Holy crap, Michigan and Michigan State play in under 24 hours! The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy really snuck up on me this year with all of the Detroit professional sports events going on. STAAFFFFFORRRD! You’ve already seen Jamie’s blueprint for a Spartan victory detailing his reasons why you’ll see Baylor MSU players hoisting that monstrous trophy again. As he may have mentioned, I am seeing this one a little differently and I think it’s the Wolverines this year, Gary!
Actually, I’ve been waiting for this post since sometime in the off-season when Jamie was singing the praises of the Spartans coming off their Big Ten Championship they shared with most of the league. The way I saw it, they secured one big win without their head coach around and took care of the worst of the conference, at times in thrilling fashion, en route to as an unimpressive 11-1 as I have witnessed in the Big Ten. But whatever, that was last year and this is…well this year. Now in Jamie’s defense, Michigan State has some damn nice players and they’re a contender again in the B1G. HOWEVAH, let’s take a look at some reasons the Wolverines will be leaving East Lansing with more than a vaguely sewage-y smell on Saturday.
No, YOU’RE FRAUDULENT!
When it comes to execution, Michigan looks like I expected them to look in year two of the Brady Hoke era. The defense has rocketed up the statistical charts, the offense has managed to stay within a chip shot of the machine it was last year, and field goals are even landing in that net thingy behind the goalposts sometimes. After fast starts the last couple years and a less-than-stellar schedule, this success has been met with cautious optimism at best and calls of FRAUDULENT more often than not. Spare me. The last two years, this team was like major company being run by those smelly dudes in the mail room. The freshmen and sophomores that played in too many key positions are all grown up now and have Michael J. Fox’d their ways to the board room. Michigan still has a handful of youngsters in key roles, but no more than other teams competing for championships. Guys like Denard Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Kenny Demens, Craig Roh, Jordan Kovacs and JT Floyd are finally to points in their careers where they would normally be expected to contribute and they are living up to those expectations. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a dip in the record after a 6-0 start, but the last two years mean far less than most are assuming. Also, if you’re going to bag on someone’s schedule you might want to stick with the home team. The Spartans have a win at Ohio State in a game the Buckeyes were hell bent on giving to the Spartans, while Sparty was only a little less determined not to accept. Other than that, we’re looking at a blowout loss to Notre Dame and wins against two of the worst teams in FBS and a sloppy win against an FCS opponent. While we should “know” much more about MSU than Michigan at this point in the season, I’d say the Wolverines have given us a little more to go on.
Coordination is Key
Michigan sports Gorgeous Al Borges and Greg Mattison while Michigan State has Pat Narduzzi and some guy that used to coach offensive line, replacing the best coach on their staff from last year. Advantage Michigan. Borges has been consistently impressive this season even as he has had to search for the right balance between the new power attack and last year’s spread that suits Denard Robinson. The well traveled offensive coordinator has a talent in Robinson the likes of which he hasn’t seen before in his career and is learning quickly how to deploy his QB. He has exploited the edge with the speed option, taken advantage of the extra blocking with QB power runs, and introduced new packages each of the last two weeks with Denard lining up as a back or receiver. While we say every year that Michigan has something new in store for big games, this year I can confidently say they have something new in store that’s going to work. Speaking of confidence, Greg Mattison. Heading up a defense that has been far from perfect, Mattison has seemingly found a way to turn the difficulty from ‘Heisman’ to ‘Varsity’ during halftimes. It’s no secret that the defense can be exploited and opponents have found ways to get chunks of yards, but come the second half things tend to change. Mattison is changing the marching orders and the troops are buying in and following lock step. With MSU coming off a bye week, I fully expect them to have some sets that throw Michigan off balance, but they better save some for the second half if they want to make an impact down the stretch.
Denard Robinson: 3D
It’s no secret that Michigan hopes to stuff the MSU run game and make Kork Coupons win this one with his arm. Similarly, the Spartans expect to stifle the Michigan running game by shutting down the backs and containing Denard, making Robinson win it through the air. I have no problem believing that Michigan can slow down MSU’s running game with that depleted Spartan O-line and I will be shocked if MSU doesn’t shut down the Michigan running backs. The problem for MSU has loose shoes, sports a ‘16’ on his shirt, and is dreaded in a couple of ways. Michigan State sports a stable of great running backs and a competent passer, but Denard gives Michigan a dimension the Spartans lack. Robinson went for just 81 yards against the Spartans last year, with a bad knee. This year, he appears healthy aside from a lingering issue with his arm and I expect him to at least double his longest run of 16 yards from last year against MSU. Especially with a heavy wind in the forecast, the threat of Robinson running gives Michigan a massive advantage in the form of a more dynamic rushing attack.
Making them Earn It
A theme Michigan fans couldn’t ignore from last year’s game was the big play. MSU had three different receivers with catches of 40+ yards and two running backs with runs over 40 yards. It’s a hot debate whether turnovers or limiting the big play has been more important to Michigan’s defensive turnaround this year, but I’d argue that limiting the home runs has led to more double plays, if you’ll allow the baseball analogy. In six games, Michigan has allowed three passes over 30 yards and two rushes over 30 yards. They have not allowed a play from scrimmage of 40 yards. Not one. Michigan will make Cousins march the Spartans up the field multiple times to win this game. Cousins is a good QB that may be up to that task, but if Michigan can also successfully snuff out the running game, like most quality opponents do against the Spartans, it bodes well for the maize and blue.
3rd, wait, 4th and Short
Michigan has buttered its bread when opponents are facing third down with fewer than three yards to go. I’m as surprised as anyone that it’s happening, but there it is. I don’t know if it is the emergence of Will Campbell, the dominance of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, or effective run blitzing. It probably has to do with a lot of these things and I don’t expect it to change with a bad offensive line in green, black, and bronze. A reduction in big plays allowed and a propensity for getting off the field on 3rd and short will make this version of the rivalry much different than the last.
How Bout a Prediction?
PAAAAIIIIIIIINNNNN! But more specifically I think Michigan makes more big plays than MSU and wins this one. Denard will turn it over at least once and I do expect a big play from Martin in the return game for MSU, but I don’t see MSU’s power attack having sustained success against Michigan’s defense. Offensively, Denard will break out in the running game this week for 200-plus and hit enough throws to keep the chain-gang busy. 28-20 Michigan.