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Michigan State Spartans Football: Western Michigan Preview

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Hello Football, my Old Friend

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Being part of a largely Wayne State-centric family in Dearborn caused me to grow up as a Detroit professional sports fan. One of the most formative moments of my sports fandom as a kid was finding out that Barry Sanders had retired on the eve of training camp. The other was being in attendance for a devastating 2007 Lions loss against the Dallas Cowboys that eliminated the Lions from playoff contention. I sat with my brother in the stands, silently, for a half hour after that game ended. There's nothing quite like being a Lions fan.

My friend Ben is the reason I converted to college football fandom. In high school, Ben and I gravitated towards each other because we were equally nerdy and realized that we'd both be able to do less work by partnering on group projects. This inevitably led to playing video games in our respective basements, and the "Hey Dad is it ok for me to spend the night at Ben's?" phone calls home.

The day that got me hooked on college football was New Year's Day, 2008. Ben and I would watch bowl games until they got boring (we watched all of Tennessee-Wisconsin, for instance, but not Missouri-Arkansas) and then switch to playing NCAA Football on PS2. I'll never forget posting a 20-point comeback on Ben behind Chase Daniel, playing as Mizzou. Ben's Dad made a spicy steak chili (his "Tailgate Chili" that I have stolen and have made for many tailgates) and homemade bread. At that point, both Ben and I sort of presumed we'd be going to Michigan as roommates. And that day we watched Michigan, in Lloyd Carr's final game, upset Tim Tebow and Florida.

It was so, so much better than watching the Lions.

Ben and I ended up not going to college together. Ben went to Western and I went to MSU, where our respective loves of tailgating and football flourished in parallel. I visited Kalamazoo and went to games at Waldo Stadium, and he did the same with East Lansing and Spartan Stadium.

In 2009, when "Celebrate the State" became a thing, we agreed that whatever was going on in our lives at the time of that game, we'd drop it and head to Waldo together. On Friday, Ben is flying into Detroit, and he and his Dad will be picking me up on the way to the game.

I think we're exactly the fans that Mark Hollis had in mind.

(By the way, the title of this post is also a reference to this tweet)

When MSU Has the Ball

Passing Game

Western's secondary returns two players with significant starting experience in strong safety Rontavious Atkins and corner Ronald Zamort. those two contributed significantly to Western's 83 passes defended in 2014, which was good for fourth nationally. At the other corner spot is converted wide receiver Darius Phillips, who also serves as the primary return man. At free safety is sophomore Asantay Brown.

Along the defensive line, Western was 69th nationally in terms of sack rate, and defensive tackle Cleveland Smith led the team in sacks with 5.5. MSU's offensive line was top-10 nationally in terms of offensive sack rate; I expect Connor Cook to be comfortable.

Last year, the passing defense was the stronger of the two units defensively, checking in with an S&P+ which was 66th nationally (versus 87th in rushing S&P+). Given that they lost half of their starters in the back four and might struggle in pressuring the quarterback, I think that MSU will have plenty of success in the passing game.

I'm also more bullish on Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings, and R.J. Shelton than most.

Running Game

To me, the most telling information here is that MSU's offensive line weighs about 40 more pounds on average than Western's defensive line (302 vs. 261). Western lists two true freshmen on the defensive tackle depth chart, and none of their lineman weighs more than 300 pounds.

Western's opponents ran more often than they passed it last year, probably for all of these reasons. Regardless of which running back is in the game, I expect MSU to run the ball quite often and be quite effective.

When Western Has the Ball

Style

Stylistically, Western plays missionary-style offense, meaning that they are slow, balanced and traditional. Statistically, they're significantly more interesting, posting a Top-5 national rates in both IsoPPP and points per drive inside the 40 [insert joke about getting it into "the end zone" here].

I don't believe there will be many surprises for MSU schematically, which is probably a good thing for an inexperienced MSU secondary.

Passing Game

Quarterback Zach Terrell had both the highest QB Rating and yards per attempt in the MAC last year; he's about as good as you'll get from the conference. Receivers Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman both had over 100 targets last year, and Braverman caught an astounding 81.1% of balls thrown in his direction. Davis was more of a big-play threat; he averaged 12.2 yards per target (for reference, Tony Lippett averaged 11.4 yards per target in 2014).

On the offensive line, the Broncos were middling nationally in terms of sack rate; Bill Connelly had them at 69th nationally (I swear that wasn't intentional). They return three starters from last season.

What all of this amounts to is that MSU's secondary will be tested in this game, so long as Western's offensive line keeps Zach Terrell upright. I don't expect Terrell will have a ton of time to throw, so this shouldn't be an issue. But we'll probably find out quite a bit about Demetrious Cox and Vayante Copeland.

As a note, behind Terrell on the depth chart are two true freshmen.

Running Game

Jarvion Franklin ran the ball over 300 times as a true freshman in 2014 and was generally effective, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on the season. But he faltered a little bit down the stretch, averaging just 3.5 YPC in the final four games. This is to be expected from a true freshman toting the ball that often (I remember Le'veon Bell hitting a similar wall as a freshman in 2010).

Zach Terrell also averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 56 carries, but for reasons listed above I don't expect them to let him take any more hits than necessary.

Anyways, the Broncos have the skill talent. The bigger question is how Western's offensive line will do against MSU's front seven. Western's offensive opportunity rate (the rate at which the line does its job on running plays) was 73rd nationally last year. MSU's defense was the best in the nation in that category defensively.

Despite Franklin's talent, I don't expect this to be much of a problem for the MSU defense. That defensive line is just too good.

Prediction

Brian Fremeau: MSU 38-WMU 19

The MSU offense could certainly score more than 38 points, but I don't expect that to happen unless Western breaks a few big passing plays (and they could). There's definitely the potential for this game to get out of hand quickly for the Broncos if Terrell is under duress early; they're not going to be able to run the ball effectively.

That's what I'm guessing happens.

MSU 38 - WMU 13