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irrelevant is just a state of mind
||Michigan vs Michigan State
East Lansing, MI
||3:30 PM Eastern
November 2nd, 2013
||mid 40s, scattered showers, 10 MPH wind
Michigan State is a version of what they were last year: a boa-constrictor defense paired with mincing foppery on the other side of the ball. According to FEI, both units are marginally worse than they were last year, but the eye test and various other stats suggest that the defense has taken a frightening step forward. They lead the Big Ten in yards per play allowed by almost a full yard over Wisconsin.
The offense seemed to have taken a huge step backwards when MSU could barely get a first down against luminaries like WMU and South Florida early in the year, but of late have put the hammer down on awful defenses Indiana and Illinois (Illinois is last in YPPA in the league and 114th nationally), struggling against Purdue in between. The jury remains out as to whether Michigan State can move the ball against an actual defense. Yes, Michigan has one of those.
Run Offense vs Michigan State
It doesn't look good. This year's top rushing output against the MSU defense was Indiana going for 92 yards on 27 carries. With 64 of those coming on a defensive bust in the first quarter the down-to-down pattern was misery even for the lights-out Hoosier offense.
ND went for 82 yards on 32 carries, if you'd like to compare that to Michigan. While MSU hasn't played anyone who's particularly good at scoring touchdowns other than Indiana, Iowa's 16 carries for 23 yards is a massive outlier for them, as was Illinois's 21 carries for 25 yards. I'm not even bothering to separate sacks here, because… I mean… the numbers speak for themselves. MSU's leading the country in YPC allowed with 2.1, which is the best number anyone's put up since TCU's 2008 outfit allowed 1.7. That is obviously pending a number of opponents better than what they've seen so far. Even so, prepare to be boarded. You know this.
State accomplishes these things by crowding the box with linebackers and safeties. They play "quarters" most of the time, which mgouser Colin detailed last year. Though it sounds super-conservative (cover 4 == 4 deep, right?) in fact MSU plays a hyperaggressive defense featuring tons of press coverage and safeties that start ten yards off the line of scrimmage even on downs like second and 16.
Ohio State tried this last year, busted a ton of stuff, gave up big plays, and has retreated into a less aggressive scheme this year. Michigan State is pulling it off, obviously. A lot of that has to do with the guy pictured above, Max Bullough, a senior who is the proverbial QB of the defense. Denicos Allen is a slashing, slightly undersized blitzer next to him; Michigan has had extreme issues trying to deal with him the past two years.
If there's a weak link in the MSU D, it is the defensive tackles. They've shuffled some guys around and are now going with Micajah Reynolds and sixth-year senior Tyler Hoover. At times this year they've been beaten out of the hole and allowed opponents to grind out some runs—South Florida in particular managed this. But with those safeties screwed down and utterly reliable linebackers behind, the payoff is low even if you do get some movement on the interior. And Michigan is doubtful to do so consistently.
For Michigan's part, Fitzgerald Toussaint's averaging 3.7 yards a pop. To pick a guy you saw and were totally unimpressed with, Minnesota's David Cobb is at 5.2. The feature back for Michigan State's supposedly terrible offense, Jeremy Langford, is at 4.7. This is in large part because of 27 for 27, but when five of your seven opponents to date are CMU, Akron, UConn, Minnesota, and Indiana there is plenty of room to obscure that; Michigan has not.
I am only telling you what you already know because your eyes have told you so. Stats are so very unnecessary here, aren't they? Michigan can't run worth a damn. The frantic offensive line shuffling: QED. Whatever assumptions Michigan made about their ability to do things in the run-up to the season have been disproven emphatically, and now they're going up against what the guys who try to smooth out schedule differences say is the best defense in the country.
Michigan's best hope here is for low frequency. I'm on board with unleashing the dragon here; MSU dares you to test them deep and Michigan has a couple of guys who can do that in different ways. That means buckets of max protection from twins sets and play action, which necessarily means sometimes Michigan's going to have to plow into the line.
With AJ Williams suspended Michigan has three options: spread it out and throw first, play Jordan Paskorz in the Williams role, or just say screw it and play six offensive linemen. It says here that the first and third will take equal measure with Paskorz an occasional alternative, and Michigan won't seem to miss the absence. Williams hadn't run a route longer than five yards all year and has not caught a pass; he was essentially a sixth OL anyway.
Key Matchup: Borges versus Coming Up With Something Clever. Michigan's not going to get much straight up; they'll hope to bust a big play to keep the numbers respectable. The aggressive nature of the MSU D can lead big plays for the opponent, and the right counter is the best way to unlock that since it doesn't seem like MSU's going to bust on its own. The "right counter" is nothing you've put on film before.
[Hit THE JUMP for EXPLODES IN ALL DIRECTIONS]
Pass Offense vs Michigan State
This is the game. If Notre Dame Gardner shows up, Michigan wins. Yeah, even with free touchdown. That's how good the rest of Notre Dame Gardner was. He stepped into throws in the face of serious rush, hit back-shoulders to Gallon, hit Gallon deep, hit Gallon, hit Gallon. It was a pantheon Michigan QB performance.
Since then Gardner's turned the ball over at a blistering rate, causing Michigan to curl up into the fetal position until such time as they are forced out of it by circumstance, and then they go into that fetal position again. If Michigan becomes the copier in Office Space here, they will be the copier in Office Space. It does not turn out well for the copier.
Michigan has only a few choices here. An excellent post on Football Study Hall details:
The nature of this approach to pass coverage invites three particular throws from the offense: the quick out to take advantage of the linebackers' inside leverage, a go route up the seam matching a dangerous slot receiver with a safety, and the deep fade down the sideline against the press corner.
The latter play is one that Michigan State loves to see, as it's generally a low percentage throw for collegiate offenses. The vertical-minded Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish threw endless fade routes against the Spartans and were rescued only by a cascade of pass interference flags flying from the officials' hands. Most opponents have not been so lucky.
Michigan doesn't like quick outs (and MSU is pressing so much screens are a futile idea), hasn't hit many seams, and loves the deep route. Last year, though, it was that seam that accounted for much of Michigan's passing success. Drew Dileo had a career game on various seams and zone-sit-downs, and even if he's not healthy (he missed most of the Indiana game) Michigan has a potentially terrifying weapon poised to work those areas: Devin Funchess.
It's not in the nature of the MSU defense to go with a pure nickelback; instead they've generally gone with LB/S hybrids that have a fancy name, a la OSU. This year, converted safety Jairus Jones (the guy who lateraled that interception) was that player, but he remains out with an MCL injury. This will either force Michigan State to deviate from their scheme to match up on Funchess when he's in the slot or allow Funchess to work on Taiwan Jones, a middling pass defender, and one of MSU's safeties. Who are also good, don't get me wrong, but if Devin Funchess is really the state's other Megatron, this is the time to show it.
Key matchup: Funchess and Gallon winning one on one battles against the MSU secondary. Ball's going up, and if Gallon can shake and Funchess box out there's meals to be had.
Run Defense vs Michigan State
Despite the up and down—mostly down—narrative of Michigan State's season, this has been a consistently just below average rush offense. 4.4 YPC against WMU and USF is below average; 3.4 and 3.7 against Notre Dame and Iowa is below average; 5 against Indiana is still probably below average; 4.4 and 4.9 against Purdue and Illinois is… verging on average, but not quite.
If this paints a picture of a very boring rush offense, you get a cookie. MSU is the opposite of Michigan in this regard. Michigan is almost the worst team in the country at preventing TFLs; MSU is tied for ninth with Alabama (and ULL). MSU runs, they get a few yards, they usually don't get more than that, they usually don't get less than that. Primary back Jeremy Langford has one rush of more than 20 yards this season, that for 32 against Indiana. He goes forward a few yards at a time.
They do a few boring things boringly and get boring results, which makes perfect sense when you can put a defense out there like MSU's. Of course, against Michigan they'll pull the rabbit out of the hat a few times. The general trend will still be second and seven, third and three.
State will go wildcat from time to time and does like to deploy Cook as a runner on inverted veers and other designed runs that aren't generally draws. Cook is hardly different from the rest of their rush offense: he usually gets a few yards, and only a few. It's something to watch for on second and ten and like downs. He's not Denard, or even Mitch Leidner; he too, will get a few yards at a time.
Langford is something of a cipher. He's kind of fast, he's not too big, he follows his blocks and doesn't do much that's spectacular. He is just a guy. If you're looking for the guy who might do something stupid or stupidly awesome, State took the wraps off of true freshman Delton Williams a few games ago and has been rewarded with production. Williams is significantly bigger than Langford and lowers his helmet to finish runs with authority; he's a quintessential "behind his pads" runner who plows out yards after contact.
"I like to bang, I like for you to hit me, and I know If you don't, I'm going to bring it to you,'' Williams said. "So, when the guy was coming to me, and I brought it to him, he knew next time he better get lower."
He'll be the short yardage back.
Michigan's rush defense has been on the backburner virtually the entire season as the Wolverines have taken on passing spread after passing spread. The only outfit that clearly defies that category is Minnesota, who Michigan shut down when they weren't giving up maddening scrambles to Mitch Leidner. This may or may not mean anything. While the Gophers gouged out a ton of yards in a win over Nebraska, they were obliterated by Iowa and very mediocre against Northwestern.
At the very least the Gopher game does give an indication of what Michigan will do against a box-heavy running attack that tends to involve the quarterback, which is play Quinton Washington and run a pretty effective 4-3 under.
This one has an extra safety but that's the idea.
While Michigan has been conservative to date, here's hoping that Thomas Gordon sees a lot of time in this one in a similar alignment (he's on the left hash), as Mattison deployed Kovacs as a bonus linebacker with great efficacy against MSU the past couple years.
This is likely to be a push. MSU will usually get a few yards and not bust anything truly long; Michigan will look for opportunities to slant their way into a passing situation for Cook, getting hit for a couple of good gains and eventually forcing MSU into a spot where they have to convert through the air.
Key Matchup: Black/Wormley/Heitzman/etc. versus POWER. Stat will identify Black and rotating SDE as areas to attack. They'll down block Washington in an effort to give their linemen easy assignments against Michigan's best run DL and attempt to blow the other gentleman off the ball.
Pass Defense vs Michigan State
Also the game. The wildly variable Connor Cook took over the starting job after a couple of games in which he rotated with other contenders, and since he's waxed and waned.
Turrible, bad, probably still bad since Indiana but at least consistent, turrible, great!
If the great bit is at all relevant, Michigan loses. It probably won't be. Illinois gave up 8.4 YPA to Southern Illinois and has let their three major-conference opponents other than MSU to exceed 9 YPA—they're completely horrendous. Michigan is at least middling.
Slot type Macgarrett Kings has emerged into MSU's top wide receiver, albeit narrowly. He's a slippery guy with good routes and B+ speed; he generally catches what is thrown at him. The rest of the WR corps cannot say that. Bennie Fowler is the most physically imposing WR MSU has, but has Featherstone hands and keeps yo-yoing from bench to field depending on his most recent attempts to catch the ball; Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery are just guys; hyped freshman Aaron Burbridge has fallen down the depth chart and is averaging under nine yards a catch. They have many people, but they are all kind of bad. This won't prevent any one of them from doing something annoyingly good, of course.
Whatever that is it probably won't be way downfield. MSU averages 10 yards a completion and their best guy in that category is freshman TE Josiah Price, who is emerging because unlike the rest of their options he can block and catch some.
Michigan's approach in this department has been tortoise-like. Michigan laid back against Notre Dame and that made sense because Notre Dame was pretty good but tended to bog down in the red zone. Then they kept doing that against Akron and UConn and Minnesota and it was revealed that Michigan again had a well-organized but pedestrian defense lacking many starts. That's just how it is, again. Maybe next year.
On standard downs, Michigan will be facing a lot of play action and will find it difficult to respect that and get to the QB; Cook will have time. MSU's only given up six sacks this year, and their attempts aren't actually too far off a normal school's. Part of that is the short nature of their passing game
Whether Cook can find anyone open and get it to them is up to him. Michigan cornerbacks have been pretty good about sticking to their WRs this year only for opposing quarterbacks to fit the ball in small windows or, in the particular case of Channing Stribling, somehow turn a certain interception into disaster.
On passing downs Michigan will load up and try to confuse Cook while getting free rushers. This has a pretty decent shot at success. His mechanics break down when he feels pressure, either to fit the ball in somewhere or when forced to move, and then throws sail. The Purdue game featured highlight packages of Cook throws barely in the vicinity of a receiver, and Michigan will endeavor to repeat that.
Key Matchup: Frank Clark and Jake Ryan versus Rushing Four. Cook's been very good about protecting the ball; this is a game where turnover margin is going to be even more vastly important than it usually is; Cook does not fare well under pressure. Someone get to the dang QB.
MSU yanked senior kicker Kevin Muma for Michael Geiger, who's hit six of seven attempts so far. His one miss was from inside 40, FWIW. Geiger has not been called on for a field goal since the Iowa game. They'll probably hit reasonable field goals, and Geiger's long is 49. Punter Mike Sadler has recovered after almost dying from overuse early in the season and is averaging a quite good 43 yards a kick. Impressively, only nine of his 42 attempts have been returned. Purdue did get a 40-yarder late in the first half of that game.
MSU's return units are bad. They almost don't bother with kickoffs, with only nine attempts on the year. Sheer volume makes it look like their punt guys get yards but 27 returns on the year is almost double the Big Ten's next-closest competitor and they average nine yards a pop.
Michigan is a mirror image here, slightly worse overall because they've suddenly got a shaky kicker. Matt Wile's average is still recovering from some ugly early-season shanks; Dennis Norfleet is perpetually on the verge of breaking a kickoff but has not as of yet.
Key Matchup: YOU PUT THE BALL THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS
Either myself or Mark Dantonio after the game
- At any point Michigan puts just one wide receiver on the field. (Devin Funchess is a wide receiver.)
- Michigan's 4-3 under package featuring Washington looks rusty, understandable though that might be.
- MSU's staff looks to have out-prepared Michigan's despite only having a technical bye week instead of an actual one.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Cook is throwing it anywhere except the vicinity of his wide receivers.
- MSU's secondary can't handle Funchess and Gallon on max protect "play action."
- MSU receivers are getting plunked in the helmet humorously.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 8 (Baseline 5; +1 for Patented MSU Overprep, +1 for They Don't Even Really Need To Overprep This Year Apparently, –1 for Okay But Your Offense Sucks, +1 for Wait, Whose Offense Sucks?, +1 for Probably Better Than Akron/UConn/PSU, +1 Beginning To Believe The Hoke Road Woes Meme, –1 for But Seriously Mattison Eats These Offenses For Lunch And Michigan Thinks Everyone Still Does This And This Is Going To Be One Of Those Fart Fights. +0 for QUIEN ES MAS FARTO)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for They're Annoying, +1 for SHIT, They're Annoying, +1 for Division Title Is Gone If They Lose, –1 for Uh, Not Exactly Expecting Rose Bowl At This Point Anyway, +1 for Narrative Business, +1 for I Will Not Even Try To Describe How Annoying They Are But Trust Me.)
Loss will cause me to... DEFINITELY NOT GET ARRESTED.
Win will cause me to... definitely get arrested.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Figure that Michigan's ground game is some Gardner scrambles and otherwise looks a lot like it did against PSU and that MSU will grind out some boring yards and Michigan's in a bit of a hole.
Can they make up for that hole by outperforming in the passing game? Survey says… maybe. Notre Dame sliced up MSU's secondary multiple times in their game only for Tommy Rees to overthrow his open dudes by yards. Funchess is a problem few teams are equipped to deal with and it is possible that Gallon's quickness gives MSU some trouble as they try to defend him one on one. And if it really just comes down to it, throwing up a punt to Funchess is not a terrible option.
Meanwhile, the Cook renaissance looks pretty flimsy once you take a look at how Illinois's season has gone; we all know about Indiana. Game figures to bog down with MSU chugging out first downs here and there and Michigan responding with chunk plays on long throws that they can't follow up with touchdowns.
In the end, it'll be a turnover that undoes it.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Toussaint YPC: 2.3. Never say I'm a pessimist you guys.
- Michigan State PI flags: 1. PI incidents: however many attempts Gardner has.
- Michigan brings out some tricky trick plays that don't work.
- Michigan State, 16-10.