Preview: Michigan State vs. Michigan

Rawk music, man.  Rawk.

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
SPARTAN STADIUM, EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN
NOON, BIG TEN NETWORK
WEATHER: 50 DEGREES, 50% CHANCE OF RAIN

So, I suppose this is where The Great Redemption Tour begins.  We were hoping/expecting a better effort at Wisconsin, and that was shot to hell by the second quarter.  So, will the team (defense, really) show up this week?  I've talked about the "crossroads" idea in this space for the past two weeks; it was important for the Notre Dame game, and it was even more important last week.  But, here it is: win tomorrow, and with games against seemingly-awful Illinois and Northwestern looming, we have a great chance to be 3-1 in Big Ten play heading into the Iowa game.  Lose, and it's nearly impossible to concoct a scenario where we even make the freakin' Motor City Bowl.  That's what's on the line.

But, apart from the long-view considerations, it'd be a lie to deny that this game means more than most.  Of course I want our guys to demolish Michigan tomorrow.  We haven't had a winning streak against the Wolverines in more than 40 years.  How sweet would that be?  And it's absolutely a winnable game: Michigan has an explosive offense but quite possibly the worst (non-Montana State) defense we'll face all season.  We can outscore them, but we'll have to show a hell of a lot more moxie and resolve than we've shown the past three weeks.  But if our guys can't be motivated for this game, under these circumstances, well HEY LOOK BASKETBALL SEASON STARTS SOON!

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A legitimate argument can be made that Michigan should have lost to Indiana last week. Michigan was outgained, lost the turnover battle, and would have lost had it not been for Indiana repeatedly settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.  (Of course, you can give the Wolverine defense some credit for that, as well.)  Previously, as we all know, they won a roller coaster game against Notre Dame wherein they also were outgained.  So, this is clearly not an invincible Michigan team, although there's certainly a lot to be said for making big plays at the right time (winning late touchdown drives against ND and Indiana, the quasi-interception last week, etc.).  It's something we were tremendous at last season and have been failerrific at so far this one.

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WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON DEFENSE: While it would have been difficult not to improve on their 2008 horror show, this year's Michigan offense much more closely approximates what Wolverine fans expected to get with Rich Rodriguez: an often-dominating running attack that nonetheless bears no resemblance to the Carr/Moeller/Schembechler/Crisler/Yost power running games of yore.  Michigan will take very few snaps (if any) from under center, and once their quarterback receives the ball, speed, misdirection, and variety are key.

If you've recently eaten your lunch, don't watch.

Michigan has 961 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns on the season so far, compared with 1771 and 17 for the entirety of last season; in this case, stats don't lie.  This is an excellent rushing team.  Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown are Michigan's primary running backs; in a nutshell, Minor is the more punishing runner of the two, while, as you can see above, Brown is, uh, fast.  Maize 'n Brew has been particulary impressed by Brown:

Carlos Brown should never, ever, ever leave the field. Ever. He is by far Michigan's best and most effective back right now. He's showing us a cut back ability I never knew he had. He's running with authority, carrying tacklers for an extra five yards. He's breaking away from everyone. He's our best pass catcher out of the backfield. Never take him out. Ever.

As mentioned, Brown has also shown ability as a receiver: 6 catches for 111 yards (a very impressive 18.5 yards per catch, for a running back no less) and a touchdown already this season. 

I'm also concerned about the weird shakeups going on with our defensive line.  Blake Treadwell (ok) and Dion Sims (what?) are possible new additions to the d-line this week; I understand that given how things have transpired over the first three games, a change is in order.  But seriously, this level of shake-up right before a big game against a team with a dominating rushing attack is not. a. good. thing.  Our rush defense's performance against Wisconsin was encouraging to the extent that there were no home runs, but quite discouraging in the sense that, seemingly, whenever they needed yards, they got them.  Our rush defense is still better than the pass defense, but I fear that this is a mismatch in Michigan's favor.

Pass offense for Michigan is a huge upgrade over last season, if nothing else, as the FORCIER = ACCURACY bit has at least somewhat been proven to be true.  Forcier is completing 62% of his passes -- unspectacular but solid -- and has 7 touchdowns against only 2 interceptions.  (One of the interceptions against Indiana was particularly bad.)  But Michigan fans are relatively impressed, even by his less impressive performances:

Well, if you were expecting a game where Tate truly played like a freshman, this was it. Even so, he played like a senior leading two critical scoring drives in the fourth quarter. You take the bad with the good sometimes, and dammit, the good keeps prevailing.  [ . . . ]

The Kid isn't perfect, but he is really, really good. One thing that I especially liked is that he used his safety valve when the home run wasn't available. The biggest thing he's gotta work on is realizing he's not the most athletic guy on the field anymore, and getting rid of the ball rather than running around like a chicken with his head cut off. It'll come with time, but overall, even though the middle of the game was kinda meh, a good start and finish for Forcier.

I'm completely sure that Forcier will be able to execute the quick slants and the outs that Wisconsin was repeatedly able to use to good effect.  However, he is a freshman, and one whose first start on the road is against a major rival.  He made mistakes against Indiana and he's going to make mistakes against us; the key will be capitalizing on those mistakes.  Our secondary has only two interceptions this season: one was on a terrible throw by Dan LeFevour, and the second was an end-of-the-half Hail Mary by Notre Dame.  I'm sure that Mike Valenti won't mind if I appropriate his mantra: our guys need to MAKE PLAYS.

Michigan's wide receivers are solid but unexceptional, and range from the speedy-but-slightly-inept (Darryl Stonum) to the shifty slot guys (Kelvin Grady and Martavious Odoms) to the seemingly-underused outside receiver whom I still have nightmares of gashing us with 40 yard fly rountes (Junior Hemingway).  Perhaps the guy I'm most concerned about is Kevin Koger--given the way David Garrett carved us up last week, I'll be concerned about tight ends for the rest of the year.  But Koger has shown a penchant for catching everything thrown his way.  I expect him to have at least one touchdown.  (Late edit: mgoblog agrees with me:)

Given the tendency of the MSU linebackers to suck up against the run and the absolute field day UW tight ends had against Michigan State, this might be the game in which Kevin Koger goes nuts

I don't know what to say about our secondary which hasn't already been said.  They're not good.  Might as well give Johnny Adams a whirl; how much worse can it get?  In other news, getting some pressure on Forcier may be possible due to injuries on Michigan's offensive line: they've struggled particularly on the right side of the line and HOORAY that's where Trevor Anderson lines up.  Fingers crossed.

Finally, Denard Robinson will obviously play some at quarterback for Michigan.  When he's in the game, use everyone necessary to spy him; he's absurd with his feet but will not beat us passing the ball.

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WHEN MICHIGAN STATE IS ON OFFENSE: Thankfully, it will be playing against a very poor Michigan defense.  Said Brian after the Eastern Michigan game:

The team is basically what we thought it was. If you want to load up against it and grind down the field you'll have success doing it, though I wonder if teams will manage to score a lot of touchdowns with that sort of approach. Michigan's going to bend a lot; hopefully they won't break.

Greg Robinson is busy installing all sorts of different stuff and slants and various games to cover up for the fact that he's got no depth, two seniors, and three walk-ons contributing. I think we're going to see a lot of instances where the games work and Michigan swarms something and a lot of instances where Michigan gets caught and gashed. There are places to attack this defense, and the safeties are going to have to do a lot of cleanup in Big Ten play.

Is there any upside for these guys? Maybe. It is a new system so Michigan is behind mentally and should improve more than veteran units whose failings are more likely to be physical shortcomings than mental errors. Look at Eastern's long touchdown drive: mental error after mental error. If Michigan can fix those things—or, more conservatively, mitigate them—they appear to have the horsepower to be completely mediocre. Again: getting Ezeh and Mouton up to a level where they are decent is the key to the defense's season.

Of course, we haven't proven the ability to grind anyone down thus far.  I suppose that if it's going to happen at all, it could happen this week, as Michigan's rush defense is nothing to write home about: 69th in the country at the moment.  (But then again, our rush offense is 86th in the country, and that's having played against 3 crappy rush defenses and one mediocre one.)  Based on last week's performances, you'd figure that Caper and Winston will pretty much be option 1 and 1A, but they should be strictly be used as a change of pace.  (If it rains hard and we can't throw the ball, we're going to lose.)

So, essentially, this is the easiest preview ever.  We as MSU fans, should want 2 things from our offense:

  1. Kirk Cousins throwing . . .
  2. . . . to whomever's not being covered by Donovan Warren.

No need to rehash the Cousins/Nichol thing at this point: every Friday night, I say a little prayer that Nichol Cousins will play the whole game; every Saturday, I have a corresponding crisis of faith.

But as to the Donovan Warren thing: yeah, given our depth at wide receiver, we should just write off whomever he's covering and go elsewhere.  The major thing being lost in all the discussion of the game-ending-interception-that-maybe-wasn't against Indiana is, why were they throwing at Warren in the first place?  Michigan's secondary is otherwise terrible:

Whatever lingering hopes you had that the corner spot opposite Warren could turn into a non-liability should be put in the corner and told to  be quiet for a while. JT Floyd did better than I thought he did live but still remains a timid redshirt freshman who transparently lacks the speed to be an elite corner. Michigan is going to have to cover up for him. Kovacs is okay but really slow.

Not mentioned in that blurb is that JT Floyd was only getting playing time because Boubacar Cissoko spent the first three games of the season throwing his name into the "WORST MICHIGAN CORNERBACK EVARRR" discussion.  Two of Cunningham, Dell, and White will be matched against inferior defensive players.  Throw the ball to them, Kirk.

As far as I can tell, only two things will be able to derail our passing game.  1) The weather.  Dammit, the weather.  2) If Michigan is able to get lots of pressure on Cousins/Nichol.  And, it's possible: Brandon Graham utterly pwn3d the right side of our line last year, and this year's line is obviously banged up:

Starting left guard Joel Foreman didn't play against the Badgers because of an ankle injury. Tackle J'Michael Deane injured his leg earlier this season and also didn't play. Joel Nitchman, a starting center, moved to guard at Wisconsin, while John Stipek once again played center to help fill a void.

Foreman should return to the starting lineup on Saturday, which should be a big boost for the team.  In any event, our pass blocking was generally very good in the first three games of the season, but not so much against Wisconsin.  Given Michigan's struggles against the pass, I wouldn't be surprised if they'll abandon trying to contain us in the secondary and instead send the house with regularity in the hopes of shutting down the pass that way.  (Of course, if they do that, it would behoove us to try to throw screens to Caper, and get tight ends involved with with quick go routes and so forth)

FINAL PREDICTION: Bleh.  I felt good about the last two weeks, and I don't about this one, although I'll admit that even after last year's triumph, I still have a mental block regarding us being successful against Michigan.  I do think that the coaching staff's relentless focus on this game will help out; last year, we were clearly prepared to play Michigan, as we did a tremendous job of timing their snaps, taking away their preferred wheel routes, and generally calling a pitch-perfect defensive game.  I'd love to believe that we can do that again, but we've seen nothing so far to indicate that we can do it.  Furthermore, Michigan runs the type of non-traditional spread offense which we've never done well against.  The weather forecast doesn't make me feel any better.  When I talked to Brian earlier this week, I said 41-38 Michigan; I don't think it'll be quite that high scoring, but I still think the general idea's right.  34-31 Michigan.

I beg you to talk me out of this prediction in the comments.

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