Know Your Foe: No. 8 Michigan State

Spartan Digest Publisher Mike Wilson answers five questions on Michigan State as they host Michigan, including predictions for the game this afternoon.

Q: Now halfway through the season and coming off of the 13-1, Rose Bowl winning year in 2013, how has Michigan State handled the accolades and in a lot of ways now being considered the hunted as opposed to the hunter?

Mike Wilson: For the most part, yes. In wins and losses, it is a definite yes, but in performance in those games, it is a little bit more murky. There have been moments where Michigan State looks and plays as dominant as it should be. Then there are other moments where it is a team that makes you scratch your head (See: Fourth-quarter Purdue, fourth-quarter Nebraska and second-half Oregon). It is a team that has yet to truly put together a full game and that is a bit of a concern as good teams are going to take advantage of that and beat the Spartans at some point.

But when they are on, I do think it is a team that is among the nation’s best. They showed that in the second quarter at Oregon when it looked like they might run away with the game for a little while.

Q: Connor Cook's transformation has really been something special to watch for Michigan State's program. For a Michigan defense looking to slow him down Saturday, what areas has Cook struggled with most this season and how could it be exploited?

Mike Wilson: You are right, the development has been crazy. If you told me last July that Cook would win the job let alone lead the team to a Rose Bowl, well, I would not have believed you at all. But now he has become a really solid player that leads the offense well and puts up a lot of points.

The most obvious improvement in Cook early this season was his footwork. That has taken a step back in recent weeks, but the issue he has mostly is ill-advised throws. He is immensely confident as a quarterback, but it borders on overconfidence at times and he tries to fit a ball into windows that do not exist. Other than that, he makes two-three throws a game into coverage and lives dangerously sometimes. If Michigan can get him rattled early, it might have more success against him. It also was clear at Oregon when MSU got behind and had to throw a lot, it allowed the defense to pin its ears back and come after him and he was rattled there.

Q: The defense was clearly a huge story in last year's game, sacking Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner seven times. This year, there's some new guys in the starting lineup, how have they stepped in and do you anticipate the Spartans defending the Wolverines the same way Saturday?

Mike Wilson: Michigan State replaced six starters from last year, but was fortunate to bring back a lot of guys with experience. The least-experienced player to step into the starting lineup was cornerback Darian Hicks and he has been pretty good so far.

When you look at guys stepping in, Ed Davis and Darien Harris have been solid at linebacker. Davis played big last year against Michigan in third-down sets.

I think the spot that most expected would be just fine was strong safety, where R.J. Williamson was set to start in Isaiah Lewis’ old spot. He struggled early and it seemed whenever a big play was given up, he was running after the player. Freshman Montae Nicholson stepped in and has been starting while splitting time since then.

As for how MSU will attack the Wolverines, it will heavily be the same. Pat Narduzzi does what Pat Narduzzi does. That means zone blitzes and A-gap blitzes and press coverage on the outside. The only question is can they get pressure like they did last year. There were plays to be made that Gardner did not make because of the pressure. So if MSU cannot get to him as well as it did last year and the safeties struggle in pass coverage as they have at times this season, Michigan could have some success there.

Q: With seemingly everyone in the world predicting a not so close finish in this one Saturday, not to mention Michigan State playing for more than just one game, can we expect the Spartans to come out with the same intensity in this game as we've seen in years past?

Mike Wilson: Well, if the talk this week has been any indication, then yes. I think what has enabled Michigan State to be successful against Michigan since Mark Dantonio arrived is a combination of things, but one of those certainly is the attitude he has instilled in the program. The players know how much this game means to Michigan State, the past players, the future players and fans. What I wonder is if Michigan State can keep the intensity up through four quarters, which as I mentioned above has been an issue. Shilique Calhoun said to me last week that MSU needs to be able to find its own motivation. If playing Michigan can’t do it, I’m not sure what would for this team. And, as you basically said, if this team wants to be in the playoff, it must win this game.

Q: What are your predictions for the game?

Mike Wilson: I will just put this out there now: I do think this game should be closer than people expect. I think people forget last season was a pretty closely played game between the MSU offense and the UM defense.

I think it will be about Cook needing to pass well to open up the run a little bit more, which is the opposite of Michigan State’s usual approach. If he is smart with the ball and is an efficient passer, it will put Michigan State in a good position.

The Michigan run defense is highly ranked right now, which is not too surprising given that it is a solid front seven. I think because of the game the game unfolds in a similar way as last year and others: A tight first half and Michigan State pulls away in the second.

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