The Spartans came out flat after a poor week of practice and played uninspired football. This week, that cannot happen or the Spartans will not have a chance. They need to match the intensity the Wolverines will bring to the game and take the play to the Wolverines.
The Spartans still have a lot to play for, in fact, once they get past Michigan and Ohio State, there is not a team they cannot beat. Of course, the psyche of this team can be one where anyone can beat them as Illinois showed. So a lot will depend on how they come out and play for each other in the next couple of weeks.
2. NEUTRALIZE THE WOLVERINE DEFENSIVE LINE - This is huge, the Spartans simply cannot let UM's defense, dictated by the Wolverine defensive line, led by Lamarr Woodley and Alan Branch, take over the game.
MSU's offensive line has had success before and will need to play their best game. In this happens, the Spartans have some open passing lanes in the second and third tier of the Wolverine defense.
The Spartan offensive line won't dominate, but if they can just protect Stanton, and open a few running holes along with picking up the blitz, they have a chance. Kenny Shane should return this week which should help. The Wolverines tend to over pursue, so misdirection may be the name of the game on Saturday. Stanton will have to be careful with the ball in short passing situations and not stare down receivers.
3. BEWARE THE TRIFECTA OF HENNE, HART, AND MANNINGHAM - John L. Smith has used a familar refrain when talking about Michigan this week, and that is when attacking the Wolverine offense, you have to, "pick your poison." That was exactly what he said he 2003. At at that time, the Spartans chose to defend the pass and UM running back Chris Perry carried the ball 51 times for 219 yards, and MSU still lost.
It is also well known that offensive cordinator Mike Debord likes to run the ball, and the Wolverines have double digit victories when Mike Hart rushed for 100 yards in a game.
However, there is no way you give up big plays and easy touchdowns to Mario Mannigham. The Spartan defense must stop the run, but they have to stop Manningham as well, it's that simple,and you can't forget Arrington or Ecker at tight end either. In other words, the Spartan defense has a big job in front of them.
Attacking Henne and getting some early pressure and hits on him may take him out of his game. Perhaps jamming the receivers to give extra time for the rushers to get in the backfield, which will throw receivers off stride, will help.
Regardless, things will have to have a bit of a wrinkle to them for the Spartans to succeed. Pressuring Henne and not giving him time to throw can help with the passing game, and perhaps disrupt the running of Mike Hart. One thing is for sure, the Spartans will have to be in attack mode on defense to win this game.
4. DON'T GIVE UP BIG PLAYS IN THE PASSING GAME - Nothing is more demoralizing than seeing your own offense score off a sustained drive, only to watch the defense give up a easy score or some game changing big plays. We feel the 4-2-5 defense is a situational defense and should not be used as a base defense, however, this is John L. Smith's team, and he needs this scheme to step up and make some plays on the back end, or bring a defensive package that will confuse Henne's reads. The status quo is not getting it done late in games and something has to change.
5. MAKE THINGS HAPPEN ON 1ST DOWN - This is a big key as well. The UM defense is stifling on 3rd down, especially third and long, holding offenses to a 22% conversion rate. If MSU can execute well on first down and get into say, 2nd and 3 or 4 yards to go, they can dictate offensively and open up the playbook. If there are 2nd and 10's or 3rd and 9's, it gets a little more difficult. You don't want to get into long down and distance situations with an aggressive defense like the Wolverines have.
6. GOOD KICK COVERAGE STARTS WITH BREASTON - You know Lloyd Carr will have his Wolverines emphasizing kickoff and punt returns in trying to win the field position battle. Throw that in with the knowledge the Spartans have been a little shaky in kick coverage this year and you have a point that needs to be emphasized by special teams coach Ben Sirmans.
These game often come down to the kicking game, but sometimes it goes unnoticed. For instance last year it was obvious with missed field goals by both teams. However, a good kick return or punt return can give your team a short field to work with and is vitally important as well.
7. PLAY 60 MINUTES/PLAY WITH CONFIDENCE - We could use this as a key every week for the Spartans, who lose focus more often than can be imagined. The Spartans must have a solid beginning, a solid middle, and especially, a solid end to this game, and every game, and change the frustrating habit of losing games at the end. They also must rebuild their confidence. The Spartans have plenty of talent, they just need to channel and focus that talent as they circle the wagons and play for themselves.
Part of this confidence entails just playing your game and not being intimidated by the crowd, the winged helmets, and other distractions. In other words, don't beat yourselves, and play to win instead of not to lose. Keep your poise and confidence, protect the ball, and play smart football. If the Spartans really want to turn their fortunes around, these things will be important.