Is it the early 1960s? Is there a hot new band coming out of Liverpool? Are we still trying to figure out if man can get to the moon? Is there a Kennedy in the White House pounding Marylin Monroe? This cellular phone dehicky keeps buzzing on my desk, so it must not be the early 1960s. But, it sure feels like it, at least within the sphere of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. When the Wolverines and Spartans knock heads Saturday, Michigan State will be going for an historic fourth win in a row in the series, a run of victory over the Wolverines not seen since they won four in a row from 1959-1963. That was part of a 5-0-2 run over the Wolverines during that era.
So, what should we expect when these hated rivals renew hostilities tomorrow? I expect the Spartans to match their record 4 in a row over Michigan. Now hold on my fellow Michigan fans. Before you excommunicate me from the flock, we’ll have a post later detailing the reasons why Michigan will regain the Paul Bunyan and win back bragging rights. I am not making a formal pick on this game, but Michigan and Michigan State are two of my favorite teams to talk about, so why not a 2-part post detailing how each team will win. I’ll have a key-to-the-game type post with the usual fake prop bets schtick at MGo later today. And, SteveY will present the Michigan counter argument here at the JCB. So, save your hate mail. I want to be 100 percent wrong. And, the good news is I am 100 percent wrong about 47-percent of the time, so there’s a chance. I look forward to you all fisking me if Michigan pulls the upset. And will accept the pain gladly.
Quick point spread update: Mentioned Wednesday that the line had dipped all the way down to MSU -1. As we post this, the line is back up to MSU -2. The tug of war on the action continues.
Here’s the main theme behind why I dont think Michigan wins.
They just arent a complete team yet. That’s not a knock on them. Well, wait, it is, but they are a lot closer to complete than people may think. The under contstruction dust is almost swept away. They’re complete enough to compete with most of the Big 10. They are complete enough to, win or lose against MSU, stay in the hunt for the
Legends West Division Title. But I dont think they’re complete enough to singularily win this game. They’re still a bit too dependent on Denard Robinson’s playmaking, the defense probably still isnt even average to Big 10 standards and their special teams remain shaky in key spots. I’d swap with Michigan State on almost every positional unit, save for quarterback and offensive line. And quarterback is a strength with the Spartans, so they can hold their own production wise there, albiet in a much different style and manner. The only hole Michigan State has is offensive line. It’s a big enough problem to torpodeo their hopes for a Big 10 Title and a better bowl game than a year ago, but the Spartans have enough advantages to overcome this against Michigan. Besides, while the stop unit in the Maize and Blue seems improving and on the come, its been years since they’ve been able to take advantage of any legit team’s offensive weakness. Maybe this is the time they do it, but thats not something I will count on until I see it. Positional comparisons can be a little useless, though. The teams respective defensive backs arent literally playing each other. Here are some of the actual matchups I like to tilt the scales to the Spartans.
Can Michigan really block the Sparty defensive front and take complete control of the line of scrimmage?
In MSU’s three game winning streak in the series, their victories began with how the MSU defensive front bossed around the Michigan offensive line. The 2008 and 2009 games was complete LOS dominance. The Spartans shredded the Wolverines manhood at the snap. They jumped the snap count like a potluck dinner throughout the ’08 affair. In 2009, Michigan didnt even gain more than 30 yards rushing. The Wolverines showed a lot of life up front in last year’s game and rushed the football effectively for the first time in years against MSU. But Robinson was hemmed in enough to contain him with one of his worst running games of the season. As usual, no tailback stepped up for Michigan. The whole game seemed to go to fast and physical for the Michigan offense. Here’s the problem this year. Michigan State’s defensive line is better than a year ago. Jerel Worthy takes his game to NFL first rounder level when the biggest stakes are on the table. They rotate a pair of big fatties to line up next to him with Anthony Rashad White and Kevin Picklemen. Gholston is beginning to emerge at end. This is as deep and talented a defensive line in the Big 10. And some of those specific strengths align with question marks or weaknesses of the Michigan line. For whatever reason, they’re not getting great guard play. On the right side, conventional wisdom says Patrick Omameh is struggling with the new scheme and they’ve all but stopped using him as a pulling blocker. On the left, its the one spot they’re replacing from a year ago, the starter at the beginning of the year is out with injury and the current starter is a natural tackle playing out of position because the Wolverines depth chart is a little lacking. They’ll have problems clearing up the inside and their inconsistent and limited pull/trapping game could be easy pickings for a talented MSU LB crew that, while replacing big names, has remained as productive getting into the backfield and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. David Molk is great at center, but they’re going to have problems on the inside. And, frankly, problems with Gholston going up against Michigan RT Mark Hugye, probably the Wolverines’ least talented starting lineman. This is maybe a B-grade offensive line going up a sure A-grade defensive line.
If Denard gets out of this game without tossing a couple of picks, I will be shocked.
His nine interceptions this year ranks near the highest in the land. He’s going up against another in a long line of playmaking secondaries wearing the green, white and bronze. Even in years when the MSU secondary gives up yards like its their community service duty, they also have been able to dial up the big play back there to counter that. This year is not only no exception, but its also a high end secondary to boot. They’ve swiped 1o balls this season and a year ago might have been the best playmaking defensive backfield in the league. CB Johnny Adams and S Trenton Robinson are the two best defensive backs Michigan has faced this year. Not to mention, I really like the way new starters S Isaiah Lewis and CB Darqueze Dennard have stepped up, Dennard especially. He filled in last year when Chris L Rucker was
suspended jailed and had a great game against Illinois. He’s been more than solid and had a great jump ball interception two weeks near the goal line against Ohio State. I can already see my Sparty Book Of Face friends posting on their wall about their Dennard being better. How derpy. I should probably defriend all of them right now just in case. I jest, of course. But, what I’m not jesting about is this is a talented MSU secondary, as talented as Michigan’s choppy passing game has seen this year. I expect them to win the all important turnover battle as a result, and thats a good start towards a victory.
I mentioned on the MGoPodcast that I liked the the Spartans in this position coming off a bye.
Yes, I am well aware of the jinx that the bye week has been for Big 10 teams. Heck, it was the focus of a JCB post about a year ago, so I know that leaning back on the sports writer cliche of favoring the team off the bye week is textbook, lazy, herp derp analysis. Mark Dantonio is 1-1 in the regular season after a bye week at MSU, so you could make a case that he’s ahead of this bizarre curse of the bye week in Big 10 land. But, I like their position coming off a bye in this specific case. It comes down to the personality, disdain and singular focus Dantonio has towards Michigan and this annual grudge match. Everybody jokes that you could go 1-10, but as long you beat your top rival, its been a successful season. I dont know how many people truly believe, but I wouldnt be surprised if Dantonio is one of them. He’s turned this game into the Spartans Super Bowl, and I think he uses the bye week to come up with a special trick or two for Michigan. Now, the Spartan coach can outthink himself at times, so maybe everything backfires on him. But, here’s where I think we’re going to see the extra week of prep rear its head. MSU has struggled in short yardage situations, and they’ve also labored to small rushing gains out of a variety of different, quirky-looking bunched, unbalanced formations. They use upwards of three Tight Ends in some of those formations. I’ll bet a dollar that they unveil some play action out of those formations, trying to catch the aggressive, stout and clutch short yardage Michigan D. MSU QB Kirk Cousins has always had great throwing rapport with his tight ends, and I cant help but feel the Spartans will have a trick or two up their sleeve to get those big targets open downfield when the defense instead have their ears pinned back trying to win a short yardage situation at the line of scrimmage. These will be the plays that extend MSU scoring drives, rather than forcing the punter onto the field.
I think Michigan State is going to dial up a big play in the return game.
Michigan hasnt been awesome defending returns this season, and the Spartans have great weapons in the return game to take advantage of that. To be fair, the Wolverines do rank in the top-20 in kickoff return yards allowed, but a lot of that has to do with the new found big leg of Matt Wile whose banged out seven touchbacks. When he cant make it to the end zone, though, look out, because Michigan has allowed more than 26 yards per return. On Saturday, they will be kicking to redshirt freshmen Nick Hill, whose 26.89 average per return places him 19th nationally with MSU as a team in the top-10 nationally in this department. I worry more, however, about Michigan covering punts, and the Spartans have the dangerous Keshaun Martin back there. Michigan has been playing with fire all season leaving their gunners isolated and without help downfiled. Nobody has made them pay for it yet, but Martin has to goods to make them pay and then some. Martin has struggled this season and has looked tentative since fumbling a punt in the opener. But, he’s a confident kid at heart, and I dont think he’ll shrink from the moment in this game. He will go for it and has probably been drooling seeing the open field on tape of Michigan games after the first defender downfield. He went for 14.2 yards per pop a year ago, so his ceiling is much higher than the 7.4 ypr he has this year. It would be just like him and the Ethos of MSU to shake off his slump in time for this game. Martin has always been one of my favorite players in the Big 10, and I just have this gut feeling he will channel his inner Derek Mason, circa 1995 Paul Bunyan and change the course of this game with a big punt return. Michigan needs Wile to keep depositing his kicks in the end zone, and I would suggest not letting Martin get his hands on any punts. Maybe Michigan’s offense avoids this altogether by not punting, period. We’ll see
Speaking of special teams, Michigan still cant kick field goals.
Oh, sure, they are 4-for-6 this season, which already equalled the number of kicks made in 2010 and is obviously a far better percentage of makes too from a year ago. But, I’m still not sold. Three of those kicks came in no pressure situations against Minnesota while the Wolverines were already in the middle of taking the Gophers behind a luxury high rise woodshed. The other make was shorter than a PAT in garbage time against Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines tried to ice the SDSU and Northwestern games with makeable kicks, but both were shanked poorly by Brendan Gibbons. Michigan hasnt made a clutch kick in years and its partisanly foolish to expect the ghost of Ali Haji Sheik to just show up at Spartan Stadium. MSU, meanwhile, has a solid kicker as they come with Dan Conroy. He and the Spartans are 21-for-25 on field goals since the start of last season. Here’s the deal. Expect several drives by both teams to stall out in enemy territory. Thats just how football goes. In those cases, who do you trust putting points on the board via the kicking game? Dont be surprised if MSU wins this game in a tight one with Conroy makeing a couple kicks and Michigan hooking their one or two attempts the wrong way.
Does Michigan have anyone who can check BJ Cunningham?
I dont think so. As improved as the D has looked, I still dont like their chances going up against an elite wide receiver, a solid set of targets elsewhere on the field and a proven quarterback who knows how to use them. Yes, Michigan took on a similar situation and ended up beating Notre Dame. However, Michigan has had lady luck on their side against the Irish in recent years, whereas everything that seemingly can go wrong for them, does go wrong against the Spartans in recent matches. And dont forget, the Irish offense was able to forge a big lead before falling victim to another round of Shoelace Heroics. To be sure, I dont think Michigan is going to get worked over much like they have in the past. But I still fear the big play against them as competition ramps up. Cousins to Cunningham can deliver that big play. This is a huge test for Michigan’s suddenly competent starting safety duo, as well as whomever checks Cunningham from their CB position. Will they put their freshmen Blake Countess on him? Michigan fans arent seeing death in their secondary anymore, but Cousins to Cunningham might force a reality check.
Official prediction: Michigan State 27, Michigan 21……
The Spartans thwart a final scoring drive on downs late in the fourth quarter to preserve a win. Martin and Hill combined for more than 100 return yards. Cunningham goes over the century mark. Michigan plays its best game against MSU during this losing streak, but it painfully wont be enough. The Wolverines cant tie the game with a field goal because of previous shanks earlier in the game leave them behind by 6 points at the end. Not like they could make a tying field goal anyway, if it came to that. It’s a close, back and forth game, with the MSU D coming up with the game winning stop in the fouth quarter.