After another close escape last Saturday against Rutgers, Michigan State rolls into #HateWeek 6-0 with a chance to notch their best victory of the season. The only thing standing in their way is a Michigan squad that hasn't given up a point in their last three games. What could go wrong!? Maize n Brew's Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) and I agreed to a temporary truce for the sake of #clicks and swapped a few questions. My responses can be found here. Take it away, Drew.
1. Everyone expected Harbaugh to turn the program, but even the eternal optimist didn't see this dominant start coming. What has been the biggest surprise during this 5-1 stretch?
Though the defense's development from very good to the nation's best has been a pleasant surprise, the biggest surprise has been the offensive line. Michigan State fans know better than any other opponent fan base the issues that have plagued Michigan's offensive line in recent seasons. All I need to say is "minus-48," and Spartans will know exactly to what I'm referring. [shudders] With Jim Harbaugh's arrival, Michigan transitioned from a zone-blocking scheme to a man-blocking one. This meant more powers, more counters, and more isos. It also meant that it'd take time for this offensive line, which returned five players with starting experience, to master these new blocking schemes.
However, Michigan's offensive linemen have picked up these schemes faster than anticipated. By no means is the unit one that will dominate the line of scrimmage on every down, but everything seems cohesive and well-organized upfront. This effort has been led by center Graham Glasgow, who has developed into one of the Big Ten's better interior linemen, and left tackle Mason Cole, whose progression as a road grader has been noticeable. The result is that Michigan is 42nd in yards per carry (4.77) and 35th in Rushing S&P+. Like I said, these aren't fear-inducing numbers, but this still is significant for an offense that relies heavily on pounding the football with its running backs.
Further, where the offensive line has taken the biggest strides has been in pass protection. Last season, Michigan was 72nd in adjusted sack rate. This season, the Wolverines are 10th. The linemen have been able to keep the pocket clean for Jake Rudock, who, as a game manager, is not one to fire bullets down the field with pressure in his face. And this will be important against a Michigan State defense that is notorious for wrecking Michigan's offensive line -- and, in turn, its quarterbacks -- with relentless pressure and double A-gap blitzes.
We'll see how the offensive line holds up on Saturday.
2. Jake Rudock hasn't been lighting the world on fire but, besides his three-interception debut, has been an effective game manager. Explain his biggest strengths and weaknesses. Can he expose MSU's secondary?
Jake Rudock is a game manager through and through. This season, he's completed 62 percent of his passes, but his yards per attempt is only 6.6. That's a man who likes to check down and look underneath. Where Rudock excels is his pocket presence. He moves well within the pocket to avoid pressure, which is another reason why Michigan's adjusted sack rate is one of the best in the country. He also can extend plays with his feet. No, he's not Denard Robinson, but he can keep defenses honest with some scrambles and zone-read keepers. He has three rushing touchdowns to show for it. Finally, his accuracy on shorter passes improved against Northwestern, hitting receivers in stride rather than throwing them off their feet and eliminating opportunities for lots of yards after the catch. This trend must continue on Saturday.
However, Rudock's two biggest weaknesses may limit his ability to expose Michigan State's secondary.
First, he's struggling to go through his progressions when the first read is not available. Too often he has failed to see wide-open receivers because he was too locked in on his first target. There are two possible explanations for this. One may be that he still is trying to become more comfortable with the playbook as he's been in Ann Arbor only since the summer. It took a full season as Iowa's starter before he found his rhythm. Another may be that the early-season turnovers rattled his confidence, causing him to make late throws and shaky decisions.
Second, Rudock cannot connect on the long ball. There have been numerous occasions, particularly against Utah and Maryland, when Michigan had an open receiver, usually Jehu Chesson, sprinting all alone down the field. But Rudock overthrew them each time. The reason for this seems to be that he tries to make the perfect throw, even when he doesn't have to. In these situations, Rudock just needs to learn to hang the ball up in the air and permit his receiver to run underneath it. Will he do that against MSU? I don't know. But he needs to do so.
3. Behind stars like Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell, MSU has probably the best front seven Michigan will have seen all season. They also have a back four that has been repeatedly torched by inferior opponents. UM is obviously a run-dominant team, but do you expect the offense gameplan to change at all to prey on MSU's defensive weaknesses?
I don't expect that Michigan will unleash an aerial assault with Jake Rudock given his weaknesses as a quarterback, which I just listed. However, in the past five games, Rudock has had his best two halves when Michigan opened the playbook a bit more in the first half against then-No. 22 BYU and then-No. 13 Northwestern. I do wonder if Rudock performs better when Michigan is more aggressive and asks him to do more. We'll learn the answer this weekend, as Rudock will need to take shots down the field against MSU's aggressive Cover 4 scheme.
Nonetheless, Jim Harbaugh wants to run the ball and control the clock, and that won't change on Saturday. Plus, if Michigan can run the ball effectively with the punishing De'Veon Smith and the more-elusive Drake Johnson, it will take the pressure off of Rudock. Will Michigan be successful? I'm not sure. Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell are disruptive players on the line, but Michigan State's front seven isn't as good as advertised against the run. The Spartans' defense is only 47th in both yards allowed per carry (3.77) and Rushing S&P+. That's not bad, but it's not the dominant front that we've seen from Michigan State in recent seasons. I'm curious how much those numbers are impacted by opposing Air Force's triple option (5.47 YPC vs. MSU), but I don't think it's enough that it disguises a menacing run defense.
Michigan won't run wild over Michigan State. But the days of minus-48 are over.
4. Despite playing behind a patchwork offensive line much of the year, Connor Cook is having the best season of his career. MSU has a deep group of wideouts and tight ends who have been playing lights out but UM's defense is among the national elite after pitching three straight shutouts. What will they have do to slow Cook and his electric receiving corps down? Are there any individual matchups you think UM can exploit?
There are two key match-ups that will determine Michigan's defensive success against Michigan State.
The first is Michigan's defensive line versus MSU's injury-riddled offensive line. The Wolverines may have the best defensive line in the nation. And that isn't hyperbole. S&P+ uses two metrics to evaluate line play. One is adjusted line yards (vs. the run), and the other is adjusted sack rate (vs. the pass). Michigan ranks first and fifth in the nation in those categories, respectively. What makes U-M's defensive line so exceptional is its depth. There are three spots on the line -- both defensive tackles and the strong-side defensive end -- where U-M has a two-deep of players capable of starting at other Big Ten schools. Former walk-on defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow has been throwing centers around like rag dolls. Reserve defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. has one of the most explosive first steps off the snap I've seen. Defensive end Chris Wormley uses a powerful slant to the inside to make plays in the backfield. I can keep going, but you catch my drift. I mention this, though, because Michigan maintains its level of play while rotating seven players on the line, which wears down offensive lines.
Given what I saw from Michigan State's offensive line against Rutgers, if two or more of Michigan State's Jack Conklin, Jack Allen, and Kodi Kieler are not 100 percent for Saturday, I don't see how that unit wins the battle in the trenches against Michigan's defensive line. Michigan would shut down the run -- MSU is 105th in Rushing S&P+ -- and get pressure in Connor Cook's face the entire game. Of course, that doesn't mean Michigan State would have no chance to move the football because Cook has proven to be great under pressure. Some throws he made versus the Knights to extend late drives were sensational. But Cook needs open receivers, which brings me to my next match-up.
The second is Jourdan Lewis versus Aaron Burbridge. Lewis arguably has been the best cover corner in the nation -- Pro Football Focus certainly thinks so, stating that quarterbacks have completed only 11-of-34 passes for 67 yards against him this season -- while Burbridge has transformed into one of the country's better receivers as a senior. Burbridge has been Cook's favorite receiver -- he has 53 targets; Macgarrett Kings, Jr. is second with 28 -- so expect Lewis to shadow Burbridge all game in Michigan's one- and two-man under schemes. If Lewis can neutralize Burbridge, Cook will have a difficult time finding other open receivers against Michigan's talented defensive backfield.
5. Who is the most important player on each side of the ball for Michigan this week?
Offensively, it's Jake Rudock. Yes, he just had his best game as a Wolverine last weekend against one of the nation's best pass defenses in Northwestern. However, that's because the Wildcats like to play soft zones that allow quarterbacks to complete passes underneath. That is playing right into Rudock's strengths. On the other hand, Michigan State may be vulnerable in the secondary, but, unlike the Wildcats, the Spartans' Cover 4 schemes are a terrible match-up for Rudock. Even if Michigan doesn't choose to attack primarily through the air, he will need to be able to hit passes over the top. If he cannot, Michigan State will load the box, which could spell trouble for Michigan's offense.
Defensively, it's Jourdan Lewis for the reasons I explained in the question above. I think Michigan's defensive line will have its way with MSU's jumbled offensive line, so the Wolverines must be able to shut down Connor Cook's favorite escape valve in Aaron Burbridge. Lewis doesn't play perfect coverage, but, on almost every snap, it will take a perfect throw to beat him. Cook and Burbridge are capable of that.
6. What is the biggest area of concern for Michigan heading into this one?
I know I'm repeating myself, but Jake Rudock's ability to thrown down the field. If he can do so, I think Michigan should be able to win comfortably, which is frightening to write given the past seven years. However, if he can't, I think we will have a dramatic finish on our hands.
On paper, this screams like a Michigan win. The Wolverines enter this weekend performing like one of the best teams in the nation. During their five-game win steak, which included two games against ranked teams, they have outscored their opponents, 160-14. The offense has been steadily improving as Jim Harbaugh continues to tinker with run fits and schemes. The defense is playing lights out, pitching three straight shutouts and allowing more than 200 yards in a game only once -- in garbage time -- in the past five weeks. And the special teams are dominating the field-position battle. Add in that Michigan will enjoy the comforts of the Big House, and all signs point to the Wolverines.
Further, Michigan State may be undefeated and a top-10 team in the polls, but the Spartans haven't looked like it this season. What was supposed to be a marquee win against Oregon has lost its luster. Michigan State had trouble putting away Air Force and Central Michigan. And the Spartans needed all 60 minutes to close out wins against two of the worst Big Ten teams in Purdue and Rutgers. It also doesn't help Michigan State's chances that the team has been struck with numerous injuries at critical positions like offensive line and secondary.
There's a reason why Vegas has Michigan as an eight-point favorite and S&P+ likes Michigan to win by a whopping 17 points.
Yet, I still think we are in for a dogfight of a game on Saturday. Mark Dantonio is in his ninth season at Michigan State, and, in the previous eight seasons, his Spartans always have given as great of a performance as they possibly can give against Michigan. The idea that Michigan will roll over Michigan State just doesn't feel right. And there is talent on this Spartans team. We're just waiting for them to flip the switch.
In a radio segment that I did earlier this week, I predicted that the score would be 24-17. On second thought, I'm going to lower it to 20-13 as I think both offenses will have trouble moving the football. Michigan's defensive line will harass Connor Cook, while Jake Rudock will be unable to exploit Michigan State's secondary on a consistent basis. But I think Michigan's offense will do just enough late to secure the win.
Michigan 20, Michigan State 13
BONUS QUESTION: How many pairs of khaki's have you bought in the last 6 months?
I hate to disappoint, but zero. I stick to shorts and sandals out here in Los Angeles.
Thanks to Drew for answering The Only Questions! Truce OVER.