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The Only Questions: Q&A with Maize N Brew

Harbaugh is coming to town, need I say more?

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

It’s finally here, the game all Spartan fans wait for, Michigan. The Wolverines are coming to town and #HateWeek is just getting started. Spartan fans may feel a lot better about this matchup had their team not just lost five games in a row but it does not matter. When Michigan pops up on Michigan State’s schedule fans, players, and coaching staff do not need any extra motivation.

The dislike these two teams have for each other can not be expressed or emphasized with mere words. As much hate that will be in the air this Saturday in East Lansing we are hoping there will still be an aura of respect, because both of these schools have terrific football programs. Michigan State is in a bit of a slump this year, whereas Michigan is only getting better but it’s like I always say if Spartan fans could pick one game to win every season it would be this one hands down.

This week we are more than happy to welcome Drew Hallett from SB Nation’s site for everything Michigan all the time, Maize N Brew.

While earlier this year fans may have thought October 29th would ignite the long ongoing rivalry that is Michigan and Michigan State, The Spartans have clearly taken a huge step backwards from where they stood last year and have currently lost five games in a row. Although the Wolverines looked good last year, they seem to have made tremendous improvements on all fronts. In your opinion where do you think those progressions have mainly stemmed from?

Defensively, Michigan was excellent last season, ranking second in S&P+ and fifth in yards allowed per play, so, with a majority of the starters returning, there wasn't much room for growth this season. However, improvements in three areas have maxed out the Wolverines' defensive potential as the unit has performed at a historic level through seven games. First, Michigan's defensive line is stacked with NFL talent and can go eight or nine deep with little drop-off. Last season, the defensive line was the catalyst of Michigan's early defensive dominance. However, injuries to Bryan Mone, Mario Ojemudia, and Ryan Glasgow took their toll, and, by the end, uptempo, spread-to-run offenses (see: Indiana and Ohio State) gashed them with ease. This season, the defensive linemen have remained healthy, Matt Godin and Chase Winovich have developed into dependable contributors, and 2016 No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary was added to the mix, so defensive coordinator Don Brown has been able to send the Wolverine linemen in waves without wearing them down.

Second, Michigan has upgraded its linebacker corps significantly. The linebackers were the weakest defensive unit last season, but they also were Michigan's biggest defensive question mark this past August as the Wolverines needed to replace three departing starters in Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan, and James Ross III. However, the trio of Ben Gedeon (52 tackles, 8.5 TFL 3 sacks), Mike McCray, Jr. (34 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, INT), and Jabrill Peppers (41 tackles, 10 TFL, 2.5 sacks) has exceeded all expectations. Gedeon has been a thumper against the run, though he is susceptible to biting on play-action fakes. McCray defends the run well and possesses excellent timing as a blitzer. And Peppers is Peppers, one of the most explosive athletes in the game whose versatility makes him a weapon in all areas of the field. Michigan's defensive line has made things easier by keeping the linebackers clean, but the linebackers are more than holding their own. They have been the answers to Michigan's only legitimate defensive question this year.

Third, Brown has installed another layer (or three) to Michigan's defense. Under former coordinator D.J. Durkin, the Wolverines' defensive strategy was very straightforward: Michigan would play Cover 1 press man on nearly every snap and dare offenses to beat it one on one. Even though most couldn't, they did not have to spend much time in the film room beforehand to identify what Michigan would do. Under Brown, though, Michigan's defense has become much more complex and more difficult to decipher. Brown utilizes an array of exotic schemes that put Peppers all over the field, send blitzers from any which direction, and incorporate trap zone coverages. Brown's influence has made the Wolverines' defense more aggressive, more versatile, and tougher to crack.

Offensively, Michigan's rushing attack has made major gains (79th in 2015 and 18th in 2016 in YPC) as the right side of the offensive line -- Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson -- has gelled and the youngsters, Chris Evans (416 yards, 8.5 YPC, 3 TD) and Karan Higdon (359 yards, 8.4 YPC, 6 TD), have emerged to form a Wolverine quadraback with DeVeon Smith and Ty Isaac. Nonetheless, Michigan is third in scoring despite being 27th in yards per play, which indicates that there are other factors contributing to its offensive success. Those factors? Starting field position (first via S&P+), third-down success (fourth via S&P+), finishing drives (sixth via S&P+), and turnovers (t-17th in giveaways). Essentially, Michigan does not have a juggernaut of an offense, but it has an offense that puts itself (with the assistance of the constant three-and-outs that Michigan's defense forces and Peppers at punt returner) in excellent position, doesn't make many momentous mistakes, and capitalizes on scoring opportunities. This offense does the little things right, which is a sign that it is disciplined and well-coached. But it is still very capable of sputtering.

We all remember last year's game where Jalen Watts-Jackson ran in a last second touchdown at The Big House after a botched punt by Blake O'Neill. How does that play a role in this years game for your guys? Has that play lingered with the players in the locker room and maybe even Jim Harbaugh himself?

It is and will be a constant reminder that Michigan cannot leave anything to chance in Saturday's meeting with Michigan State. The Wolverines came about as close to a rivalry win as one can get before it was ripped away in the most excruciating of fashions. Jourdan Lewis, Chris Wormley, and Ben Braden may have downplayed it as a "learning experience" when asked about it on Monday, but it seems like all of the Wolverines have held onto the memory of that play in some manner as motivation. It doesn't matter that Michigan is a 24-point road favorite or that Michigan State has lost five straight games. There is no chance that the Wolverines will overlook the Spartans and peek ahead to the next game. Their focus will be on beating Michigan State and avenging 2015.

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

Michigan and Michigan State have had over 100 meetings, Michigan has dominated much of this rivalry. A "Little Brother" remark towards the Spartans was made by former running back Mike Hart after a 2007 comeback win against the Spartans. Putting remarks such as those aside, as a consensus how do you feel Wolverine fans, players and coaches view Michigan State as a football team? Also how do they view their rivalry between the two schools?

How do Wolverines "view Michigan State as a football team?" It depends on time parameters. Historically, uh, not great, Bob. It wasn't until 2013 when the Spartans finally had accumulated more Big Ten championships (8) than the University of Chicago (7), which had abolished its football program 74 years beforehand. For decades, they have been seen as a middle-tier Big Ten program with moments of excellence and moments when, well, "the coaches are screwing it up." They have not been perceived as a program that can perpetually keep pace with Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten and national landscape because they are disadvantaged on the recruiting trail. However, if there was ever a coach that could shelve that narrative, it was Mark Dantonio, who strung together a fantastic six-year stretch from 2010 to 2015 during which the Spartans went 65-16 (80.2%), captured three Big Ten titles, won two BCS/New Year's Six games, and appeared in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Some have argued that Dantonio built his foundation on the failures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke at Michigan, but, regardless, the foundation seemed sturdy enough that it would remain intact for years to come. But that foundation may be cracking as the Spartans are amid a terrible campaign that has seen them lose five consecutive contents for the first time since the 1993-94 seasons and likely miss a bowl. Will Dantonio be able to fill in the cement quickly or will Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer be too much?

As for the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, it will come as no shock to Spartan fans that Michigan fans consider Ohio State to be their chief rival in football. However, Wolverines and Buckeyes seem to maintain a certain level of respect for the other's program despite their passionate interests. There is no such respect evident between the Wolverines and the Spartans. That respect is absent because Michigan doesn't view Michigan State as its equal on the gridiron as it does Ohio State. It views the Spartans as the second-tier program in the Mitten State, even if they have controlled the rivalry the past eight years, and they will do whatever it takes to get Michigan's attention and prove otherwise. It's a nasty rivalry with much contempt expressed for the other.

What are you expecting come game time? Is there a particular matchup you are especially excited to pay attention too?

I will withhold my answer to the first question because you ask a similar one in the next interrogatory. As to the second question, I will be focused on R.J. Shelton versus Michigan's defensive backs. Michigan State prefers to run the football (17th in S&P+'s run rate on std. downs), but that has been a fruitless exercise (80th in Run Offense S&P+ and 79th in YPC). And Michigan State's shaky offensive line will not have much fun meeting Michigan's defensive line (first in Run Defense S&P+). I think the Spartans' best chance to make noise offensively is to be creative in the passing game and take some shots, and Shelton (35 rec., 541 yards, 4 TD) is their best hope to do that. He has the wheels to burn defenses over the top and the elusiveness to make defenders miss in small spaces. Michigan State should want to heavily involve Shelton in the offense, but the question will be how he gains separation from Jourdan Lewis or Channing Stribling, both of whom have combined to pick off four passes and allow just 11 completions on 39 throws for 131 yards. If Shelton can't get open, Michigan State may be in for a rough 60 minutes.

It has been announced that Michigan has opened up a 21 point favorite in this weekend's game, do you see the game shaping up to reflect that spread or can we expect a close and physical game out of these rivals?

My brain and my gut engaged in a 15-round knock-em-out, drag-em-out fight to make this prediction. My brain sees all the data points and game film from this season and claims that Michigan mauls Michigan State. The computers agree, too. S&P+ projects Michigan will win by 35 points, Sagarin likes the Wolverines by 27, and Massey has them by 25. My brain and the computers think this because Michigan has been a soul-sucking death machine week to week while Michigan State has collapsed by losing five straight games despite being the favorite in each.

However, my gut knows that this is not a typical week for either program. This is Hate Week. Michigan will be motivated after the past eight years, including, particularly, last season's jaw-dropping defeat, but Michigan State always plays its best game against the Wolverines. The Spartans bring it, no matter what. They are 8-0 versus the spread in their last eight games against Michigan, and they were one point away from being 9-0 versus the spread against Michigan in all nine years under Mark Dantonio. It may seem like Michigan State has rolled over and died this season, but I do not expect that to be the case on Saturday. I know Dantonio too well to fall for that ruse, and, until I see Michigan dominate a Dantonio Michigan State team, I will not assume that it will happen, especially when the game is played in East Lansing. I predict that Michigan State's defense will come out inspired, create some first-half jitters for Michigan's offense, and make many Michigan fans nervous. But, ultimately, Michigan's defense will be too suffocating as the Spartans fail to bust L.J. Scott or Gerald Holmes free and struggle to put R.J. Shelton into open space, and Wilton Speight and Jake Butt will lead Michigan to a win in the second half.

Michigan 24, Michigan State 10

Thanks again to Drew and all the guys over at Maize N Brew!