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Michigan State Football vs. Michigan Preview

For the second straight year, the Spartans will look to dispatch the Wolverines in East Lansing.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

So I've been fairly busy the past couple of months. In between working on my masters' thesis, working a part time job, and looking for a full time job, Spartan football hasn't (GASP) been at the forefront of my life in the past month or so. Good news though: the first draft of the thesis is done! And it couldn't have come fast enough for numerous reasons, one of which is that THE RIVALRY IS BACK ON. Let's take a look at Michigan.

The Wolverines so Far

It's been a tire fire in Ann Arbor this season in so many ways. On the field, you have losses to Utah at home, being shut out in South Bend against Notre Dame, a decisive loss to Minnesota to lose the Little Brown Jug for only the fourth time in three decades, and making Gary Nova look like a Heisman candidate in their loss to Rutgers. Off the field, you have Dave Brandon continuing to milk every dollar possible out of the program's tradition, to the point where the fans revolted and a concession was made in reducing the cost of student tickets.

If there is a bright side, it's that they're no longer on a losing streak, having beat Penn State in Ann Arbor 18-13, thanks to holding the Nittany Lions to 214 total yards. Progress!

The Wolverines on Offense

Devin Gardner should have the nickname "Schrodinger's Cat", because one can never be sure if he's alive or dead (or both at the same time). Given the way MSU's defense has looked at times this season, the possibility for a big play to Devin Funchess is definitely there; while Funchess's yards per reception has dipped since an electric start to the season (12.81 YPR, 21st in the B1G), Gardner to Funchess will be by far Michigan's biggest offensive threat tomorrow.

As for the ground game, it was looking a lot better for Michigan when freshman Derrick Green was healthy. Green averaged 5.74 yards a carry until a broken clavicle forced him out for the season. Against Penn State, Michigan used a  cerberus for the rushing attack, with RBs De'Veon Smith (12 carries, 24 yards) and Justice Hayes (7 carries, 20 yards) along with Gardner (10 carries, 18 yards) looking ineffective.

While Penn State does have the best rushing defense in the nation by yards per game allowed (they also rank top 10 in that for rushing defense S&P+), it's no secret that the Wolverine offensive line leaves much to be desired. While the offensive line ranks 42nd overall in adjusted line yards according to Football Outsiders, they have not been good getting rushing yards on first down, the Wolverines rank 102nd in Standard Downs Line Yards per carry (The raw, unadjusted per-carry line yardage for a team on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer).

The Wolverines on Defense

As the Penn State game demonstrates, Michigan has been saved by its defense many times this season. If there's a strength to the Wolverine defense, it's that they don't allow many big plays. The percentage of explosive drives (defined as drives where the opponent averaged 10 or more yards a play) given up by Michigan is 4.2%, 4th in FBS.

The one thing MSU can't afford to do is turnover the ball deep in its own territory. The good thing for the Green and White - Michigan has only forced three turnovers this season, all interceptions. They have not recovered a fumble for a turnover, and have only forced one fumble total.

Keys to the game

  • THROW THE BALL AWAY CONNOR. As I just said, Michigan has only forced three turnovers all year. The two frustrating things about Cook's play in the past few weeks: his inaccuracy against Purdue and Nebraska, and a penchant for throwing into double, even triple coverage at times (to be fair, the latter criticism can be applied to every college QB save Marcus Mariota). While Cook has done a great job avoiding sacks this season, it may be better for him to either take the sack or throw the ball away. Michigan will most likely have trouble scoring, no need to give them great field position or, heaven forbid, a pick six.
  • STAY ON FUNCHESS. The scariest aspect of the Michigan Football team is the Gardner-to-Funchess connection, especially given MSU's predilection to giving up big plays this year. MSU has allowed 17.6% of its opponents' drives to be "explosive" this season (average of 10 or more yards a play during the drive), that's 97th in the FBS. Funchess has the greatest potential to break a big play, so let's hope the secondary remembered how to tackle this week.
  • BE PATIENT. It's a rivalry game, so emotions will naturally be riding high. However, both teams have a lot of stake. MSU obviously needs this game to keep its hopes of a playoff spot alive, and while Michigan has winnable games coming up against Indiana and at Northwestern, the Maryland game could be trouble, and Ohio State is Ohio State. A win here for the Wolverines would go a long way towards bowl eligibility. In short, Michigan's got a lot to play for, not the least of which is pride. If the offense can't score right away, that's no need to panic: trust the defense.
It's great to see a great build-up to a football game again, after the last couple weeks were, much more exciting then they needed to be at times. Let's hope tomorrow is exciting in all the right ways instead of the wrong ones we've experienced over the past month, and that Paul Bunyan extends his stay in East Lansing.