It's time to check in on the Michigan Wolverines from the other side. Zach Travis from Maize n Brew was kind enough to answer some questions about line play, Devin Gardner and the Legends division race. You can read my answers to his questions here.
1. What the heck is up with this offense? There are playmakers in Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess and Fitz Toussaint, and they put up more than 700 yards on Indiana, but they also keep running power up the gut over and over for nothing. Michigan is getting tackled for a loss more than seven times a game. Is the offensive line that bad? Is it coaching? This offense has a lot of potential, and has reached it at times, but also put up some incredible duds. Why so inconsistent?
Unfortunately it is a combination of so many things that on any given day Michigan can see its entire game plan fall apart and production stall. The obvious place to start is the offensive line, which is on its fourth different starting lineup of the season and continues to struggle to consistently run block. Michigan began the season running a lot of outside zone which was eaten up constantly. From there the team switched to more power running, but that was with the added gimmick of constantly shifting unbalanced lines. This fell apart against Penn State to the tune of 27 Fitz Toussaint carries for 27 yards. Against Indiana, Michigan went to more of a shotgun spread running attack, and the added threat of Gardner running as well as a de-emphasis on tight end blocking was just what Michigan needed (also, playing Indiana's defense helped).
You already mentioned the negative plays, a stat in which Michigan is ranked in the 100s nationally. What this deluge of negative plays does is consistently put Michigan behind the chains. The Wolverines are 90th in the nation in average third-down distance (6.9 yards). While this hasn't hurt Michigan's ability to convert third downs much (the Wolverines are 22nd nationally at 48.9%), it puts more pressure on the passing game.
Devin Gardner has been explosive this year, but that goes both ways. While he is capable of making all the throws, his confidence is still shaky which leads to breakdowns in his reads and footwork. He already has two pick-sixes on the season, and his ill-timed mistakes have given up anywhere from one to two touchdowns per game in tight contests. That he is more often than not able to will Michigan back to a win (and even against PSU he did his damnedest) is a testament to just how much raw talent and playmaking ability he has. Against Michigan State's defense he won't be able to orchestrate those same late game heroics, so limiting the early mistakes will be key.
A lot of e-ink has been spilled outlining the coaching issues that surround this offense, but those are a little harder to parse because everyone writing about them is doing so from outside the locker room. I think there are a certain amount of legitimate complaints as to how Borges has structured some of his gameplans this season, especially when it comes to how Michigan tries to run the ball, but Borges also called a near perfect game against Notre Dame and Indiana.
Together I think the lack of execution on the line limits what Borges can do which puts more pressure on Gardner and leads to mistakes. All of this serves to make Michigan's offense look worse from a structural standpoint, when really the issues come down first and foremost to youth up front. Naturally, this terrifies me with a trip to EL next up. Hide yo kids, hide yo wife, Shalique Calhoun's gonna be in your backfield, snatching your people up.
2. Defensively, it's Frank Clark, Jake Ryan (if healthy) and what else? Young talent? It looks like Michigan is still struggling to get much pressure with four. Do you expect Greg Mattison to increase the blitzing to get heat on Connor Cook?
The defense has been getting a pretty bad rap this year because people are focusing more on the final score and the big plays than the overall effectiveness of the unit (Michigan's offense hasn't helped much, giving away defensive scores and red zone field position to opposing teams). The star power isn't there yet. Jake Ryan is back from injury, but he is still working back into playing shape and isn't yet Jake Ryan Destroyer of Worlds. The Enigmatic Frank Clark (which it is a wonder I haven't called him this before now) has come on of late, but still seems to be a lot more hype and hope than actual production. The best unit on the defense is the linebackers or possibly the corners, but both are proving to be susceptible in certain areas (fortunately, those aren't things I think MSU can exploit too well).
This defense isn't going to get a lot of pressure. It is going to give up yards and third-down conversions. However, over the course of the game Michigan is going to be good enough at limiting big plays that offenses constantly have to grind out yards and scoring drives will have to go 10 or 12 plays. Michigan is still a very good per play rushing defense (9th nationally at 3.16 yards/carry) which sets up a lot of long third downs for opponents (7.1 yard average per third down attempt, 33 in the nation) and while Michigan is just average at raw third down conversions allowed (39.8%, 72nd), the Wolverines defense has only allowed 20 drives into the red zone (the other five were the direct result of turnovers that set opposing offenses up already in the red zone) which would be good for t-14th nationally. Michigan's defense isn't great, and it won't turn many heads, but it has been very effective over the course of the year with few breakdowns (2nd halves against Indiana and the game tying drive against PSU).
3. What are three keys to victory for the Wolverines?
Limiting turnovers. This is huge, and I think it will ultimately be the biggest factor in the game. Michigan has been giving away anywhere from one to two touchdowns a game with turnovers that set teams up in the red zone or lead to defensive scores. Michigan absolutely can't let Michigan State's defense score in this one, and Michigan needs to constantly stay out in front in field position - something it is hard to do when you turn the ball over. If Michigan has one turnover or less I think the Wolverines win the game, more than two I think is a definite loss. Just two and I think its a toss up.
Winning early downs on defense. I think this UM defense vs. MSU offense matchup is a very interesting one. Michigan State doesn't look capable of really attacking Michigan and breaking off a lot of big plays like Indiana (or even PSU and ND), but it also doesn't turn the ball over. Therefore, Michigan is going to have to win early downs on run defense and force Michigan State to keep the chains moving with Connor Cook's arm. Michigan State is almost last in the country in MGoBlog's adjusted third down conversion metric (-11%), despite being well above average in average third down distance (5.5 yards per attempt, 21st). Michigan is going to have to kick MSU off the field the old fashioned way - forcing lots of punts - if the Wolverines want to have a chance to keep the score manageable in this game.
Catch a few breaks. This is going to be one of the hardest games Michigan plays all year - probably the hardest when you consider the hostile road environment - and the only way Michigan makes it out is by catching a few breaks. Last year missed field goals by MSU helped out a lot, and this year the kicking game certainly seems to be in Michigan State's advantage. Similarly, Michigan is going to need to hope that MSU's tight press coverage sets it up for a few PI calls (say what you will, MSU's defensive strategy is naturally going to lead to more PI calls). Finally, if there was any game in which Michigan could use a big return in the kicking game, this would be it.
4. With Nebraska losing to Minnesota, the Legends division truly is in chaos. Do you think the winner Saturday goes to Indianapolis? Or does Michigan having Ohio State at the end keep everything up for grabs to the final weekend? What do you think of U-M's chances right now?
I honestly think that MSU has a vastly better chance of going to Indy. Michigan has a good chance of winning this game, but the Wolverines still have to beat Northwestern, Nebraska, Iowa, and then Ohio State with no margin for error. The Spartans have an easier road and even with a loss against Michigan this weekend the Spartans will just need one slip up from the Wolverines - not a stretch of the imagination given Michigan's propensity to play with fire all year.
It will definitely be one of these two teams going to Indy. Nebraska's loss to Minnesota all but eliminates the Huskers unless they can beat both Michigan and Michigan State in back to back weeks, hope Michigan beats MSU this week, then if that happens the Huskers have to avoid screwing up against Penn State or Iowa to finish the season. That's a lot of ifs.
I would say Michigan State has a 75% chance of winning the division with Michigan holding the other 25%, and it could be even more skewed in MSU's favor. The Wolverines have just been too inconsistent this year to imagine them winning out against what is still a challenging slate of opponents.
5. Score prediction and why?
20-17 MSU. I really want to pick Michigan, and I think the Wolverines have a good chance to win this game given the relative weakness of the Spartan offense and Michigan's playmakers on offense. However, I am going with the best unit on the field against the high risk, high reward Wolverine offense. Michigan State's defense is too good, and Michigan's offense is too prone to huge mistakes. There is no way Michigan has any success on the ground, and this will be Devin Gardner's toughest test of the year in terms of pass defense. Michigan State's offense should be effectively bottled up, but turnovers from Michigan and field position that skews in MSU's favor all day will be enough to put points on the board for Michigan State and keep out in front of Michigan's boom or bust offense.
Michigan can win, but given what we know about these two teams, as well as home field advantage, Michigan State should win. I really want to be wrong about this.
Thanks again to Zach for answering some questions. Check out Maize n Brew for more from the other side, if you dare. Please be respectful in the comments. Zach is good people.