A reeling MSU looks to turn things around when it travels to Ann Arbor to take on rival Michigan. Zach Travis from the great U-M blog (seriously) Maize n Brew took some time to answer questions on Denard Robinson, Fitzgerald Toussaint and ending the losing streak. You can check out our preseason Q&A here.
1. What has been surprising about the Wolverines this season?
I think that with the exception of Denard Robinson's Interception-thon in the Notre Dame game (a freak series of events that was a combination of poor play calling, terrible execution, and bad luck) that the Michigan offense is right about where we figured it would be. The run game has struggled a bit on non-Denard carries, but that has been the case on and off for the last two and a half years, so this isn't exactly a color-me-shocked revelation.
No, the biggest surprise has undoubtedly been the way the defense -- specifically the line -- has quickly round into form. I think the Alabama game got everyone all panicked at the thought of Michigan's defensive line leaking like a sieve all season while the linebackers ate blocks and the secondary got shelled. The next two games didn't help much because A) your run defense never looks good after playing Air Force and B) you can always poke holes in a defense's performance against a team as bad as UMass, but over the last three games Michigan has looked like one of the best defenses in the Big Ten (disclaimers about the offenses faced do apply).
The defensive line isn't a bunch of budding stars, but Quinton Washington and Will Campbell have stepped up inside and are eating blocks and not giving ground. The ends have been good at holding the edge and swallowing cutback lanes, and there has been enough of a pass rush to force opposing quarterbacks into getting rid of the ball.
I think Michigan fans all knew that the linebackers were solid and would be improved in year two with all three starters back (Jake Ryan's star turn wasn't expected this soon, but it looks like he has arrived), and that there was enough talent and experience in the secondary to hang with what is a pretty uninspiring group of passing offenses in the Big Ten. However, both units were only going to be capable of so much without a major surprise from the defensive line. So far, it looks like we've got that, and if it holds over the next few weeks Michigan might well be able to challenge Michigan State for the best defense in the conference. However, I'll have to see how Michigan does against some of the conference's better offenses before I am convinced of that.
2. Fitz Toussaint has been virtually nonexistent this season. Should MSU fans expect a offense complete based on Denard Robinson again? Does that bode well for MSU?
Fitz has been a disappointment so far, but I think a fair amount of culpability lies with the offensive line. A lot of people pointed to the fact that Denard was able to run for all sorts of yards as indicative of a turnaround on the offensive line, but I don't buy it. Robinson has always had the ability to get yards on the ground simply be being a great, instinctive runner. Add in the fact that Michigan leans heavily on the inverted veer and QB iso's -- both plays have all sorts of inherent advantages vs.standard RB run plays -- and it isn't much of a surprise that Robinson has been better and Fitz still can't get much more than a pedestrian three yards per carry. The fact is, Fitz hasn't seen too many runs where he isn't taking on contact at or around the line of scrimmage. He should still make more out of what he is given, but the offensive line will need to keep improving.
In this game it does worry me. Michigan State has the best linebackers in the conference, and while the defensive line has taken a step back upon the departure of Jerel Worthy, there are still some frightening pieces. Michigan's ability to cruise to easy victories the last two weeks has been a function of being able to pick up yards while running the ball 75% of the time. To do that against MSU, Michigan will need a lot more production from the running backs or else Robinson is going to have to carry it 35 times. If the game comes down to all Denard on offense, it is going to force Michigan into some more pass plays. As we have seen so far this year, that is a high risk, high reward venture for this offense. Michigan needs more out of Fitz if it wants a chance to win comfortably -- or even at all -- on Saturday.
3. Having replaced much of the defensive line, who have been some notable players on defense this year? What has been the biggest key to the defensive resurgence since the Air Force game?
First, I wouldn't even say "since the Air Force game". That implies that how Michigan performed vs. Air Force is somehow different than what other teams do. Michigan bled yards on the ground, but that is pretty standard against triple option based run attacks. I think you largely have to throw that game out when evaluating the defense (as you also need to do in the case of the UMass game...and probably Illinois, woof).
First and foremost, the best player on the defense has been SLB Jake Ryan. He is making plays all over the field, is Michigan's best pass rusher, best edge defender, and might even challenge Jordan Kovacs for the title of best tackler in space. Expect to hear Ryan's name early and often on Saturday, as he is the perfect jack-of-all-trades weapon in a Greg Mattison defense. If he isn't a major player for first-team all-conference by the end of the season I would be shocked.
Past that, the defensive ends have played well considering the questions swirling around them in fall camp. Craig Roh is the anchor at SDE and has replaced about 90% of Ryan Van Bergen's production at the position, while Frank Clark is capable of making big plays on the weak side. The aforementioned tackles, Washington and Campbell, won't make a lot of "wow" plays, but they are both key cogs in the defense. The secondary is led by the best pair of safeties that Michigan has fielded in years. Jordan Kovacs is a known quantity at this point: a do-everything safety that is great in run support and smart in coverage, but Thomas Gordon has put together just as many big plays this year.
The only real question mark is at corner. JT Floyd is solid but limited as the boundary corner -- his lack of solid run support has been the most troublesome development from the last few games -- and Raymon Taylor was thrust into the starting lineup after Michigan's best corner, sophomore Blake Countess, went down with an injury early against Alabama. If Michigan State had shown much with its receivers thus far (Mumphery and possibly Burbridge (one game and all) excluded) I would worry a bit more about this match up.
4. Give me three keys to victory for U-M.
First, the run game needs to find success. If Michigan can't find a way to run the ball for upwards of 4.0 - 4.5 yards per carry, then the offense is going to continually stall and this is going to end up being a 10-7 game. Michigan's success this season has come when it can move the ball on the ground, and while Denard will find a way to get his yards, it is put up or shut up time for Fitzgerald Toussaint and the offensive line. This is by far the biggest key to the game.
Conversely, Michigan is going to have to find a way to contain LeVeon Bell. Contain, not stop. I've watched enough of MSU to know that when Bell gets rolling he is going to get at least three or four yards. Michigan needs to do a good job on the defensive line to eat up blocks and get the linebackers into the backfield to initiate contact. Furthermore, last year MSU mercilessly attacked the edges, and while Baker is gone, I would expect to still see a lot of two- and three-tight end sets that try to spring Bell on the edge against Michigan's corners. Fortunately, I think Michigan is better prepared to handle this now than last year.
Finally, Michigan has to find a way to simply survive. I wrote a long article last spring about Michigan breaking the streak against Ohio State, and in it I talked about just how unlucky Michigan had been during those previous seven years. The same general feeling holds true against Michigan State these last four. I'm not talking about luck in a "Michigan got robbed" sense, more that when it came to making the right play at the right time, it was always Michigan State that found a way to capitalize on the fortunate bounces and move past the unlucky breaks.
Under Mark Dantonio Michigan State has always had the right response when bad things happen against Michigan, and with his almost singular focus on the game, you can imagine that Michigan State will be as pumped up for this one as any game this season -- even more so because a loss here effectively eliminates the Spartans from the Big Ten title race.
If may be corny coach-speak, but for Michigan to pull out a win for the first time in four years, it is going to come down to responding the right way at the right time when things go wrong as well as taking full advantage of the lucky bounces that Michigan gets.
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
I think this game is close. Like, sweating bullets until the last minute close. Like it or not, Michigan fans, but Michigan State is still not a great matchup for this team. The MSU offense has had some struggles, but LeVeon Bell is more capable as any back in the conference of moving the ball against this Michigan defense. Furthermore, the Michigan offense that has been so good the last two games has yet to assert its run game against a powerful run defense like Michigan State's. I see Michigan's offense struggling for long stretches and Michigan State grinding out enough yards on the ground to set up a couple big pass plays.
In the end the game will probably be somewhere around 17-13 with the difference being one failed drive that turned into a field goal instead of a touchdown. I think Michigan pulls it out this year, but it is going to be way closer than any Michigan fan wants to admit right now, and if I were a betting man, I'd jump on those 10+ points that Vegas is giving MSU right now.
Bonus question: How lame is it that this game is on BTN? (I know it's MSU's fault).
As bad as the placement on BTN is for Michiganders, imagine how awful it is for me. I live in Virginia, where the concept of Cox Cable carrying BTN in any capacity is laughable. Therefore, every time a BTN game is announced I have to spend a couple days calling friends trying to find someone with Direct TV or Verizon FiOS so I can actually watch the game without resorting to a small TV in the corner of Buffalo Wild Wings.
Thanks again to Zach for answering some questions. Zach is good people, so please don't troll, and if you go to MnB, represent TOC in a good way.