Happy Friday y’all. You know what’s going on tomorrow. In fact, many of you were upset by this website’s leisurely pace in putting out articles ahead of the game. It certainly isn’t easy keeping you all happy, though I tell myself you are just projecting your feelings about this year’s football team on the TOC staff, and that helps me sleep at night.
Conversely, you know who is having a good season? Yeah, those guys. I haven’t been seeing much collective optimism for this game in our comment sections, though stranger things have happened. Maybe all the talk about cheating scandals gets inside our opponents’ brains and we steal one. Here to talk with us about the opponent is my old friend and summer camp bunkmate, not to mention the editor of MGOBLOG, Seth Fisher. Let’s get to the questions.
TOC: Let’s start with Coach Harbaugh. He had that 3-game self-imposed suspension to begin this season. Do you think that punishment was fair, too lenient, or too harsh? Were you surprised that the NCAA did not impose its own punishment on Harbaugh or the program?
SF: As someone who often makes deep cut references on the internet, I totally understand Michigan’s frustration that nobody noticed Harbaugh received the same punishment that Urban Meyer got for covering up spousal abuse. C’mon! Anyone? It’s right there!
Like the sign-sealing stuff, anybody who’s taking it seriously is just showing you they don’t need to be taken seriously. I guess it’s nice to know, when your program really gets put under the microscope, that all they can find is stuff even your rivals would be embarrassed to care about.
Those of us who cover the NCAA are all well aware they no longer have an enforcement staff—anyone with an ounce of competence goes to work for the schools’ compliance offices—so they’ve started outsourcing this stuff to people who have time and interest, which attracts people with axes to grind. This one isn’t the first or the last.
When you look around the NCAA, we just saw a six-year investigation wrapping up at Kansas that amounted to basically the same punishment as for Harbaugh. We saw the same at Tennessee, Arizona, and LSU, not to mention an entire league that is fig-leafing NIL inducements. I’m all for the players being paid so this point is only about the 20,000,000-to-1 difference in degrees. It’s fair to say Michigan shouldn’t have been risking COVID exposure before there was a vaccine. If you care about literally anything else you’re just showing your ass.
TOC: Sticking with the coach a moment, after starting his stint in Ann Arbor going 0-5 against OSU, did you personally think that he should have been replaced? If so, were you surprised the administration kept him? Or if not, what gave you faith that he could get the program over that hurdle?
SF: I never thought Harbaugh should be replaced, but after 2020 I wasn’t going to be that upset if he took the Lions job.* I also congratulated Warde Manuel on signing Jim to an incentive-laden steal of a contract. That last bit came back to bite us in the keister when Harbaugh nearly spent his two offseasons on that contract shopping for NFL jobs.
I don’t deal in “oh, he’s only [blank] and [blank] against [blank] because it’s literally my job to know every detail that went into those games. I was in Columbus when Michigan outplayed Ohio State in 2016, and I was in Ann Arbor when they did so again in 2017. I also scouted those Ohio State teams a lot.
The reason I was happy to keep Harbaugh on the cheap was I couldn’t imagine anyone else who could do better. I wasn’t enamored with Matt Campbell (I do respect his DC, Jim Heacock, who’s well known to Michigan and OSU fans). Michigan is a unique place with unique issues that, e.g., Rich Rodriguez couldn’t overcome.
And here’s Jim Harbaugh, who took a meh 49ers team to the Super Bowl, built 1-11 Stanford into a program David Shaw could put on cruise control, and made a Brady Hoke team watchable in one offseason. Anyone who thinks Michigan can just succeed by swinging around the Block M was either in a coma in 2014-16 or can’t appreciate how hard it is to run a competitive football program in this (or any) environment.
* [You know what else I was wrong about in January 2020? DAN FREAKING CAMPBELL!]
TOC: On to your quarterback, J.J. McCarthy is currently completing 78% of his passes and is averaging over ten yards per attempt. What has changed since last year? Why such an improvement? Do you think he has the potential to start on Sundays eventually?
SF: We grade all of his throws, and his progression has been pretty linear going back to 2021. You’re talking about a five-star quarterback who was so effective against Georgia by the end of his freshman season that Cade McNamara’s dad told his son to transfer right then and there.
McCarthy was a lot more effective last year than most people realized, because Michigan’s offense was extremely reliant on the run game. I said something similar the year before everyone saw Kirk Cousins blow up: They did a really good job of running a balanced offense and keeping him safe while he progressed.
Now JJ’s reading things super-quickly and that’s creating more opportunities for the offense. But the fancystats say Michigan is also still using way less play-action than the effectiveness of their runs should dictate, which means things are still more set up for McCarthy to succeed than, say, for Michael Penix.
You can tell this by how many dig routes JJ’s hitting to his secondary receivers—those shouldn’t be that open in college unless the linebackers are freaking out about the run AND the safety is freaking out about Roman Wilson. He’s the most efficient QB in football because of context, but yes, this is what a 1st round quarterback looks like as a junior in college.
TOC: Aside from the quarterback, your offense contains WR Roman Wilson, who leads the B1G in receiving TDs, and RB Blake Corum, who leads the conference in rushing TDs. If MSU can contain those two skill position players (admittedly a pretty big if these days), can they keep this game close, or does McCarthy have other weapons at his disposal that could be a difference maker in a game?
SF: Michigan’s main weapon isn’t the skill players; it’s the offensive line, tight ends, and fullback. The tackles are a little iffy in pass pro but Zak Zinter is hands-down the best guard we’ve ever charted. Trevor Keegan may be the smartest. They don’t screw up. You know how hard it is to not screw up the stuff they run? Even in the NFL? It’s insane!
Also AJ Barner was the scouting coup of the portal. Right now the #1 blocking TE to PFF is Michigan’s fullback, Max Bredeson, who’s been incredible. Barner was #1 until Bredeson knocked him off the podium, but he’s still their #1 TE overall in the Power 5.
What this means is Michigan can run a lot of run concepts in a lot of gaps with a lot of tweaks that make it impossible for a defense to really key on the run game.
Also Colston Loveland is a major receiving threat and coming along (he’s just #147th in the nation) at blocking.
Roman Wilson’s thing is speed, and no, he doesn’t have another dimension and doesn’t need one. Blake Corum hasn’t been charting as incredibly as last year, but unless you have Nakobe Dean you’re not going to match him athletically. So what are you going to do to “contain” them other than unbalance your defense in some way that’s easily exploited? Defenses have been blitzing linebackers and giving the guy on Wilson safety help, and that’s opened up a million dig routes for JJ McCarthy.
I really respected Indiana’s plan: they had Aaron Casey pulling two-gap duty to mirror Corum, and they ran all kinds of blitzes that they hadn’t put on film before to nullify Michigan’s downfield passing. But you can’t ask Cal Haladay or Jordan Hall or Darius Snow to do those things because they aren’t on Casey’s level. If I’m designing MSU’s defense I’m not focusing on two skill players; I’m sticking to what they do well, which is have Simeon Barrow just be an absolute pain in the ass to block and…um…did I mention Simeon Barrow is just an absolute pain in the ass to block?
TOC: Moving to the defense, the Wolverines are giving up 6.7 PPG, best in the country. What is making this year’s defense so stout? Which level of the defense is its best? Who is the best pro prospect on that side of the ball?
SF: The best two *prospects* on this defense are actually true sophomores, CB Will Johnson and NT Mason Graham, though both are playing hurt (Graham has a club on his left hand). Safety Rod Moore also recently came back from an injury, but he’s probably a late 1st rounder or early 2nd rounder if he’s playing the way he was by the end of last year. Kenneth Grant is another guy who will blow up into a guy the NFL loves either next year or the year thereafter. Kris Jenkins could be drafted by any team. Derrick Moore will be a 3rd rounder after next year. Some NFL team will become enamored with Junior Colson’s athleticism and convince themselves they can teach him instincts.
Other than Graham, and Jenkins the pro prospects are not the best players right this minute. WLB Michael Barrett might not be an NFL’s dream but he’s playing out of his mind. Nickel Mike (pronounced Mikey…I know it’s weird) Sainristil was playing like an All-American from the end of last year through a couple of weeks ago. Jaylen Harrell has rounded into an effective switchblade at one end and Braiden “Poorer Man’s Aidan” McGregor is a persistent problem on the other.
What’s making this year’s defense so stout is they can rotate through two starting defensive lines, and they haven’t played anybody with a passing game capable of punishing potential weaknesses in the secondary. Every opponent comes in with something that works for a drive and a half against Michigan’s vanilla Cover 3 with a light box, then Michigan tweaks something obvious to shut that off, and it’s over. For Rutgers it was hitches. Nebraska had slants. Minnesota ran stretch with double motion. Indiana prepared snags.
6. MSU fans are feeling pretty hopeless about our football team right now and just can’t wait for basketball season to get here. But humor us for a minute. What is the #1 thing that needs to go wrong for your team for the Spartans to pull off the upset?
I’m not going to humor you because I don’t have to. We’re all Lions fans here, right? Hang in there, make some jokes to get through the bad times, and put pressure on your school to hire someone who understands what makes Michigan State University great and unique instead of…whatever the hell Mel’s program was supposed to be about. MSU showed the country a land grant college should be in the 1850s and showed what an everyman’s GI Bill university should be in the 1950s. If you want to hire the guy who will make State a household name in 2050, figure out an identity that complements the best parts of MSU and roll with it.
As for this week, this is going to sound really football coach-y, but stop worrying about Michigan doing something wrong—they’re not very prone to mistakes—and play *YOUR* football with your best players. Put the ball in Nate Carter’s hands behind Samac and Duplain and make Junior Colson pick a gap. Throw hitches and slants and snags underneath their Cover 3. That’s what MSU’s been best at, and what MSU’s best at is what MSU should do.
Fans focus way too much on ancillary stuff: Who called the right play when, Who got the calls from the officials, Who made a BIG MISTAKE. Most of the game is just guys executing their stuff.
Every week I scout the other team and go in having a pretty good idea of who they are, and then they have a different attack for Michigan. But Michigan’s defense runs the same play every down—only Iowa’s defense is more vanilla—so all you’re doing is giving them a chance to adapt it to your thing. The best thing MSU could do is go into this game like it’s any other.
Bonus Question: Predict the final score.
Semi-Related Bonus Question: The game itself aside, we know there are many Spartan fans with a bad taste in their mouth from the fallout of last year’s tunnel incident. With this game being at night (first ever night game between these 2 in East Lansing) and there being beer sold at the stadium this year, would you heed Mike Valenti’s warnings and advise Michigan fans not to attend this game?
I’m actually going, for the first time since 2016, because I think Valenti is dead wrong. My dad (RIP) went to Michigan State. My brother went to Michigan State. My sister went to Michigan State. My father-in-law and his wife went to Michigan State. My brother-in-law went to Michigan State. Two of my sisters-in-law went to Michigan State. Hundreds of friends and relatives and teachers and professionals and neighbors and fellow parents at the pickup line went to Michigan State.
Of all these people only one has ever thrown a battery in my direction, and that was because we were building my nephew’s swing set with our matching DeWalt sets.
What I’m not going to do is give air to toxicity. I was at last year’s football game. But I was also at last year’s basketball game.
[choose any photo from here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mgoblog/albums/72177720306105390/with/52697263006 and credit Marc-Grégor Campredon/MGoBlog]
I don’t know about you, but I get enough hate by living in the world today; I don’t need it with my sports. I’m going to get some Dairy Store, tailgate with my brother and nephew, and see a football game. If Valenti or one of his listeners wants to try to make this rivalry something it isn’t, I hope Ingham County’s justice system works as well as Washtenaw’s.
Enjoy the game tomorrow, and the day after that we can all root against a Harbaugh together. Gooooooooooo Liiiiiiioons!
Thank you, Seth! Really, MSU is going to score 23?
Alright Spartans, let’s do this! Let us know if you are going to be at the game tomorrow. Is this the game where we finally organize a TOC meetup somewhere before going into the stadium?
GO GREEN! GO WHITE!