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.
#11/10 Michigan (6-0) vs. #23/19 Michigan State (4-1)
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) San Diego State 28-7 (W) Minnesota 58-0
(W) at Northwestern 42-24
(W) Youngstown State 28-6
(W) Florida Atlantic 44-0
(L) at Notre Dame 13-31
(W) Central Michigan 45-7
(W) at Ohio State 10-3
MSU Players to Watch:
A three game winning streak doesn’t quite equate to Michigan’s nearly 40 year trend, but don’t tell that to Spartan fans who now feel everything is as it should be. Amongst the bravado and hyperbole from the Spartans and their fans however, there’s a twinge of unspoken nervousness from some that are wondering, “Could it be ending this quickly?”
Go back a year ago, when those that were thinking ahead, that if Spartans could win in Ann Arbor to make it three in a row, surely, with all the returning playmakers, winning four in a row in East Lansing would be a foregone conclusion. Even as early as August when fans of both sides started pouring down the schedule to identify who’s a win and who’s a loss, weren’t the Spartans an automatic W? Today it takes a great deal of thought and the opinion is no longer unanimous.
There were a few maize and blue supporters that foresaw Michigan being 6-0, but even fewer who saw that State would be 4-1 with their only loss coming not in Columbus, but in South Bend where Notre Dame fought off the demons of losing another dramatic game to the Wolverines.
State hasn’t been a disappointing team, but a different team that from what fans expected. The old Spartan teams that disintegrated after their first loss is no longer there or feared to reoccur. There’s nothing wrong with the defense. The absence of linebacker bell-cows Greg Jones and Eric Gordon hasn’t been missed. Those on that side of the ball are living up to and passing expectations. The offense is a different story.
There is a slight uneasiness about their offensive performance over the first five games; concerns that won’t be corrected.
The new offensive coordinator is being scrutinized. The running game hasn’t been as dominant. The passing game has gone from a generous and talented wealth of resources to essentially a pair of “go to” guys, with one a receiver and the other at tight end, and a starting quarterback that’s looking like a target of those searching for a scapegoat.
Kirk Cousins (Sr. #8) is making his 3rd start against Michigan and could become the first Spartan QB to win three straight games over the Wolverines. He just passed the 7,000 yards career passing mark putting him 2nd on the all-time Spartan list. He’ll finish his career #1 or #2 in most of the passing categories. Yet there is some that want to take the air out of the balloon.
Through five games his completion percentage is 67.8% throwing for nearly 1200 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. It’s those interceptions however that have become a focal point in the loss to Notre Dame and against Ohio State won by the defense.
“I'm not concerned about Kirk at all in the effect of how he's playing the football game,” says MSU head coach Mark Dantonio. “He had great velocity on the ball. He was putting it right on the money. So I'm not concerned at all in that area.”
Nevertheless, the questions about Cousins ability to perform in big games, especially on the road have Dantonio on the defensive.
“There are so many things that a quarterback has to handle and has to deal with on a play in and play out situation throughout an entire football game, and let's face it, sometimes there's going to be mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. But the mistakes that a quarterback makes, when there is a mistake, I think they get magnified because he is so paramount to the success of every single program, he is so essential in every single play.”
It reads very similar to when Lloyd Carr needed to defend and straighten the public’s perception of senior quarterback John Navarre in 2003.
What I would be concerned about is just people's mindset as you move forward, pressures that people are under playing in front of 105,000 people, national TV, all these things that a quarterback comes under.
“So those mistakes get magnified, much like the mistakes a head football coach may make gets magnified. All in all, he's doing an outstanding job, won 11 football games last year…I feel good about how he's playing. I think that naturally the quarterback I think sometimes gets a lot of praise. Sometimes maybe that's not all warranted; receiver makes a great catch, whatever. But I also think the reverse is true; sometimes the quarterback gets an awful lot of criticism. That's what I think.”
Cousins has at least half-dozen good targets to throw to and that doesn’t include the players in the backfield. There was a thought that the completions would be evenly dispersed, but instead Cousins has found a couple of favorites.
B.J. Cunningham (Sr. #3) leads the team in catches (38) and yards (582). Only A.J. Jenkins of Illinois has more. Cunningham is near last year’s totals and could conceivably finish his career with 3,000 yards. If his TD production can go up, he currently has two; he’ll be a First Team All-Conference selection.
Cousins biggest TD target, figurative and literally is Dion Sims (So. #80). The 6’5 276 lb tight end leads the team with three scores, though Sims is not a starter.
Cunningham’s nearest statistical competitor Keyshawn Martin (Sr. #82), has half the catches (19) and less than a third of the yards (177). Martin’s speed is something the Wolverines will have to watch out for, yet somehow he has only one receiving touchdown since the beginning of the 2010 season. Former QB Keith Nichol (Sr. #7) is still contributing with nine catches but is averaging more than 15 ypc. Bennie Fowler (So. #13) is expected to make his season debut after missing the first five games with a foot injury. In 2010, he played in all 13 games with a 175 yards receiving and one touchdown.
The Spartans still have a three headed monster at running back, though it appears it is more smoke than fire. Last year against Michigan, Edwin Baker (Jr. #4) and Le’Veon Bell (So. #24) each scored on long touchdowns that destroyed the early confidence the Wolverine defense was having. Larry Caper (Jr. #22) also added a touchdown run in the win. This season Baker and Bell are statistically close, but Bell appears to be the more threatening back. Bell, who leads the team in yards (53.4 ypg), has six of the eight Spartan touchdowns, all inside the red zone. Unlike the Michigan game, remembered for the big plays, none of this season’s rushing touchdowns have come from outside the red zone. The big three didn’t score against the Irish or the Buckeyes, meaning the rushing touchdowns have only occurred against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan.
The offense coming into the season has the best all around skill positioned players in the conference, but it can all be neutered if the offensive line doesn’t pass protect well or create lanes for running backs to go through. When you add injuries to the mix up front, this may be the case why both the receiver and running back units are underperforming.
State needed to replace both tackles and their center. Blake Treadwell (Jr. #64), who won the battle at center; started five games at nose tackle last year. Treadwell got hurt in the ND game and Dantonio said Tuesday that he doesn’t expect him to play. RT Skylar Burkland (Rd-Fr. #70) is lost for the season after an injury during the ND game as well.
Some are blaming the offensive troubles to their new offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who was promoted in the off season. No OC is immune to 2nd guessing on play calls, but again the focal point of the problem appears to be the line and the execution, not the strategy.
State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
With the lack of run production, I wouldn’t expect the Spartans to hit the home run on the ground that they had last year. The Spartans could get a few big plays in the air. Cunningham is All-Big Ten caliber and although Martin hasn’t scored, his speed on bubble screens makes him dangerous.
Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke recognizes that potential of those screens and short plays that can go long.
“Their three-step game is a pretty integral part of what they do offensively, so that’s got to be part of where we need to be…good tacklers there, guys breaking on the ball, and being disciplined with our eyes. I think that’s going to be an issue during the football game.”
The Spartans lead the team in time of possession, so they must being doing more than few things right, but ironically they are near the bottom of the conference in 3rd down conversions. Attribute this statistic to a stingy defense that knows how to get off the field.
As much as you hear about the key defensively is to rattle Denard Robinson (Jr. #16), getting after Cousins is high on the Wolverines list as well. Cousins, like any quarterback, has made some poor decisions under duress. Cousins would be wise to go to the film room to look at Michigan’s blitz packages. The Spartan offensive tackles are, should we say…green. That means Ryan Van Bergen (Sr. #53) and Craig Roh (Jr. #88) need to play their best games and prove that State has a liability on the line.
The defense did a pretty good job in keeping a 10,000 yard quarterback (Ryan Lindley, SDSU) in check but they also allowed Dan Persa (Northwestern) and Tommy Rees (ND) to pass for over 300 yards. Michigan faces a tougher test here.
Hoke said Monday that one of the biggest things they need to fix is the play of the perimeter players who need to be fundamentally better at getting off blocks. It’s a 2nd half adjustment the staff made during the Northwestern game by substituting some of their speed guys for stronger guys. Against MSU, to prevent the big play, they will still need to keep many of their speed guys out there.
While the offense may be disappointing to a degree, the defense has been a pleasant surprise. Through five games the Spartans are #1 in the nation in total defense (173 ypg), tied for third in scoring defense (10.2 ppg), and third in rush defense (64 ypg). Those rankings will be tested against Michigan as they are the Wolverines offensive statistical strengths. Michigan is 14th, 19th and 7th respectively.
If State’s defense is really that good and if it does compare, say to… last year’s Alabama team, then MSU’s offense must be scoring only in games and never in practice. Nevertheless, since State has maintained a level of defensive excellence through five games, they have to be pretty darn good even if their ranks and standings take a hit during conference play.
Just about everyone’s stats on the defense got inflated after nearly shutting out the Buckeyes in their last game. The Spartans had nine sacks in the game against an inept OSU offense and were a few seconds short of giving the Buckeyes a shutout in Columbus for the first time in 30 years. Their defensive line continues to get better as the Dantonio years go by, and the loss of good players are being replaced by better players.
DT Jerel Worthy (Jr. #99) is a likely All Big Ten Conference 1st team selection and a potential first round draft pick. He’s second on the team in sacks and third in tackles-for-loss. Marcus Rush (Rd-Fr. #44) and William Gholston (So. #2) have been productive ends combining for two sacks and nine TFL’s. Rush’s best games have come against the Irish and Buckeyes.
Linebacker was supposed to be a position of weakness with the losses of Jones and Gordon but Denicos Allen (So. #28) might make you think Jones hadn’t left. Allen leads the team in sacks (3) and in TFL’s (7.5). Allen is the one who hurdled over the Buckeye blocker to register a sack seen on the highlights. Max Bullough (So. #40) leads the team in tackles. This pair could be playing three years together.
Each member of the secondary has at least one interception. Johnny Adams (Jr. #5) has five career picks including one against Robinson at the goal line in the third quarter last year. Trenton Robertson (Sr. #39) is a steady player at safety with six career interceptions and ten passes broken up.
State’s Defense vs. Michigan’s Offense
Michigan is averaging 50 ppg in conference play, so this isn’t the Buckeye offense they’re playing, but they held Notre Dame to 275 yards of offense.
Michigan’s David Molk (Sr. #50) will have another big physical battle worth watching as he and a Michigan guard will double team Worthy. That means there will be single coverage at times for Gholston and Rush, who will do their best to disrupt Robinson. There’s a reason why Allen is leading the team in tackles behind the line of scrimmage because he’s looking to penetrate, and he’s getting results. Robinson is going to need to look out for him in the middle and on the edge.
“There's not any doubt that their physicalness at the line of scrimmage and their ability to penetrate and all those things and be disruptive are a big part of what they do defensively,” said Hoke. “For us, we have got to play our best game to this point in all areas, but specifically up front.”
Michigan believes that Robinson can avoid the troubles he had in the 1st half of the Northwestern game and expose the MSU defense with run/pass mix. State believes that the defense will force the interceptions like last year and that the 2nd half adjustments won’t matter to a defense as good as theirs.
Robinson will continue to throw it up for grabs at times believing Junior Hemmingway (Sr. #21) or Roy Roundtree (Jr. #12) will be able to out rebound the Spartans, but MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi thinks his defense will win that challenge.
"We've gone up and got the ball," he said. "I'm not sure how much you want to throw it up against us, to be honest with you. I hope they do. I hope they throw it instead of run it with him."
The key to keeping the pressure off Robinson remains to be the running backs. Fitz Toussaint (So. #28), Vincent Smith (Jr. #2), and Michael Shaw (Sr. #20) must be successful at getting yards and doing their best to make the Michigan offense more than just Robinson. Eventually good defenses can stop a one man team, no matter who it is.
Inevitably in these close rivalry games, it’s about who wants it more, which is a good question. Who does want it more? It’s about the bragging rights, but for each player on each team this is more than who’s king for a year. This game if the Spartans win is about legacy. State hasn’t won four in a row in 49 years.
"That would be great,'' said Cunningham. “It would mean every time I played on the field against them, we won and to go out like that, it would be great for our seniors and all the guys. It would be a chance to keep it in the program for the young guys to show them how it's done and what they need to do. So, just to go out never losing to Michigan, that would be great.''
Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game: Hemmingway
It’s hard to beat the IU game from Bloomington he had last season and he may not have a single touchdown, Saturday, but if Robinson does throw passes out of desperation it will be up to Hemmingway to go get them. If he comes up with more than his fair share of them, he’ll put Michigan in a position to win.
Most Likely Wildcat You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Cousins
Cousins will be either hero or goat. He’ll likely be needed to engineer some drives with significant pass plays. If he can avoid the “oops!” factor and make some plays, he’ll be the biggest Wolverine slayer in team history. If he inexplicably throws to the wrong guy, the criticisms may never stop.
MSU has won ten straight at home. U-M has won three of the last four in East Lansing.
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