Preview: Michigan State 2011

Preview: Michigan State 2011

Submitted by Brian on October 14th, 2011 at 1:25 PM

Previously here: ACE FFFF!

Other stuff: MZone's Know Your Foe. Holdin' the Rope asks Who Are You And Why Do We Care?

Midnight Maize goes behind the secrets of the pro combat uniforms State will be derping in Saturday. Previews from MNGB, MNBN (points for logo adjustment), BWS, MBH, Just Cover and Maize Pages.

situation-izzoEssentials

WHAT Michigan vs State
WHERE Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
WHEN Noon Eastern, October 15th 2011
THE LINE State –2.5
TELEVISION National on ESPN
WEATHER mid-50s, partly cloudy, 10% chance of rain, windy

BRAHBRAHBRAHBRAHBRAHBRAH

Run Offense vs. Michigan State

Jerel-Worthy-Tattoo-HorizontalInsight Bowl Football

Jerel Worthy: self-trolled

This is an irresistible force versus immovable object matchup that pairs the nation's #7 rushing offense against its #1 rushing defense. Massive schedule strength caveats apply to both numbers.

Michigan State has played a I-AA team and I-A's #111, #94, #48, and #31 rushing offenses. The two good opponents were Ohio State, against whom MSU got a healthy dose of Bauserbombs and nine sacks, and Notre Dame, whose primary tailbacks combined for 126 yards on 26 carries—4.8 a pop. MSU did shut down an Ohio State rushing offense that did well against Nebraska, Colorado, and Miami (That Miami). There is plenty of there there.

A large part of the there is in the person and Missouri-themed tattoo of NT Jerel Worthy. Worthy is being talked about as a potential first round draft pick and has tormented Michigan the last two years by jumping snap counts and generally being impossible to to run against. Michigan will have to block him, and get his snap-timing ways off guard. If you let him jump a snap your play is done. Trap him, counter him, do various things to him that exploit his aggression.

The rest of the line is inexperienced. With Tyler Hoover out for the year the ends are one-time Michigan prospect Marcus Rush, a redshirt freshman, and hyped true sophomore William Gholston. Gholston got a lot of hype during the Ohio State game but that turned out to be mostly for running down the backside of the play and tackling for loss when State's massive blitzing forced tailbacks to cut back. When Ohio State blocked him he stayed blocked; his pass rush moves are rudimentary. He remains a physical marvel. Rush is a smaller DE in the mold of a Roh who's quick around the edge and has some issues holding up.

Chris Norman, Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen are the linebackers. Allen you may remember executing the flying squirrel sack on Bauserman late in the OSU game. Norman and Bullough are four-star types with a modicum of experience. They aren't Greg Jones, but they're obviously not a huge downgrade.

As for Michigan, their merry train of destruction was slowed considerably by Northwestern. Denard managed his hundred or so yards but the tailbacks had grim days. This was due in part to Northwestern stacking the line to the point where they gave up 13 YPA. Michigan State is like Iowa in that they are loathe to do that, preferring a standard 4-3 cover two against all offenses from maximum spread 'n' shred to maximum MANBALL. They blitz from time to time but rarely.

Michigan has had issues running power, first from under center (now abandoned) and increasingly from the shotgun. They've started running a lot of two-back, one-TE sets from the shotgun, de-spreading the spread and packing the box, and they've been running away from Taylor Lewan, their best drive-blocking OL, because they evidently don't trust RG Patrick Omameh to pull. Finding a way to make Michigan State defend both sides of the line and giving them things other than plain old power will be important—MSU sees that stuff every day all day in practice and Michigan's line is not built to move guys off the ball.

Key Matchup: Borges vs finding ways to get the edge. Michigan State's linebackers are young and the defensive ends younger. Worthy is large and the interior OL is not prepped to drive-block him. Speed options, veers, pitches, rollouts, zone read variations, stretch blocking—Michigan has to get outside the tackles effectively.

Pass Offense vs. Michigan State

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Tacopants via Spawn of MZone; MSU's Johnny Adams

Denard Robinson's interception rate has shot up this year to a staggering 8.6%. He thrown 9 picks in 104 attempts after throwing 11 in 291 last year. That is a hell of a step backwards. If Denard's INT rate remains at that level Saturday, Michigan loses.

Denard INTs have come in two flavors this year: extremely bad decisions to throw deep into coverage (all three against ND) and massive overthrows (all three against NW), with some combining both aspects into one debilitating cocktail of depression. Over the past two weeks Denard has shown considerable progression in his accuracy (65% against NW, much better than that against Minnesota) at the same time he's made a ton of horrible overthrows. He seemed to fix his issues in the second half against Northwestern—maintaining that through the Michigan State game, especially in the face of pressure, will make Michigan's path to victory much clearer.

Michigan's receivers are the opposite of MSU's: a deep bunch without a true star. Junior Hemingway and his ability to high-point underthrown deep balls are the closest thing.

State's secondary is pretty good. Their safeties make mistakes from time to time but not too many; the cornerbacks are tough guys who make you earn your completions short and long. That's the impression from the Notre Dame game, anyway. There is no other data worth looking at.

Their line is 21st in sacks thanks to the nine against Ohio State; they have five in their other four games, one against Notre Dame on a stunt that was not picked up. Michigan is first nationally, allowing two in five official games. Part of that is Michigan not passing much—they're just over 20 attempts per game—and part of that is defenses sitting back lest they get too aggressive and spring Robinson into the secondary. Unfortunately for Michigan, even token pressure has caused Robinson to fling inadvisable or inaccurate balls—they don't need to swarm him to be productive.

State will sit back in a cover two and play a ton of zone, forcing Denard to be patient for holes to open up and hit spots in the zone with good timing. He's done it before… he's also imploded spectacularly.

Key Matchup: Denard vs Accuracy. Forever and ever this key matchup until Denard's missing at a rate that forces defenses to fear him in the air. Is this possible? Absolutely—a lot of spread QBs have light-on moments. Until it happens it hasn't happened.

Run Defense vs. Michigan State

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Edwin Baker; Dan France having a sad last year, wearing a DL number

A year after... actually, nevermind. I was going to contrast this year's MSU run offense with last year's but it turns out Michigan State was mediocre in 2010, finishing 64th in yardage and 49th in YPC. Their 249 yards against Michigan said more about Michigan than State, but you knew that already.

That was with the assistance of an offensive line. This year they don't have one of those. Both guards return and are okay, though Joel Foreman was the guy getting schooled by Aaron Lynch late in the Notre Dame game. It's the other three spots that are a concern. At right tackle, redshirt freshman starter Skyler Burkland broke a bone in his ankle and is out for the year, leaving fresh-off-the-JUCO Fou Fonoti the starter. At left tackle, converted DT Dan France has emerged as the starter after Jared McGaha proved to be not very good at football. Redshirt freshman Travis Jackson returns from injury to replace injured converted DT Blake Treadwell—he was supposed to be the starter at the start of the season.

As a result, the same tailbacks who were okay last year can't run this year. Like, at all. In their two games against BCS competition, Michigan State has rushed for 2.2 YPC against Notre Dame and 3.3 YPC against Ohio State, sacks removed.* They managed 4.2 against Florida Atlantic, an 0-5 Sun Belt team, and 4.6 against Central Michigan, which lost to Western Michigan by about the same score they did against State. That is their rushing year against I-A competition. Opponent with pulse == shut down. Without pulse == mediocre production.

So, does Michigan's rushing defense have a pulse? Unfortunately we can still do no better than "maybe" at this point in the season. Plausible opponents to date:

Opponent Att Yards TD YPC
Northwestern 21 133 3 6.3
SDSU 28 137 0 4.9
Notre Dame 33 209 1 6.3

Non-plausible opponent Eastern Michigan also managed 4.5 YPC. Those numbers aren't any more encouraging than State's.

The UFRs have detailed one of the major causes of the big numbers put up by opponents: weakness on the edge. Freshman SLB Jake Ryan has been a major source of these issues but indecisiveness from the other linebackers has also "helped." Last week Northwestern exposed yet more edge weakness on a series of option plays.  State will try to exploit that, but Kirk Cousins isn't running the triple option and while their tailbacks have some quickness, Bell and Baker are more north-south guys whose effectiveness wanes when their shoulders are square to the LOS. Expect Martin jet sweeps, possibly out of a wildcat look.

On the interior, Michigan isn't great. Neither is State—their OL cannot get to the second level. A couple of screwups by Michigan linebackers will grant State a few chunk runs and the steady power diet will chew up 2-4 yards at a time; Michigan will still put up its best YPC effort of the year against the Spartans.

Key Matchup: Will Heininger and Will Campbell against the MSU interior line. Michigan's three-tech has been a sore spot against the pro-style formations MSU figures to spend much of its day in. If the three tech can hold up, Michigan State isn't going to move anyone else on the line and those erratic yards on the edge will be easy enough to weather.

*[I also removed a -12 yard carry from Cousins against OSU and two "team" carries for -9 yards. IIRC the Cousins thing was a fumbled shotgun snap he fell on.]

Pass Defense vs. Michigan State

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oh good, an enormous NFL wide receiver wearing #3 again

Kirk Cousins is Kirk Cousins: pretty good, not great, somewhat prone to the yips when pressured. He was 20 of 32 against OSU for 7.8 YPA; he also threw a touchdown and two interceptions. Against ND they had to rely on his arm almost exclusively and he put went 34 of 53 for 6.2 YPA, a touchdown, and an interception.

In both games a large bulk of his production came through BJ Cunningham, the hulking senior who is the Big Ten's best Michael Floyd impersonator. Cunningham has 38 catches for nearly 600 yards already. He's a lock to be all Big Ten and Michigan's going to give up ten catches for 150 yards. Brace yourself.

There's little past Cunningham. Slot guy Keshawn Martin figures to get involved on the edge as Michigan State tests out Michigan's evident weakness against bubble screens—Cunningham doubles as a tight-end-sized blocker out there—and former QB Keith Nichol has made catches here and there. WR depth remains a major issue. MSU runs out a bunch of tight ends, computer distribution expert Dion Sims most prominently, and throws screens and dumpoffs to the backs. Downfield threats begin and end with Cunningham. MSU does expect Bennie Fowler back. He had 14 catches last year as a freshman and may be a better non-Cunningham option than the guys on the field to date.

The line is also an issue here. Though Cousins was only sacked twice against ND and zero times against OSU, the line picked up a bunch of holding calls trying to keep their QB alive and it seems like Cousins's internal clock has accelerated to the point where he's not letting certain plays develop.

Though Michigan's remarkable streak of not being totally awful continued against Northwestern, the M secondary exposed some flaws against Dan Persa and company. Persa averaged 7.5 YPA and his interception was of the WR gift variety*. Freshman Blake Countess got beat on a 39-yard fade and Michigan gave up an average of 7.1 yards on nine bubble screens. JT Floyd has emerged into a reliable, average-ish Big Ten corner and Countess is promising, but Troy Woolfolk's perpetual injury issues have seen him rendered largely ineffective. He's been pulled for Countess before garbage time each of the last three weeks.

And Michigan's safeties are extant. Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon have not let a long run past them this year, nor have they blown a deep coverage. They are clueful. Things get a little dodgy when Gordon slides down to the nickel and Carvin Johnson comes in, but Michigan's days as Free Touchdown U have come to an end. Michigan showed a little nickel with Courtney Avery in and Gordon deep against NW, but pulled that once the bubbles rained down—on passing downs I bet Michigan goes with the three corners and keeps Johnson on the bench.

Michigan's pass rush has been okay. After a slow start they've picked it up; Dan Persa was sacked four times last week. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen are capable of getting pressure by themselves, but a lack of consistent production from the defensive ends has been a problem. Mattison compensates with frequent zone blitzes.

*[Northwestern also managed an incompletion charged to "Team." What?]

Key Matchup: Mattison zone blitzing versus Cousins's head. This should be the perfect situation for Mattison to loose his devious NFL blitz packages against a rag-tag bunch of crappy, confused offensive linemen. The catch is the veteran senior quarterback behind that OL. Cousins has proven ill-equipped to handle pressure in the past—how he deals with it Saturday is a major key.

Special Teams

State's punting looks atrocious thanks to a blocked or fumbled zero-yarder; when actually getting punts away Mike Sadler has been okay. He averages about 40 yards. Nick Hill has done well in limited opportunities as the kick returner, and Martin is a large threat to rip off a long punt return when Michigan's gunners don't get the job done. On the other hand, State has given up a kick return touchdown of its own this year. Kicker Dan Conroy is 6 of 9 on the year after going 14 of 15 last year.

Michigan can now kick field goals up to 38 yards, maybe, has terrible kickoffs—they were a bit better against NW but Wile put one out of bounds—can't return anything for any yards, and has a punter who should hypothetically be righteous but missed the first four games due to suspension and is averaging 38 yards on three kicks since that suspension expired. Advantage MSU.

Key Matchup: AAAAAH GIBBONS YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS

Intangibles

 

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Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Michigan again lets State win the overpreparation-for-a-single-game battle.
  • The State run defense shows up at maximum legitness.
  • Denard isn't stepping into throws.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Jerel Worthy is picking up offsides calls early.
  • Mattison blitz packages cause OL head explosion fiesta.
  • Borges has a crazy package that is crazy effective.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Oh Good It's Michael Floyd Again, +1 for Actual Road Game Instead Of Neutral Site Chicago, +1 for Spartan Overpreparation Now Actually Working, –1 for Opponent Offensive Line Best Compared To Michigan 2008, –1 for Strong Possibility Terrible Interception Battle Is A Draw, +1 for Even A Fraudulent #1 Run Defense Is Probably Pretty Good.)

Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for Must End The Brahgasm, +1 for This Is Not 2009 Or 2010, +1 for Winner Is Strong Division Favorite, +1 for We Have A Countdown Clock For This Now, +1 for Juggalo Invasion Revenge Tour.)

Loss will cause me to... scream "I HAVE TWO COMPUTER ENGINEERING DEGREES" to thousands of people in green Affliction t-shirts.

Win will cause me to... unironically proclaim Brady Hoke gets it, chant "just like basketball," post Vincent Smith fingerguns.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Flip a coin.

I have no feel for how the game will go. I can see blowouts both ways. Michigan State: M OL cannot get push, coaches cannot invent ways to run, Denard throws three picks. Michigan: MSU OL combines with Martin and Mattison zone blitzes to leave the MSU offense a quivering hunk of goo and youth on the edge for Michigan State lets Denard rack up video game numbers.

None of that seems particularly likely. Neither do a lot of points, especially with wind potentially hampering deep balls on both sides. Offenses move in fits and starts with Borges getting some gashes and Michigan's addiction to power it can't run very well putting Denard behind the sticks; Michigan State can't run consistently either, and they can't protect Cousins well enough to convert third downs.

Special teams look like a tiebreaker to me, with State's field goal kicker an established one and their return units far more likely to rip off a long one, especially since Michigan can't get more than two guys within 20 yards of a punt returner on the catch.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Newly stride-y Denard looks more like he did in the second half against NW than the first half, cuts down on the terrihorrible overthrows, and puts up numbers that surprise many. Still throws mind-bending INT.
  • Mattison blitzes Cousins into two turnovers.
  • Something goes very wrong on special teams, likely a long return.
  • Michigan State, 22-19