won’t be able to put up enough points to keep up. Michigan’s offense will be effective enough to grind out yards, move the chains, and test the shaky secondary. Michigan wins going away and puts Ohio State on notice.

Michigan 31 – Michigan State 13