Michigan at Michigan State -- A Preview

Not quite Brady Hoke pointing, but close enough.

YOUR MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. THE MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

SPARTAN STADIUM, EAST LANSING, MI

12:00 PM, 57 DEGREES, MOSTLY CLOUDY, 30% CHANCE OF RAIN -- A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR FOOTBALL!
TV: ESPN  RADIO:  SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK: (AFFILIATES)
EAST LANSING VISITORS GUIDE: HERE!
TICKETS: HERE!

It goes without saying, but to restate the obvious -- Michigan has had a very good season so far.  Sure, it took Dr. Sam Beckett leaping into Gary Gray to secure the Notre Dame victory (ZIGGY SAYS YOU CAN'T LEAP UNLESS MICHIGAN WINS, SAM!), but victories are victories.

This game is critical, much more critical than it was last year. Thanks to the general shakiness of Nebraska and Iowa, this game could very well be a tiebreaker in the Legends division, and considering Michigan's schedule lacks MSU's difficulty from here on out (most difficult games: at Illinois, at Iowa, and Nebraska at home), Michigan State can ill afford to lose this game.

After the jump, a preview plus a prediction.

MICHIGAN ON OFFENSE

Denard Denard Denard Denard Denard Denard Denard *deep breath* Denard Denard Denard Denard Denard.  He's accounted for 67.4% of Michigan's yards on the season.  I'd say he's the catalyst to their offense, but using the word "catalyst" implies that he takes all the parts and makes them work in harmony.  That isn't true, because for all intents and purposes he is the offense, and he does a darn good job at that.  His average of 7.06 yards per carry is very good (29th in the nation), and he's been making secondaries pay with his arm for selling out against the run with 9.7 yards per passing attempt (tied for 5th in the nation).  His weakness?  The interceptions, obviously.   Robinson throws an interception on 7.69% of his attempts.  This is highest in the FBS, and now that Stephen Garcia is wandering the wilderness of Sakerlina, only one FBS quarterback currently has an interception percentage above 5.1%.  It's clear what MSU needs to do -- maximize the risk, and minimize the rewards Denard can bring.

Given that Denard has more rushing yards than UM's top three running backs combined, one would think that Michigan's running backs might not be effective; that thought would be erroneous. Fitzgerald Toussaint  and Vincent Smith are listed as co-starters, and both are fairly small (5-6, 172 for Smith, 5-10, 195 for Toussaint).  Their small statures have not diminished their effectiveness however, as Toussaint has ran for 5.4 yards per carry, and Shaw has averaged 7.4 yards per carry.  Even though they're listed as co-starters, Toussaint has twice as many carries as Smith and third back Michael Shaw, so I'd assume he gets the majority of non-Denard carries again.

Brady Hoke's tenure at Michigan has allowed the Wolverines to rediscover the position in football called the "tight end". Tight end Kevin Koger has the third most receptions (10) on the team.  The two ahead of him are wide receivers, and have slightly different roles.  Jeremy Gallon leads the team in receptions, and can often be seen stretching bubble screens from three to more than three yards.  Junior Hemingway is the big play threat.  His average of 26.7 yards per catch is third among all FBS receivers, but that value could be magnified by a small sample size (15 receptions on the year).  Regardless, this a very good group of receivers that can cover up some of Denard's mistakes if need be.

The offensive line is very good, often getting out to the second level to spring Denard, the running backs, or Denard for big gains.  This is to be expected when your youngest player on the line is in his third year in the program.

MICHIGAN ON DEFENSE AND SPECIAL TEAMS

The stat that's been prevalent throughout news outlets on Michigan's defense -- The 12.5 points allowed per game, tied for fourth in the FBS along with LSU.  While that's impressive, the Wolverines are allowing 336.5 yards per game, which ranks them 30th in the FBS. 

Phil Steele has a metric called "yards per point", or YPP.  It's exactly what you think it is -- the number of yards a team needs on average to score a point.  For example, If a team attained 200 yards and scored 20 points, its YPP would be 200/20 = 10.  The average YPP in the FBS last year was 13.7.  Michigan is holding opponents to 26.1 yards per point, which is unsustainable.  Somewhere along the line teams are going to start turning those yards into points.

That said however, the Wolverine defense is significantly better than last year's.  The defensive line is still the most skilled unit, and Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen will once again cause problems for the offensive line.  Michigan must be blitzing a fair amount, because strong safety Jordan Kovacs (reference for basketball fans -- Kovacs:football::Zack Novak:basketball) is tied for second on the team on tackles with four along with back-up strong side linebacker Jake Ryan; defensive end Craig Roh leads the team with 4.5.  While the UM defense does have weaknesses to be exploited, I doubt we'll see Michigan State rip off several big plays like they did last year.

The kickoff returns are nothing special as the main returner, Vincent Smith, only averages a little over 18 yards per return.  Jeremy Gallon is a good punt returner however, as he's averaged a little over 10 yards per return in the six chances he's had this season.  Hopefully Mike Sadler can get good hangtime and prevent returns, since I'm a bit concerned.  Will Hagerup has only had three punts since coming off a four game suspension, and has averaged 37.7 yards on those three.  Once again, small sample size rears its head, he should be better than that come tomorrow.

Brandon Gibbons is the field goal kicker, and he's made field goals of 21, 25, 32, and 38 yards this season.  He's also missed field goals from 37 and 40 yards.  In Ann Arbor, this counts as progress.

FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTION

To me, the key to this game is to what extent MSU can capitalize on Michigan's mistakes.  Denard Robinson is dynamic.  The problem is that dynamic goes both ways, as Denard turns the ball over almost as often as he rattles off highlight reel plays. 

In my mind, I keep recalling the 2008 game, where the game was close until the fourth quarter, when MSU finally wore Michigan's defensive line down and Javon Ringer was able to close the game out with several runs of 5 or more yards.  That probably won't happen here, but I do think the game will play out somewhat similarly -- it's close for three quarters, and MSU capitalizes on a UM turnover and pulls away.

FINAL SCORE:  MICHIGAN STATE 30, MICHIGAN 24

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