Monday, October 17, 2011

Michigan State 2011: Where Little Brother finds your weakness

#11 Michigan 14 - #23 Michigan State 28
Jeff Sainlar |
The last time my older brother and I got in a serious altercation was on Thanksgiving Eve a few years ago. It was past midnight at our parents' house and we were both in town for the holiday. Neither of us felt like going out, so we opened a few beers and my poker set, and sat down at the dinner table to play a few games heads up until we got too bored, angry, or tired to keep going.

My brother is a better poker play than me. Aside from knowing the odds, he's also more disciplined; it's difficult to bluff if you haven't won any hands yet, but invariably, that becomes my strategy early in poker games. But I know my brother's greatest weakness and more importantly, I know how to exploit it: get in his head. If only I could win a few toss-up hands, I knew I could give him enough mental jabs to get him totally off his rocker. After about an hour of playing, he stormed off into his room as I sat at the table shrugging saying something to the effect of, "Whatever dude, just sit down and shut up and we'll play." This was a victory.

It's not just poker either. My brother is taller, stronger, and smarter than I am, and being of a religiously competitive breed, we spent most of our childhood figuring out Who Is Better, which meant I needed to figure out what his weaknesses are and how to exploit them. In basketball, I have a speed advantage that I use to get to the basket. Defensively, I know that when I don't contest his shot, he tends to shoot with less arc, causing more rim outs. These are petty, small, unsustainable strategies that have become my only defense against someone who is objectively better than me at a few key competitive events.


When Mike Hart now famously referred to Michigan State as Little Brother in 2008, the Spartans took it as the greatest sign of disrespect, but in reality, it's not that far off. When people think "football" and "Michigan", the first thing that comes to mind is the Wolverines; teachers called me by my brother's name an innumerable amount of times through gradeschool and high school. But less disrespectfully, Michigan State is a growing program, fighting for national relevance by slowly making itself a force to be reckoned with. Michigan, meanwhile, was the established entity.

Michigan's weaknesses are not the same as my brother's--he understands statistics, so he knows better than to punt from the opponent's 36 yard line on fourth and four. Michigan State plays like a little brother, though. For the last several years, more than any other opponent, they've identified and exploited Michigan's weaknesses en route to commanding victories.  Michigan's linebackers and defensive ends struggle with contain? They run almost exclusively outside of the tackles (even with two mediocre-to-bad offensive tackles). Denard Robinson struggles throwing under pressure? Bring heat constantly. Michigan runs well but struggles throwing the deep ball, even with man coverage and no safety help? Load the box.

You would think that Al Borges and Greg Mattison would change tendencies. How many times does an opponent have to blitz before Borges calls that throwback screen to Smith? How many times can Michigan State run outside the tackles before you bring a safety/cornerback blitz off the edge? In this game, unfortunately, either arrogance, ignorance, or just befuddlement caused Michigan's coordinators to spend most of the afternoon slamming their head against a brick wall and hoping that eventually, it would crumble. It didn't, of course, because the brick wall was made of brick and your head is made of squishy tissue that, if this were Rock-Head-Brick Wall, would lose to brick wall. (Head would also lose to rock for what it's worth. It doesn't seem like a very balanced game.)

So Michigan goes into its bye week 6-1. This was never supposed to be a BCS season, and 10-2 with a win over Ohio State would still be a better case scenario than most expected preseason. Michigan has its flaws and at this point, they're obvious to everyone, including the Michigan coaching staff. Finding ways to remedy those, or at the very least mask them, has become Borges' and Mattison's primary mission.

  • Borges comes in for some lashings after this game. The offense continued to run plays that were doomed from the start. All passing routes were vertical and downfield. Rushes were stuffed at the line as Michigan State loaded the box. There were no screens thrown against an aggressive blitzing defense. Borges was punked the whole game and seemed content to run the same plays through four quarters.
  • Mattison, on the other hand, called a pretty good game. Were it not for the defensive ends and linebackers giving up the edge on rushes, the defense shut down the MSU offense. Kirk Cousins averaged only 5 yards per attempt. The Spartan offensive line was as advertised: soft. But by doubling Michigan's defensive ends with tight ends, Michigan State was able to get the edge and run all over Michigan's undisciplined defense.
  • It was a good day for Mark Huyge's new charity Spartans in the Backfield (SitB). Huyge had a truly awful day and offered MSU's defenders a direct line to Denard on countless passing plays.
  • Denard struggled, but there were reasons for it outside of his control. SitB was a huge problem all game. In addition, the Michigan State defense loaded the box making running nearly impossible.
  • Despite playing against single coverage, Michigan's receivers were completely shut down. I'll have to watch again, but they seemed to get precisely zero separation against MSU's corners. Though Denard wasn't very accurate, he didn't have many open receivers to throw to.
  • Michigan showed another counter to the heavy-I formation they debuted last week but it was blown dead on a delay of game penalty, which is a shame because Fitz Toussaint had a 20+-yard carry.
Next week
Michigan is on its bye this week. They can use this time to get healthy and implement more of the offensive and defensive schemes. The following week, Michigan takes on Purdue, a game that will be a good barometer for the rest of the season.

Around here, this week will feature the regular post-game analysis. The following week will be a mid-season breakdown of where I expected to be at this point and where they are now.


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