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Opponent Review: Michigan Wolverines

Looking ahead to Michigan State’s next opponent, Michigan, while answering some of your questions.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is one of the most criminally underrated in college football. Nearly unmatched in its pettiness and vitriol, it exemplifies the tensions inherent in so many college football rivalries.

It has been described as “culture versus agriculture,” “the upturned nose versus the curled fist,” “the wine and cheese crowd versus Woodstock ‘69” and various other John U. Baconings.

There are barbs traded about co-eds, the chronometric abilities of a man named “Bob” acceptance rates, the prevalence of people who would rather be at any number of Ivy league schools, a fixation on the past, and the like. Ah, football season.

If four years at the University of Michigan taught me anything (yes, you read that correctly), it’s that the rivalry has certainly been joined. Though segments of the Michigan fan base hate to admit that Michigan State is one of the Wolverines’ biggest rival, I can say based on firsthand experience that is demonstrably the case. MSU has always been UM’s rival. Actions speak louder than words, do they not?

It was Michigan that tried to kill Michigan State from its very creation, then tried to prevent MSU from joining the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State both recognize the mutually beneficial nature of their rivalry, particularly when they traded bowl appearances in the ‘‘Big Two and Little Eight” era. With Michigan State, there exists legitimate institutional animus. Just ask Devin Bush, or Dave Brandon’s skywriter, or Brady Hoke’s stake.

This game matters greatly to both schools. College football is such a great sport because not only is it based on a genuine love for your institution, it's also based on visceral hate and revulsion toward your opposition. There’s nothing like it, and the 115th edition of the rivalry should be nothing if not memorable.

As for the actual game, an overplayed narrative in the UM-MSU rivalry is that we should “throw out the records” because it’s a rivalry and “anything can happen.” Since what I consider the last true upset in 2001, (when an unranked MSU beat a top-10 Michigan team in November, the only conference loss before UM lost to OSU to finish second in the conference) the next 20 meetings have proven that what I would consider the “better” team has won nearly every time.

But Chase, MSU beat a -4.5 spread to beat a top-10 Michigan team in 2017? And beat like a million Rich-Rod and Hoke teams that were ranked?

It’s true, but Michigan is pretty consistently overrated early in the season. To take out all bias, I looked at how the seasons played out. In almost every scenario, the team with a better record, and better performance in the conference, and better performance in the season overall won the Michigan-Michigan State game.

For example, in the 2017 season referenced above, MSU finished second in the division, beat possibly the best PSU team of the James Franklin era, won 10 games to Michigan’s eight, and finished ranked in the top-15. The story is the same for the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years.

I think looking retroactively at the sum of seasons is the best way to determine the “better” team. For example, it would seem foolish to give a Michigan team that spent most of the 2018 season on the doorstep of the playoff undue credit for beating a Michigan State team that while at the time was 4-2 and ranked, was a pretty mediocre team that finished 7-6.

The results of the last 20 years are as such:

  • 2002: Michigan 49 (10-3), Michigan State 3 (4-8).

Michigan wins six more games than MSU, Michigan gets the designation as better.

  • 2003: Michigan 27 (10-3), Michigan State 20 (8-5).

Big Ten champion Michigan gets the nod over John L. Smith’s best team.

  • 2004: Michigan 45 (9-3), Michigan State 37 (5-7).

Big Ten champion Michigan again.

  • 2005: Michigan 34 (7-5), Michigan State 31 (5-6).

Michigan gets the nod with the better record.

  • 2006: Michigan 31 (11-2), Michigan State 13 (4-8).

Starting 11-0 and winning seven more games, Michigan gets the nod.

  • 2007: Michigan 28 (9-4), Michigan State 24 (7-6).

Closer, but Michigan had the better record, played for the conference title vs. Ohio State.

  • 2008: Michigan State 35 (9-4), Michigan 21 (3-9).

Mark Dantonio’s first win over Michigan, six more wins and a ranked finish for MSU.

  • 2009: Michigan State 26 (6-7), Michigan 20 (5-7).

MSU with a better record, and four places higher in Big Ten standings.

  • 2010: Michigan State 34 (11-2), Michigan 17 (7-6).

MSU with a superior record, and tied for best record in the Big Ten.

  • 2011: Michigan State 28 (11-3), Michigan 14 (11-2).

MSU gets the nod as it appeared in the Big Ten Championship game, something Michigan didn’t do until 2021.

  • 2012: Michigan 12 (8-5), Michigan State 10 (7-6).

Michigan’s better record and higher finish by three spots in the division gets the nod.

  • 2013: Michigan State 26 (13-1), Michigan 9 (7-6).

Dantonio’s best team in my opinion, a team that won the Big Ten, gets the nod for MSU.

  • 2014: Michigan State 35 (11-2), Michigan 11 (5-7).

MSU won a New Year’s Six bowl, and finished substantially higher in the standings.

  • 2015: Michigan State 27 (12-2), Michigan 23 (10-3).

Big Ten champions, College Football Playoff, easy pick for MSU. As for the game, Michigan got one first down in the last 12 minutes of the game, and got almost doubled up in yardage. The only “miracle” is how Michigan was in a position to win it before the Jalen Watts-Jackson play.

  • 2016: Michigan 32 (10-3), Michigan State 23 (3-9).

Michigan finishes third in the division, but gets the nod over a moribund MSU.

  • 2017: Michigan State 14 (10-3), Michigan 10 (8-5).

MSU rebounds and beats a top-10 Penn State team that season, winning 10 games and a bowl game, easy pick.

  • 2018: Michigan 21 (10-3) , Michigan State 7 (7-6).

Michigan technically splits division title with Ohio State, Michigan State isn’t competitive post-October.

  • 2019: Michigan 44 (9-4) , MSU 10 (7-6).

In Dantonio’s last year, Michigan finishes with better conference and overall records.

  • 2020: Michigan State 27 (2-5), Michigan 24 (2-4).

In a mess of a season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, MSU’s win over top-10 division champ Northwestern wins give them the edge.

  • 2021: Michigan State 37 (11-2), Michigan 33 (12-2).

Michigan gets the nod for beating Ohio State winning the conference, and making the College Football Playoff.

Since 2001, the “better team” lost only once, with that being in 2021. I think that there are appropriately extenuating circumstances, with Kenneth Walker III turning in a Heisman-worthy performance. It was really only the second time in the games in question that someone who could reasonably be considered the best player in the country was present on either sideline, (the other being Braylon Edwards in 2004) and that has a way of changing the calculus of the outcome of the game. Suffice it to say there will not be such a player on either team on Halloween weekend this year.

So who is the better team in 2022? And what does a Michigan State victory look like?

Know Thy Enemy

Michigan is a good football team. Not a great football team, but a good, sound football team. The Wolverines have a talented defensive interior, and a strong secondary. The primary EDGE defender, Mike Morris, is a solid player who is played opposite of a revolving door of talented but raw players. Michigan’s secondary is extremely veteran and mixes coverages and disguises constantly, and is well coached.

The weakness of the Michigan defense is at the linebacker level, which the Wolverines scheme around as much as they can. Down their most experienced linebacker before the season (Nikhai Hill-Green has dressed but not played in any game this year), Michigan has an extremely athletic but unsound sophomore named Junior Colson at middle linebacker, with converted safety and blitz specialist Mike Barrett lining up alongside him.

On offense, the story is the rushing attack. Highly recruited running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards run behind an excellent offensive line that returns four starters from the Joe Moore Award winning unit last year. The wide receiver corps are full of speed, forcing most defenses to play with two safeties deep. Michigan plays FIVE tight ends, who are versatile in blocking schemes, and in the passing game. The Wolverines are quarterbacked by J.J. McCarthy, who brings a strong arm, excellent running ability, and questionable pocket presence to the table.

In reviewing Michigan’s games against Power Five competition, these were the general takeaways I reached.

  • Michigan 34, Maryland 27

Maryland was absolutely terrified of Michigan’s speed at wide receiver, and played with two safeties deep. Despite that, Michigan schemed up about seven deep shots that would/could have gone for touchdowns. McCarthy was off for most of the game as far as the deep ball goes, completing just two of seven throws on what I charted as “shot” plays. His 220 passing yards with two touchdowns was second fiddle to Blake Corum running for nearly 250 yards and two touchdowns. Offensively, Maryland scored 20 pre-garbage time points, mostly utilizing Taulia Tagovailoa’s escapability to hit long developing routes. However, the Maryland offense was largely stymied in the second half.

  • Michigan 27, Iowa 14

Iowa essentially conceded that it couldn’t run with Michigan’s receivers, and played its secondary in the parking lot while trying to stop the run. Michigan played a pretty disciplined game, taking underneath routes against Iowa’s cover-2 scheme, and relying on the strong offensive line to mash Iowa’s front to the tune of about 4.7 yards a carry from Corum and Edwards. Iowa’s offense was mostly impotent, save a garbage time touchdown against prevent defense. However, Iowa was able to isolate Michigan’s linebackers in coverage against the Hawkeyes’ tight ends to move the chains on multiple occasions. This will be something to watch for Michigan State.

  • Michigan 31, Indiana 10

Indiana was able to get some offensive success in the screen game early, but any offensive success evaporated in the second half. Indiana actually stymied Michigan’s rushing attack by recklessly sending all of its linebackers downhill on run keys. Corum’s 5.0 yards per carry mark is a bit deceiving as much of that came on one chunk play. The downside of sending so many people into run fits was that McCarthy was able to throw for 8.5 yards per attempt for 304 yards and three scores.

  • Michigan 41, Penn State 17

Not only was Penn State significantly overrated, Michigan also schemed the HELL out of this matchup. PSU kept safeties deep and slanted and stunted its defensive lineman often, and Michigan’s offensive linemen were able to use their momentum to take the Nittany Lions out of plays and open up gaping holes for Corum and Edwards. Defensively, Penn State scored all of 10 points on two chunk plays. Michigan’s defense certainly played well, and was well-designed, but I was also taken aback by the level of incompetence PSU showed offensively.

What Does It Mean for Michigan State?

Like I said, there’s no doubt that Michigan is a good football team. However, there is a distinct path for Michigan State to keep the game close. If you keep games close, weird things can happen. A number of factors will come into play.

  • MSU’s run defense must play its best game of the year.

This is a bit of a truism, but nonetheless, it bears repeating. Last year, Michigan only put up 146 yards on 34 carries (about 4.3 yards per carry). When I went back to look at what Michigan State did last year to nuke Michigan’s run game, it was essentially three things.

Firstly, Michigan State put plenty of defensive linemen inside the tackles, gumming up the interior. Secondly, MSU activated its safeties and linebackers against the edges. If that sounds like the Spartans just sold out the entire defense to stop the run at the expense of its pass defense...yeah. Thirdly, MSU was able to benefit from matchups that will be difficult to replicate this year.

Defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley played excellent games, but defensive tackle Jacob Slade was the linchpin of the defense. Slade absolutely dominated Michigan offensive lineman Karsen Barnhardt, who was playing guard. Something that I didn’t realize until rewatching was that both of Michigan’s starting guards were out for most of the Michigan State game last year, and the defensive interior was able to win on a man-to-man basis. If MSU’s defensive interior can play similarly this year, solid efforts from the defensive ends and Jacoby Windmon playing alongside Cal Haladay at linebacker could force Michigan to turn to the pass game, which...

  • MSU cannot get carved through the air again

McCarthy has been touch-and-go on deep balls, but he is absolutely deadly on short and intermediate passes. To me, this is one of the biggest differences between him and Cade McNamara. McNamara lacked the arm strength to put a ball on a five-yard hitch in time for the receiver to turn it upfield to get seven or nine yards. McCarthy has noticeably more zip on his throws, and if MSU plays cushion coverage, he will get balls to the receivers in time to get yards after the catch.

When McCarthy knows where he is going pre-snap, he can be deadly. However, when coverages are switched on him, he stays in the pocket FAR too long. He is a young quarterback behind a good offensive line, but no offensive line can protect for as long as McCarthy hangs in the pocket for. In the clip below, for example, his pocket presence is downright irresponsible.

and also here:

  • Win the turnover battle

Speaking of irresponsibility, McCarthy has fumbled eight times in 18 games. Since he took the hit above at the end of the scramble, he has been coached to get out of bounds when he keeps the ball. This is an extra 15 yards if he cuts it up, which he consciously does not.

You can tell in watching McCarthy play the last few games, that being more responsible has been a coaching point for McCarthy. However, it has not been fully coached out of him, as seen by what he did below against Penn State. I mean, watch JIm Harbaugh at the end of the clip. He knows.

McCarthy’s legs were absolutely deadly against Penn State, as two long touchdown runs that iced the game for Michigan in the third quarter were because defensive force players overreacting to McCarthy’s quarterback keep threat at mesh points after he almost had a pair of rushing touchdowns in the first half. McCarthy will get substantial dropbacks and carries against Michigan State, if the Spartans can mix coverages pre- and post-snap and attack the football, they could create some turnover luck that can be instrumental in a win.

  • Run the damn ball

Michigan State has averaged over 3.0 yards a carry once in games against Power Five opponents. This cannot be the case on Saturday. Whether jet sweeps, quarterback runs, or chicanery, if Michigan doesn’t respect MSU on the ground, the Wolverines will tee off on Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed. Something the New England Patriots did for many years was to supplement a subpar run game with quick flat routes, smoke routes and screens to their receivers and running backs. The expectation was never to get more than three-to-five yards a carry, but it acted as a functional running attack. I could see that being a method for staying on schedule for MSU.

  • Attack the linebackers

One of the biggest chess matches over the bye week will be how Michigan plans to protect its linebackers, and how Michigan State schemes to attack them. I would use levels/“sail” concepts to flood Michigan’s zone with receivers at every “level” of the defense, particularly athletic tight ends like Daniel Barker and Maliq Carr.

Michigan’s linebackers struggle in coverage help, which could be helpful to Michigan State. MSU will certainly seek to single up Keon Coleman and Reed against Michigan’s corners, and at that point it will just be a matter of who comes down with 50/50 balls. I could see this be a redux of the 2015 game where Aaron Burbridge was targeted 19 times.

The second article this will touch on some of the more pointed questions asked in the comments of last week’s mailbag, and The Only Colors will be full of rivalry week coverage up and through kickoff on Halloween weekend.