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.
Michigan (4-0) at Michigan State (1-3)
(W) Montana State 44-3
(L) Central Michigan 29-27
(L) at Notre Dame 33-30
(L) at Wisconsin 38-30
(W) Western Michigan 31-7
(W) Notre Dame 38-34
(W) Eastern Michigan 45-17
(W) Indiana 36-33
MSU Players to Watch:
This is not what most expected from the Green and White. Not another loss to Central Michigan. Not their first loss at Notre Dame since 1993. Not giving up 38 in their Conference opener in Madison. They were supposed to be fighting for the Big 10 Title, not fighting for Bowl eligibility. At 1-3, is Michigan State S.O.S. (Same Old Spartans)?
Going back to the summer analysis, one would expect some adversity with a team replacing its quarterback (Brain Hoyer) and a running back (Javon Ringer) that carried the ball nearly 43% of the team's total plays. After four games, their replacements are still being sorted out by committee. Kirk Cousins (So. #8) has been taking most of the snaps. Cousins has thrown for 212 ypg and thrown for seven touchdowns. Keith Nichol (So. #7) has thrown for 101 ypg with five touchdowns. Nichol has the higher passing efficiency rating, but through four games most would say Cousins should be the starter. Since the statistics are very similar, the reasoning is the "eye ball" test.
It's ironic that Denard Robinson can come in for Tate Forcier and the Michigan offense still feels like a cohesive unit. At times they even thrive with the changes. However, for Michigan State, when Nichol comes in to replace Cousins, it's as if continuity and progress is stunted. The offense appears to need a series or two to find its gear after Cousins comes back into the helm for the second time. For whatever reason, through four games, the platoon quarterback system is working at Michigan while onlookers in East Lansing speculate that it's hurting the Spartans.
Each QB has thrown two picks, but the most memorable interception of the season happened at the end of the Notre Dame game. Facing a near identical scenario that Michigan had against the Irish the week before, MSU was well inside the red-zone. The easy Field Goal would send it to overtime, but like Michigan, Michigan State would go for the win. Cousins tried to make a play by passing off his back foot to avoid a sack and a throwing motion that had a lot to be desired. The ball was picked and MSU wasn't given a shot to redeem itself as Notre Dame went to the "Genuflect" formation.
Keith Nichol hands to Glen Winston
The replacement for Ringer hasn't been made clear either. Caulton Ray (Fr. #24), Larry Caper (Fr. #22), and Glenn Winston (So. #41) are all listed equally at the top of the depth chart. Ray and Caper lead the team in yards, but despite Winston still looking to break the century mark this season, he led the team in carries and yards last week against Wisconsin. Head Coach Mark Dantonio, Tuesday, made this analogy when asked if Winston would be starting against the Wolverines.
"You can't starve the horse that pulls the load. Which means that if he's running it downhill and running it well, he's going to get the ball."
Interpretation? If Winston continues to pile yards against the Michigan defense like the Wolverine's last three opponents, then Winston will continue to carry the ball.
Michigan State's offensive line is also in flux. While the Wolverines are experiencing some line shuffling with the injury to David Molk (So. #50), the Spartans have been switching and rotating enough O-Linemen to make your head spin. Only LT Ron Cironi (Sr. #57) has started and played the same position all four games. Give MSU credit that despite the continuous auditions for players, the offense is still averaging nearly 33 pts per game.
Winston is the heaviest back. It would make sense for the Spartans to see if he can overpower the Michigan defenders. Tackling issues are becoming a problem again and Winston may give the Spartans the best shot to see how leaky the Wolverines are. MSU is trying to find an answer to their running game. At just 117.8 ypg, the Spartans are 10th in Conference Rushing. An ideal situation for Michigan State is to have success running the ball, wear the Michigan defense down and take time off the clock, especially at times when Michigan's offense goes into their own drought. If the Spartans can't run the ball on Michigan, then they will attack through the air.
MSU's passing game ranks #1 in the Big 10. In fact MSU is first in Total offense. Michigan's Total Defense is 9th. Cornerbacks J.T. Floyd (Fr. #12) and Boubacar Cissoko (So. #33) are battling for the starting position this week after Floyd replaced Cissoko in the first half last week. Look for Floyd to make his first start, Saturday. Regardless, that side of the ball will be attacked by State's receivers. There are plenty of targets for Cousins and Nichol to throw to. Blair White (Sr. #25) leads statistically in all categories. Mark Dell (Jr. #2) is averaging nearly 100 ypg after missing the first two games of the year. Keyshawn Martin (So. #82) had a career best 4 catches for 139 yards and two TD's last week. B.J. Cunningham (So. #3) can't be ignored and neither can a trio of tight ends that aren't exactly like Kyle Rudolph of Notre Dame, but have combined for 20 catches and 266 yards. The four receivers named above all had catches in last year's game. Michigan's defense will have to have to prove they can cover the entire field vertically and horizontally if they are to be successful. MSU has only turned the ball over six times and punt around three times per game. This will be a big challenge for Michigan's defense.
The Spartans need a lift, so don't be surprised if Michigan will be exposed to some new plays not seen on film. Through four games, Michigan has shown that they can make adjustments very well, but they also have given up chunks of yards on sustained drives when seeing things for the first time. If MSU can continuously do new things and keep Michigan off-guard, they can have a lot of success. Anything positive gives the players a confidence boost and a reason for the fans to stay in the game and off their seats.
CASTING CALL 2
Defensively, the Spartans came into the season returning eight starters. However, they have struggled this season that once again may be due to line-up changes and a lack of cohesion. Michigan State ranks 10th in Total Defense and stopping Third Down Conversions. They're dead last in Red-Zone Defense. Fortunately for MSU, some of these weaknesses are Michigan's weaknesses as well. Michigan is also 10th in passing offense and red-zone offense.
If Michigan State doesn't allow the Wolverines to score once inside the Red-Zone, then it will be a first this season. Through four games, Spartan opponents have always scored once getting inside the 20, and they have scored touchdowns 75% of the time. Last weekend Wisconsin TE Garrett Graham torched the defense for three TD's.
State's coaching staff is looking for answers by changing personnel in the secondary. This week could see the third consecutive line-up change in the back four in an attempt to find the right formula, even though the starting secondary against Michigan last season return this year.
Linebacker personnel is also been changing. Eric Gordon (Jr. #43) has moved to WILL Linebacker while two others have tried replacing Gordon at SAM Linebacker. The Spartans still have the Big 10 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones (Jr. #53) manning the middle. Coach Rich Rodriguez saved his highest praise for Jones, who leads the Big 10 with 13 tackles per game.
"He's a real explosive player first and foremost. He's always around the ball. You can tell he's a great conditioned athlete – he tackles. When he hits you, they get on the ground. Greg is a good football player."
The Defensive Line hasn't changed at all, but observers feel they haven't done enough with their pass rush. Trevor Anderson (Sr. #58), a transfer from Cincinnati, has made a few headlines this week with his ‘sickening' thoughts of Michigan.
The Analysis 2
"When healthy though, Michigan's running threat may be the most potent in the Big 10. QB Tate Forcier (Fr. #5) has been practicing with a shoulder sprain this week. If Forcier can play, it will keep the Spartans honest because his run to throw ratio is more even than back-up Denard Robinson (Fr. #16). Robinson provides a different threat as he has the ability to score any time he touches the ball.
Statistically the best part of Michigan State's defense is their ability to stop the run. They're #4 in the Big 10, but the Wolverines have the #1 rush offense. Brandon Minor (Sr. #4) is still trying to take it easy on a sprained ankle/foot. He'll be called upon to make those tough yards on 3rd and short or when the Spartans think they got a feel for Carlos Brown (Sr. #23). Brown is rushing 8.4 ypc which by far surpasses the average of the Big 10's rushing leaders. A big key for the Michigan offense is for the lineman to get off their blocks on the line and drive Jones and Gordon away from the play. That won't be easy. Don't expect Jones to be burned like he was by Mike Hart during Michigan's fourth quarter comeback in 2007.
Hopefully Michigan State will only be kicking off once, but if they do kick more, look to see how close Darryl Stonum (So. #22) is to breaking another big one. Stonum already has once KR for a TD (Notre Dame) and got to midfield against Indiana. The last thing to know is that Center David Moosman (Sr. #60) has been working on snaps all week and the concentration will be better from the Quarterbacks.
There is some thought that Michigan State has trouble defending against teams that employ the ‘spread'. If true that would be ironic. For all the talk that Michigan State is beating Michigan in recruiting, especially in-state, by picking up highly ranked players that Michigan wasn't interested in or that Michigan is ignoring the talent in the state to grab speedsters in Florida. Well wouldn't it be poignant if the Wolverines win because Michigan State was too slow?
So, will Michigan State be S.O.S (Same Old Spartans) on Saturday? Yes, unlike in 2002 when they gave up on Bobby Williams, the Spartans will give this game all they got. There is no lack for motivation or desire to give Michigan State their first two-game winning streak since 1967, but if Michigan wins and State drops to 1-4, the answer could be ‘yes' again and Sparty won't be happy with that answer.
ENJOY THE GAME.