Michigan State vs. Michigan
The Big House
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
Big Ten Network
Forecast: Mid-50s, 20% chance of rain
MSU Last Week
Iowa 19 - MSU 16 (2OT). Andrew Maxwell, intent on bringing back Sparty No! threw a pick in the second half of double overtime to end the Spartans bid to beat inexplicably 4-2 Iowa. Le'Veon Bell had his best game of the season and finally looked like the dangerous running back he's rumored to be but still only managed 4.8 YPC (albeit on 29 carries). Andrew Maxwell is still an inexperienced, inconsistent quarterback that is most certainly not Kirk Cousins. Against Iowa, he threw 12/31 for 179 yards and 1 INT. Maxwell has a lively arm but accuracy is a major concern. The only MSU wide receiver that anyone ever needs to be scared of is Aaron Burbridge who had 89 yards on five catches.
Iowa was worse than MSU but somehow managed the win. Supposed-to-be best QB in the conference James Vandenberg was terrible, completing just 19 of 36 passes for 134 yards (3.7 YPA). Don't let those numbers fool you: not even checkdowns were a guarantee. Iowa's only running back with two legs, Mark Weisman, ran stride for stride with Bell, averaging 4.5 YPC on 26 carries.
This was a game of incompetent offenses that someone had to win. Iowa was the beneficiary of the game's most critical turnover (Maxwell's in 2OT) which decided the outcome.
(I'm removing what Michigan did last week from this section because you know what happened last week.)
Offense vs. Michigan State
Michigan State's defense is the only thing that's kept them in games this season because their offense is atrocious. MSU ranks 8th in rushing yards per game allowed, 12th in pass efficiency defense, and 14th in scoring defense. The other side of the coin is that the Spartans haven't played anyone this year that can really fill up the scoreboard. The only team with a respectable offense (Indiana, of all teams; 31st in points per game) put up 27 points in the first half against MSU before being shut down in the second half (more on this later).
The Spartans are led, not surprisingly, by junior middle linebacker Max Bullough who has 31 solo tackles, 27 assists, 5.5 TFLs, 2 PBUs, and a forced fumble. Bullough is the real deal: a great downfield run stuffer who can drop into coverage and is never caught out of position. Think Kenny Demens' ceiling. At the SLB spot is junior Denicos Allen who is the team's second leading tackler in his second year as the starter. And at the WLB position will be senior Chris Norman.
Combined, the starting linebackers account for 12.5 TFLs of the team's 38. This is an aggressive, blitzing group. These tendencies were exploited against Indiana, where the Hoosiers were able to march up and down the field almost exclusively on bubble screens in the first half. With such dogged determination to get into the backfield, MSU's linebackers are susceptible to horizontal attacks. Hopefully Al Borges was watching this game and took notes; tunnel screens back to the inside of the field are not going to end well, but throw bubbles to the boundary and Michigan could find easy first downs all game.
The concern for Michigan against this unit is, like last year, the double A-gap blitz that makes Denard heave balls off his back foot. These are plays that Rimington award winner David Molk struggled to block. Tasking Elliott Mealer with the same responsibilities spells trouble. To slow down Pat Narduzzi's blitzing defense as well as take pressure off the interior of the offensive line, Borges will have to use screen passes extensively.
While the Spartan linebackers are some of the best in the conference, the team's defensive line is suspect save William Gholston, who you know about. The starting DTs senior Anthony Rashad White and sophomore James Kittridge are non-factors. They try to play much like Michigan's defensive tackles: consume as many offensive linemen as possible and give your linebackers a chance to make tackles. Sophomore strongside defensive end Marcus Rush is good-not-great. He's what you want out of a strongside defensive end: holds up against the run, bats down passes at the line of scrimmage, and occasionally gets into the backfield.
Then of course there's Gholston, a pass-rush extraordinaire who has never been very impressive against Michigan/Taylor Lewan. Gholston has 5 TFLs but only one sack this season. Add in 4 PBUs and a forced fumble and his statistical profile fills out a bit. Ace at MGoBlog is down on Gholston:
If there's a weak point on this defense, it's—wait for it—WDE William Gholston, a quarterfinalist for the Lombardi Award based entirely on reputation. He's been benched at times this season for redshirt freshman Joel Heath. There's a reason for this: Gholston can chase plays down from the backside and bat down passes at the line, but if teams run right at him he gets buried regularlyAt 6'7", 278 lbs, Gholston is pretty wiry, but he's still a terror in passing situations. Also, excellent backside pursuit is the kind of thing that can destroy an option running game or a hesitant running back (Fitz Toussaint). If Lewan can handle Gholston like he has the last two years, Michigan could dominate this defense, but with lingering injuries to Lewan, that may be a problem.
In the secondary, Darqueze Dennard is one of the better cover corners in the Big Ten and could present some problems for Michigan's receivers getting open. However, he'll likely be tasked with covering Devin Gardner who is a good six inches taller than him.
Defense vs. Michigan State
OK, so, Le'Veon Bell. I will say this now and you will believe me later: Le'Veon Bell is not a great running back. At 6'2", 244 lbs, he's a moose, but he doesn't have the complementary speed to make him truly dangerous. He can occasionally (occasionally) make people miss in space, but otherwise, his running style is to make contact a yard beyond the line of scrimmage and rumble forward for 3 yards. You can blame his offensive line, if you want, but power running backs, regardless of their offensive line, should probably average more than 3.8 YPC against Central Michigan. Combined with a shoddy offensive line, Bell will remind you more of a third-string Wisconsin running back than similar body types from squads like Alabama.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, MSU's offense is pretty remedial, led of course by the rushing attack of Bell. MSU ranks 84th in rushing offense, 59th in passing offense, and 102nd in scoring. There are plenty of reasons that the offense struggles, but it starts with the Spartans' makeshift offensive line. Starting right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson have each gone down for the season with injuries. Another important injury is to starting tight end Dion Sims who was the team's leading receiver when he went down with a sprained ankle and helped get push in the running game for a mediocre offensive line. On MSU's first snap, they could be starting two redshirt freshman, two sophomores, and a fifth-year senior on their offensive line.
However, Michigan State's offensive line has been a mess the last two years and each season, the Spartans have found a way to grind Michigan's front seven to dust and protect their quarterback. Though I hate this kind of reasoning, I'm glad to see Kirk Cousins go because he was one of those guys that Just Wins against Michigan. Andrew Maxwell may get the same kind of protection that Cousins got against Michigan's defenses, but he doesn't have the kind of consistency or accuracy that Cousins did. Maxwell has a lively arm but not a lot of touch and is highly erratic. He's completing only 54.3% of his passes this season and averaging only 6.28 YPA. Throw in just 6 TDs to 4 INTs and you have the makings for a not great QB. This isn't pressure-induced, either; MSU ranks 40th in sacks allowed.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to MSU's offense is the lackluster group of wide receivers. No longer is Keshawn Martin running jet sweeps around the edges of the defense or BJ Cunningham getting open everywhere. Though Keith Mumphrey leads the Spartans in receptions and receiving yards, the only threat is freshman Aaron Burbridge, who at 6'1" is not the Michael Floyd pterodactyl type that Michigan's secondary struggles against. Expect MSU to try and take a few uncharacteristic deep shots to Burbridge with JT Floyd in coverage, but unless Maxwell is dropping those in his lap, Michigan's secondary will just have to concern itself with underneath hitch routes and crossing patterns.
How Michigan's defensive line fares against this depleted front of MSU will determine the game. Against the run, expect Quinton Washington and Will Campbell the continue the dominance they showed against Illinois. Tightening running lanes and keeping offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage will allow the linebackers to hit and swarm Bell. When MSU drops back to pass, I actually expect Michigan to blitz a lot less than they have in the past. With a lackluster group of wide receivers and a mediocre offensive line, the defense will be able to rely on coverage sacks rather than getting pressure with linebackers. This also helps defend against MSU's reliance on tight ends in the passing game, flooding underneath zones with linebackers.
How does Michigan win? The combination of Maxwell and MSU's receivers are not a threat to Michigan's secondary, the Spartan offensive line is once again shaky, and Bell doesn't have the home-run power to get Michigan into an uncomfortable situation offensively. If the defensive linemen continue to allow the linebackers to make plays, Michigan should be able to shut down MSU's offense.
When Michigan has the ball, testing the edges of the Spartans' defense will be key to opening running lanes and getting Denard time in the pocket to throw. Jet sweeps and bubble screens should keep MSU honest while the rest of Michigan's base offense should be enough to march down the field.
How does Michigan State win? The offensive line has to play its best game of the season for them to give Maxwell time in the pocket and the receivers time to get open. Le'Veon Bell will need to show that he's more than a 3 yards and a cloud of dust star and force Michigan's linebackers to commit fully to the run. This will open up passing lanes off of play action.
Shutting down Michigan's offense will be harder for the Spartans. MSU's linebackers need to return on their potential and Narduzzi's blitzes will need to generate turnovers. MSU can help their cause by finding a way to stop Denard on the inverted veer and forcing Toussaint to make Michigan's rushing yards.
Arbitrary percentage Michigan wins: 60% (I said this before the season and I'm sticking with it)
Final prediction. Denard's rushing totals take a major hit in this game, but Toussaint finally finds some lanes to run through. MSU understands the threat of Denard's legs and have probably gamplanned to stay home on him on all option plays. There will be a fumble generated on a linebacker blitz against an option play. Also, we'll see the return of Denard's back-foot heaves that end serendipitously, mostly thrown to Devin Gardner who makes a few astonishing catches in traffic.
On the other side of the ball, MSU won't be able to get rolling all game. Michigan's linebackers completely shut down Bell who averages ~3 YPC. Maxwell, meanwhile, will have a higher completion percentage than you'd expect but also throws two costly interceptions.
Saturday proves to still be relatively low-scoring, however. Both teams stall out just outside of field goal range a few times and there is at least one missed field goal. Michigan State 9 - Michigan 20