Michigan vs. Michigan State Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field, Saturday. Know your opponent with the Michigan vs. Michigan State Primer.

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.

#23 Michigan (4-2) (2-0) vs Michigan State (4-3) (1-2)

Michigan Schedule:
(L) Alabama (in Dallas Tx) 41-14
(W) Air Force 31-25
(W) UMASS 63-13
(L) at Notre Dame 13-6
(W) at Purdue 44-13
(W) Illinois 45-0
MSU Schedule:
(W) Boise State 17-13
(W) at Central Michigan 41-7
(L) Notre Dame 20-3
(W) Eastern Michigan 23-7
(L) Ohio State 17-16
(W) at Indiana 31-27
(L) Iowa 19-16 (2OT)

MSU Players to Watch:
QB Andrew Maxwell (Jr. #10) 1st year starter; #2 in passing yds but outside the top 10 in passing efficiency.
RB Le’Veon Bell (Jr. #24) 5th in the NCAA with 916 rushing yds; 8 TD’s; 132 receiving yards.
DE William Gholston (Jr. #2) Personal fouls on Taylor Lewan and Denard Robinson last year made him notorious in Ann Arbor.
LB Max Bullough (Jr. #40) A team captain and leading tackler.
CB Johnny Adams (Sr. #5) A two-time All-Big Ten selection.

What a win means for Michigan:  Win #900 in program history; 12 consecutive home wins; Brady Hoke would be 9-2 in conference play at Michigan; would effectively eliminate MSU’s chance for a divisional championship.

What a win means for MSU: A never before fifth straight win over the Wolverines; theoretically would be still in the hunt for a divisional championship; head coach Mark Dantonio’s ego goes into the ionosphere.   

What MSU Brags About:  Beating Michigan four times in a row; back-to-back 11 win seasons in 2010-11; the most Big Ten wins (24) in four seasons than any other Big Ten team; they know how to stop Denard.

Mark Dantonio


A loss at Michigan would not only mean the end of hope for the Spartans going to the Rose Bowl, but bowl eligibility would become a concern. A loss in Ann Arbor would put MSU at 4-4. Another road game at Wisconsin, followed by a home game vs. Nebraska could mean a potential four game losing streak. Under that scenario MSU would need wins against Northwestern and Minnesota to pick up the pieces to qualify for a bowl game.  It seems silly to write about this scenario because it seems unfathomable but fortunes and public perceptions of Big Ten teams have risen and fallen dramatically week-to-week. Look at Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, Penn State, Indiana and Wisconsin as examples of teams with dramatically different outlooks from the end of September till now. That’s more than half the Big Ten. In turn, a win over Michigan keeps them alive in the division and the momentum would lead many to think that the Spartans could run the table.

“I think it can be a defining moment for us,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “I think it could be a rallying point or a moment where we can start going in the other direction."

After all, there’s been a lot of jumping on and off the MSU bandwagon since the start of the season.


TE Dion Sims (Jr. #80) is questionable after suffering an ankle injury at Indiana. Before his injury, Sims was leading the team in receiving yards and is a big piece of the Michigan State offense. He missed the Iowa game and is questionable for Michigan but is expected to travel with the team to Ann Arbor.

FB Lawrence Thomas (Rd-Fr. #8) is cleared to play after a concussion.

The Last Time They Met

Michigan State beat the Wolverines for a fourth consecutive year 28-14 in a game that will be remembered for two things; the Spartans defensive pressure on the Michigan offense and the number of penalties and personal fouls they took in the process.

Michigan quarterbacks Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) and Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) were 12-31 for 168 yards and sacked seven times under relentless pressure. The Wolverines had eight consecutive possessions inside Spartans territory from the end of the 1st quarter to midway through the fourth quarter, but scored only seven points. The Wolverines had a chance to tie on 4th inches inside the ten yard line, but Robinson was sacked on a corner blitz on a play-action pass. MSU would later get a pick-six off Robinson late in the fourth for the decisive score.

William Gholston

The Spartans were flagged 13 times for 124 yards and had six personal fouls. It included clear video of William Gholston (Jr. #2) punching Taylor Lewan (Jr. #77) and earlier twisting Denard’s helmet by the face mask so severely in a pile-up that Robinson was at risk for a serious injury. Robinson would be knocked out of the game in the 4th quarter after yet another personal foul and after the game was no longer in doubt. When asked by the media after the game about whether the Spartans were playing dirty, Michigan did the best they could to deflect the attention. MSU on the other hand, decided to shout out what specific Michigan players were doing but getting away with. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was unapologetic and went as far as saying,

“That’s what we tried to do, 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness. Just glad it didn’t get called every snap.”

Narduzzi would later be admonished by MSU athletic director Mark Hollis for those comments.

Ironically, this week, Narduzzi has called for the officials to take control of the game early to prevent liberties and cheap shots from occurring on both teams. Haven’t seen any eye gouging from Michigan players yet.

Last Week

For the first 54 minutes, Michigan State’s defense was completely dominant. MSU’s defense must have felt like they were going through extended warm-ups after recording seven three-and outs in just eleven possessions. Up to that point Iowa ran 54 plays and had 157 yards of total offense. Yet, Michigan State was only up seven, 13-6, when Iowa made its last stand. On 2nd and 26, the Hawkeyes completed a pin-point 35-yard pass, their longest play of the day. Three plays later, a 37-yard run gave Iowa first and goal at the MSU eight yard line. The Hawkeyes would tie the game with a touchdown run with 55 seconds left.

The two teams would trade field goals in the first OT. Iowa 2nd field goal in double OT put them up 19-16, then Iowa’s Greg Castillo’s interception off a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage by Iowa’s Louis Trinca-Pasat and through the hands of Michigan State’s Keith Mumphery (So. #25) clinched the unexpected victory.

Their Season So Far

Pegged as the “smart” choice by many to repeat as Legends Division champions and a good bet to make their first trip to Pasadena in 25 years, Michigan State’s season is heading towards its most disappointing season in over a decade.

The belief was the defense would be even better than last year, which finished in the NCAA’s top ten in many statistical categories. The reality is that defense is still very good. They lead the Big Ten in scoring, defense, total defense, and rush defense; however, the Spartans have occasionally given up the big play and may be missing DT Jerel Worthy (2nd Rd Pick) who put heat on quarterbacks. The Spartans are dead last in the Big Ten in sacks (6).

Andrew Maxwell

On offense, the belief was that new quarterback Andrew Maxwell (Jr. #10) would be able to take over for departing three-year starter Kirk Cousins without a hitch. The reality is that Maxwell, like many first year quarterbacks is going through some learning experiences. In MSU’s season opener vs. Boise State, Maxwell had trouble with the pressure. He threw three interceptions, including a pick-six, and by the end of the game he was throwing the ball away after the slightest bit of pressure. Last week you could argue Maxwell hung on to the ball too long. Maxwell is still feeling his way, looking for balance in between the critiques.

While fans would like to see the Spartans open up the offense more, Michigan State has centered its offense on Le’Veon Bell (Jr. #24). Bell had 50 touches in the opener. Bell is 5th in the country in rushing yards (916) and 2nd in attempts (200).

The Spartans went seven quarters without scoring a touchdown before coming from behind to beat Eastern Michigan in what would become a familiar trend. MSU would fall behind or struggle against teams they were expected to dominate. State trailed 17-0 at Indiana two weeks ago and last week Iowa was not supposed to give them any trouble at home. Instead, MSU suffered its third setback at Spartan Stadium following a 15 game home winning streak.

The Spartan Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense

It’s clear Michigan State’s offense is struggling, but why? It can be narrowed down to two main reasons. Years ago former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr on more than one occasion talked about the necessity of an offense to be multi-dimensional. There are a few exceptions, but Michigan State’s 2012 team isn’t one of them.

Their two biggest threats are Bell in the run game and Sims in the pass game. Tight ends can go deep like Devin Funchess (Fr. #19) or Ohio State’s Jake Stoneburner before he became a receiver, but Sims acts more as a safety valve receiver that Maxwell likes to rely on when he feels the heat. A power run game in combination with a short passing game invites even more defensive pressure, man coverage, and blitzes.

Le'Veon Bell

As in basketball, if a jump shooter can’t drive, the defense nullifies his game by guarding him tight knowing he can’t be burned. If a slasher can’t hit a jumper, a defender will give plenty of room to defend the dribble drive, daring him to shoot or pass.

If the quarterback can’t make them pay or if the lineman can’t protect the QB long enough, it’s hard for the offense to be productive. The O-Line is in flux with a pair of starters out and while depth wasn’t supposed to be an issue, it is after seven games. Dantonio lamented as much, Tuesday.

“We have three players on offense that played last year on a constant basis for us, whether it be injuries, graduation, whatever it is. We have (linemen) Dan France (Jr. #59), Chris McDonald (Sr. #62), Le'Veon Bell playing for us. The rest of our guys are new.”

The O-Line at the beginning of the year had four starters returning with back-ups who started last season. Today because of injuries they have two returning starters and are still juggling the line to find the right combination.

Just about everyone is new and ‘green’ in the receiving corp. State lost four of their top five receivers from 2011. While there are plenty of players making solid contributions, only six touchdown passes have been thrown and the coaching staff has publically admitted that their passing game isn’t where they expected it to be.  Bennie Fowler (Jr. #13) has been benched for true freshman Aaron Burbridge (#16) and like the offensive line, they are trying different people in an effort to find answers and hope they stop dropping the ball. MSU is 11th in the conference in scoring and in touchdowns but has attempted more field goals than any other Big Ten school.

Sims availability is almost as important Bell as he’s a big answer to their struggles in the passing game.

Aaron Burbridge

Michigan has done a great job in recent weeks defending spread teams. Their lateral pursuits to the sidelines and boundaries are excellent. The Wolverines now rank 10th nationally in total defense. The question is whether the defense has improved against power run and vertical passing teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin. The last power run team the Michigan defense faced was against Alabama in the opener.

Well, I don’t know if we’ve been tested,” says Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. “We haven’t had balls thrown down the field vertically in the pass game.

“We’re playing a lot of spread teams that want to use the bubbles and want to use those things. I think that’s a fair assessment. I think we haven’t been tested yet.”

Michigan Sophomore Raymon Taylor (#6) might also be challenged as well. Taylor, who has come in for the injured Blake Countess, will likely be targeted by State’s passing game. However, as it so often is, Michigan’s defensive success will be determined if they can stop Bell who has a pair of 200 yard rushing games and is a punishing runner. The team that won the rushing battle has won 39 of the past 42 meetings and unlike other years where the passing game was much better for both teams, that statistic should hold up this season.

The defensive line will need to hold their own at the line of scrimmage for Jake Ryan (So. #47) and the rest of the Wolverine linebackers to get to and tackle the 245 lb Bell who has rung a few ‘bells’ of opposing defenders.

The Spartan Defense vs. the Michigan Offense

The Spartan defense hasn’t surpassed the lofty expectations put forth in the off-season, but they’re statistically still the best in the Big Ten. As a team they are atop most of the major categories. MSU is the only team in the Big Ten to hold teams to under 100 rushing yards per game. Individually it’s a different story. While it was certainly possible that as many as six players could make the conference’s All-Big Ten defensive first team, that number is now expected to be much lower. 

Linebacker and another team captain, Chris Norman (Sr. #10) is no longer starting and two-time All Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams (Sr. #5) has been criticized for losing some one-on-one matchups for big plays.

Max Bullough

The State defense has always had a good game plan against Denard and it should be expected that they will have a good one this year. They will load the box to shutdown all facets of the run game and Michigan isn’t significantly better this year offensively than in year’s past.

There won’t be much Denard hasn’t seen before from MSU and subsequently, Alabama and Virginia Tech. This will be a true test to see if Denard can put his past mistakes behind and him and learn from the experience.

The Wolverines may try to use a little power running game of their own with sophomore Thomas Rawls (#38). Rawls was finally given some significant carries against Illinois and his average yard per carry is much higher (7.0) than Fitzgerald Toussaint’s (Jr. #28) (3.3ypg). Is there a change on the horizon?

“No not really. One thing I will say is that Thomas has earned a right to get in there a little bit more,” says Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. “But no, I don’t really have any concerns. Fitz ran hard. Fitz did some good things in that game. But we’re lucky in that Thomas is starting to surface, which is giving us more depth, which is really good news.”

Most Likely Spartan You’ll Remember After the Game is Over Le’Veon Bell

He’s their #1 option. Michigan’s ability to slow him down is key for Michigan to win.


The Michigan Insider Top Stories