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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Eight — Michigan

One year after an incredible win in Ann Arbor, the Spartans face a talented Michigan team determined to get their payback.

Ilinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Heading into last weekend’s game against Maryland, the hope was that maybe — just maybe — the Spartans could pull out a win and create the smallest amount of momentum before what looks like a monumental mismatch against archrival Michigan.

Instead, the Spartans threw up yet another clunker and their losing streak grew to five. With an extremely motivated and talented Wolverine team rolling into town, a sixth straight loss seems inevitable, with the only question being just how lopsided the score will be.

The Spartans need every bit of help they can get, so I’m going all in on the reverse jinx. Brace yourselves. It’s gonna get ugly.

How We’re Feeling.gif

We probably should have seen this coming but we didn’t listen. WE DIDN’T LISTEN.

The cracks shown in the opener against Furman were attributed to a bunch of new faces getting PT for the first time. A fair, if flawed, sentiment. Then came the "incredible" win at Notre Dame when hope sprung eternal and it looked like yet another 10-win season was on the horizon. Oh, to be young and naive again.

It’s obvious, now, that the win over the Domers was made of fool’s gold, as the Irish — also 2-5 — join MSU as one of the biggest disappointments in all of college football.

Week three brought with it a humbling home loss to Wisconsin. The argument after that one? Wisconsin might just be really good. The Badgers are clearly that, as shown by their #11 ranking, but the beatdown was as much about Michigan State being deeply flawed as it was Wisconsin being good.

But the beginning of the end came against Indiana. The Spartans struggled in the first half but managed to build a decent lead, only to blow it in crushing fashion, against an Indiana team that didn’t even play all that well.

From there, the anchor that is the 2016 football season continued to sink as the defense surrendered 84 combined points in consecutive home losses to BYU and Northwestern, and it didn’t show any signs of hitting bottom last Saturday night, either.

Against Maryland, the Spartans ran the ball more effectively than they had since Notre Dame, but were unable to stop the opposing runners, allowing two Terrapins to break the 100-yard mark. The defense also continued to produce zero pass-rush — they have seven sacks in seven games — and the secondary was shredded by yet another mediocre quarterback.

There is almost nothing good to say about this team at the moment, but the worst part of the whole thing is that we still haven’t hit the seabed. If Michigan plays a remotely competent game, that will almost certainly happen around 4 pm EST Saturday afternoon.

All indications are that this is going to be a bloodbath. Let’s sort through the pre-crime carnage.

Michigan Offense vs Michigan State Defense

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Wolverines

  • Leading Passer: QB Wilton Speight — 114-for-182 (62.6%) 1,447 yards, 13 TD/2 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Chris Evans — 49 carries, 416 yards, 3 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Amara Darboh — 30 catches, 499 yards, 5 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: LB Chris Frey/S Montae Nicholson — 57 tackles (tie)
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 sacks
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Vayante Copeland/LB Andrew Dowell/CB Darian Hicks/CB Justin Layne/LB Jon Reschke — 1 (tie)

This is a bad matchup for MSU, particularly on the ground. The national rankings:

Michigan Pass Offense: #76 (225.9 ypg, 63.8% completion pct, 14 TD/2 INT)

Michigan Rush Offense: #11 (257.1 ypg, 5.47 yards per carry, 28 TDs)

Michigan State Pass Defense: #64 (225.4 ypg, 7.37 yards per att, 12 opponent TDs)

Michigan State Rush Defense: #66 (162.6 ypg, 4.06 yards per carry, 13 opponent TDs)

That pass ranking for Michigan is skewed by the fact that they run the ball almost 62% of the time. Jim Harbaugh would probably (definitely) run the ball every down if he thought they could win that way. This week, that might be true.

They make their money on the ground behind a big offensive line and what seems like a never-ending crop of fullbacks and tight ends. A group highlighted by Khalid Hill who has the most Harbaugh line possible — 15 carries, 25 yards, eight TDs.

Leading rusher Chris Evans (concussion) might not be able to go but it shouldn’t matter as Michigan has plenty of backs — including the emerging Karan Higdon — to make up for his absence. Four backs have at least 43 carries and five have at least three scores. They’ll be fine.

Wilton Speight has become the game managing quarterback Harbaugh is famous for creating. He isn’t asked to do a whole lot but does have a pretty strong arm and is more than capable of making some nice throws. He flirts with disaster a couple times in each game but has only thrown two interceptions, so far. MSU will need to tack at least one or two onto that number to stay in it.

Speight mostly utilizes three weapons — Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson. Darboh has almost 500 yards and is a big time downfield playmaker, who capitalizes on defensive backs biting up to stop the run. Chesson does much of the same. Butt is the one of the best tight ends in the country. He’s a great red zone option and provides as good of a safety blanket as any quarterback could ask for. He’s also a great blocker in the run game.

On top of all of this is Jabrill Peppers, who has 107 yards on the ground, mostly as a wildcat quarterback. Peppers is as dynamic an athlete as there is in the country and poses yet another challenge for a struggling Spartan run defense. He almost popped one last year, it would be surprising if he didn’t this year.

The formula for slowing this Harbaugh team is the same as it has ever been: contain the run and make quarterback beat you.

MSU did a great job of that last season, holding UM to 62 yards on 33 carries but that was obviously a very different team. This year’s defense has been gashed by offenses that dream of doing what Michigan has done. Malik McDowell — and at least a few others — will have to dominate up front, Riley Bullough will have to stay in the game and the safeties will have to do the only thing they do well, stop the run, if MSU wants any sort of shot.

If they aren’t able to do those things, don’t expect any mercy from Harbaugh. If you think he’s going to take his foot off the gas — especially after what happened last year — you clearly missed this year’s Michigan-Rutgers "game".

It’s simple, really, slow the run or this is going to be a blowout like we haven’t seen in some time.

Michigan State Offense vs Michigan Defense

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 91-for-149 (61.1%) 1,257 yards, 11 TD/6 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 93 carries, 464 yards, 3 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 35 catches, 541 yards, 4 TD

Notable Wolverines

  • Leading Tackler: LB Ben Gedeon — 56 tackles
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Taco Charlton/DT Chris Wormley — 4 sacks (tie)
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Channing Stribling — 3 INT

Somehow, this side of the ball presents an even worse matchup for MSU. Again, the stats are remarkably lopsided.

Michigan State Pass Offense: #61 (235.0 ypg, 59.3% completion pct, 12 TD/8 INT)

Michigan State Rush Offense: #86 (155.3 ypg, 4.20 yards per carry, 8 TDs)

Michigan Pass Defense: #1 (111.0 ypg, 4.74 yards per att, 6 opponent TDs)

Michigan Rush Defense: #4 (96.0 ypg, 2.91 yards per carry, 2 opponent TDs)

MSU has two choices and neither is appetizing. In fact, both are revolting.

Either take on a top-five rush defense with one of the worst rushing offenses in the country, or unleash a mediocre-at-best passing attack against the nation’s best pass defense. Can we supersim this part?

Unfortunately, this is not a video game, although the defensive numbers at the end may resemble one.

Don Brown coordinates a defense that is loaded at every level of the defense, loves to blitz and has lived in opponent’s backfields this season. Eight players have at least 4.5 tackles for loss and seven have multiple sacks. In total, they have 68 TFL’s and 25 sacks. Contrast that with MSU’s 32 TFL’s and 7 sacks, and you realize just how dominant they have been.

Up front, it’s a true rotation. Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst and Matt Godin clog the middle while Taco Charlton and Chase Winovich wreak havoc on the outside. The cherry on top is last year’s top recruit Rashan Gary, who plays both inside and out. Linebackers Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray are there to pick up those who manage to get through the line and rank first and third on the team with 56 and 35 tackles, respectively.

If your quarterback can stay upright long enough to get a pass off, they have the pleasure of taking on Channing Stribling and/or Jourdan Lewis, who might be the best corner in all the land. How delightful.

Peppers is the one that makes it all work, though. His versatility is unmatched in college football and his explosiveness may not be, either. The junior has 40 tackles, 10 TFL’s, and 2.5 sacks, ranking second, first and third on the team in those categories, respectively. Cover, blitz, tackle — Peppers does it all and he does it well. His NFL defection cannot come soon enough.

MSU hasn’t been able to come up with an effective game plan outside of one game —really, one half — against Notre Dame, so it’s impossible to say what they could realistically be prepared to deploy here.

East-West runs won’t work against Peppers, McCray and Gedeon, neither will runs up the gut against the D-Line. Passes will probably be smothered by Lewis and Stribling and the offensive line likely won’t be able to give the the quarterback — Brian Lewerke (?) — time to launch the ball downfield, assuming the wideouts can get open.

Theoretically, MSU should try and exploit how much UM likes to blitz with short passes to the areas vacated by the blitzers but asking Lewerke to read and react to a complex defense like Michigan’s this early in his career is like asking a 3rd grader to take the SAT. Tyler O’Connor is a "better" bet for MSU’s slim chances, assuming he can play.

LJ Scott got going last week, but it’s hard to picture this offensive line making any kind of headway against Michigan’s stout front. State will have to pass to run, something Dave Warner is rarely wont to do, but if they insist on running to set up the pass they may not gain a yard.

It may sound like hyperbole, but it is very possible Michigan pitches a shutout.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Michigan at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Guess who? That’s right, Peppers. If you can believe it, this is where he is at his most electric, averaging over 30 yards per kick return and 20-plus per punt return. He even has a 54 yard punt return score, to boot.

The Spartans are going to have a hard enough time slowing down or scoring on Michigan, so limiting the damage on special teams is absolutely critical.

Michigan State’s coverage units have been terrible all year and as daunting as slowing UM’s offense may seem, it is infinitely better than deliberately putting the ball in Peppers’ hands. If Mark Snyder isn’t telling Jake Hartbarger to punt out of bounds and Kevin Cronin to get his kickoffs into the endzone, then he’s failing everyone around him.

The kicking game is probably UM’s biggest weak spot. Kenny Allen is handling punt, kick and kickoff duties this season and it might be wearing on him. He has only made 6-of-10 and none over 39 yards. If MSU can somehow force UM to settle for field goal attempts, Allen’s struggles could play a role.

We’ve seen some weird stuff happen when the UM special teams are on the field. Let’s do that again, eh?

Bottom Line and Prediction

Wisconsin v Michigan State Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Well would you look at that...

I’ve never been so upset about being right. Although, that will change this week if I manage to repeat this feat.

It is technically possible that MSU could win. Technically, the defense could slow the UM running game and intercept Speight. Technically, the offense could exploit the blitz, play with some tempo and hit a few big plays down the field. Technically, the special teams could avoid Peppers and Allen could miss a couple field goals.

Unfortunately, it seems technically is about as much of a chance as MSU is going to get. Barring a Jalen Watts-Jackson-sized miracle, this will not end well. In fact, it will probably be downright embarrassing.

Michigan is simply a better team in every phase of the game. They have an efficient and powerful offense, a lights out defense, one of the most explosive special teams weapons in the country and as much motivation as any team could ever require.

The inverse is true about the Spartans. Sure, this is a rivalry game which counts for something, but they rank between the 60’s and 80’s in all relevant major statistical team categories and couldn’t hang with Indiana, BYU, Northwestern or Maryland. Remove the wins against MSU and those teams have a combined 12-13 record.

Michigan, on the other hand, is undefeated, ranked #2 in the land and has wins over three top 25 teams. This should not be a close game.

Hey, at least we’ll always have this. I suggest drinking in every last frame before enduring the next year’s worth of gloating that is likely headed our way.

MSU scores on the first drive, gets your hopes up just enough to crush them and then gets steamrolled by a better team.

Michigan 49 - MSU 7

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