Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
#17 Michigan (5-0) vs. #16 Michigan State (5-0)
(W) Connecticut 30-10
(W) Notre Dame 28-24
(W) Massachussetts 42-37
(W) Bowling Green 65-21
(W) Indiana 42-35
(W) Western Michigan 38-14
(W) Florida Atlantic 30-17
(W) Notre Dame 34-31
(W) Notre Dame 34-31
(W) Wisconsin 38-30
MSU Players to Watch:
"No, they are all big, but this one is bigger. The more you win, there's more at stake and there's more at stake this year because both teams are undefeated. It's a huge game and our guys understand that and I'm sure their players do, too." –Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez
Huge? Forget the annual bragging rights or the summer reunions at home. That's just minutia this year. This year is about substantiation of where each program is heading. This year is about perception, recruiting, bowl eligibility, streaks, and yes, even titles.
Michigan State's impressive win over #11 Wisconsin illustrates they are ready to challenge for the Big 10 title even if the public is not aware of it. The doubts that their previous wins over inferior teams revealed little as to what the Spartans can achieve, were answered in the first week of conference play. The Spartans were fast and executed well on both sides of the ball. When plays didn't go their way it was because the Badgers executed even better.
They are far from a perfect product. A suspect secondary, penalties and a lack of production on 3rd down makes a team vulnerable to anyone, but as a testament to how both Michigan and Michigan State are playing, let's be clear. Outside of going to Iowa City, playing the Wolverines will be the toughest game left on the Spartans' schedule.
Ohio State isn't on the MSU schedule at all and Penn State is clearly having difficulties scoring against good teams. At Northwestern? No, they barely beat Central Michigan, Minnesota and Vanderbilt. Their remaining home schedule is Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue. Enough said. Regardless of this week's outcome, the Spartans sure look like their heading for a 10 win regular season.
Reminders from Last Year's Game
If there was a drive to watch over and over again, it has to be Michigan's last series in regulation. Starting at their own 8 yard line with 2:53 left and needing a touchdown to tie, Tate Forcier (So. #5) gave it all he had. Under periods of driving rain, Forcier scrambled for yards, took a personal foul penalty, picked up slippery footballs and appeared to fumble a ball out of bounds that, at the time, saved the game for Michigan as the clock would have expired. After Forcier's 13 yd scramble to the MSU 11, he could barely breathe and was probably thanking Michigan State's defense for taking a time-out to regroup. Forcier, would eventually find Roy Roundtree (So. #12) with two seconds left that gave Michigan life and made everyone think momentarily, S.O.S (Same Old Spartans).
In overtime, Forcier would throw an interception and Larry Caper would score on a 23 yard run to give Michigan State the 26-20 victory.
Criticism instantly was directed at Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez in the week thereafter about whether he should go for two while Michigan had the momentum. Rodriguez issued a terse, "No", in his best impression yet of Lloyd Carr, when asked about whether he thought about it in the post-game press conference. While many fans thought he should have, they must have forgotten how gassed Forcier was to the point he was limping not because his legs hurt, but because he was winded. The two previous plays before Forcier's pass to Roundtree included a fumble from Forcier and a throw into a crowd in the middle of the end zone. While Forcier's performance was gutty, it was also lucky. Forgotten by now because of time and the subsequent plays in overtime, many would remember Forcier's condition if they immediately tried for two and failed in regulation. It was better to give the Spartans the five extra minutes to reflect and let the ghosts of the past come back to haunt them. Alas they didn't, but the decision at the time to play for OT was sound.
Match-Ups: Michigan Offense vs. MSU Defense
"The first time I got to play in the game, we won the game up in East Lansing and having not been able to taste that feeling for the last couple of years. To be able to go out with a win and be able to say that you got Michigan State your senior year is huge." – Steve Schilling (Sr. #52)
Michigan Quarterback and yes, Heisman Trophy frontrunner, Denard Robinson's (So. #16) will face his stiffest test this season against Michigan State's defense and in particular the man who lines up in the middle of the field, linebacker Greg Jones (Sr. #53). The pre-season Defensive Player of the Year is living up to the hype with a team leading 41 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 INT's, 1 sack, 4 quarterback hurries, 3 passes defended. Whew! Jones also knows he's never faced anyone like Robinson, who has won the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Week award three times in five weeks.
"It's kind of hard," admits Jones. "You want to go with your instincts sometimes, but you can pay if they're not right. There's a lot of trust involved with that, too. There's no guessing to be involved, you got to trust your teammates this week."
Ask Robinson who the MSU team leader is in any defensive statistical category, and the answer will almost always be the same.
"That's Greg Jones, says Robinson. "He's a physical player, he's fast and he can hit. You always got to have an eye on him, but you always got to have your progression. As a quarterback you got to read everybody else, not just one player."
Between Robinson and Jones are the lines in the trench and that will dictate how big or small the holes will be after the snap. Michigan's offensive line has produced very well and is unsung at this point. Center David Molk (Jr. #50), considered by some as Michigan's best lineman will probably meet Jones head on especially when Jones wants to blitz and because of MSU's 4-3 alignment. This match-up can't be understated. If the Wolverines can block up front the way they have, Robinson can do the rest with good decision making. If the Spartans get penetration, they can disrupt things before Michigan can get started.
A DT and DE has significant experience for the Spartans helping MSU to be 3rd in conference rush defense at 101 ypg. Michigan State held Wisconsin to nearly 100 yards less than the Badgers rushing average, but starter John Clay was gimpy, ran the football less than they usually do and MSU gave up the big rushing play twice to James White around the corner for touchdown runs of 16 and 34 yards.
The Wolverines got some good news this week with Michael Shaw (Jr. #20) returning to practice after missing last week's game with a knee injury. Shaw has established himself after the Notre Dame game as the featured back as defenses continue to pay more attention to Robinson. While it couldn't be said after the first two games, Shaw is an important ingredient in the Michigan offensive mix. Shaw is 2nd on the team in rushing touchdowns (5) and 2nd in yards trailing Robinson who needs just 95 rushing yards to go past 1,000 at the season's mid-way point.
The secondary for Michigan State, the team's big glaring weakness last season, is much improved but still a mixed bag. Primarily responsible for allowing the team to give up 37+ points in four of their last five games, they just aren't that big a liability like they once were. They're # 3 in pass defense efficiency, but they still have given up 9 TD passes, 2nd most in the Big 10. It will be interesting to see how much Chris L. Rucker (Sr. #29) and Johnny Adams (So. #5) will be alone on an island with Roundtree, Junior Hemmingway (Jr. #21), Martavious Odoms (Jr. #9), and Darryl Stonum (Jr. #22). Of course, it was zone miscommunication that cost them Stonum's touchdown last year.
Michigan State's defensive goals in order will likely be: 1) Stay in their lanes and trust their teammates; 2) disrupt the offensive line so that the zone read becomes questionable for Michigan; and 3) funnel all potential holes back to the middle and towards Jones.
Easier said than done, the only offense that's more efficient than Michigan in total yards is Oregon.
Match-Ups: Michigan Defense vs. MSU Offense
"I love the fact that they are undefeated. It just makes this game even bigger. I think it ensures that we're going to get their best on Saturday and I wouldn't want it any other way. I want their best and I'm sure they want our best. So both teams are going to play as hard as they can." –Mike Martin (Jr. #68)
If the Michigan defense could key on one aspect of an offense like Illinois' run game or Arkansas' passing game, I'd have reason to say that they could improve; but unlike Indiana who abandoned the run for the pass, MSU is very balanced. Unless they have tendencies that have been well scouted, the Wolverines won't be able to predict very well what the Spartans will do on first or second down.
The Spartans have run the ball for 220 ypg and passed the ball for 240 ypg. The ratio of run to pass is 60-40. For IU, the passing yds to rushing yds ratio is more than 3:1.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins (Jr. #8) has grown in his second season as a starter. Cousins' QB rating is 12th in the country, just one spot behind Indiana QB Ben Chappell and ahead of Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Wisconsin's Scot Tolzien. Film review of the Wisconsin game last week still shows Cousins can make the awkward pass under duress and wings it in the field of play when surprised, unlike Chappell who knows exactly at what moment he needs to throw the ball out of bounds. Coach Rodriguez would like to pressure Cousins, but he knows he can't do it by blitzing every down and going outside the scheme of his defense.
"There's no question, mixing things up, sometimes sending pressure or blitzes keeps you in the mind-set to be more aggressive defensively…again, we are a little bit limited because a lot of stuff we would like to do, we don't want to confuse our guys, the younger guys."
Cousins isn't afraid to run out of the pocket for yards, evidenced by his 41 yard run against Michigan last year.
Cousins has plenty of targets to choose from. Individually they are not as statistically ranked as well as the trio of Doss, Belcher and Turner are at IU, but collectively this is a very good unit. Despite losing Blair White, Cousins had over 2,200 yds of last year's receiving talent back for 2010. In addition to B.J. Cunningham (Jr. #3) listed above, they include:
Keyshawn Martin (Jr. #82): ranks #1 in the Big 10 in punt returns highlighted by a 74 yd for a TD. Martin has scored a touchdown in five different ways (receiving, passing, rushing, kick and punt returns) in his MSU career. He's #3 on the team in receiving yards.
Mark Dell (Sr. #2): leads the team in receiving yards.
Charlie Gnatt (Sr. #83) and Brian Linthicum (Jr. #88): combined they have 15 catches for 225 yards and 3 TD's.
Don't want to forget QB Keith Nichol (Jr. #7), but he has only 7 receptions for 98 yards.
At running back, it's tough to figure the MVP here. Edwin Baker (So. #4) may lead the team in rushing attempts and yards, but true freshman Le'Veon Bell (#24) isn't too far behind and has more touchdowns (7 to 5) and a better ypc (7.5 to 7.1). Bell could win the Freshman of the Year in the Big 10. Larry Caper (So. #22), last year's leading rusher is working his way back from a broken hand.
The strength and weakness of the offensive line appears to have reversed this season. Pass protection appeared to be a strength while run blocking was weaker in comparison. Those types of reversals can happen when you have three new starters. Run blocking has looked good, but their 3rd down conversion rate is low. The O-Line has given up 11 sacks and looked vulnerable to the pass rush against Wisconsin. Maybe that means the playmakers like Martin can make a few hits or cause some turnovers.
"That's a big emphasis that we make on our defense," Martin said. "Coach Robinson always talks about it. If you can get the ball in your offense's hand, more than the other team that is always a big advantage. We practice on strip drills, in practice and like I said, coach emphasizes it and we try to do it as best as we can."
The red zone is pretty efficient scoring 17 times out of 20 with 14 of them being touchdowns. It's not exactly as good as Michigan's but it's more than decent.
"Great balance, no question," says Rodriguez. "They have the ability to come downhill at you, and pound away, and then you know, they are very good on play-action. I wouldn't be shocked to see a lot of play-action early and often. They run some double cuts and get those wideouts one-on-one, and use some play-action with double cuts and throw the ball down the field and take some deep shots. You know, they will do it all."
Last year, with a chance to go up by three scores midway through the 4th quarter it looked like Coach Dantonio wanted to rub it in by going for it on fourth down at the Michigan 32. Brett Swenson could have made the challenging field goal, but by not converting, it gave the Wolverines the chance they needed to tie it. Reflecting back, going for it on 4th down may be more of a philosophy.
Last week the Spartans went 2-3 on 4th down, twice inside the five and once at midfield. They converted twice and consequently scored two touchdowns. The gambles paid off considering they came out 8 pts ahead.
If Michigan State is willing to go for it on 4th and 1 three times, then what will be an acceptable risk against the Michigan defense? Don't be surprised if MSU adds to the electrified tension by going for it on 4th down anywhere on the field.
Last year in Spartan Stadium, Michigan did a good job defensively. The Wolverines picked off two passes, forced two fumbles and played very physical. Hopefully, the defense can play inspired at home as they have notably done in the past.
Michigan State has the advantage in special teams. Will Hagerup (Fr. #43) cant' afford to hit line drive punts to Martin or another TD could be in the works. MSU kicker Dan Conroy (So. #4) is a perfect 7-7 in field goals this season with four makes over 40 yards.
When both teams have the ability to score it really comes down to a couple of things: which defense is more likely to stop the opposing offense; factor in who may have more possessions because of turnovers; who can score on a return; and realize that the home team generally executes better and makes less mistakes than the road team. You do the math. Interpretations vary.
A win for Michigan shows that the Wolverines are improving and gets everyone back on the wagon. A win for Michigan State is validation.
ENJOY THE GAME!