|WHAT||Michigan vs Michigan State|
East Lansing, MI
|THE LINE||Michigan –7|
|WEATHER||cloudy, high 40s
15 mph winds
I could say a bunch of stuff here or I could just embed this chart, which would be a very on-brand thing to do:
Now, the Harbaugh bits of this are benign—at least as they relate to expectations moving forward. The last three years have featured a fumbled punt, MSU's Defeat With Dignity fourth quarter, and John O'Korn and his five turnovers immediately after his fool's gold Purdue game. This does not constitute a pattern. Last year's game saw MSU receive 24 points of turnover luck in a four-point win. MSU has not had the giant tactical advantages they had when Brady Hoke was squinting from the sideline. Vegas has vastly more data on Michigan's quarterback, and the weather…
Of course I would look up the weather for Saturday. As if you even needed to look. pic.twitter.com/R9IPgEaV2y
— David Nasternak (@NastyIsland) October 16, 2018
[Hit THE JUMP for THE USUAL, ON ONE SIDE OF THE BALL]
Run Offense vs MSU
silly walks [Eric Upchurch]
The good half of Michigan State's bizarre defense. MSU has asphyxiated all comers en route to the #1 rush efficiency defense in the nation. The lone exception was last week when Miles Sanders ripped off two giant runs. The first was a passing down situation where MSU vacated the box and someone busted; the second was a weaving, six-broken-tackle kind of thing. The rest of the season, uh:
|@ Arizona St.||29||44||1.5|
|@ 18 Penn St.||32||205||6.4|
Now, these are the #126, #107, #105, #93, #71, and #27 rush efficiency teams in the country. Penn State is the outlier, the only non-abominable opponent in S&P+. Michigan is 37th. Penn State was able to manage a slightly-above-average 2.6 line yards per carry in addition to busting the two long runs; MSU managed just one TFL. That's the only vaguely comparable unit to Michigan on the MSU schedule and they were competent-ish even if you discount the big runs. MSU run D is mostly real, but it's not Alabama.
It starts with the defensive tackles, who would start on the hypothetical Rivalry Roster Mashup everyone always does. Seth:
The tackles are both excellent. Raequan Williams was the lone bright spot of 2016 and has now reached most of his ceiling as an unblockable freak messing up everything you want to do in the middle. He doesn't get a lot of penetration, and he's not an immobile planet. He's perfect for zone defense because he just won't leave his gap and won't let you have any space in your next one.
The other guy is a Panasuik who has a fair few Ryan Glasgow moments a game.
From there it's the usual: 4-3 over approach, super aggressive linebackers, a lot of early down run blitzing.
If there is a weak point in the front seven it's the other Panasuik, who's a 250-pound defensive end. Kenny Willekes is a very good player but also checks in around 260; there's no true anchor end here and whoever gets put on the TE side is going to be asked to hold up against those down-G doubles. Maybe that happens; maybe Michigan State is able to fling linebackers over the top. That will open other things up… but with MSU's line far better at preventing gaps on stretch blocking those things might be in the air.
Michigan should test things here if they find themselves in favorable situations early—say second and three after a hitch. MSU's been given a free pass most of this year and might end up being more permeable than the numbers suggest, especially if Michigan is able to continue optioning off defenders with their QB run game. MSU safeties are not nearly as gung-ho about tackling guys one yard downfield these days, and playing off limits the corner blitz games Maryland was able to play.
If they're getting ripped up by the DTs, then bail and run all those RPOs that must be lurking in there somewhere.
KEY MATCHUP: CESAR RUIZ vs RAEQUAN WILLIAMS. Ruiz has been grading out very well and gets his stiffest test of the year here. If he can neutralize Williams, a world of possibilities open up. When MSU ILBs make tackles those are a fair bit downfield (Bachie is at 5.3). Williams has 18 tackles, 8 of them stuffs, and opponents average 0.4 yards when he tackles. He's legit.
Pass Offense vs MSU
The bad half of Michigan State's bizarre defense. MSU has backed away from the maniacally aggressive quarters approach they had under Narduzzi, in part because teams like Baylor showed how to eviscerate it and in part because the secondary talent can no longer be relied upon as heavily as previous units. Seth:
Both of last year's starting cornerbacks against Michigan are injured. Field CB Josiah Scott is out for the season, but CB Josh Butler is listed as questionable and could return to the rotation this week. Boundary CB Justin Layne, a 6-3 converted receiver, passed both of them last year—he's a superb tackler, but plays too far off and gives up the most completions of anybody on the team by some margin. In Butler's absence they've been running out sophomore DB Tre Person, who's listed as a safety and kind of plays like one despite being very corner-sized.
MSU is highly aggressive on standard downs, with an almost 50% blitz rate, but backs off on passing downs. The combination of a lot of linebackers run-blitzing with the conservative nature of the MSU cornerbacks leads to a lot of completions that are stunningly uncontested if you, say, have seen a lot of Michigan State games over the past decade and happen to flip to MSU-Utah State for the season-opening Friday game they always play. These happen largely on standard downs. Once you get into long yardage they usually rush four and play cover three, well.
The results have been the inverse of MSU's run D: they're outright bad at stopping short stuff (77th in efficiency, 111th in completion rate allowed) and don't MAKE PLAYS (88th in sack rate, 89th in DB havoc rate). They are very good at preventing big plays (13th) and efficient (18th) when the opposition is stuck in a passing down.
Michigan's mandate is clear: take what they're giving you and stay ahead of the chains. Shea Patterson's had issues poking holes in zones in two of the last three games, especially when the opposition doesn't blitz and drops seven or eight. This is MSU's approach already; they don't have to adapt anything. Patterson is also super-accurate and should be able to find guys when MSU steps up on run action or just blitzes because it's a standard down.
MSU's only pass rusher of note is Kenny Willekes, who's got five sacks on the year. They've gotten scattered contributions from linebackers and safeties and the like, and there's always the chance that a blitz gets through. For organically-generated consistent rush, it's Willekes or nothing. Michigan's tackles have improved radically from the opener; every defensive end with a pulse continues to get an owlish glance around these parts.
Michigan should have a bunch of quick routes that take advantage of the presumption of soft zone, and if they're ever going to RPO a team to death this looks like a good one to try it against. Patterson can make this a comfortable win if it's the Maryland version looking into big gaps because it's a standard down.
KEY MATCHUP: SHEA PATTERSON and PEP HAMILTON vs ZONE COVERAGE. Neither guy had a great outing against Wisconsin; this should be a game for some relatively simple curl/flat stuff as MSU tries to compensate for iffy secondary talent. Once they get annoyed about that and slide to it, bang over the top.
Run Defense vs MSU
MSU's most efficient runner [Fuller]
This should be a blowout in Michigan's favor. MSU's rushing offense is appalling, 82nd or worse in the four major S&P+ drill-down stats and 118th in efficiency. None of MSU's three main backs cracks four yards a carry despite a schedule still heavy on early-season cupcakes. Brian Lewerke is MSU's best running threat by a full yard at 4.8 yards a pop. Despite some difficulties against Wisconsin, Michigan checks in 14th in rush D efficiency and is 16th at worst in all the drop-down stats. After five weeks PFF graded the Big Ten offensive lines; MSU game in 13th because their team run-blocking grade was 49. That is a 2017 Juwann Bushell-Beatty pass protection grade.
This looks like a pending massacre. The "should" barely has to be explained: MSU has set aside an absurd amount of practice time dedicated to attacking Michigan and will have various plays they have not put on film that may get guys in the wrong spot for big chunks.
Even if that is the case it seems unlikely that Michigan will suffer those slings and arrows at the hands of the running backs, who have combined to average about two yards a pop when given a "highlight opportunity." This is a crew of bruisers. Conor Heyward is immediately identifiable as the son of Craig "Ironhead" Heyward as soon as he takes his first carry. Freshman La'Darius Jefferson in the same mold; as a generic three star already carrying 223 as a true freshman he brings the oomph and the general lack of agility you'd expect.
LJ Scott is the highest-upside guy on the roster but his senior season has mostly been a Malik McDowell production spent suiting up and watching. He picked up an ankle injury about a month ago. (Also more driving violations.) Scott might muster the impetus to play in the big rivalry game, and he does bring more danger to the field than other available options. Scott was about a yard per carry better than the departed Madre London and Gerald Holmes over the past couple years. He's probably a yard per carry better than the current starting platoon.
MSU's OL has been unable to move people all year; meanwhile Carlo Kemp and Bryan Mone have been solid to good against teams other than Wisconsin. MSU RBs don't break big plays. It would behoove MSU to try and figure out if they can attack guys other than Michigan's front seven, as Wisconsin and Maryland did with a bit of success over the past couple weeks. You can't build an offense around end-arounds or jet sweeps, but you can get some chunks. Hard to see how MSU gets rushing yards at a rate of more than three yards an attempt otherwise.
The potential exception to this is Lewerke, who has the advantage of making things 11 v 11. He's been averaging around 6 non-sack carries per game, often in critical third and short-to-medium spots. MSU's still checking to speed option whenever defenses get too complacent with their alignments on third and five. MSU won't hold back on his carries in this game, and 11 v 11 is better than 11 v 10.
KEY MATCHUP: DON BROWN vs A WHOLE NEW OFFENSE. It'll be a script and Michigan will have to adjust as soon as possible.
Pass Defense vs MSU
thunderdome 2 [Upchurch]
Do you remember the epic Aaron Burbridge-Jourdan Lewis battle of a few years ago? This will be that unless Michigan State gets some guys back. Cody White broke his hand a couple weeks ago; Darrell Stewart suffered an ankle injury against Northwestern and has been out two of the last three weeks; Cam Chambers is playing with a Massaquoi-esque club.
Stewart might get back. Even if he does, MSU's options are limited. Brandon Sowards is a walk-on slot type; Laress Nelson is the very short scholarship version. Put those guys against even Michigan's sometimes iffy safety coverage and it's not going to go that well.
The last man standing is the spectacularly-coiffed Felton Davis III, a 6'4" wide receiver who plays exactly like a 6'4" WR should play. Davis caught MSU's winning touchdown last week in the fashion you would expect from an ambulatory jump ball magnet. He also saved MSU's butt against Utah State:
After MSU's script runs out their best idea is likely to be "maybe Davis can catch this ball despite having a Michigan CB inside his soul." This is not the worst idea. It's also not the best. Davis's catch rate of 55% speaks to the difficult positions he's put in. A more harried quarterback and tighter coverage should yield a bit less than that. This attempted matchup hype item from PFF college falls a wee bit flat once you get to the bottom row:
Felton Davis vs Lavert Hill – who you giving the edge to when they match up against one another? pic.twitter.com/ok63PAO0CD
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 19, 2018
Davis is going to get a few jump balls because he'll get 15 targets; Michigan will strive to make shots to him inefficient, as Lewis did in 2015 when Burbridge entered the game averaging ten yards a target and managed 5.8 on a whopping 19. Davis is at 8.4 currently.
What about the slants and various items against safeties? They might be attempted, but MSU doesn't seem to have the guys to take advantage on a consistent basis. Sowards has caught just 9 of 20 targets this year. Top TE Matt Sokol has four catches on 11 targets and has struggled in most aspects of the game.
Meanwhile, MSU's offensive line has been a bit better at preventing QB pressures but is distinctly average both in sack rate allowed (57th) and PFF's grading (7th in the Big Ten). Michigan's sack rate is fifth in the country and this is a game where Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are relatively more free to attack than they were when put on slant patrol vs Wisconsin.
Brian Lewerke is not Alex Hornibrook when it comes to tight windows. He alternates between impressive darts, balls to Tacopants, and inadvisable throws. PSU had an incredible 16 PBUs last week, including a game-winning interception in a DB's chest that then came out. He's good-ish, but his 8:7 TD:INT ratio is not a fluke and probably should be worse.
MSU does have two completions from non-QBs this year. The second of them was a 36-yard fade from Heyward that was shockingly on point. FWIW.
KEY MATCHUP: THE FULLBACK vs COVER THE FULLBACK OUT OF THE BACKFIELD NO MATTER HOW MUCH FRIPPERY IS GOING ON. Please and thank you.
Sophomore kicker Matt Coughlin is 8 of 8 on the year and 10th in net points per field goal, so his average attempt has been reasonably far out. Their kickoff guy is only getting touchbacks about half the time.
MSU's starting punter suffered a season-ending injury early; his replacement is Tyler Hunt, and he's been awful. MSU is 122nd in punt efficiency even with 6 Hartbarger punts propping things up; Hunt averages under 40 yards a kick and has still given up nine returns on 25 punts. 35 net yards a punt is 7 worse than Michigan; an average exchange here will be beneficial even before return units are considered. Sowards is the main guy after White's injury; he has six returns for 8 yards each. Nelson, White, and Stewart all took turns last year, averaging about 4 yards a pop between them. Donovan Peoples-Jones has a touchdown this year to pair with his return from last year.
MSU has not done anything on kickoffs. Heyward is the primary returner, which seems an exceptionally odd choice. Heyward's long speed is nil. They have not suffered a long return themselves.
MSU used a fake punt (very successful) and fake field goal (very unsuccessful) against PSU. Michigan is probably better off in FG safe for much of the game; the punt equation is much more difficult.
KEY MATCHUP: AHHHH YOU PUT IT THROUGH THE UPRIGHTS
- Michigan's running without success and getting put in passing downs.
- MSU invents a whole new way to football on their first offensive drive.
- MSU gets another three touchdowns of turnover luck.
Cackle with knowing glee if…
- MSU runs any sort of base rushing play.
- DPJ catches a 40 yard line drive punt on the run.
- Patterson is dialed in on a bunch of short zone-beaters on standard downs.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 9 (Baseline: 5; +1 for That Chart Above, +1 for MSU Weather Garbage Juju, –1 for Not Being Able To Pass Is Probably Worse For MSU, +1 for MSU Turnover Garbage Juju, +1 for Scriptz, +1 for Pure Irrationality, +1 for RESPEKT, –1 for This Is Actually A Bad MSU Team With A Bad OL And A Bad Secondary And No Ability To Punt)
Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline: 5; +1 for Mark Dantonio Gets A Free Pass For The Many Criminal Activities He Tolerates, +1 for John Engler, +1 for Taaaaaakes, +1 for League Game, Smoke, +1 for Michigan State University Is A Failed Institution That Is Largely Failed Because Their Entire Leadership Level Cares About Beating Michigan More Than Anything Else, They Are The Perpetual Little Brother And That Attitude Hurt Many, Many People Badly).
Loss will cause me to… sigh expansively and melt into whatever surface I'm sitting on, never to be seen again.
Win will cause me to… post Mo Wagner gifs?
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Well, folks. This game pits one very good aspect of MSU's team—their run defense—against a Michigan run game that might be a step or two behind but is pretty good. Everything else looks like a ridiculous blowout per the stats and eye test: MSU has a QB lucky to not have a negative TD-INT ratio, a flailing offensive line, a soft secondary that lets you have whatever you want underneath, a broken punter.
Michigan has the #1 S&P+ defense in the country, with a weak point (DT) that MSU is deeply unlikely to be able to exploit. Shea Patterson's had some hiccups but still has the profile of the kind of QB that's given MSU the business. This shouldn't be that close unless MSU is 4 turnovers better than what they should be, like they were against PSU, like they were against Michigan last year.
Well, screw it, I don't believe in ghosts, and don't believe Harbaugh's been behind tactically against MSU. Spectacularly unlucky, sure.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan wins the turnover battle.
- Karan Higdon's ground production isn't great but is above 4 YPC as Michigan State's run defense turns out to be a wee bit of a mirage.
- Michigan, 27-11.