Significance of MSU Game Grows After Loss

The tale of woe in road openers continued for Michigan Saturday versus Wisconsin. Does the loss make the Michigan State game a must win? Should game Watson be back in the starting line up? Have the defensive questions been answered? GoBlueWolverine's Sam Webb tackles those issues in his weekly column.

Watson and Branch could form dynamic duo

After viewing the film of the Northern Illinois game a few weeks ago, Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr was visibly upset by the performance of his defense. "Defensively I’m very very disappointed in the way we played…particularly in the front seven," said Michigan's head man in the Monday press conference after the game. "I don’t think we played well at all up there…we're just not where we need to be and we need to play harder. We need to play more physical and that is our intent. There are going to be some changes in the line up because we’re not going to sit and watch that type of effort."

Gabe Watson
By the start of the next game it was clear that one of the players being singled out was senior defensive tackle Gabriel Watson. The 6-4 335-pounder spoke with GoBlueWolverine during the pre-season about "not finishing" down the stretch last season and not "taking plays off" this year. (For those that missed that audio interview, click here). Judging by the actions of the coaching staff, some of those same traits apparently bubbled to the surface in the opening game.

In the subsequent contest versus the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Watson was removed from the starting line-up. When he finally entered the contest midway through the second quarter, he made a difference right away. Very early in his game action, Watson collapsed the pocket and hit Brady Quinn. That forced the Irish signal-caller to throw an errant pass that went right through the hands of linebacker Prescott Burgess. Coincidentally, the visitors did not score another touchdown all day. In a virtual repeat of that play, early in the fourth quarter on Saturday Watson destroyed Wisconsin's center, hit quarterback John Stocco, and forced another errant pass that was intercepted (this time) by defensive back Grant Mason.

Joining Watson in his havoc-wreaking ways up front has been sophomore defensive lineman Alan Branch. The New Mexico native, who registered a sack and a forced fumble versus Wisconsin, has been a huge factor at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Over the past few weeks Branch has replaced Watson in the starting lineup, but if Michigan is to field its most formidable duo, the two aforementioned players should seemingly be on the field together. They are clearly Maize and Blue's most effective interior linemen. Both are big enough to hold up against double teams and occasionally fight through them, quick enough to penetrate into the backfield off of the snap, and fast enough to chase plays down from the backside.

It could be the case that Watson is more effective with limited snaps or that he is playing better because he has been sufficiently motivated by his time on the bench. If that's so, these two should at least be the interior tandem during crunch time.

Michigan Still Seeking Formula for Road Opening Victory

This year Michigan's opening road game wasn't the season opener, wasn't Notre Dame, and wasn't on the West Coast. As a matter of fact, for the first time since 1997, the Wolverines didn't play a single non-conference road opponent. Despite all of that, the result was the same as it was in the five years previous, and in six of the previous seven…a loss

Michigan's record in road opener's since 1997

Michigan's rank
Opponent Rank
(Mich game/season's end)
+ Final Record
Game #
Notre Dame
22/22 (9-3)
Loss (36-20)
UR/UR (7-5)
Win (18-13)
14/UR (6-6)
Loss (23-20)
15/19 (8-4)
Loss (23-18)
Notre Dame
20/17 (10-3)
Loss (25-23)
22/UR (8-5)
Loss (31-27)
Notre Dame
UR/UR (6-6)
Loss (28-20)
Loss (23-20)

*UR = Un-ranked
*The Wolverines have now lost six straight road openers and seven of their last eight.

Real Defensive Litmus Test to come versus Spartans.

After a disappointing showing versus a one-dimensional Northern Illinois attack in the first game of the year, the Michigan defense has stiffened considerably. The very next week versus Notre Dame, the Wolverines held the high-powered Irish attack (currently averaging 475 yards of total offense per game) to 244 yards. They followed that up by blanking a woefully over-matched Easter Michigan squad. Then on Saturday they held a Badger attack that was averaging 433 yards of total offense and 272 yards on the ground to 287 and 140 respectively. The defensive effort versus Wisconsin may have been even better had the offense done its part to even out the time of possession battle in the second half. (The Badgers had the ball 20:36 to Michigan's 9:24 after halftime).

As encouraging as that trend is, and as impressive as some of the new names on defense have been (Brandent Englemon, Chris Graham, David Harris, and Alan Branch specifically), the true litmus test for the defense comes this week versus the Michigan State Spartans.

The final four games last season saw the Michigan defense face spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks, which turned out to be a recipe for disaster. The Wolverine defenders gave up an average of 257 yards rushing, 458 yards of total offense, and 33 points per game, while going 2-2. The Spartans did their part to blow up those stats by registering 368 yards on the ground and 535 yards of total offense in the Maize and Blue's thrilling 45-37 triple overtime victory.

The complexion of last year's intra-state battle changed when MSU starting quarterback Drew Stanton was knocked out of the game thanks to a crushing Lamarr Woodley hit at the end of the first half. Up to the point the former Farmington Hills Harrison standout had knifed through the Michigan defense for 84 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries (6.7 yards per carry), and 95 yards through the air on 10/13 passing.

This year the Spartans enter the annual grudge match undefeated (4-0), ranked 11th in the country, and possessing one of the nation's most potent offenses. Through four games they are averaging 594.25 yards and 49 points per game (5th in the country).

The obvious goal of Michigan's defense heading into the offseason was figuring out how to contain these kinds of attacks. How they fare against the Spartans will go a long way in telling how they will handle other offenses with dual threat QBs (Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State), as well as the Northwestern Wildcat spread attack.

MSU a must win?

The answer is yes. A defeat at the hands of the Spartans would put Michigan below .500 for the first time since 1998, and would likely send them toward their fourth four-loss season in Lloyd Carr's eleven year tenure (and first since the 2001 campaign). A loss would also open the door to the possibility of a five loss season…something that has happened only once in the 36 years since Bo Schembechler took over in 1969 (the Wolverines were 6-6 in 1984).

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