Friday, October 14, 2011

Preview: Michigan State 2011

#11 Michigan (6-0) vs. #23 Michigan St. (4-1)
Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Kickoff 12 pm EST
Forecast: 50s, 20% chance of rain

Last week
Michigan St.: Bye. MSU is coming off of their bye week, but the previous Saturday, they went against Ohio State in a game that did wonders for the Big Ten's national reputation: a commanding 10-7 win against a team that couldn't field a functional quarterback. A little credit is due to the Spartans defense for holding the Buckeyes to 178 total yards of offense, but that's not saying much. Joe Bauserman (Michigan fans should buy up every Bauserman jersey available; love that dude) played most of the game, throwing the ball in the general vicinity of the football field. Though he didn't throw any interceptions, his 7/14, 87-yard stat line speaks for itself. Ohio State is a black hole.

On the other side of the ball, the underwhelming Ohio State defense was able to hold Kirk Cousins and the Spartan offense in check, though mostly due to two terrible interceptions by Cousins who seemed determined to keep OSU in the game. As it has been all year, the MSU running game was nonexistent, but that's what happens when your offensive line is a hodgepodge of position switch starters and Gumby characters. The highly touted trio of Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper managed just 85 yards on 27 carries (3.15 YPC).

Simply put, the Spartans barely looked like a functional football team playing fighting-for-bowl-eligibility Ohio State. If ever there were a confidence builder for Michigan fans, this game was it.

#12 Michigan 42 - Northwestern 24. Game recap. After being dominated in the first half against Northwestern, mostly due to three interceptions from Denard, the team rallied in the second half and scored 28 straight points to beat the Wildcats. The defense shut out the Dan Persa-led offense in the second half after the Northwestern squad left scorched earth in their wake during the first two quarters. Michigan was the beneficiary of a sketchy interception call that turned the momentum of the game, allowing the offense to take hold of the game.

After Denard's first-half arm punting, he settled down and led the offense to 541 yards on 17/26 through the air. Al Borges continued his tricky playcalling with a play action to the counter draw, as well as a heavy-I formation that earned Michigan an easy touchdown. The defense struggled with Northwestern's triple option, though. Defensive ends, who were assigned to the quarterback, often gave up the edge, and the Wildcats were able to throw bubble screens for significant yardage throughout the game.

Despite a shaky effort on both sides of the ball, Michigan came away with a commanding victory.

Offense vs. MSU
First, let's disabuse the notion that Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the country. MSU's ranking as the 3rd best scoring defense, 3rd rushing defense, and 2nd pass efficiency defense is a tenuous one when you consider the opposition. The Spartans' murderer's row of opponents includes: Ohio State, Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, and their one loss (in which they allowed 31 points) to Notre Dame. If you actually believe that Michigan State's defense is as good as those rankings, then I've got some land to sell you.

That's not to say Michigan State has a bad defense. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy looks like the best defensive prospect in the Big Ten this year. He routinely blows by offensive linemen and fights off double teams. Elsewhere on the defensive line, former 5-star prospect William Gholston has lived up to the hype. The secondary is also strong, recording seven interceptions in the first five games of the season.

How Al Borges schemes for this defense will be interesting. Like the last few weeks, running up the middle will be hard. Worthy will make inside runs far more difficult than they should be while Gholston and the MSU linebackers should be able to contain a lot of the outside carries. Against Northwestern, we saw Borges use Mike Shaw to get the edge on some carries, and I'd expect that to continue this game. Otherwise, Michigan will have to use some new option schemes or the speed option to get Denard and Co. in space against a traditional 4-3 defense.

The other concern is Worthy's pass rush. If you watch MSU games from this season, one thing you'll notice is how quickly Worthy and the rest of the defensive line get off the ball. In years past, it's been clear that MSU's defensive line was timing Michigan's snap count, and it looks like that kind of preparation has become a staple of the MSU defense. It'll be interesting to see if Borges starts using hard counts to slow down the aggressive pass rush. The other thing that should be effective against this front seven are screens and counters. Expect to see more from Vincent Smith as Borges uses him out of the backfield in an effort to slow the pass rush.

If Michigan's short stuff isn't working or Denard is forced to sit in the pocket and throw, things could get hairy. We've already seen how Denard struggles with pressure (throwing off his back foot and often throwing to the other team), and Worthy is the kind of defensive tackle that will get into the backfield. I'd guess that the deep jump balls will be rare to nonexistent in this game. Besides playing a cover-2 shell thus limiting those deep opportunities, Worthy is the kind of player that will get to the QB given enough time. Borges should have at least one or two new formations and wrinkles to throw at the Spartan defense to keep them guessing.

Defense vs. MSU
Though all of the above might seem foreboding, the good news is MSU's offense is pretty terrible. As inflated as MSU's numbers are against a schedule of patsies, their shoddy offensive production to date looks even worse. Currently, the Spartans are 79th in rushing offense, 34th in passing yards per game, and 62nd in scoring offense. When your second most difficult opponent is a Luke Fickel-led team, you've officially only played cupcakes. And against them, the Spartan offense has been pretty bad.

Much of that has to do with the team's offensive line, which features a defensive tackle position switch (who only switched to offensive line in the spring) and a JUCO as the tackles and a redshirt freshman center. This is a recipe for disaster, and it's been trouble for Cousins. MSU is 24th in sacks allowed, but Cousins is under constant pressure. In addition, the terrible offensive line has completely shut down what was expected to be a prolific rushing attack. With the trio of Caper, Bell, and Baker, Michigan State's running game was supposed to be one of the best in the Big Ten. Instead, they've produced an awful 3.4 YPC this season. There's trouble in East Lansing.

How Michigan's defense stacks up against this attack will be interesting. So far, the defensive line hasn't been as productive as expected, but given the Minnesotaness of MSU's offensive line, a big game is necessary. Specifically, Jibreel Black, Craig Roh, and Jake Ryan (when he has his hand in the ground) need to beat MSU's inexperienced tackles, though I expect Dantonio will use tight ends frequently to help out blocking on the outside. If Cousins has too much time in the pocket, he will pick apart Michigan's secondary, regardless of how much they appear to have improved this season.

Enter Greg Mattison. We've seen what Mattison's schemes can do to inexperienced offensive lines, and given that Cousins isn't a threat to run like Persa was last week, blitzing should resume in full effect this game. The stunts Michigan used earlier this year will hopefully cross up the inexperienced line and give Michigan a few free shots at Cousins. If nothing else, it'll force him to rush throws and get him out of rhythm.

Meanwhile, I don't think MSU has the pieces in place to hurt Michigan on the ground. Though the running back trio can be deadly, the status of the Spartan offensive line is too poor to make any lanes. Mike Martin will be charged with clogging up the middle of the field and taking care of any iso runs while the decisiveness of the indecisive linebackers will be put to test on power runs. It'll be key that Michigan doesn't let the MSU running backs bounce outside on power runs. Keeping everything in the middle of the field should effectively shut down the MSU running game.

Before the season, this was a Michigan State lock, but seeing the state of MSU's offense and the improvement from Michigan's defense makes this a lot harder to call. The chances that MSU marches down the field are unlikely. Without a functioning running game, sustained drives will be sparse. The key will be whether or not Michigan can get pressure and whether or not Cousins can pick apart the secondary. (Something to watch: With a pro-style QB, chances are he'll take advantage of Michigan's defensive backs face guarding. Expect multiple back-shoulder throws and a few pass interference calls.) A lot of Michigan's success will hinge on Mattison's playcalling.

On offense, Michigan will be forced to pick their way down the field. MSU's 4-3 cover-2 will all but eliminate Denard's jump balls. Borges is going to have to find ways to exploit a stacked box, necessitating a lot of tunnel screens, throwback screens to Smith, and short hitch routes. This will be Michigan's chance to really utilize the triple option that they showed against Minnesota. Ultimately, they move the ball well against MSU's conservative defense and rediscover the rushing attack that was absent against Northwestern.

Michigan 31 - Michigan State 20


Andrew McIntyre said...

The correct use of the word 'disabuse' in a football blog pleases me.

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