Preview: Michigan State 2015

Submitted by Brian on October 16th, 2015 at 11:09 PM

Braylon-catch-vs-MSU[1]Essentials

WHAT Michigan State at Michigan
WHERE Michigan Stadium
Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN 3:30 Eastern
October 17th, 2015
THE LINE Michigan –7
TELEVISION ESPN
TICKETS From $210(!)
PARKING Sold out(!). Better get on that OSU spot.
WEATHER mostly cloudy, high 40s, 0% chance of rain

Overview

Michigan State entered this season a projected juggernaut with an NFL quarterback and that ol' Spartan defense. While MSU is undefeated, it hasn't really worked out like that. MSU saw their marquee win severely compromised when Utah atomized Oregon at Autzen and then erased when Washington State beat the Ducks in overtime.

Meanwhile MSU has struggled to separate from a collection of teams that are Not Good. CMU was within a touchdown deep into the third quarter. Air Force outgained MSU by about 100 yards but repeatedly fumbled away a chance at the upset. Purdue came storming back from 21-0 to 24-21 and had two cracks at a winning drive. Rutgers led most of the way last week.

None of these teams are sneaky good. Oregon is currently the top-ranked MSU opponent in S&P at 64th. WMU and CMU look like MAC bottom dwellers. Purdue and Rutgers are Purdue and Rutgers. I guess we can give MSU a pass against Air Force because never schedule Air Force. But Michigan State looks vulnerable. Thus an approximately 14-point swing in the line from preseason.

Run Offense vs Michigan State

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McDowell gets upfield in a hurry

(This preview ignores the Air Force game for obvious reasons. Never schedule Air Force.)

Michigan State's defense is, as always, highly aggressive. MSU has overwhelmed a number of very bad rush offenses; the last two weeks they have also parted like the Red Sea for long touchdowns. They want to be in your backfield on every play, but this year they don't have the secondary to back that up consistently.

MSU runs a lot of twist blitzes with their linebackers that see DT Malik McDowell roar upfield a gap or even two outside where he is nominally expected to be. This has killed Michigan (and a lot of other teams) for a long time. It'll be interesting to see how Michigan combats that under Jim Harbaugh.

We had a brief period of competitive football last week in which it looked like he wanted to spread a similar defense horizontally and run zone at it. That was only dubiously effective, as two big De'Veon Smith runs came when linebackers missed tackles at or near the line of scrimmage and several others were blown up. But by the time adjustments should have been made, Michigan was up 28-0 and thinking about this game.

Anyway. McDowell, Lawrence Thomas, and Shilique Calhoun are all penetration-or-death types; three-tech Joel Heath is more of an OL occupier. This can lead to some big gaps when someone roars upfield and Heath gets blasted back—to my eye he's not too good. The trick is getting through that gap instead of getting nailed in the backfield.

MSU's linebackers are all okay to good. They miss Ed Davis's playmaking presence but with Yet Another Bullough and Jon Reschke they hold it down just fine.

If Michigan tries to pop outside they are going to meet a version of the fate that Karan Higdon did against Northwestern. MSU will activate the playside safety as soon as Michigan shows run action. The difference here is that Northwestern has a very solid pair of safeties and MSU does… not. The entire MSU secondary struggles to tackle.

Add it up and it's still pretty good. MSU ranks 47th in rush defense on S&P, and while their plain old numbers aren't nearly as good you should remember that we are ignoring the Air Force game, a huge distorting factor.

Michigan's end of this has been solid and uninspiring. They've willingly flung their dudes into stacked boxes for big chunks of games, both to hone their players and run down the clock. An ever-shifting series of fancy plays has helped them keep their head above water, and a penetration-mad MSU seems vulnerable to Harbaugh's wham series plus the various traps Michigan's shown to date. I'm sure MSU coaches are aware of this as well, but there's only so much you can do to revamp what you do in a week.

Michigan's OL has rounded into a B or B+ unit featuring Mason Cole and Graham Glasgow as emerging stars; their blocky/catchy crew has been at about the same level. De'Veon Smith, Michigan's lead back, had a detectable limp after the Northwestern game but will play and will probably carry the load all day. His injury is one that lingers but you can tough it out, and Smith is a tough hombre.

Michigan is going to want to get reasonable gains when they are put under pressure and hit a few big plays. Like Northwestern, down-to-down consistency is going to be tough to come by.

KEY MATCHUP: MCDOWELL and CALHOUN versus WHAM and ASSORTED OTHER HARBAUGH GOTCHA PLAYS. The prospect of a coaching matchup that is even or even slants a bit towards Michigan is on the table. Wouldn't it be nice?

[Hit THE JUMP for NOT YOUR OLDER BROTHER'S MICHIGAN STATE SECONDARY and THE GUY ACTUALLY LIVING UP TO EXPECTATIONS]

Pass Offense vs Michigan State

via Ace

Weakness versus weakness here. Michigan State's secondary was bad to start the season and has lost two guys for the season. As a result they're super thin; guys are playing badly and there's nowhere to turn but freshmen. The guys on the field frequently give off the whiff of early JT Floyd, as per above.

Safety Montae Nicholson is the main whipping boy after chasing six to ten different guys into the endzone this year. This blog owes Brady Hoke an apology in re: Michigan's decision to stop pursuing him. Ace clipped this Caroo touchdown where the WR literally runs past Nicholson before he thinks "should I cover that guy?"

Does my existence have a purpose? Or am I a notion floating in a super-mind, about to be snuffed out by its whim? –Existentialist Montae Nicholson

That is far from an isolated incident. Nicholson was benched for a brief period, but injuries have forced him back on the field. The question is not so much "will Michigan State bust coverages?" but "can Jake Rudock hit the open guys deep?"

I don't know, man. Can he? You tell me. I think so, because he had very good year last year in that department. I have the willies about it.

Meanwhile, MSU's corners are not up to their recent standards. With Vayante Copeland out for the year they've turned to Darian Hicks, who may or may not play Saturday, Jermaine Edmondson, and Arjen Colquhoun. Hicks is probably the best available; the other two guys are journeymen with major flaws. Colquhoun's press coverage is super-grabby and penalty prone; Edmondson will frequently miss jams entirely, a la Blake Countess. Michigan doesn't have the greatest WR corps but they will have opportunities in the intermediate zones as well.

MSU's pass rush is good. MSU's adjusted sack rate is 17th in the country; Shilique Calhoun is an upgraded version of Will Gholston who, in addition to pursuing guys unblocked, is capable of edge rushes that are devastatingly effective all their own. Calhoun also times snaps; he was across the line simultaneous with the ball a few times in the Rutgers game.

He and McDowell are the main rush threats. MSU's picked up scattered sacks from other players, with Riley Bullough a threat on linebacker blitzes. Michigan might want to chip Calhoun; both tackles have had issues in pass protection against elite rushers this year, insofar as they have appeared on the schedule.

Michigan's side of this was a lot of depression until the Northwestern game. In that game Jake Rudock reprised his efficient but uninspiring ways en route to a 17/23 performance against a very good pass defense; in this he was significantly aided by Jim Harbaugh's ability to exploit the hyperactive Northwestern linebackers. MSU presents a similar challenge minus the to-date excellent secondary, except with a bucket of additional pass rush.

To maintain efficiency against a defense like this Michigan has to hit some big plays, of which there have been few in the passing game. Rudock's hit Butt for an assortment of 30-yarders; he has missed Chesson on his infrequent attempts to go deep. This is not a weakness that is necessarily baked into his performance as a QB. Last year he had a period where he went nuts on opponents; PFF had him the #12 QB in downfield accuracy just a year ago. Reviving some of that is going to be important.

When not bombing it downfield, Michigan will want to pull people out of alignment with misdirection and exploit the gaps. I hope that Harbaugh's seen how MSU reacts to TE pop passes, because one pump fake should put Butt in the clear for a 20 yard pass that will go as far as Butt's long speed takes him. MSU has consistently befuddled Michigan pass protection and quarterbacks; hopefully we see a new day dawn tomorrow.

KEY MATCHUP: JAKE BUTT and wonderfully AJ WILLIAMS versus WHOOPS DID I NEED TO COVER THAT GUY.

Run Defense vs Michigan State

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LJ Scott is going to be a pain in the ass for a long time

Of all the uncertain matchups in this game this is the most uncertain. Michigan State has seen tackles Kodi Kieler—the D-I player named most like a stripper—and Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen go down with injury. The tackles are close to returning. Kieler saw a number of snaps against Rutgers; Conklin was dressed and available in "an emergency." Allen took a nasty hit to the side of his lower leg late* in the Rutgers game; he couldn't put weight on it and was carted off.

All or none could play; if it's "none" this will be an unholy decimation, so let's assume that the grimmest injury scenarios are out the window. The most likely one: Kieler and Conklin play below full capacity and Allen misses the game. In that case… uh… we still don't know much of anything. Michigan State hasn't fielded its starting line since Kieler got knocked out against Oregon.

Their six games are against two MAC teams, two teams that would get relegated to the MAC if that's the way things worked, Air Force, and an Oregon team that's suddenly miserable on defense. The only slightly above average run D they've faced is Air Force, which is 42nd nationally in YPC. The Falcons held MSU under two yards a carry.

Things have gone better in their other outings, mainly because freshman RB LJ Scott has been pretty righteous. Unfortunately BTN seems to only put touchdowns up, so I don't have a clip of Scott's too-quick-for-his-size spin move against Purdue, but you can get a hint of his inner De'Veon on this touchdown:

Scott has Smith's balance with better agility and speed. He started the year behind Madre London in the pecking order, but an injury to London and Scott's play figure to make him the lead back against Michigan. Ace glossed over him a bit in his FFFF; I think he is the real deal and will be slipping tackles with frustrating frequency on Saturday, and for years thereafter.

But the fundamental issue with MSU is that Scott is making a ton of moves just to get past the line of scrimmage, against Rutgers and Purdue and etc. MSU is just 63rd in YPC this year, and the advanced stats haaaaate MSU's ground game. MSU is 105th in rushing S&P. Ace saw why in a game against a team that gave up 330 rushing yards to Penn State:

Even with Allen healthy, MSU's runs mostly met a wad of bodies and their pass-blocking was downright bad.

MSU has not been able to move guys this year. Even when healthy against Oregon—a very bad Oregon defense—their running game was one big carry from London early, one that came when one Oregon guy stunted and another didn't, and a lot of grunts into the line. MSU looks vulnerable here.

Michigan is about to amp up the competition level. MSU's faced the #79, 86, 110, 113, and 123 rushing defenses (per S&P) this year. The outlier, Air Force, is 24th, and MSU got blown up. Michigan is 4th. Those are all opponent adjusted numbers, and that's why the fancy stats hate MSU's run defense.

Michigan brings a load, with six excellent defensive linemen who will rotate through the MSU backfield on the regular. Jack Allen kicked Michigan's ass a year ago; that is not going to happen this year even if he's fully healthy.

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 6.34.08 PM

One complicating factor for Michigan is the loss of James Ross for the first half after a targeting ejection. MSU does run more tight end types out there than anyone Michigan's seen to date. Ace charted them against Rutgers. Results are at right.

It's about a 50/50 split. Michigan will probably add junior Ben Gedeon to the lineup when MSU is in bigger sets; Gedeon is a prime athlete who hasn't seen much playing time yet in his career.

This should be a blowout for Michigan except when Michigan State backs are busting through tackles; sometimes they will just find another guy ready to tackle. Other times they'll poke some holes in Michigan's rush D.

*[Is there anything more hilarious than MSU fans having endless online conniption fits about that hit because it is "dirty"? No, there is not. Incidentally, the dude who pulled a gun in a road rage incident is playing Saturday.]

KEY MATCHUP: RYAN GLASGOW versus ANY WHO WOULD STAND IN HIS WAY

Pass Defense vs Michigan State

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This is where Michigan is most likely to lose the game, should they lose it. Connor Cook has demonstrated his quality over the first half of his senior season, especially of late. Ace:

[Cook] was phenomenal in this game given the circumstances. Despite facing a heavy rush on many of his attempts, he averaged 9.4 yards per attempt with no completion longer than 29 yards, and he only had one glaring error, uncharacteristically forcing a pass into the end zone that Rutgers intercepted in spectacular fashion.

Otherwise, Cook made several spectacular throws, often of the impossible-to-defend back-shoulder variety:

I had him down for five DOs in this game and could've given him one or two more. Other than a tendency to occasionally sail passes to his left, he's very accurate, and he was really impressive at throwing while under duress—he'll need a similar performance Saturday.

Cook is a more mobile Chad Henne. He will sail the occasional pass, but he's got the arm strength and accuracy to make the throws that make NFL scouts perk up. He's also a reasonable threat on the ground—Rudock except bigger. He has kept MSU afloat during their OL shuffles.

Cook's main target is senior Aaron Burbridge, who's finally come into his own as a leaping contested ball acquirer. His yards per target is over 10—the next MSU WR hovers around 7. Cook and Burbridge combine to hit a lot of plays on which the defense throws up its hands and emotes because they played it well and they just got beat. Burbridge can get loose, too, but his best assets are body control and leaping ability.

Most folks figure Jourdan Lewis will follow him around; I think Michigan might tell MSU to pick their poison. M is very comfortable lining up in man press on outside guys and forcing them to the sidelines; MSU has a number of slippery little guys that Michigan might want to match up with underneath.

Those guys are MacGarrett Kings and RJ Shelton. Both are 5'10" and okay. They aren't the quickest, they aren't the biggest targets, they're both competent. Michigan is going to want to put the clamps on both as much as possible so they can deliver rushers to Cook.

Despite Cook's obvious proficiency the advanced stats are relatively skeptical due to strength of competition. Cook's at 8.2 YPA with 12 TDs and just 2 INTs; MSU is 49th in passing S&P. That's an overcorrection, I think.

Michigan's defensive backfield has been lights out this year. Jourdan Lewis is headed for an All-American nod, Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling have been wiping out attempted fades all year, and Jabrill Peppers is improving. Michigan has given up one play longer than 20 yards all year, that late against UNLV.

When they've been vulnerable it's been when their man coverage gets beat underneath: Maryland had consistent success with slants (that they could not catch) and a couple of crossing routes hit for third and long conversions for the Wildcats.

MSU has the receivers and the quarterback to replicate that. Getting Stribling, who's missed the last two games, back would be a boon, as it would allow Michigan to play Lewis in the slot in an attempt to mitigate the quickness advantage Kings and Shelton have over Michigan's safeties.

Meanwhile Michigan's pass rush has been rampant. Blessed with a a pair of 300-pound DE/DT types who have the strength to push the pocket and the quickness to rush successfully on their own, Michigan has crushed pockets against all comers. Cook was excellent at getting rid of the ball under pressure against Rutgers, but man there was a lot of pressure. Michigan should be in Cook's face most of the day, making extended drives difficult to come by. He's good enough to manufacture some on his own.

KEY MATCHUP: JOURDAN LEWIS (and FRIENDS) against AARON BURBRIDGE LEAPY BUSINESS

Special Teams

This has been a major problem for Michigan State. Each phase of their special teams has contributed large mistakes. Oregon's Braylon Addison returned a punt for a touchdown. Western Michigan's Darius Phillips returned a kickoff for a TD in the opener—something highly relevant after Jehu Chesson skated through Northwestern untouched last week. Only 7 of MSU's 36 kickoffs have been touchbacks, and given what's happened to them so far you know that's not by choice. MSU is last in the conference in punt return average allowed and 10th in KO return yardage allowed. Meanwhile they've returned one punt this year, period, that for a yard; KO returns have been middling.

Kicker Michael Geiger was a Groza finalist as a freshman but then #collegekickers happened to him. Here's an Only Colors commenter with the nitty gritty:

Geiger started out his career looking like a legitimate weapon, he was 15 out of 16 FGA in his Freshman season. 8(!) of the 15 FGM were from 40yds or more – that is studly.

Since then Geiger has only made 19 out of 31 FGA and in the past 10 games has only 1 FGM over 39 yards. This off-season he had surgery on his hip, however it seems he has a mental block now, or still some health issues, or possibly worse – both.

Geiger is 5 of 9 on the season and only hit his 30-yarder against Rutgers by banging it off the upright. He's missed from 35 three times and 28 once; he has one field goal longer than 36 yards on the season. He's also missed an extra point.

Despite the Addison return against Oregon, punting is something of a bright spot—or at least it was before Rutgers. Jake Hartbarger is averaging 43 yards a kick with relatively few return opportunities ceded. Unfortunately for MSU Hartbarger shanked two against Rutgers and was replaced by Tyler O'Connor, the backup QB. Hartbarger also dropped a snap against Purdue. It's unclear whether he was pulled for performance or injury.

On Michigan's side of the ball things are going a bit better. Michigan returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week; they've punted to Will Likely and lived; they've put a lot of punts on the five yard line with just one pooch touchback on the negative side of the ledger; Kenny Allen has put most of his balls between the big sticks, mate.

This should be an advantage for Michigan, but unlike the Northwestern game where every exchange of punts was likely to include a first down's worth of hidden yards, if Michigan gets an advantage here it will be a sudden big play like Geiger missing a field goal or a big return.

KEY MATCHUP: MATE PUT THE BALL THROUGH THE BIG STICKS NO WORRIES

Intangibles

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Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • MSU fields a fully healthy offensive line.
  • Connor Cook reintroduces Jourdan Lewis to the gypsy.
  • Michigan is unable to deal with MSU's twist blitzes for the Nth consecutive year.

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Glasgows dominate their opposite number.
  • WHAM
  • Geiger doinks a field goal off the post and it hits the punter in the head and knocks over all the kickoff coverage guys and lands in Jabrill Peppers's hands.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 for DANTONIOOOOOOO is our KHAAAAN, +1 for This QB Is Not Like The Others, +1 for Lingering Stinky Stank, –1 for I Have Seen These Two Teams Play This Year, –1 for Special Teams Fiasco That Isn't Us For A Change, –1 for Gimpy OL Against This Defensive Line, +1 for This Plus One Is Completely Irrational, +1 for My Confidence Gives Me Fear, –1 for HARBAUGh)

Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for Win This And It's Basically A Straight Shot To OSU, +1 for Also That Would Mean A Likely NY6 Bowl, +1 for Or We Could Win The Dang Division, +1 for DISRESSERPKEKTD, +1 for These Guys, I Mean Seriously, –1 for Not A Real Rival)

Loss will cause me to... walk by some brahs walking the wrong way if they'd actually gone to the game

Win will cause me to... seeya in South Carolina, Mark

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Poke any purely objective measure you care to and it will tell you this should be a blowout in Michigan's favor. S&P+ has M a 21(!) point favorite. The line was up to 8.5 for parts of the week with sharps still betting Michigan.

It's not going to be like that, of course. As they say, throw out the S&P+ when it comes to rivalry games. Both teams will have surprises in store; MSU will play unreasonably well compared to the rest of their season.

But this just isn't a vintage Dantonio Michigan State team. They don't have the horses in the secondary. Their special teams have fallen apart. The offense might have been able to carry them but the injuries seem like they probably won't get all the way right, and this is the wrong DL to be limping against.

Michigan has one clear personnel deficiency, that at quarterback. Without an extreme burst of turnovers or other weirdness, the way that matchup plays out determines the difference between a close game and a laugher. The laugher only goes in one direction.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Rudock hits two deep passes. For real. Yes. I mean this. Gah.
  • MSU rushes for under three yards a carry.
  • Michigan State does something dirty to a Michigan player in the fourth quarter.
  • Michigan, 25-11

Comments

Hail Harbo

October 16th, 2015 at 3:11 PM ^

Maybe he's missed, probably he's missed, but his absence won't be a game changer.  Both Morgan and Bolden have thrice the number of tackles Ross has managed to make and even Gedeon has a greater total.  Here's the silver lining if one is needed, he'll come into the game fresh when needed most.

ak47

October 16th, 2015 at 1:56 PM ^

Stop it, stop with the confidence right now, you are scaring me brian and I don't like this feeling I have right now causing me unable to do work.

dragonchild

October 16th, 2015 at 1:58 PM ^

MSU presents a similar challenge minus the to-date excellent secondary, except with a bucket of additional pass rush.

Which basically is to say they defend the pass in entirely different ways.  Harbaugh's probably cooking up a lot of timed route stuff.

And to reiterate a point I made earlier this week, regarding Michigan's pass D, don't expect that underneath stuff to be a gimme tomorrow.  Michigan's only been doing that because the last three opponents wanted to do something else:  longball (BYU), run (Maryland), run (Northwestern).  In each case the D took their toys away and made them work.  That's the hallmark of a good defense.  Well, Cook is the guy who'll say thank you to short passes underneath, so expect a new look.  If I had to guess, something like the anti-BYU dime formation relying on the D-line to hold down the run (MSU's run game is baaad), but with more intermediate traffic instead of two uber-deep safeties.

FreddieMercuryHayes

October 16th, 2015 at 2:00 PM ^

Good god, I am feeling all the emotions right now.  If I hadn't lived through the last 7-8 years, I wouldn't worry too much about this.  But now?  I'm petrified now that it seems like UM should win this game.  I have no idea how to take it.  I feel like I will singlehandedly cause UM to lose if I have confidence in them.

ijohnb

October 16th, 2015 at 2:07 PM ^

it with caution my friend.  Keep two things in mind. 1) State is very good, people are using statistics to gun them down right now and they shouldn't, State has given up a good deal of yardage in garbage time against Western, Air Force and Purdue(yes, it was garbage time). Cook is also currently slinging the ball all over fools and looked whip sharp last week.  This is a winnable game but we are playing a really good team, 2) This can still be a really good season even if we lose this game, this game is not our entire season even though it feels like it is right now.

There is reason for optimism, but this game is a pick em and should be an all out war.

AlCzerviksRide

October 16th, 2015 at 2:45 PM ^

Most of the Western yardage wasn't at garbage time.  Western was chucking the ball all over the field all game long.  They did have two good drives at the end of the game, but even those weren't exactly garbage time.  The Broncos had a chance to pull within 6 with 1:30 to go but threw a very, very bad endzone fade that was easily picked, and all of that was against MSU's first string with the conclusion still in doubt.

Similarly, Air Force gained their yardage during the game and not all at garbage time. Like Brian says, don't schedule Air Force.

Purdue was at garbage time, mostly.

ijohnb

October 16th, 2015 at 3:22 PM ^

it is completely the other way around.  This is a big game.  It is an important game.  But we could still lose this game, run the table and play in a New Years 6 game.  To me, this game is not the end all-be all.  You, on the other hand, have convinced yourself that there is no way we can lose this game out of intense fear of losing it because your narrative does not allow for it and it would mean that the earth would again be flat for another year.  State is actually in your head.  They are just really, really sneaky about it.

Glennsta

October 16th, 2015 at 5:31 PM ^

If you could look at the two teams' performances this year and put aside the expectations, we have looked and played better.  That gives me and others confidence.

Can we still lose?  Sure, but not based on what we have seen from these two teams this year.

BornInAA

October 16th, 2015 at 2:04 PM ^

27-10 Michigan

Cook / Bubridge connect on some perfect passes 1st half, 10-10 the score, then MSU OL fades in 2nd half to our deep DL and we score 17 unanswered 

 

 

jmdblue

October 16th, 2015 at 2:06 PM ^

earlier today are actually similar to Brian's 

1) Rudock is actually 2 for 4 going deep with our WRs able to get open deep on the regular

2) Connor Cook is extremely frustrated and sore by the end of the day having dealt with good coverage and several body blows

3) Dantonio is clearly emotional by the end of the game and does/says something odd/stupid/controversial by the end of the postgame pressers.

M 24-10