Know Your Opponent: Michigan State

GoBlueWolverine's Sam Webb goes one on one with college football analyst Steve Clarke to get an in-depth breakdown of this week's opponent. Michigan State boasts a high-powered offense led by the big play tandem of quarterback Connor Cook and wideout Tony Lippett. The defense, while not as dominant as last year's Spartan unit, has still wreaked havoc on almost every opponent it has faced.

Sam Webb:  How about we start with the side of the ball that the Spartans are known for in this era of Michigan State football and that’s the defense.  What do you see from the Spartans defensively this year?

Steve Clarke:  “Surprisingly, Michigan is ahead of Michigan State in scoring defense and in rush defense through seven games this year.  So for those of you who haven’t been keeping track of the Spartans this season or just relying in their reputation, the Wolverines are closer to the Spartans defensively in 2014 than the they are offensively.  Through seven games, State has scored more than twice as many points as the Maize-N-Blue.  It is the offense that is carrying Michigan State right now.  Let’s take a look at where Michigan State continues to excel at it and it is really not much of a surprise.  They are #1 in sacks.  They’re also #1 in sacks against, and that’s on the offensive side.  A big thing about Michigan State is team wise, they are #1 in turnover margin at +11.  UM is ranked dead last at -13.  It is not even close.  Michigan would have to go +6 to catch up to Illinois for 13th place for turnover margin.  While Michigan State would have to go a -5 just to drop into second.  Turnover margin has been very, very big and very, very helpful for Michigan State.  Defensively on individual personnel, the same names that have been leading them before are leading them now.  Trae Waynes, cornerback, may end up being an All-American cornerback by December.  Curtis Drummond, the safety, will probably be All-Conference.  Marcus Rush is a four year starter at defensive end.  He could be an All-Conference team member and Shilique Calhoun on all the preseason watch lists, he could be on one of those All-American teams as well.”

Sam Webb:  That turnover margin, the sacks; they make big plays on defense, but you pointed out something that Marcus did as well.  This Michigan State defense seems to have more holes than last year.  I guess the most surprising thing is that teams have been able to run the ball some on the Spartans this year.

Steve Clarke:  “You have to throw in a little bit of the Oregon factor.  If they were playing somebody else on a much less tier, they wouldn’t be giving up the number of points that they gave up against the Ducks out in Eugene, which would help some of their statistics.  We are now talking a seven game average now so some of those things start to flatten out as the weeks go by.  Michigan State to me, if they were doing the ultimate driving machine by the end of 2013.  Let’s keep up with the car analogy for a moment, it is like having a new navigation system, a new suspension system that the offense is improving on while it continues to have the quality parts inside.  On defense, this vehicle may need an extra oil change, or need its tires rotated a bit more often… it’s a little bit more shaky a bit in some areas.  It needs some work in some areas that they didn’t need last season, but nothing is really too much of an eye opener there.”

Sam Webb:  If the defense isn’t quite as good as last season, but still good…the offense is certainly more potent.  It has been my contention in comparing Michigan State’s offense this year to Michigan State’s offense last year is that overall there is no question it is better.  I’ve been comparing them to how they’ve been finishing the season when I thought they were not only an outstanding throwing team but an outstanding running team.  I don’t think they run it quite as well as they did at the end of last season, but I definitely think they throw it better, what do you think?

Steve Clarke:  “Statistically I think you’re kind of right on there.  Connor Cook’s best games were against Ohio State and Stanford and he’s had a couple of other, close to 300 I think since then.  The Nebraska game was close.  They were fine tuned and revved up by the end of last year.  This year, they’re a little bit more fluid.  I think the biggest surprise for Michigan State’s offense is Tony Lippett.  In line to be the best in the conference, he leads the conference in receiving touchdowns with eight.  That’s three more than any other receiver in the Big Ten and he has 786 receiving yards, which is about 140 more than any other.  He has four 100 yard receiving games, in which he had none last year over 100.  So Tony Lippett I think is the biggest surprise there and they have some other receivers as well.  Jeremy Langford, you can’t be surprised that he’s fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at about 95 yards per game.  You can just list the names off the top who are better.  Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and David Cobb.   Then you have an offensive line that lost a lot, but again they are #1 against giving up sacks.  They’ve kind of done some things as well.  Nick Hill… he has had a good senior year.  He’s got a few hundred yards under his belt.  So he has kind of been a nice complimentary player to Jeremy Langford in the rushing game.  So it’s not just a one person rushing attack.  They’ve got a couple out there that they can play.  When you just look at what Michigan State is doing, they’re #1 in scoring offense.  They have twice as many points as Michigan does, more than twice the amount.  So when you’re averaging more than 40 points a game, you’re doing pretty good as an offense and that’s not necessarily been Michigan State’s trademark over the last five, ten, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 years.”

Sam Webb:  One of their trademarks and I don’t know if you looked at it this week, I know you typically do, only when you see it as being a huge factor in the game.  Michigan State in the special teams aspect of the game under Mark Dantonio has really excelled.  It has been a big part of their success during their run.  What about this season, anything notable about the Spartans on special teams?

Steve Clarke:  “Not that I think is going to be an ultimate factor in this Saturday’s game.  I don’t think it’s going to come down to special teams quite frankly in this one.  When you’ve got Sadler, who punts well and their kicker is Groza territory, they’re doing well.  If necessary, Mark Dantonio will do some sort of trick to help them get through and they’ll have a nickname for it and everybody will gush and love over it.”

Sam Webb:  Can you dial up last year’s Michigan State team and tell me whether that one was more veteran or as veteran as this one.  I looked at the stats that Allen Trieu put together a story, talking about the experience factor for this year’s Michigan State team.  They have seven fourth or fifth year guys on offense and nine fourth or fifth year guys on defense.  I thought they were going to be less experienced this year and it turns out that they’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football for them that are in the starting line up again this year.

Steve Clarke:  “From what I remember, Michigan State has a very, very low transfer rate and that’s the reason why you can have a whole bunch of upper classman that are in their fourth or fifth year.  They lost a number of guys on defense.  I thought they had lost five or six starters on defense from the back of the year coming into this year.  That’s one thing and then the offense, they lost a couple of lineman, but they have all their skill positions back and their quarterbacks from last year.  So high on offense, some attrition on defense, but they’re being replaced by guys who have been in the program and have had some valuable experience playing in games.  To say that they have a lot of upper classmen in their starting unit right now, not to much of a surprise, because once signed with Michigan State they stay at Michigan State.”

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