11/3/07 - Michigan 28, Michigan State 24 - 8-2, 6-0 Big Ten
It was the middle of 2004. A then-freshman Henne strode onto the turf at Michigan Stadium facing a four point deficit against Minnesota. The ball was on the Michigan thirteen; the clock read 3:04.
Five plays and 56 yards later, Henne zeroed in on Z45 Part A Subsequence C Tight End Tyler Ecker, Rabbit-Hunting Mormon, crossing in front of a Minnesota linebacker; various servos and hydraulics kicked in. Henne flung a pass into Z45PASCTETERHM's outstretched arms, declared GOAL COMPLETED, and initiated nailcoeds.exe.
This weekend, now-senior Chad Henne strode onto the turf at Spartan Stadium facing a ten point deficit. He was 6 for 19 for 83 yards at that point, 47 of which came on a single bomb to Mario Manningham. The clock read 7:35.
Henne had been awful. Whether it was the unpredictable wind or his separated shoulder or some combination of the two doesn't really matter. He had been missing open receivers all day, flinging balls into the turf or the sideline or taking sacks he didn't have to. He and Brian Hoyer were locked into a duel to see who could torpedo his team's chances more thoroughly; Henne was winning. In the Michigan section, faith was running low. On the Michigan State sideline Jehuu Caulcrick was exhorting the Spartans to remember this moment, the moment they beat Michigan.
If clutch exists it is not the ability to raise one's game in the most critical situations, but rather an ability to not think about the matter at hand. Clutch, simply, is an immunity to choking.
Malcolm Gladwell has an article on the strange phenomenon of the choke job that presents a convincing diagnosis: sometimes in extremely high pressure situations, people forget how to forget. People have two systems via which they learn: the explicit, conscious level, and the subconscious level. As you continue to improve at something ever more gets snipped out of your consciousness, allowing your mind to focus on ever more arcane and high-level aspects of the task at hand. (At this point, all Tom Brady thinks about is nailing supermodels.) This is why experts so often cannot explain how they do the things they do. They have no idea.
In 1993, Jana Novotna held a commanding lead in the Wimbledon final, then collapsed. Why? How?
When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person--playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner--because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn't used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.
Novotna started thinking about how to hit and forgot how to hit. The pressure reached up and crushed her trachea. Clutch is the ability to not do this, the ability to keep all that submerged and to robotically execute the things you don't even think about anymore. Clutch is for robots.
Caulcrick forgot one thing: Chad Henne is a robot.
On the last two drives he was 12-14 for 129 yards, flinging wide open outs, finding Mathews on a critical third and long, and looping perfect touchdown passes to Greg Mathews and Mario Manningham. He was ruthless, precise, and busy calculating digits of pi deep into the millions. He has a heart of nails and lungs made from old tires; his hair consists of pipe cleaners cropped short and his bones are discarded pipes. You have to whack him in just the right spot at just the right time to get his late-model Soviet guidance chip to seat itself in his shoddy southeast Asian motherboard.
Stripped of the ability to contribute on-field, Mike Hart summoned his chi and delivered the feather blow as Michigan State drove for the "winning" touchdown. He laughed about it afterward. Sometimes Mike Hart isn't very nice.
It is Henne's great misfortune that so many of his clutch moments have been obliterated by, depending on your point of view, an even clutcher performance by someone else -- most notably Vince Young and Troy Smith -- or the flailing incompetence of various Michigan defenses and, occasionally, special teams units. This is not to say that Henne has always been good or that he has not been a primary culprit in Michigan losses past. Sometimes the guidance chip has been locked on Tacopants. But stainless steel knees don't buckle when you them in situations a squishy hoo-man would find intolerable.
Little about the scene postgame was unfamiliar. Michigan had leapt out to a lead, shut down the offense, and gotten itself in a heap of unnecessary trouble. Michigan State had blown it again with help from a stupid personal foul. Michigan had beaten Michigan State for the sixth straight year. From my vantage point in the upper deck the final Manningham dagger looked like a virtual replay of 2004's Braylonfest. And Henne had once again proven that nothing but oil runs through his metallic veins. As we near the end of the Hart Era and the Henne Era and the Carr Era, there are few things that surprise. This is the program's blessing and its curse.
There was one thing. Henne was unusually alone as he exited the field, his teammates busy holding a moment of silence for Michigan State. He leapt and gamboled off the field, fist pumping as he went. Data would never do that. Solitary, he was a mesmerizing, jarring sight. But just as perceptions threatened to shatter Henne encountered a stadium staffer removing the padding from the goalposts. He sprawled on the ground for a moment, then completed his egress in a manner more befitting a pile of scrap iron with a heart of nails. Goal completed.
- Two "holy crap" State-fan moments: I'm sitting in my seat -- or, rather, standing on it -- midway through the first quarter when some MSU knob chewing on an unlit cigar demands that I move. I show him the stub, tell him to go to hell, and ask for his. He fails to produce one, saying "it's in the car"; ten minutes later, after one of his knob associates grabs an usher to boot me, he finally yanks it out of his pocket. It says seat 4. I'm standing in seat 3. If you can't get into college...
Also, some harpy turned around at some po
int in the second quarter and started chanting something indecipherable. After some parsing and reparsing, we finally realized what it was: she was chanting "Art Fag U." Classy! This prompted the guy next to me to chant "skank" at her whenever she stood up for the rest of the game. Also classy.
(Everyone else was cordial enough; MSU remains a place where you can expect a verbal barrage from totally wasted meatheads but little else.)
column coming early PM.
Recap. BTN highlights:
Bow Down. RCMB:
Did anyone see the huge "Bow Down Sparty" sign?
Some UM fans hung it from the upper deck and it flew like a flag over OUR stadium while myself and the rest of the Spartan Marching Band stood and listened to the Michigan band play their Victory march. We then had to play our postgame show for a crowd of primarily UM fans.
You mean this "Bow Down Sparty" sign?
I will show you a lack of respect. If Gerry Dinardo hadn't said "Howdy Doody could coach LSU" earlier this year, Jehuu Caulcrick's postgame interview would win "least self-aware comment of the century".
Hey, Jehuu, remember this?
Dear Mr. Caulcrick,
You're in this video. Hell, you appear to be one of the ringleaders of this stunt. You're number 30. That's a squiggly backwards "E" next to a big thing that looks like your gaping mouth after Manningham's touchdown. You should probably shut up about winning with class.
PS: Ha, ha.
Weekly Les Miles opinion-giving. Game + walking + traffic meant that I only caught the final quarter of Alabama-LSU, and that without the benefit of the announcers clarifying things, so nothing too strident, but...
- Yes, the annual mental implosion of LSU does give me the heebie-jeebies. This would be more convincing...
"We kept hanging in there, kept fighting," Miles said. "We found a way to win. I've never seen that many mistakes in a game. We'll never play that poorly again."
...if LSU hadn't turned it over six times in a shoulda-woulda-coulda loss to Florida last year. 14 penalties for a million yards is not good. I'm not so much with the blaming Miles for Matt Flynn's interceptions, since by this point in the season it's become clear that Flynn's a mediocre system guy prone to errors and poor throws.
I wonder how much of LSU's self-destruction gene is ingrained in the culture of the program, how much of it is luck or misperception, and how much of it is actually symptomatic of a flaw in Miles' coaching.
We just saw yet more evidence of State's remarkable ability to bring in coach after coach and still be the same bunch of slack-jawed chokers with all the discipline of Charlie Weis at Old Country Buffet. (Zing!) At least part of this has to be State's role as the raccoon of Midwest recruiting. They scoop up the refuse of Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, etc, etc., kids of questionable character, work ethic, intelligence, or talent, and are fighting uphill from day one. In sum: Michigan has the luxury of passing on Eric Knott and Damon Dowdell, and it shows on the field. Maybe LSU's recruiting base is just prone to wild burst of cajun passions that draw flags?
There's also the possibility Miles' reputation for penalty-laden, undisciplined teams is a media creation based on a couple high profile occurrences that does not reflect reality. This infrequent observer of LSU believe this to be unlikely, but it is a possibility. When something settles into the conventional wisdom it becomes very hard to dislodge, and the next time a mainstream college football writer does some independent research and comes up with a conclusion based on actual facts will be the first.*
And then there are the bizarre results of an offseason SMQB study of stat relevance:
First counterintuitive result: the most penalized teams were slightly better as a whole than the least penalized teams. Penalty yardage, over the course of an entire season, had no discernible effects
on winning and losing. You can probably think of a situation that would specifically argue otherwise, cuz penalties are definitely bad, mmmkay?, but they're bad more as situational mistakes than an overall, cumulative drain.
It got weirder, and consistently so. When SMQB went game by game, calculating the "record" of various salutary statistical indicators like "better yards per pass" (#1 at 78.5%) and "more rushing offense," (#5 at 67.8%), "fewer penalty yards" finished dead last by a country mile. Hell, it was actually a negative indicator of victory, and a significant one: the Fewer Penalty Yards Fightin' Flags finished 119-175, a mere 40.5% winning clip and the only "team" to finish below .500. So... yeah... go get them penalties, Les!
In retrospect, this entire section is definitely the lady protesting too much. It's a concern. It doesn't change the fact that Miles is exceedingly likely to end up in the SEC championship game (beat Ole Miss and they're in no matter the Arkansas result) and the BCS for a second consecutive year. Unless Tedford (who I still heart) decides to bolt -- unlikely -- there's no one with the sort of track record Miles has out there.
*(I don't even mean this snarkily. I mean it literally. Not once in years and years of reading college football writers has anyone bothered to challenge the CW with analysis.)
Softened. Noted on the sidebar, but important enough to re-note: three important Wisconsin players went out against Ohio State and are unlikely to play next week. Starting cornerback Allen Langford is definitely out. Starting DT Jason Chapman's injury is also "significant". Starting OT Eric Vanden Heuvel is not definitely out but is doubtful (or questionable or something). The Journal-Sentinel article makes it sound like the most concerning injury is Chapman's, then Langford's; Vanden Heuvel has a decent backup in Jake Bscherer.
Biff. Cool, calm, collected. Chad Henne:
The story: boy gets RSS feed, boy searches every week for loss-aftermath venting on the internet, boy reads post, boy falls in love with post, post disappears. What to do? C&P, as I need this for This Week In Schadenfreude, since it's, um, like the very platonic ideal for TWIS. BGS yanked it but since I have dozens of tabs open I still had it. Enjoy! (Screenshot here for veracity purposes)
(Warning: bad language follows. This is an R-rated post -- please skip it if you are sensitive. If you choose to read it, please picture Chevy Chase in Vacation or Steve Martin at the rental car counter in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and you should get the sense and tone of my exasperation here.)
BUG-EYED mad. Pissed off. Spitting bullets. Even after a night of sleeping on it, I wake up supremely angry. Maybe even angrier than when I went to sleep. So mad I can't even see straight.
I can't figure it out. You have a chance to WIN THE GAME IN REGULATION and you just pass on it. You just waive it. It's the singular worst call of the Charlie Weis era. My foundation of trust is shaken to its core. Any slack Charlie had with me for this shitty season was just squandered and used up.
I just can't wrap my head around it. It's the dumbest call I've seen in years. You might have to go back to Bob Davie at the end of the game versus Purdue when Jarious got sacked; at least then they called a play, and it looked like a miscommunication. This was ALL on Charlie. I never thought I would see the day where Charlie Weis would cost us a ballgame. Those kinds of meltdowns are reserved for gameday idiots like Davie and Willingham and Faust, aren't they? Not Charlie: master of the judicious timeout, ruler of the clock, player of the odds. Even when he made calls that blew up in his face, you sort of saw where he was coming from. Not this time.
Who cares about the goddam streak. Hell, I'm HAPPY for the Navy players and fans. This has nothing to do with that. It's not just about losing the game (which, unbelievably, I had already mentally prepared myself for; this is how low this year has sunk - I'm girding myself to lose to Navy). It's about FOREGOING THE CHANCE TO KICK A FIELD GOAL TO WIN THE MOTHERFUCKING GAME.
Did ANYONE with a Motorola headset question this decision? Latina, Haywood? Corwin, where the hell were you? Charlie Junior -- you wearing that thing for decoration? ANYONE? Ahh, hell, forget the headset -- he should have listened to the crowd. Fifty thousand people yelling "KICK IT YOU STUPID SON OF A BITCH!"
And what did we do instead? A PASS ON 4TH AND 8? THAT'S a better option than a 41-yard try, with a guy with plenty of leg from that distance who has already booted a 48-yarder earlier this year? "We were kicking into the wind," Charlie said, "and we weren't hitting it before the game." SO FUCKING WHAT. You line it up and give it a shot. If you miss, you miss -- but at least you TRIED. AT LEAST YOU TRIED TO WIN THE GAME.
I can't even start with the 4th AND FIFTEEN FAKE FIELD GOAL or the goddam screen passes that got blown up EVERY SINGLE TIME (and honestly, you knew they were going to suck, didn't you? Because we've been running them for EIGHT GAMES NOW and it's clear we can't execute them. WHY ARE THESE PAGES STILL IN OUR PLAYBOOK?) or the crucial moments when you put the game on the shoulders of Evan Sharpley (a game, but let's be honest, a flailing player who's more lucky than good) instead of trusting your rushing attack which had been eating up chunks of yards all game long.
Instead, we play for OVERTIME. Now I don't know a team in the country that is better suited to play in overtime than Navy. YOU KICK THE BALL AND YOU TRY TO END IT IN REGULATION BECAUSE NAVY CAN GET 25 YARDS WHENEVER THEY GODDAM PLEASE. What are those rules again? Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and NEVER GO IN AGAINST NAVY WHEN OVERTIME IS ON THE LINE. I knew it. My friends I was sitting with knew it. Everybody in section 10 knew it. THE WHOLE GODDAM STADIUM KNEW IT, except for some idiot who calls himself the head coach.
"We weren't hitting it before the game into the wind." Give me a break.
You stupid goddam idiot. I'm talking to you, shithead. You just cost us a chance to win the game. Where did you learn your trade, you stupid goddam idiot. You Bob-Davie-versus-Nebraska motherfucker. What you are hired to do is to help us win. Not to FUCK US UP.
And when we lost, I was...angry. You know what? I've never been ANGRY after a loss under Charlie. I have been variously deflated, humiliated, or resigned, but never really angry. The games we've lost we were either overmatched or a victim of our own mistakes. Have I questioned calls in various situations, questioned gameplans, questioned personnel decisions? Absolutely. But I never pinned a loss totally on Charlie until now. I stood in stunned silence. The entire stadium did. Absolutely stunned. Of all the losses in the last three years, this is the first one I hang on his head, and his head alone.
After the game we choked down our anger and congratulated a nice Navy couple sitting in front of us (the older gent in his 70s was literally crying tears of joy) and you couldn't help but think what a great moment for those guys. Good for them. They deserved it. Hell, I'm even going to keep the ticket stub -- it'll probably be worth something someday. We shook their hands and wished them well, and congratulated them on a good game. After all, they outplayed us when it counted.
We trundled out of the stadium and marched directly to the car. Stunned silence. Waves of people emptying out into the parking lots, and nobody saying a goddam thing. Seething. It wasn't the loss - hell, we've had seven of them already this year. Not because Navy outplayed us in overtime -- nope, you knew that was a losing matchup for us. We're seething because maybe, just maybe, it should have never come to that.
We jumped in the car and turned on the postgame show, catching Jack Nolan sounding like he's under seige and barricading the door. "PLEASE, people, if you're going to call in you have to TONE IT DOWN. I know you're upset, but we can't put you on the air if you're going to curse." Fucking hell, Jack -- cursing is all we've got right now.
A final injury rumor update: both Hart and Henne will play, though neither will be at full strength. (Rumor validity: multiply-sourced and solid.)
Can you see yourself working here someday?
Oh yeah, I plan on being the head coach here. Definitely.
Someone get me a new trapper keeper and a glitter pen, STAT.
Alan Weymouth on Minnesota and MSU:
We won again, behind a true frosh at QB and behind a OL that remains in constant flux. It took a while for the offense to get going, but once the OLs decided to have at Minnesota, and our backs started running a little harder AND we negotiated our way through our early mistakes, we got the result we thought we'd get. Minnesota's defense was slow... very slow. Shouldn't have been that difficult, and wouldn't have been with Henne and Hart.
MSU's offensive line is very vulnerable in pass pro. The right side especially, as both Miller and Martin don't move their feet very well. They struggle to keep a pedestrian Iowa team off the QB last week. The left side isn't much better though. We can have a lot of fun against this team, if we can stuff the running game. Caulcrick doesn't scare me at all ...a big bruising back who they use at the goal line and in short yardage.
Run Offense vs. Michigan State
First, Mike Hart's status: he has a high ankle sprain of unknown severity and rumors have been flying left and right about his availability all week. I have nothing solid; I do believe he will play given the quotes he offhandedly gave the Daily whilst walking off the field after the Minnesota game.
Will it matter? Maybe not. I'm not sure how Michigan State currently boasts the #38 rushing defense in the country, because, uh...
By any reasonable measure, they were completely full of fail against everyone except Indiana and Omar Conteh, Backup of Northwestern. I mean, seriously, Michigan State lost a game in which Jake Christensen was 5 of 15 for 53 yards. And they gave up 100 yards to a Notre Dame running back. Hell, Michigan State has given up 42% of Notre Dame's net rushing yards on the year, and that was with 32 yards in sacks!
So please ignore the kindly statistics: this is an awful run defense and Michigan should crush it no matter who's running the ball. It would certainly be nice if it was Hart, but over the past couple weeks Brown and Minor have proven they can ramble for large quantities of yards against defenses of BB gun caliber.
Key Matchup: Boren/Kraus/Ciulla/MacAvoy versus Reach/Scoop Blocks. The MSU linebackers are really bad and will provide little opposition if Michigan can just execute those tough blocks where you end up chasing DTs who lined up playside of you. Boren did a great job several times against Minnesota, Rotating Right Guard not so much.
Pass Offense vs. Minnesota
Yeah, if the MSU run defense is bad, uh...
- Todd Boeckman, OSU, 15/23, 193 yards, 8.5 yards per attempt
- Kellen Lewis, IU, 13/19, 171 yards, 9.0 yards per attempt
- CJ Bacher, 38/48, 520 yards, 10.6 yards per attempt
- Tyler Donovan, Wisc, 17/24, 247 yards, 10.3 yards per attempt
...the MSU pass defense may as well be sporting Jaren Hayes.
Christensen, as mentioned, was clubbed to death. The other QBs MSU has faced: Jimmah Clausen, true freshman Kevan Smith at Pitt, and whoever's playing at UAB and BG these days. There is a clear grouping here: the resolutely awful and those who have shredded the State secondary.
The pass numbers do conceal one salutary aspect of the State defense: sacks. As mentioned, MSU is sixth nationally in sack yardage, and this isn't all because of the nonconference schedule. (It is, however, partly because of it: 21 of MSU's 32 sacks came against their candy nonconference schedule; against conference opponents MSU is averaging a respectable-but-not-horrifying 2.2 a game.) Jonal Saint-Dic, hilariously dubbed "The Sackmaster" by his coaches, is sixth in the country with nine. Michigan, meanwhile, is average at conceding sacks (51st nationally at 1.67 per game).
If Henne plays (and is not unduly affected by his shoulder injury), this will be a massacre on a par with the bullets above. The Michigan line is better than anyone up there save Ohio State; the Michigan receivers are way, way better than anyone up there as long as Manningham retains the form he's come into over the past few weeks.
Mallett, on the other hand, is a dodgier proposition. Free touchdowns and screens winged to Tacopants -- Tacopants don't do screens -- created an uncomfortable first half against the worst team in the conference; against Michigan State they might create a loss. The best prescription might be a steady diet of bombs. Mallett's unlikely to go 5/5 on them, but a few should hit home and the downside on them is low. As long as his completion percentages on 40 yard passes and 0 yard passes remain the same, bombs away. A Moeller-style offense where the ground game pounds ahead and the killshot comes from above would squeeze out a decent number of points.
Who will it be? Again, I have to ple
ad ignorance. I have heard both things from the grapevine. I honestly don't know; I think Henne is more likely to be out than Hart, especially given Angelique Chengelis' public airing of a belief you'd see "a lot of Mallett." If you put a gun to my head, I would say Mallett starts. Then I would be like "dude, I think you should calm down." [UPDATE: Now if you put a gun to my head, I believe Henne starts. WOOOOOOO internet rumors! -ed]
One serious concern: Steve Schilling's pass protection. The freshman right tackle has been responsible for most of the pressure getting through to Michigan quarterbacks the past few weeks, and Michigan State's defensive ends will pose a stiff (ha!) test.
Key Matchup: Schilling versus Saint-Dic The Sackmaster. Obvs. Time for Michigan quarterbacks will yield many yards.
Run Defense vs. Michigan State
Unfortunately, you could take the damning text in the "Run Offense" section above and reapply it to Michigan's run defense, albeit with a significant reduction in ferocity if you wish to retain credibility. Like MSU, a bunch of sacks has obscured the true quality of the run defense. In Michigan State's case the quality is "atrocious"; in Michigan's it's merely mediocre.
Michigan, so used to the zone read by now, will have to change gears and take on the first traditional rushing attack they've opposed since Penn State and, if you reasonably discount Notre Dame as an actual threat, only the second they've faced all year. There is surprisingly little data to be had against "conventional" offenses, as they now defy convention. The Penn State numbers:
A replica of those -- one long run from Kinlaw, one twenty-yarder from Scott, and 2.3 YPC otherwise* -- would surely result in a twenty-point win. That seems unlikely given the quality of the Michigan State backs and the troubles Michigan has had to date up the middle.
Meanwhile, Michigan State ran over Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame before getting crushed by Ohio State (59 yards on 28 carries) and stalemated by Iowa (148 yards by the tailbacks but on 42 carries, 3.5 per). Jehuu Caulcrick is the short-yardage battering ram and all around YPC killer; Javon Ringer is the one who's actually good. To date the pair have come close to splitting carries, which is either evidence of a lot of third and short or certified insanity on the part of Michigan State coaches: Ringer averages 6.3 YPC but is only getting 19 carries a game.
This will be difficult, especially with Michigan fully in zone read mode, but in the limited time Terrance Taylor has had against traditional run attacks he has been disruptive; a steady enough diet of 0 yard runs should keep Michigan State from pounding its way down the field. Ringer is a serious threat to break a long one, however, and an Iowa-like performance would be a win.
*(not counting Morelli carries.)
Key Matchup: The Usual: Michigan linebackers versus hesitancy, fullback blocks, misdirection, and inability to get off their blocks. (Yeah, I didn't even bother changing this for this game.)
Pass Defense vs. Michigan State
To look at Brian Hoyer's stats is to disbelieve in the power of statistics. Whenever Michigan State has flicked through my consciousness this year, he's been winging things wide and looking generally horrible. The stats, however, say otherwise.
Michigan State is a one-receiver sort of team this year: JUCO transfer Devin Thomas has 51 catches and almost 1000 yards, but the next guy on the list is Ringer with 28 catches. True freshman Mark Dell, sophomore Deon Curry, and tight end Kellen Davis have totals in the mid-teens. Davis could be a problem on play action, and Dell/Curry are likely to pick up a couple possession catches, but the mission is clear: stop Thomas.
Michigan doesn't have a corner lockdown enough to bother with a straight matchup, but both starters have been very good this year and freshman Donovan Warren is rapidly maturing into one of the Big Ten's better corners, always in the hip pocket of his assigned covers unless he's blown the coverage and is busy giving up an easy 30 yard touchdown. Freshmen will be freshmen. Meanwhile, Morgan Trent has gone from liability to strength and nickelback Brandon Harrison has jumped all sort of slot routes this year.
And then there is the pass rush. Michigan is just four sacks behind Michigan State in this category and has consistently gotten to quarterbacks unless they were terrified of losing containment, -- Illinois featured lots of time for Williams and McGee, not that it mattered; Oregon not so much -- something that does not figure to be an issue against Brian Hoyer. Michigan will tee off in third and long. The results will be gory.
Key Matchup: Warren and Trent versus Thomas. To win the game Michigan State needs 100 yards from Thomas; to stay in his pocket -- he's always the first read given the catch numbers -- and force Hoyer to come off him equals sack, sack, sack.
A secret reason why MSU kind of sucks, their special teams may be as bad as Michigan's. The first problem: horrible punting. Aaron Bates is 86th nationally with about 39 yards a kick; Michigan State compounds this by giving up around 7 yards a return and falling to 102nd in net punting. Punt returns are another sore spot: at 5.4 YPR, Michigan State is 108th. Zoltan should have full license to pull that Incandenza stuff this week after several games lofting unreturnable fair-catches.
Oddly, Michigan also appears to have an advantage in the kicking game. Kicking Competency Lopata is 8/8 on the year and hit a 42-yarder against Minnesota. He appears to be pretty good. Meanwhile, MSU's Brett Swenson has dropped off after a strong freshman year, currently just 10/16.
The one fly in the ointment: Michigan State's outstanding kick return teams are 2nd without a distorting touchdown return. Devin Thomas is remarkably consistent and good at these things; expect a lot of popups to the 30.
Key Matchup: Kick coverage versus Thomas. It's doubtful we see many long kicks, but if we do there's serious danger of a big return.
- Henne does not play, or is off because of injury.
- The issues against runs up the middle are not limited to the read option.
- Schilling can't handle Saint-Dick The Sackmaster.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Gashing lanes appear in the run game and MSU is forced to choose their poison.
- Taylor dominates.
- MSU's line is as shaky in real life as it is on paper.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Their Offensive Strength Points At Our Weakness, -1 for Their Defensive Strength Appears To Be Cowering, -1 for Hart... Returns! Probably, +1 for Henne... Does Not! Probably, -1 for Their Special Teams Are Worse Than Ours, +1 for This Would Be So Michigan State To Win).
Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for It's State, And They Are Annoying When They Win, Or At Least I Think I Remember Them Being Annoying, +1 for This Locks Up A Shot At Pasadena, +1 for If Hart's Back And Has A Big Game And We Win The Heisman Thing Is Still A Possibility)
Loss will cause me to... install a countdown clock in my house to the next Michigan State game.
Win will cause me to... light a candle for Chad Henne's shoulder.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This is the second spread this year I have completely failed to understand. The first: Michigan -7 versus Oregon. This one seems just as nonsensical but in the opposite direction. State's defense is a bunch of sacks and a bunch of crap, likely to fold in the face of Jake Long and Co no matter who is carrying the ball behind them. The secondary can't tackle or, apparently, cover. The Michigan State sackfest has been greatly muted by Big Ten competition. Despite the five wins there's hardly any evidence this team is any good at all.
Hoyer has good efficiency numbers that I don't believe given what I've seen of him, and Michigan State's sacks yielded combine with Michigan's sacks gained to paint a picture of one slow white dude running for his life most of the day. Third and long will be a near-automatic punt.
Getting the Spartans in third and long might be difficult, though. It's hard to get a feel for how the run game will go, since Michigan's last and only effort against a similar offense was against Penn State's prehistoric attack. (There were a number of carries for Illinois down near the UI endzone run from the I-formation. The results against these were highly encouraging.) Meanwhile, the zone read has consistently gashed Michigan up the middle. I expect one long Ringer run, a lot of ineffective pounding from Caulcrick, a lot of Terrance Taylor, and Michigan State drives that pick up a first down or three before the inevitable punt. They don't have the pass protection to move the ball consistently and will struggle to put up points without being provided a short field.
In the end, this is a mediocre conventional offense and a bad defense going up against Michigan. "Throw out the records" and all that, but, uh, don't. This shouldn't be close.
If Mallett plays, retract the above prediction of a blowout. The dropoff from Henne to the freshman is enormous and the result will be a lot of drives upon which Michigan stops itself; still, this is not a good Michigan State team and a loss is not likely even with the freshman in the game.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Hart plays.
- Henne... doesn't.
- Prediction One (With Henne, Hart): 35-10, Michigan.
- Prediction Two (Without Henne, Hart): 21-13, Michigan.
- Prediction Three(With Hart, Without Henne): 28-13, Michigan