Preview: Michigan State
Run Offense vs. Michigan State
The last three years a Michigan tailback has broken 200 yards against the Spartans. That streak will probably end this year with Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor stealing carries from Hart, but the run game should improve from a year ago. I don't know if you remember, but other than Hart's two long jaunts through the Spartan secondary and Michigan's grinding drive at the end of the game, the run blocking last year was atrocious. This year Michigan has had its issues but is obviously and vastly improved. Having a fully healthy Mike Hart helps, as do guards who, you know, block and stuff. Rueben Riley's problems on the backside and a tendency to hurl Hart into eight- and nine-man fronts have been minor irritants, but Michigan is 20th in rush offense. There isn't that much to complain about.
State's rush defense is superficially all right -- 41st -- but Michigan State has only played one game in which the opponent was A) not a cupcake and B) not desperately playing catchup for most of the second half, that against Illinois. Opposition running backs totaled 24 carries in games versus Pitt and Notre Dame, averaging over 4.3 YPC. Illinois (I repeat: ILLINOIS) then shredded MSU for 252 yards on 44 carries, many of them Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Draws from true freshman Juice Williams. They're bad. Mike Hart is good, and if there's any team in the country without the discipline to maintain good lanes versus a zone running game, it's Michigan State.
Key Matchup: Adam Kraus/Mark Bihl/Alex Mitchell versus Clifton Ryan. Ryan's a senior and probably Michigan State's best defensive player. Michigan's running game versus Notre Dame was severely hampered by penetration from Derek Landri. Ryan has the potential to have the same impact.
Pass Offense vs. Michigan State
If Henne plays like he's been playing and State plays like they've been playing, this will be a Stalinesque massacre. State's cornerbacks have spent most of the year cowering ten yards off the line of scrimmage. This worked fine against Idaho, Illinois, and other teams featuring passing attacks more anemic than most but got them lit up for 400 yards and five irritating, irrational-Heisman-campaign-propping touchdowns versus Notre Dame, most on hilarious blown coverages or tackles. It would have been more if Brady Quinn hadn't spent the first half flinging open outs to Tacopants.
There is the matter of the Pitt game, during which Michigan State rolled out to a 38-10 lead on the nation's #1 pass efficiency offense. Before two meaningless garbage time drives, Tyler Palko had 151 yards, two interceptions, and six defensed passes. So what was that, exactly? My money is on an aberration. I've watched every MSU game this year save Idaho and Eastern: these cornerbacks are about as good as they were last year. Which is to say they are not good in any way whatsoever. Michigan's main fear is that whatever qualities the Spartan defensive backs have are somehow contagious and their frequent panicked attempts to tackle Michigan wide receivers will result in some sort of suck infection. Did I mention that Michigan State has seven sacks, 92nd in the nation and last in the Big Ten?
On the other side of the ball, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington are both players capable of getting open deep versus the Spartan secondary and Henne has been the man to get it to them.
Key Matchup: Uh... Chad Henne versus Consistency? Dollars to donuts MSU lays back and plays two-deep much of the game, hoping to bend its way down the field. Henne's going to have to convert a lot of third downs to get Michigan in the endzone.
Run Defense vs. Michigan State
Michigan's task is made much easier by the injuries to Javon Ringer and Drew Stanton. Ringer, of course, is out. Stanton either has bruised ribs, something seriously wrong with his non-throwing hand, or both. Either way, his rushing attempts figure to be limited, as every hit could potentially knock him from the game. The carries will fall mostly to 260-pound bowling ball Jehuu Caulcrick and redshirt freshman AJ Jimmerson, neither of whom is particularly elusive.
That plays into Michigan's hands. Shawn Crable and Prescott Burgess are still susceptible to getting caught by misdirection -- or at least I fear they are -- but Taylor, Johnson, Branch, and Harris are a hell of an interior run defense. With the injury turmoil on the inside of the Spartan line, it's highly doubtful they finds anything resembling consistent success up the middle. And Caulcrick on a bounceout... versus Burgess and Crable? Uh, not so much.
The Michigan State offense is constructed such that one error by a defensive player results in a big chunk of yards, and we can still expect periodic errors from Michigan players. Expect a performance similar to but slightly better than the Minnesota game: a few plays where they take big chunks out of a flat-footed or misaligned defense interspersed with a lot of Alan Branch looking mean after a TFL.
Key Matchup: Crable and Burgess versus Spartan options. Even though Stanton is banged up Michigan State will still try to use him in the ground game, though he may be more decoy than actual threat. I still fear our outside linebackers are prone to slow or erroneous reads and we could get gashed on misdirection or option plays.
Pass Defense vs. Michigan State
Stanton's had a rough time of it lately, but I still fear his wrath. I know damn well he's a better quarterback than Brady Quinn and his mobility and accuracy will give the Michigan secondary problems. The Spartan receivers are a pedestrian bunch, though Kerry Reed is slowly sneaking towards being pretty damn good. Matt Trannon is still very big but almost incapable of getting separation in man coverage. Jerramy Scott is meh. Terry Love is decent but not explosive.
Stanton's rollouts will help mitigate what should be a fierce Michigan pass rush, but Michigan will use the 3-3-5 they've deployed extensively against the spread attacks of Vanderbilt and Central Michigan. In that set, Shawn Crable features as a freelancing bullet capable of coming from anywhere. He'll probably start or stunt wide quite a bit, hoping that he can slice through ponderously mobile offensive linemen and track down the quarterback before his receivers come open.
Key Matchup: Michigan safeties versus complex routes and trickeration. They've been burned deep a couple times this year on play action and trick plays, both specialties of MSU. There's the potential for a long touchdown play or two here unless they play perfectly, especially with Jamar Adams questionable.
One area in which Michigan State has indisputably improved is field goal kicking. Last year the Spartans found out something Michigan fans already knew: having someone named "Goss" associated with your football team can only lead to bad things. This year freshman Bret Swenson has proven himself something other than totally incompetent. So they've got that going for them. Punter Brandon Fields remains Michigan State writ small, alternating booming punts worthy of Zoltan with shanks and line drives.
Michigan has a decided advantage in the return game, as they have Steve Breaston. The Spartans are making do with the uninspiring Terry Love returning punts and Demond Williams returning kicks. Neither is much of a threat.
Key Matchup: Brandon Fields versus His Unpredictability. The Badgers regularly outkicked their coverage and were harshly punished by Steve Breaston. Minnesota sent him a series of Ross Ryan specials and escaped his wrath. Fie
lds can boom 'em, but might be better off forgoing 50-yarders.
Rivalry rivalry blah blah blah recordbooks blah blah throw 'em out blah blah records too blah. RABBLERABBLERABBLE.
- Michigan State plays over its head, as usual.
- Henne has an off day.
- Stanton plays like he can, not like he has.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Their offensive line is perforated like cheese of Swiss.
- Uh, like, Hart and stuff.
- They get behind a couple scores and decide to pack it in.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 out of 10. (Baseline 5; -1 for HA HA, Illinois; -1 for You Seem To Be On The Verge Of An Utter Collapse; +1 for Stanton Is Pissed; +1 for This Is Their
Rose Motor City Bowl; +1 for They Do Have An Offense Capable Of Wondrous Deeds).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +5 for Eff It, We Must Go To Columbus Undefeated)
Loss will cause me to... slap myself.
Win will cause me to... anyone got spare PSU tickets?
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict: Without the Spartan injuries I'd be in full freakout mode, as a high powered Spartan offense and a couple mistakes here or there could easily result in a Michigan State victory. Assuming Stanton's running is curtailed, the Michigan State rushing game is going be largely ineffective. There will be instances here and there where someone misses a tackle or makes the wrong read and Michigan gives up a chunk of yards, but consistent, drive-sustaining five and eight yard carries will be rare. State's passing game will be far more difficult to shut down -- I expect a number of frustrating third-and-long conversions -- but English has implemented and used that 3-3-5 with this game (and OSU) specifically in mind. Crable is the right guy to help with those rollouts. Michigan will give up yards and probably a touchdown or two, but will adequately contain MSU.
Michigan's offense should shred the MSU defense. I expect the Spartans to lay back and hope for execution errors that prevent Michigan from driving the length of the field. Michigan will oblige some, but State can't defend the run or the pass and Michigan can do both. Offense should be Minnesota redux.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Hart: 159.
- Breaston rips off a huge return.
- 34-17, Michigan.