Vicious Electronic Questioning: Michigan State Comment Count

Ace October 31st, 2013 at 10:15 AM

Gentleman, scholar, walrus.

With the Michigan State game just a few days away, you should all be familiar with the excellent blog The Only Colors—if you're frequenting, say, the RCMB instead of reading their content, you're not doing yourself any favors. I asked TOC's Heck Dorland (posts feed/Twitter) to do a scheme-centric Q&A and he went above and beyond with his responses; what follows is a remarkably in-depth look at how State operates on both sides of the ball and what it means for this weekend.

With the notable exception of the Purdue game, it appears that the offense has moved from complete incompetence to something resembling average. Have there been any significant schematic changes or is the improvement more a product of finding the right personnel?

I'd love to say that this happened:

*Dave Warner blows the dust and cobwebs off an old scroll and unfurls it*

“Uh, does anyone in here read... um...”

“That's Hurrian,” says a voice.

*everyone turns to look at Jim Bollman*

“Uhhhhh, how-”

“What? I've been an 'Offensive Coordinator' who's not allowed to call plays for like, a decade now. What do you think I'm doing up there, calling my own plays and then comparing them one-by-one to Dave's plays, slowly nourishing a grudge with every play that I out-coordinate him? Hell no, I've spent the last two weeks polishing up the rough edges in my Aramaic. Anyways, it says something about six verts and a deadly curse...”

But that story would be an lie, as six verts is highly illegal. What mostly happened is the latter guess, MSU's guys either got better or got replaced by better guys behind them as this season has wore on.

A corner/go combo route; on this one, the go was obviously open.

If I had to identify a specific X's and O's change, I'd say most significant is how MSU has evolved to deal with man to man and one high safety/eight man box looks that tormented them in weeks one and two. This year MSU's passing game has been noticeably more willing to run various 'combo routes' (curl/corner, corner/post, corner/go etc.) against man-to-man than previous coordinators Roushar and Treadwell. Particularly effective vs these one high/man-to-man looks have been corner/go where MSU causes the CB to vacate on the go route and hit usually a tight end on the corner route towards the vacated space 15-20 down the sideline and corner/post where the outside receiver and slot receiver will mesh with the goal of freeing up the post over the middle, again, about 20-25 yards down-field. If you look at MSU's highlight reels since the YSU game, most of the big passing plays are coming against 8 man fronts, which was not true against WMU and USF.

[For the rest of the Q&A, hit THE JUMP. You should really, really read this.]

In that vein, what play (or play+constraint) has proven to be most effective in getting the offense to move the ball?

So right off the top, it's a more run focused offense than typical Dantonio ball this year, even if many particulars are still the same. The base play that has paced the offense with many a five yard gain on first down is still the ubiquitous power run, both under center and out of the shotgun. MSU will line up with a TE and a fullback (Trevon Pendleton, our FB, has been pleasantly excellent) and run this out of the I-form all day if you let them. Michigan State's offensive line is, to a man, mobile and their pulling players have done a good job of getting to the hole before Langford. They'll pull multiple blockers on occasion.

Garbage time vs. Illinois, sure, but this is a great block by Pendleton (#37) as well as a nice pull by left guard Connor Kruse (#54).

The other base play seems to be iso/dive stuff through the A and B gaps, with and without a lead blocker, as well as a decent amount of off-tackle stuff, again typically with man-to-man blocking schemes and with or without a two man backfield.

If you key too hard on this power game between the tackles MSU will throw some shotgun option looks at you, with the distribution being about 80% inverted veer (sometimes with WR R.J. Shelton sweeping across the backfield to present a triple option look, though I haven't seen MSU actually utilize the 'declined inverted veer hand off option' with Cook and Shelton yet), about 10% 'traditional' read option (Cook going outside and Langford inside doesn't play to their strengths as much as vice-versa) and about 10% speed option. Like Michigan, sometimes they actually read the play-side DE and sometimes they just block him, typically with a pulling guard. Most of Cook's runs seem to come off reads and not designed runs.

Finally, MSU still runs inside and outside zone runs as a change of pace, though much less it seems than they did last year. Tosses and sweeps to the RB have been rare, maybe even nonexistent this season. Outside runs come from the inverted veer, speed options, WR handoffs, or traditional off tackle stuff.

As far as constraint plays, they *try* to run bubble and RB screens against overloaded boxes and probable blitzes, they really do, but, bless their hearts, they aren't very good at actually pulling them off. Their more reliable constraint play to teams over-adjusted to inside runs is a motioned sweep to Shelton or another wide receiver.

The real moneymaker constraint-wise has been deep/intermediate play-action passing which is responsible for nearly all of MSU's big gains in the passing game.

As far as the overall passing game, they run *a lot* of shallow stuff, with plenty of picks on defenders going on underneath. Cross, drag, outside hitches and curls, inside snags and stick routes, you'll get to know these. Deep stuff is basically the post/corner/go/fade quartet with some clear 'choice route' stuff going on with inside receivers depending on what the safety does, often ran out of three or four verts.

How do you see MSU attacking Michigan's defense? Is there a personnel matchup that you think bodes particularly well (or poorly) for the Spartans?

Part I

I actually like this overall match-up for MSU as it stands today. The nightmare scenario for MSU is a defense like, well, MSU's, that can commit eight players to stop the run without getting burned in the passing game, that plays a lot of press man-to-man, and that blitzes a lot. What I've comparatively seen from Michigan is a team that plays a lot of bend don't break zone, that doesn't blitz a ton apart from 3rd downs, and that leaves two high safeties the great majority of the time. MSU is willing, maybe even eager to take four or five yards at a time this year, whether through run or pass, and Michigan seems willing to give opponents four or five yards at a time this year, out of the belief that eventually they'll make a mistake. But so far, MSU's offense doesn't really make mistakes (just six turnovers, 3 INTs and 3 fumbles, by the offense in 8 games so far). In short, Mattison might just let MSU do what it kinda wants to do. We'll see.

I expect MSU to come out and pound the rock on first down (MSU runs the ball on 74.3% of first downs, 2nd highest rate in the Big Ten) and throw the ball on third down (their 32.6% run percentage on 3rd down is third lowest in the Big Ten). As for second down? Well, the team is balanced on second down and honestly just uses second down to get to third and short, anyways. If Mattison sticks to form, you'll see MSU commit plenty of three and outs, or six and outs, or nine and outs, but eventually they'll probably grind down the field on a couple of 13 play-ish, 70 yard-ish drives for points.

Part II

As far as personnel match-ups, I'm going to be honest with you here, I can't answer this question clearly and here's why: I've looked over this Michigan defense pretty hard the past couple days, and I'm not sure if they are either A. really good or B. totally average (but I'm near positive it's one or the other) and furthermore, I'm not totally sure why they are either 'really good' or 'average', whichever of those they truly are. Makes sense?

Let me explain a bit:

Michigan is currently t-14th in interceptions nationally and t-77th in pass break-ups nationally. They pick off basically one out of every three passes they get their hands on, a very high rate, and, specifically, their starting four defensive backs have picked off 10 out of the 23 passes that they've gotten their hands on. A 43.5% interception percentage on defended passes is insane (MSU's starting defensive backs for example have picked off 26.1% of the passes they defend). Now, is UM's secondary intercepting nearly one out of two passes because they're ravenous ballhawks who I should be terrified of, or are they just getting lucky? I'm not sure.

Another example: the general stats say Michigan's run defense is stouter than a brick shithouse. Top ten in runs conceded of 10 or more yards. One rushing play allowed of 20 yards or more, 2nd nationally. Top ten nationally in YPC. Top ten nationally in rushing touchdowns against.

But looking at the cross-tabs so to speak, against our nation's 41st, 45th and 79th ranked teams in YPC that defense allowed 4.2 yards per carry, a below average number. And against our nation's 98th, 100th, 102nd and 124th rushing offenses (by YPC) Michigan gives up 2.38 yards per carry, a goddamn great number.

So, and you guys watch all of Michigan's games and drives, you probably have a better answer to this than I do, is the Michigan run defense going to play down to their competition again this weekend, or not? Again, I'm not sure.

Is there a player who isn't getting a lot of press (this could be just about anyone on MSU's offense) who you think could have a major impact on the outcome of this game?

I'm going to say tight end Josiah Price, who leads the team in yards per catch, just caught his first TD pass this last week, and throws a pretty mean block as well. Unlike TEs Dennis and Gleichert (who can block, but can't catch) and Lyles (who can catch, but can't block), Price has shown the ability to do both those things well (4 catches for 86 yards the last three weeks), which is crucial to those mid-drive switches from single back to five wide to I-form that are key to a good multiple offense. I've also feel like I've read Michigan's linebackers can struggle in coverage, so it'll be interesting to see if he can work the spaces over the middle and in the flats against the Wolverines.

Flipping to the other side of the ball ... I'm scared, frankly. In as much depth as you feel like going into, what makes the Spartan defense so damn good?

I think it ultimately comes down to three things:

A. Everyone basically knows what exactly they're doing and if they don't, someone will correct them pre-snap.

This seems to be the prime positive that Mattison and staff brought to the UM defense, so you guys should be able to especially appreciate the importance of this.

This MSU defense features eight 'true' returning starters (Rush, Reynolds, Bullough, Dennard, Lewis, Allen, Drummond, and Jones), and another two players who saw significant time in MSU's 3-3-5 3rd down package last year (Hoover, Calhoun). If you're counting along, that leaves only CB Trae Waynes as the relatively inexperienced starter, and even he had a few spot starts last year. He also plays field corner, which is an easy to learn, if hard to master, position in the Dantonio/Narduzzi scheme (MSU's frequent corner blitzes, for example, are always from the boundary side).

The point of listing out those facts is that this is a very experienced, connected group, who themselves take their keys from Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis, two three-year starters, who have the scheme down cold. They have checks for your checks. They fill run gaps. They don't allow yards after the catch. They swarm to the ball. They don't over-pursue. They are sound, they work together, they kill.

B. They learn as the game goes on and adapt

I cannot tell you how many times in the last three years I've watched an opposing offense go for 50, 60, 70 yards on their first drive, kick a field goal, score a touchdown, flip field position, whatever, and then absolutely get downloaded by this defense. It happened just this last weekend at Illinois. Sometimes it takes more than one drive, some days it takes a half of football or so. But I, for example, watched Purdue experience some early success throwing little 12-15 yard out patterns beneath MSU's retreating zone cornerback on two third downs in quick succession to keep drives alive, and then the third time Purdue tried it, not only was the corner right there in man coverage, but there too was safety Isaiah Lewis flashing in front of the receiver and nearly collecting a pick-six. Stuff like that is a joy to watch.

C. The things that should work against cover-4 don't.

The first thing people tell you to do against cover-4 defense [Ed-Ace: 11W has a nice primer on this scheme] is attack the short perimeter with your passing game. Once upon a time (2009, sorta 2010) this was good advice. But because MSU nowadays plays so much press coverage, their CBs, safeties, and OLBs viciously patrol the flats and will terminate with extreme prejudice the vast majority of straight up bubble screens, flash screens or swing passes. It helps that they rarely miss tackles.

The second thing people tell you to do is attack the corners out on their islands on the sidelines. But because Dantonio and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett train those dudes like the Dark Lord Saban himself, they are basically always in fantastic position, meaning QBs have to throw into these impossible windows between the CB and the sideline 25 yards down-field. Kelly tried this and Rees went like, 1/7 for 30 yards and two near INTs before getting bailed out by 2-3 uh, questionable, PI flags. This strategy worked for ND because Southhhhhh Bennnnddddddd, but I wouldn't count on it as a rule, first because refs generally let MSU's corners play pretty physical because they also turn around and play the ball, and also because Dantonio works the refs pretty well on this particular issue.

Bonus: So what does work?

A. Attack the intermediate and deep middle of the field.

Every once in a while MSU's CBs or LBs will hand off a WR to a deeper safety who either isn't on the same page, or is, in fact, not there at all. When you see MSU truly bust a coverage and they will a handful of times a game, whether or not the QB actually sees it, it is nearly always the deep middle of the field and due to a lack of communication between the two safeties or a CB and a S.

Additionally Allen, Bullough, and Jones, the LB trio are not bad in pass coverage, but each would prefer to be attacking downhill. Get them isolated in the middle of the field on a pass catching target, or fill the space they vacate when blitzing and there's a relative advantage you can press.

B. Run a good screen

Again, the really simple, standard, stuff results in a TFL often as not, but Kevin Wilson, master of the tricksy screen play, has burnt MSU as crispy as anyone with some nicely designed screens. Because MSU is so blitz heavy, anything that lets everyone get up field for a couple seconds and then puts the ball behind them can work well.

C. Misdirection and option runs

Throw back screens, sprint counter draws, speed options, and the 'Taylor Martinez piloted inverted veer but like, no one else's zone read or inverted veer, goddamn you Taylor Martinez, how are you so fast?' have all worked great at various times over the past to seasons. Getting to the edge is a tough task on this defense but once in a while, you can get everyone screaming the wrong way and cut the play back to great effect. It's worth noting on this subject that Calhoun's biggest improvement over the off-season, as well as his biggest upgrade over Gholston, has been in keeping contain. But then, no one's tested them with as much inverted veer as Michigan probably will, so who knows?

D. Don't give up on the run in general

No, you're probably not going to get four, much less five, yards a carry. But if you abandon the run, as lots of teams do eventually, MSU is going to point a microwave of overloads, stunts, and zone blitzes your direction and your offense will melt. Even if it feels dumb watching your running back struggle for 2 or 3 yards on first down, realize that carry might actually be the difference between Lewis or Drummond being near the line of scrimmage and not being there to double team next time your QB targets a deep route.

E. Play fast. Really fast.

Don't give MSU time to figure you out. The worst thing you can do is let Bullough and Lewis sit there and set everyone up jussssst so, and then let MSU decode your snap count because you got so caught up in the audible game that's there's two seconds left on the play-clock. If you reel off a big play get back to the line and run something else, quick. Indiana and Iowa had their best moments, the only times when the MSU defense looked truly mortal, basically, when they rapidly chained plays together and put MSU back on their heels. [Ed-Ace: *sigh*]

F. All praise aside, they do still **** up just like everybody else

Rush (#44, DE on bottom of screen) can't give up the inside so easily given MSU's alignment; Taiwan Jones (#34, over the slot) is there to help outside.

Against Iowa, Allen took a bad angle on a swing pass and didn't force the runner outside towards the sideline. The RB ran right past him and everyone else for a 40+ yard TD. Against Indiana, Rush didn't fill a run gap like he was supposed to and the RB ran right through the center of the defense for a 60+ yard TD. They're really good, but mistakes happen, and so when they do, take advantage of them and get the ball into the end-zone.

What makes the double A-gap blitz so successful, and how does MSU use the threat of that play to confuse opposing offenses?

You may remember this blitz from such plays as DOOOOOOOOM

Ah, this blitz should be a real good time if what I've read about the interior of the Michigan line all year is correct. Long answer here. Short answer:

  • It's fast, faster than bringing blitzers off the edge just by basic mathematical principles.
  • Because it attacks the center and a noisy Spartan Stadium often necessitates a silent count and more time to relay adjustments, the offense doesn't always have time to identify the blitz before it happens.
  • It demands communication between center and the two guards to each pick up a man in the middle of the blitz. Failing that, the RB needs to make a tough head-on block.
  • MSU will stunt and delay and cross all sorts of blitzers making the above inside blocking assignments harder still.
  • A robber safety is empowered to break on many of the standard hot routes a QB will throw under pressure.
  • Finally, MSU will run it over and over and over again if it feels like it, and eventually the repetitions can cause teams to abandon inside runs, throw more blockers at the problem, have the QB's eyes to drop down towards the line on passes, or eventually the pressure starts getting home.

Basically it's a dictation tool. Double A gaps is the dog whistle that Narduzzi uses to train opposing offenses to do the shit he wants them to do, like stop taking long pass drops and start running towards the sidelines. Coincidentally, because his team is fast and usually in the right position, quick passing games and runs to the edge don't bother him or his defense.

Who's the unsung hero of the defense?

Is it cliché and a 'hey look how much I like, *know* football, bro' thing to say the defensive tackles are the unsung hero? It is, isn't it? And is it cheating to name four dudes as under the radar when you asked for one? Welp. Hoover, Reynolds, Knox, and Scarpinato provide decent disruption (7.5 TFLs between them) from the inside, but, more importantly, absorb blocks to keep the LBs clean to run around and plunder the backfield (17.5 TFLs for Bullough, Allen, Jones). Everyone else on the defense is probably properly sung.

Same questions as the offense: what do you expect the game plan to be to slow down Michigan, and are there any personnel matchups that you're especially confident and/or worried about?

Part I

The MSU defense will do what it does. 4-3 with seven in the box on first and second down, 3-3-5 with six in the box on 3rd down. Honestly, the only guy who has really gotten Narduzzi out of his standard gameplan is Wilson at Indiana, who actually forced MSU to walk its OLB all the way out over the slot receiver in a sort of nickel look to stop all of his screen games. That's a big compliment to that dude.

Part II

Gallon, a receiver who can truly stamp his presence on a game, is obviously terrifying. He and Gardner are the easy answer to this question, but then, they're the only answer. Gardner standing in the pocket for four seconds (a hush-hush secret is that MSU's standard four man rush is nothing special), getting pressured from the inside and then rolling out behind Lewan for four more seconds, then finding Gallon wide open 50 yards down field is a goddamn nightmare and it's going to happen at least once. And then, Gallon and Funchess clearing out a bunch of open field for Gardner to scramble into is obviously the other major concern. When the going gets tough, basically one of two things will happen: Michigan will either run this two-man game between Gallon and Gardner (see: Indiana) with other guys like Funchess, Chesson, and Dileo floating around the field, which is going to be a big pain in the ass, or Borges is going to try and force Toussaint and Gardner in a standard shotgun/under center run game (see: Penn State) in which case, well, I hope he does that.

Care to put forth a prediction?

Oh, with the caveat that I am a dreadful 'guess the score' predictor, I will say, a 24-17 MSU final that is more comfortable for MSU than that score might indicate.

I can't thank Heck enough for providing such an informative look at MSU. Again, make sure to check out his posts (and the rest of the fine work at TOC) and follow him on Twitter.



October 31st, 2013 at 10:43 AM ^

As much as I appreciate the detailed game analysis this does echo the feeling that Sparty expects to win this game, and handily. It seems they like their o-line vs out d-line and their entire d against out offense.


October 31st, 2013 at 10:51 AM ^

and I sure hope your prediction is incorrect. I do believe Michigan needs 34 to win. Let the passing game bloom, roll the pocket, throw the screens, etc. I will be happy to see maximum effort, creative offense, and Cook on his back.


October 31st, 2013 at 10:52 AM ^

Defense wiins championships. They have the D, if they find enough offense  they are good to go. I think Michigan only wins this if we pressure the MSU QB. Make him make a few mistakes, otherwise I think their D is too much.



October 31st, 2013 at 11:04 AM ^

This was a great read Ace. I can honestly say I've never been to TOC site, never cared to. This guy sounds pretty intelligent and clearly puts in the effort maybe I will have to check it out. Thanks Ace and Mr. Heck that was very intriguing.

Space Coyote

October 31st, 2013 at 11:15 AM ^

Good writers over there. They obviously like their team, but they are far from extreme homers and keep it fairly objective. As far as scheme and things of that nature, Heck is a good person to read and discuss things with when it comes to MSU.

Oh, and they've had this guest writer that's a Michigan fan have some things posted over there from time to time as well. He's decent sometimes, but don't get him started on a rant.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:08 AM ^

Are we all scared of MSU? Obviously from the board there are quite a few in the same boat.  Is this supposed to make us numb to the feeling of a loss due to the importance of this game?   I for one say fuck that -- we will take our talent and match it against theirs and que sera sera. The team might win with style or they might give their best effort and lose. But I'm confident that Michigan can beat Michigan State and I'm sure as fuck not scared of them.

EDIT: it was a really good write-up, not taking anything away from that. Nice work, Ace and Staee guy.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:29 AM ^

The general feel of MGOBLOG this week along with ESPN and BTN is that Michigan has less of a chance of beating MSU than the 1980 US Hockey team had of beating the USSR. Everyone is grabbing their blankies and teddy bears and crawling under their beds for this one. Not me, Michigan wins this convincingly.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:10 AM ^

I think it was a good discussion, but I always take issue with the idea that MSU's offense has turned the corner. They've played three of the worst defenses in three conference/country, and struggled against one of them. They were fine against Iowa, but let's see them play a couple of competent defenses before we fall in love with their growth.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:37 AM ^

Purdue, Illinois, and Indiana are 86th, 109th, and 116th in defensive FEI respectively. They had over 400 yards against Iowa (55th), which looks pretty good, but on a down to down basis they were less impressive. They averaged 6.3 YPA and 3.7 YPC. Solid but unspectacular against an average defense. UM (11th FEI) will be the best D they've seen this year.

Now the defense, on the other hand, appears legit, handling a good offense in ND and two decent offenses in Iowa and Illinois, and they kept Indiana in check (relatively speaking).

Against both common opponents MSU's D looked better than UM's and UM's offense looked better than MSU's. Should be an interesting game.


October 31st, 2013 at 1:59 PM ^

If Gardner has a good day, we win for sure.  Even if he is only average, I think we win.  Mattison will come up with a plan that keeps MSU's offense out of the end zone, and our offense needs to keep MSU's defense out of the end zone.  If we can score 17 and keep our turnovers to 2 or less, we will win.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:11 AM ^

This was a good write-up and analysis. Thanks for posting!

I honestly don't know what to think about this game. It's one of those games where any possible outcome is possible. I could see a Michigan blowing MSU out or beating them in a close low scoring game. I can also see MSU blowing Michigan out or beating them 9-7. Nobody has any idea what the identity of this Michigan team is and that scares me. I wish I knew what to expect going into this game.

NOTE: I'm predicting a 20-13 win by Michigan.. but that is worth 0 Mgopoints for being insightful.. because it's merely a blind guess.

Yinka Double Dare

October 31st, 2013 at 11:16 AM ^

"sometimes with WR R.J. Shelton sweeping across the backfield to present a triple option look, though I haven't seen MSU actually utilize the 'declined inverted veer hand off option' with Cook and Shelton yet"

In other words, they're totally going to utilize that on Saturday, because if there's something they haven't done yet, they're probably going to bring it out for the Michigan game.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:26 AM ^

This is great great stuff. Going into this game I have that sickening feeling that MSU has the advantage but we're still more than capable of winning. I'm surprisingly more worried about our defense than anything else. I honestly don't understand why teams have been avoiding running at us. When I have seen teams do it on a drive consistently yeah sometimes we stop it for a short gain but other times we are giving up 4-5yards with more regularity than you would hope.

Teams playing us will often go 1st down run 4 yards, 2nd down run 4 yards, and be at 3rd and 2 and decide to  pass and we get off the field. I'm worried MSU will be the team to decide to keep running at us until we show for certain that we can stop it.


October 31st, 2013 at 11:33 AM ^

This was a great write up.  I honestly am suprised how many people are picking MSU, and most seem to think it won't be that close.  Maybe I am not putting enough stock in their win over Illinois (that seems to be the reason many think the MSU offense has turned a corner), but I think this is a very good matchup for the UM defense.  A commenter above said UM needs to score 34 to win, which he/she is certainly entitled to their opinion, but I completely disagree with that.  I think UM holds MSU below 300 yards of total offense and Devin Gardner (with help from Funchess and Gallon) is the difference.   UM - 28, MSU - 16


October 31st, 2013 at 11:54 AM ^

I just really think that it could shape out that our defense over their offense is a better match up than their defense over out offense. I know it sounds crazy but I've watched all of their games this year. Any defense with a pulse has really controlled them and then they get some lucky break. It happened in the Iowa game, even Illinois should have been up 10-7 at the half against them. I just hope we hold into the interceptions that cook will give us. The guy is shaky and we will be in positions to take advantage if this. The opening toss and a deferment is so important. It could win us the game putting them on the field first and getting a three and out or even a turnover. The crowd will quit, we all know that. We just need a few plays and they'll remember. They still know, just make them remember.


October 31st, 2013 at 12:09 PM ^

I think our D is somewhere closer to good than average and I think MSU's offensive resurgence is a bit over-exaggerated at this point. However, I fully expect MSU's defense to make our lives miserable again. Turnovers will probably be the reason for winning or losing because I bet it's going to be like a 16-14 game


October 31st, 2013 at 12:16 PM ^

don't get why everyone is conceding just yet. And I think we need Mattison to come up with some superior play-calling every bit as much as we need Borges to do so. With regard to MSU dinking and dunking:

"In short, Mattison might just let MSU do what it kinda wants to do. We'll see."

If our offense tends to strike fast this could also play into their hands, with our D on the field for a long, teeth-grinding day. We will need some demoralizing early stops to jar them from their game plan. 


October 31st, 2013 at 12:29 PM ^

Sometimes I dream about Hoke breaking out the NASCAR offense for a drive to totally throw the defense off balance.

A dream, as I said.


Some qualitative thoughts:

Michigan State's defense is obviously very good, but if you look at the offenses they play against, most are consistently ranked in the 90s or worse in all of FBS.  The two best offenses they've faced are ND and Indiana, and even Notre Dame hovers around the 70s in FBS.  Indiana's offense is, generally speaking, a top 15 unit--but because they rely so much on the pass that makes them easier to defend.

Not only will Michigan's offense be (arguably) the best they've faced, Michigan's defense is--despite a pervading 'bend-don't-break' style--better than WMU, USF, YSU, Indiana, Purdue, or Illinois. 

I'm not sure what to make of MSU's offense yet, they've had two good showings (YSU as an FCS team notwithstanding) against Indiana (horrible defense) and Illinois (also horrible defense).

Wolverine 73

October 31st, 2013 at 12:22 PM ^

But I will be surprised if MSU scores 24--unless we are turning the ball over repeatedly.  I am not buying the idea that the MSU offense is very good overall; their recent offensive success seems to be owing to the competition.  Michigan will present a greater defensive challenge than Indiana or Illinois.


October 31st, 2013 at 2:06 PM ^

Don't think MSU gets more than 14 points.  Our offense is better than Indiana or ND, and our defense is at least on a par with ND.  This looks like a very winnable game for us.  We should put up 20+, just like Indiana did, and our D should be able to hold MSU to about the same output as it got against ND.  Having Jake Ryan back at full strength for the first time this season is going to be a big boost for our D!!!


October 31st, 2013 at 12:23 PM ^

I think TOC is right that Gallon will make a big play or two. He just has a knack for getting himself open in the deep field against any honest coverage, and with Funchess roaming around out there it will be tough for State to cheat on Gallon. And as long as Borges unleashes him a few times, Gardner will get some decent yards on the ground.

So M's O will work in fits and starts - I'm guessing for between 17-24 points. But State's D is too good to allow sustained success by a team with Michigan's woeful RB run game.

Which leaves our defense - if we can keep State out of the end zone, I think we win, period. And I think we're capable of that - State has had some success of late but they also laid an egg against Purdue and were mediocre against Iowa. I think we can be at least that good.

So Michigan wins this game if the D limits the Spartan offense on "normal" possessions and we limit turnovers to one or two. We lose if we give up more than one "freebie" touchdown (big play and/or pick six) and Gardner can't connect on the big play opportunities he'll probably have a few of.

Ron Utah

October 31st, 2013 at 12:26 PM ^

Is Awesome.  Thanks to both of you for the detail.  

As for the whole "scared of MSU" thing, no.  MSU is favored, and should be.  Michigan has not yet proven they can get it done with any sort of consistency, and that's what this game will require: consistent execution.

We need to be Ice Man instead of Maverick in this one.  We can't afford to make mistakes, and, quite frankly, Maverick is unlikely to break open this MSU defense.

All that said, I have faith in that our team will step up to the challenge.  21-20 U-M.


October 31st, 2013 at 12:37 PM ^

I agree UM hasn't proven to be consistent but how has MSU?

26-13 vs 1-8 WMU

21-6 vs 2-5 USF

14-0 vs 1-6 PUR

They have a solid win vs Iowa. Michigan has a solid win vs. ND. Somehow Michigan's win over IU is worthless but MSU's wins over IU and ILL are them turning a corner offensively.

I understand people aren't sold on Michigan, rightfully so,  but its the constant love a lot people (not just here) are giving MSU as some sort of borderline elite team. Greenstein (yes I know he's an idiot) was basically laughing at the idea that Michigan even has chance in this game. If they had high the expectations like Michigan did to start the year everyone would be just as disappointed in them. But since the expectations were lower now everyone is in a hurry to jump on their bandwagon.


October 31st, 2013 at 1:56 PM ^

Somehow Michigan's win over IU is worthless but MSU's wins over IU and ILL are them turning a corner offensively.

Our win over IU might be worthless because we gave up 700+ yards and 40+ points at home. MSU held the same team to only 28 IIRC and they clobbered Illinois.

And if we're going to talk about bad wins, how about a squeaker over a bad MAC team and a squeaker over a UConn team that got throttled by Buffalo (not the Bills)


October 31st, 2013 at 2:19 PM ^

You can try really hard to view the glass as half empty, if you like, but we beat (pretty convincingly) the ND team that beat them, and we gave up a lot of yards to Indiana but not 700+ (it was 500+) while scoring 21 more points than MSU scored against IU (even with us turning the ball over at their 2 yard line on a fumbled snap) and giving up 19 more than MSU gave up (helped by the fumble on the pitch at our 20).  Our problem was the incredible speed with which IU got off plays more than anything else.  That did not work well with our efforts to have multiple substitutions on almost every play.  That is unlikely to be a problem this week, particularly with Mattison indicating there will be less substituting.  It sounds like he now knows who he will use the vast majority of the snaps, including our best defensive player - the Jake Ryan we have not had all year.


October 31st, 2013 at 2:36 PM ^

I'm not dismissing Michigans bad wins. I cleary said its understandable to not be sold on Michigan. I was pointing out that MSU has some ugly wins too. And one of them was two weeks ago, so its not like thats way behind them.

And for IU, yeah Michigan had a worse defensive performance (which was completely out of character for a Mattison coached defense) than MSU did but they also had a much better offensive performance than MSU. Does Michigan's offensive performance not count? It was also MSU's worse defensive showing of the year as well.

They clobbered ILL. Okay what does that prove? ILL hasn't won a Big Ten game in two years and are notorious for tanking it once they get behind.

Listen, I understand being skeptical about Michigan in this game. I don't expect everyone to be as confident as me. MSU is a good team. Its on the road. Michigan has been inconsistent. But MSU has a whole bunch of flaws too. They are a much more beatable team than people seem to believe.



November 1st, 2013 at 2:22 PM ^

The IU game and Ill are proof MSU turned the corner on offense. They went from being cover your eyes awful to average.

In the first 2 games this year MSUs defense had 3 TDs. Their offense had 2 TDs. Against bad teams.

So yes, the MSU offense turned a corner. No, they are not a great offense.


October 31st, 2013 at 12:43 PM ^

Thanks TOC

Cook's been inaccurate at times, and mistakes have to be why he lost the starting job to Maxwell to start the season. Wasn't that a problem vs. Purdue? I think it may be again Saturday, and M's D will be in a better position to capitalize on those mistakes than others.

Plus, Jake Ryan.

The FannMan

October 31st, 2013 at 12:44 PM ^

That was some quality work.  Thank you Mr. Dorland.

My biggest concern is with Devin's decision making - especially early.  MSU's defense will try to force him to beat them.  I am not certain that he is capable of making the good reads and hitting the tight windows that will be required.  He can't repeat the first half at Penn State or we are totally screwed. 

My hope is that we keep going max protect with two man routes (Funchess and Gallon plz) and have Gardner run for day light after 3.4 seconds.   The double A gap blitzes will destroy our interior so we need be out of the gun.  Gardner will need the time.  I would also forget about play action.  Fitz will need to block, not pretend to receive a handoff.


October 31st, 2013 at 12:45 PM ^

I agree with the MSU guy that they look to the short dump-off pick plays all the time. Combined with our so-so front 4 against the run (and two deep safety behind it) and you have a recipe for lots of 3rd and shorts..

I don't expected Mattison to deviate from his two high safety look much this game. But when he does bring heat (Jake Ryan or Corner Blitzes) they gotta be effective. UM forces 3rd and long and they WILL get off the field. Don't see MSU executing very well at all in long down and distance.That being said I foresee plenty of long marches for the MSU O. Hopefully UM can force a 3rd and long before the red zone...


On the flip side, we all know the story UM O vs. MSU D. UM needs ND Gardner to step up. Plain and simple.


October 31st, 2013 at 1:10 PM ^

As Narduzzi's dog whistle...that's a beautiful way to think about it, and I am concerned that our interior line and Gardner get trained way too easily.

Have Funchess lined up in the slot though roaming the deepish middle of the field and I think we've found our mismatch.


October 31st, 2013 at 1:25 PM ^

I usually don't go to this blog and have never commented here (for obvious reasons - I'm a huge MSU homer), but this is great & very thorough.  Good luck this weekend!


October 31st, 2013 at 1:27 PM ^

I think Michigan gets about 17-20 points in the game. The real battle will be whether or not Spary puts up enough. I predict a score of 19-17, Michigan.

A few more baseless predictions: 

Fitzgerald Toussaint will get 23 carries. With 22 of them, he will get 45 yards. His other carry will garner for 40+ yards, which makes everyone in East Lansing (including M fans) shout "WTF" in perfect unision. 

Jake M.F. Ryan will have a key backfield tackle late in the game to force punt from the MSU's 35 yard line. 

Gallon has 8 catches for 72 yards. Funchess has 3 receptions for 102 yards and draws 3 PI penalties. 

MSU rough's the passer 9 times. This will draw 4 flags. 

Adrian Wilson has an interception and two PBU's.

Raymon Taylor plays solid all day-- except three plays which yield 70% of MSU passing yardage. 

Frank Clark gets a safety. 

Jibreel Black will be called, "The Threat II," and will be very disruptive. 

Matt Wile hits a 52 yarder to close out the first half.

MSU: 31 carries, 164 yards, 2 TD's. This will NOT be a fun game. 


October 31st, 2013 at 1:52 PM ^

is about one man....Devin Gardner...our Defense will hold their O to basically nothing. But "Bad" Devin giving up TO's will cost us points. "Good" Devin will be a nightmare for the supposedly unbelievable unbreakable unpenitariable...unnnnnnnn NOTHING is my math. With no TO's from Devin, we hold them to 10 points and we score 24 points on their D.....with every TO, add 5 points to their total. So bottom line, 3 TO's = loss


October 31st, 2013 at 2:00 PM ^

it hasn't in any game against Sparty. But obviously you must run some in order to make the passing game work and limit the blitzing. 

I've seen Sparty do less of the A gap blitzing this year than in the recent past, with more line stunts and delayed blitzes by the backers waiting for the Oline to commit before charging through an open gap looking to take advantage. 

The reason their defense works so well, is because the guys in it, understand it and are quick to read keys and jump on plays. You would think that you could beat their press coverage and throw over the head of their backers in the intermediate areas 

I believe MSU will attack the middle of Michigan's Oline and bring pressure off the right side most of the game. Michigan needs to use multiple sets with late shifting and double tight end sets or wide receiver stacks with pick and drag routes which take advangtage of Sparty's desire to blast blitz.

The standard for this game as it is for The Game is the team that wins the run game, wins. All that means is, you must control the LOS, which is the key to winning any game. 

Purdue, Indiana and Illinois had some success in moving the ball against Sparty, with the Hoosiers scoring the most: four TD's. They did this not necessarily because of tempo, but because they ran more plays even though their offense was off the field for long stretches.  MSU squeezes the clock. It  is this team's primary objective. Dantonio wants his offense grinding time and possessions while keeping your offense sidelined with his suffocating aggressive defense. 

It's Tressel ball, Sparty style. They will run to pass, while Michigan is going to have to pass to run. Michigan must use quick hitters up the middle, to the perimeter and run clear outs with Funchess and Gallon, because this opens things up for Gardner. 

Truth is, Michigan had its best success against Narduzzi and his his defense when RR ran the offense, because Michigan didn't try to play manball. You have to make this a scoring contest and open it up, because a defensive struggle favors MSU. It won't be easy.

Trick plays and unexpected moves will happen on both sides, probably with some new wrinkles by Michigan. I'd like to see Norfleet used on offense if Dileo is a spectator. They really need him for this game. 

Der Alte

October 31st, 2013 at 2:09 PM ^

Reading the TOC analysis of the MSU team I had to stop once or twice to remind myself that this is MSU we're talking about, not Alabama or Oregon. MSU played three nonconference nobodies. The fourth nonconference opponent --- that M beat --- beat them. MSU's impressive defensive stats came at the expense of Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. Iowa held them to three TDs, and the Hoosiers hung 28 points on them. MSU wasn't ranked until after they played their eighth game, so someone has a real gauge on how good this team actually is.

Now all that said and understanding that common-opponent wins and losses are a suspect metric, I remain convinced that M actually has a chance to win this game. It's gonna take a max effort, it's gonna take zero turnovers, but it's still doable. Go blue.


October 31st, 2013 at 2:57 PM ^

So the fact that we don't go fast is sigh worthy, but the idea that bubble screens we won't run don't work against them, and that you should keep running the ball isn't comforting? Because the latter two are things everyone here has been saying we either need to do or stop vs. MSU, and this guys is saying the opposite.


October 31st, 2013 at 5:40 PM ^

No one (reasonable) is asking for bubble screens to be run just for the sake of running bubble screens.  MSU plays press coverage so a bubble screen is probably a bad idea.  When Penn State plays ten yards off your receivers with eight in the box, then it's probably a good idea to throw some sort of screen or short pass to the outside.  As far as playing fast, that was one of the top things mentioned in keeping MSU's defense off guard.  When it comes to pace, I expect Michigan to do what it does 95% of the time, which is let the clock run down under 5 before snapping, which is the worst thing to do against MSU's defense, which probably prompted the sigh from Ace.