Preview: Michigan State 2010

Preview: Michigan State 2010 Comment Count

Brian October 8th, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Essentials michigan-state-dumb-logo

WHAT Michigan vs Michigan State
WHERE Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN 3:30 Eastern, October 9th 2010
THE LINE Michigan –4.5
TELEVISION ABC/ESPN2 reverse mirror
WEATHER 70 and sunny
mild wind

Run Offense vs State

The brahs are all like "OMG Greg Jones" as if Manti Te'o isn't a faster, better version of him, assuring everyone who will listen and their poor disappointed mothers that sometime in the second quarter Jones will violently disembowel Denard so a funeral can be held at halftime.

Unfortunately for the brahs, the State defense hasn't lived up to those proclamations. Aided by an injury, MSU held Wisconsin's John Clay somewhat in check. He managed 80 yards on 17 carries, 4.7 per. They didn't do so hot against his backup James White, a smaller, speedier guy who averaged almost 10 YPC. Between the two primary tailbacks Wisconsin had 178 yards on 27 carries, 6.6 a pop. (White, a freshman, was also responsible for a couple of terrible blitz pickups.) A couple of those long runs came when MSU sucked inside and got punished by bounce-outs because of irresponsible play; against Denard Robinson getting irresponsible is six points conceded.

Meanwhile, ND's Armando Allen averaged 5.5 YPC on just 13 carries, though MSU did keep ND's other tailbacks down. Overall, ND tailbacks averaged 4.5 YPC, almost exactly what they managed against Michigan. I think we know what happens when Michigan's rushing offense goes against the Michigan defense.

That's it as far as useful comparisons go. Western Michigan is 114th and Florida Atlantic 116th in rush offense, and Northern Colorado is a 2-3 I-AA team.

So that seems encouraging, but Michigan was expecting to run against Michigan State last year and ended up averaging one yard per carry. Brown and Minor combined to for 17 yards on 10 carries. This was the first inkling that Michigan's rushing offense was something of a mirage:

Forcier kept the ball when he should have handed it off, most painfully on Michigan's overtime drive where a veer play absolutely had State for a ton of yards and maybe a touchdown but Forcier kept it and was forced to follow Minor into the hole for only four. Twice Brown burst into the open field with a lead blocker and naught but one player between him and the endzone and both times Brown and the lead blocker failed to beat that one guy. Martavious Odoms took a reverse and had absolutely cavernous space to cut up into but did not realize it until far too late and slipped making his cut. On several plays State had left themselves open for a big cutback run behind the center but the tailbacks did not take it. And, yes, the right side of the line repeatedly failed to crease State's DL or chop the backside DT when plays went away from it. State did a good job—on both of those potential big gainers the State player in question made a huge, touchdown saving tackle—but Michigan left a ton of yards on the field.

The offensive line was blown up, too. On GS's run chart your winner was Mark Ortmann's +1.

david-molk- nd There were plenty of reasons for this, foremost David Molk's injury and the shuffling it imposed on the defensive line. David Moosman played center, adding another bad snap to the pair that killed drives in the Indiana game. Huyge played right guard and struggled so badly that journeyman John Ferrara got a drive or two in case he was better; Dorrestein was forced into the lineup at right tackle and struggled.

This year, Molk is back, Patrick Omameh has ascended to the starting right guard job and has performed at an all-conference level after a rough start against UConn, and donkey-hating Taylor Lewan has forced his way into the starting lineup past Huyge. Schilling and Dorrestein return as better players. And Michigan has the most dangerous runner in the country taking snaps.

State, meanwhile, lost Oren Wilson and Trevor Anderson from last year's defensive line. Anderson's been replaced by the clunky 6'7" Tyler Hoover, a redshirt sophomore who is a version of Greg Banks minus some of the veteran savvy. Wilson's replacement is a platoon of Kevin Pickelman and Blake Treadwell. MSU returns DT Jerel Worthy, their best DL by some distance, and meh DE Colin "Cam" Neely. Neely and Pickelman missed the Wisconsin game but will return this weekend. Their linebackers are senior versions of last year's guys.

State's been decent against the run but when BlueSeoul broke down the MSU-ND game in one of his extensive Picture-Pages-on-Steroids diaries a major reason for this was the general derpitude of ND offensive linemen in space:


Michigan linemen are from space. They voted for Zoltan and everything. If you put them in space they and the mountain goat receivers will show you your O-I'm-on-the-ground-and-Denard-is-fast face.

Michigan is going to get yards against this defense, but the torrid pace—7.1 YPC, first nationally and a full yard better than all but six teams—they're on should cool off somewhat. If MSU is intent on leaving the safeties back, this will be a steady drip of five, eight, ten yards. If they go Indiana on things it will be more erratic but prone to bigger plays. One key: will Michigan break out the midline option or the veer that Oregon (and now Nebraska) are slicing defenses apart with? Worthy is a guy who just tears after people; he could be exploitable against the midline. Michigan hasn't had to do anything new except pop out a pulling lineman or two; this is the week to deploy a completely new package.

Key matchup: Schilling, Molk, and Omameh versus Worthy and Pickelman/Treadwell. Last year State owned this matchup. Worthy is a quality player but the other defensive tackle is something of a weak spot; Michigan must win this matchup to get second-level players out on the State linebackers and keep the ground machine operating at full death.

Pass Offense vs State

This was also a source of OL ownage on State's part last year:

PROTECTION METRIC: 37/57, Team –5, Dorrestein –4, Ortmann –4, Ferrara –3, Huyge –2, Minor –2, Moosman –1.

That is terrible, and large parts of it can be blamed on the absence of one David Molk. People who would not have been playing otherwise picked up –7 and one bad Moosman snap was given –1: more than half of the 15 negative points assigned to specific players on the line are attributable in ways direct or indirect to Molk's foot.

Michigan's offensive line gave up five(!) passes (or attempts to pass) that were marked "pressure"; Forcier also added ten more attempts that were IN, BR, or TA, including the fatal super triple BR on the OT interception. Three flat drops did not help matters.  Forcier managed to go 17/32 for 223 yards despite this, but the offense operated in fits and starts and relied on a burst of Stonum athleticism and desperation to get its two touchdowns.

That is not likely to repeat this year. For one, Michigan's tied for first nationally in sacks allowed with one thanks to a combination of Denard running, massive progress on the OL, and opponents being terrified of Denard breaking contain. Meanwhile, after losing Trevor Anderson and Oren Wilson, Michigan State is in the triple digits when it comes to acquiring sacks. They've got five; even Michigan's three-man rush is doing better (yes, yes, against an avalanche of passing spreads). When Michigan drops back to pass they'll have time.

Despite the lack of rush, State's pass defense has been at least decent:

Opponent Att Cmp Pct Yds TD INT YPA
Notre Dame 55 32 58% 369 4 1 6.7
Wisconsin 25 11 44% 127 1 0 5.1

Notre Dame racked up a bunch of yards and touchdowns but took 55 throws to get there and didn't put up a huge YPA; Wisconsin got thunked. A large portion of the latter was Tolzien having a bad day and Nick Toon dropping everything that came his way (and subsequently complained about not getting enough opportunities!). Even so, Michigan State has not been lit up in the same way Michigan has. A large part of that is the return of Johnny Adams from injury. Their okay senior corner (Chris L. Rucker) also managed to not explode his ankle, so they've got that going for them.

Even if the outside guys are kept in check, this could be a big day for slots. It appears that ninja-kicking former walk-on Jon Misch is going to be the weakside linebacker who spends much of his day hovering in the vicinity of the slots; the fact that he's in a true battle with hyped sophomore Chris Norman is probably not so good for State. MSU cornerbacks have also been historically poor at tackling, leaving bubble screens attractive options, and the main reason Notre Dame couldn't exploit MSU's addiction to the 4-3 was this equivalency: Stephen Threet : screen :: Dayne Crist : screen.


Robinson will have to throw more than usual and in some uncomfortable situations; this will depress his remarkable efficiency ratings. He should still have enough opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game to win.

Key matchup: Magee and friends versus hyperactive Michigan State run defense. We've seen it all year: Denard takes a step forward, causing the entire defense to fly downhill at him, then flicks a pass to Roundtree that he runs into or near the endzone no matter how far away from it he is. While State's probably spent time on defending that particular iteration of Denard Automatic Play Action, there will be other opportunities to rack up RPS +3; in this game Michigan is going to have to lean more towards balance on first down to prevent the drive-stalling two yard plays that happen when a team sells out, Tecmo Bowl-style, and gets it right.

edwin-baker-204jpg-3819c34572bfaee8_large Run Defense vs State

Michigan's run defense isn't good but it's probably better than the pass defense; against State they will be severely tested. Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper are all quality backs in the same mold: big, fast tackle-breakers slightly light on the shimmy. Bell has more RAGE, Baker more breakaway speed. Caper is returning from injury and may have gotten Wally Pipped by Bell, a who-dat recruit out of Columbus who arrived in a chariot of thunder and said "surprise!" They're all OR on the depth chart, but Caper's had six carries in MSU's two actual games. He is OR in name only.

The other guys:

Opp Player Att Yds TD YPC
ND Edwin Baker 14 90 1 6.4
ND Le'Veon Bell 17 114 1 6.7
UW Edwin Baker 18 87 0 4.8
UW Le'Veon Bell 16 75 0 4.7

That's… uh… kind of terrifying, actually.

Michigan's most relevant outing was the opener against UConn and their similarly power-heavy stone age offense; in that game Jordan Todman had 20 carries for 105 yards, 5.3 per. That's not awful; Todman is legit. In his two other games against D-I foes he put up 192 on a Temple and 190 on Vandy. While those aren't the greatest opponents UConn returned Todman and four offensive lineman from last year's #39 rush offense and appear to be picking up at or above where they left off.

Oh, wait, right: UMass. Crap. Michigan also got imploded by UMass on a series of counters and power running plays on which the linebackers got lost. While Mouton and Ezeh played much better in the two games since the opponents were Bowling Green and Indiana, two passing spreads with no clue how to run the ball that are allergic to pulling linemen. Any hope derived from those games should be vague and humble.

HOWEVA, after watching the Wisconsin game I'm weirdly optimistic Michigan can not die in a fire. Wisconsin's DL was in the backfield a lot and big chunks of MSU's rushing yards came on a misdirection fourth and one pitch and an instance where Wisconsin was badly misaligned against a full house backfield. When it came to just lining up and running it State didn't open many holes. Their tailbacks did drag tacklers all day. If Michigan's linebackers have their heads on straight I can see something similar going down where Michigan does enough to force a bunch of second and long.

Simple power plays and zone stuff probably won't go very well but State has to run it to set up the rest of their offense of counters and play action; I bet the counters are consistent gashers and the regular stuff pops a run or two but also sees a lot of two-yard gains. Some of these will get up to four or five thanks to the quality tailbacks; by the end of the day numbers similar to the UW game are likely.

Key matchup: Cam Gordon run support versus backbreaking long runs. MSU's rush offense is the usual old-school thing Michigan fans will remember from Lloyd Carr's days: a lot of grinding, a lot of meh results, the occasional long gainer that happens when someone busts an assignment or a tackle. For Michigan to keep MSU's numbers in the Wisconsin-or-below range Gordon is going to have to go 10/10 on opportunities to take down MSU backs breaking past the linebackers.

Pass Defense vs State



You know the story on Michigan's side of the ball. When it comes to Michigan State, they still have Kirk Cousins. Cousins is a somewhat mobile pocket passer with good accuracy who makes a lot of excellent decisions… and two or three mind-boggling throws per game.

He usually does the latter bit when he's pressured. He has a tendency to chuck the balls Ben Chappell was tossing into the stands at covered receivers. He threw two interceptions against Wisconsin, one horrible, one a ball deflected at the line that seemed like it was going directly to a double-covered receiver and was going to be picked off anyway. In the second half he got lucky on a back-foot throw that could have been a pick-six if it was more accurate.

State's receivers are analogous to Michigan's—a solid unit without a Braylon/Plaxico superhero. Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin, and BJ Cunningham have split receptions almost right down the middle, and if you squish MSU's two TEs into one body you can say the same thing about Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum. There is no one go-to guy. If you're pigeonholing, Martin is the explosive slot guy, Cunningham the big possession guy whose ability downfield comes more from muscle than speed, and Dell a pretty good generic outside receiver. To compare them to Michigan guys: a poor man's Steve Breaston, Junior Hemingway, and… uh… a rich man's Ron Bellamy? There isn't really a good Michigan analogue for Dell. Anyway, it doesn't really matter who they are because they will be open. State's receivers have had a case of the dropsies this season, FWIW.

BlueSeoul picked out a specific thing State does well that Michigan's defense has seen a lot of in practice but still can't defend: the bubble.


Prepare yourself for this. Michigan is going to put either James Rogers or a freshman out on the outside. One will be playing in the parking lot; the other will get blocked into the parking lot. Michigan State is going to eat up yards on bubble screens, and you will be enraged.

This looks like a functional passing game run by something that's not a duck. This means doom so far as it's possible. Will Michigan State abandon its usual gameplan of "run or play action on 80% of first downs" in an effort to attack the Michigan secondary? Probably not since it's not likely anyone will mistake the M run defense for the 2006 unit. Will they have considerably more success on third down than they should? Yes.

Key matchup: Martin and Roh versus the MSU OL. Michigan has the opportunity to pick off some passes of their own if Cousins is dealing. Sometimes this happens when receivers are covered and he just tries to MAKE PLAYS; usually its an artifact of someone getting in on Cousins. The turnover margin will be huge, and Michigan should have an advantage if they get quarterback pressure.

Special Teams

An advantage for Michigan State. Martin returned a punt for a touchdown against Wisconsin and the Spartans have one of those kicker guys. Dan Conroy is 7/7 on the year. They're also averaging 38 net yards on punts, which is around 40th nationally. Michigan can't return punts or kick field goals and freshman punter Will Hagerup is still working through the jitters. Hagerup seems to be coming around, but Michigan hasn't even attempted a field goal since the first half against UMass and seems happy to keep it that way.

Will it matter? Maybe not. Special teams have not played a major role in Michigan's last few games because touchdowns have been plentiful, and both kickoff return units are weak. Michigan's probably going to go for it on fourth and reasonable distance once they crack the MSU 40 until game theory concerns kick in late. MSU is more likely to make their field goals and more likely to get a big punt return; the net effect of that bonus will either be negligible or large with little in-between.



7smf5Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Denard allows his usual backup quarterback cameo, and continue worrying until he returns to the field.
  • MSU's line is kicking M's ass again.
  • This jumping the snap business happens again.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Michigan State's maligned defensive coordinator leaves the safeties back in a Norm Parker-style adherence to old principles in the face of new technology.
  • A significant new addition (midline, veer) to the running game leaves MSU's defensive gameplan in shambles.
  • Roh rushes the passer lots.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; –1 for Michigan State's First Road Game Unless You Count Playing In Front Of Sixteen Fans In Detroit, +1 for They Hit Wisconsin Upside The Head With Ten Pounds Of Ham, –1 for Previous Defensive Performances Say Michigan Can Run Lots, +1 for Competent Passing Offense Versus Sack Of Confused Cats, +1 for Oh God What If Field Goals Are Relevant, –1 for Denard!, –1 for Vegas Is In The Tank For M, +1 for Annual Crazy Michigan State Over-Preparation, +1 for No Reason Except The Lump In The Throat.)

Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for Would Be The Definitive 2010 Is Not 2009 Answer, +1 for Would Force Inane Media Narratives To Switch To A Different, Less Annoying Inanity, +1 for Would Cause Uppity State Fans To STFU, +1 for The Alternative About The Annoying State Fans Is Horrible To Contemplate, +1 for Constant Rich Rodriguez Job Rescue Campaign)

Loss will cause me to... get really annoyed at the little Dantonio head growing out of my shoulder. I mean, you think it's annoying now, let me tell you… man.

Win will cause me to... forcibly suppress any ideas Michigan might be playing Ohio State for the Big Ten title at the end of the year.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Well… dammit. I didn't really know what would happen against UConn. I didn't really know what would happen against Notre Dame. And I don't really know here. Is Wisconsin the top-ten team I was terrified of before the season or was last year a mirage? Is Indiana's passing offense really a high-powered knife cannon aimed directly at the Big Ten's tingly bits? Denard? Greg Jones?

There is a common opponent:

  • Michigan beat Notre Dame 28-24, outgaining the Irish by a narrow margin if you discount ND's last drive on which Michigan was happy to cede 40 yards. The game was on the road, but Dayne Crist missed a quarter and a half. Michigan missed two field goals, but why wouldn't they miss two more against MSU?
  • Michigan State beat Notre Dame 34-31 in overtime on the trick field goal. Yardage was basically dead even. The game was at home, but Crist went the whole way.

This tells us nothing. At the end of regulation ND had four extra points against State. The home-road flip is worth another six. A reasonable estimate of how many points Crist's absence cost Notre Dame is ten. Flarbity doo, I'm wearing a shoe.

So: I think Michigan's offense is not going to slow down much against what is likely a mediocre Big ten defense. Their drives will be longer because MSU is not a flamingly awful Big Ten defense, but the overall efficacy of them won't be too far off the high level they've established so far this year. I think State will do much the same to M. The home/road flip should be good for a stop or two; Michigan's defense will not be the wasteland it was against Indiana if only because they'll be going up against an offense less suited to torch it; the freshmen defensive backs will have more of a clue; Michigan is likely to end up in the black in TO margin since a somewhat pick-prone Cousins will be putting the ball up more frequently than Denard.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • MSU safeties combine for more tackles than Greg Jones.
  • Denard goes for 150 on the ground.
  • Michigan finally looks like they've prepared for this game specifically.
  • Michigan, 35-30.