"Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? Spartan fans."
So I normally don't do the preview thing since previews are readily available elsewhere in quantity and quality and I don't even bother, but I have some free time and this week it's personal. Some hopes, expectations, and doomed-to-be-wrong predictions:
If this was a season played on NCAA, Michigan will have faced five defenses of the Varsity or even JV difficulty level (sorry Minnesota). Maybe Notre Dame deserves to be bumped up to All-American, but Gary Gray alone plays like a JV defensive back (i.e., one big horrible glitch). In any case, things are about to get much tougher, and while I'm not sure that MSU deserves to be dubbed with the Heisman difficulty level that defenses like Alabama and LSU would have, they are certainly All-American++.
Michigan State is 3rd in points against, relinquishing a paltry 10.2 points per game. Schedule caveats go here: the only offense with a pulse that MSU has faced is ND's, and taking a kickoff return out of the mix, the Spartans held the Irish to a respectable 24 points, which looks pretty good next to the 31 Michigan gave up (and a fairly lucky 31 at that) to the Irish. So, while we can't yet discern whether the Spartan defense is a legitimate top 10 unit, they are definitely top 25, and will present some pretty huge problems for the Wolverines.
MSU is third in rushing defense, second in passing defense, first in total defense, and third in scoring defense. They also boast five more sacks than Michigan (14.0) despite having played one less game. Okay okay, you get it. They're good.
So, what should we do? *Initiate Hokespeak* WELL, I think it's pretty obvious that Michigan won't win this game in the first or the second quarter, or even the third. The reason I say this is that, assuming Michigan's defense doesn't completely forget everything it's learned only to flunk on test day, Borges will have to exercise some patience. That is, if things don't work out early on, that's okay, especially if a given play can serve to set something else up later on. The reason I say this is that I worry Michigan's running game will get stuffed early on (and with the way our backs produced against Northwestern and pretty much everyone else, it's not that unlikely), and that forces Denard to, you know, pass. While I showed some examples of Denard actually looking pretty good throwing the ball against Northwestern, it will get a lot tougher to do that this week. The defenders will be bigger and faster, and Denard throwing off of his back foot is so eerily similar to what I watch Jay Cutler do on Sundays.
While MGoBlog has expressed some qualms about rolling Denard out, it seemed to work out okay against Northwestern, provided he set his feet*. This is true of most quarterbacks but especially of Denard, whose likelihood of completing a pass when his feet are set vs. when they are not goes from "yeah that could probably happen" to "OH GOD DON'T DO THAT AGAIN." Of course, this works as long as he gets the time and blocking, otherwise it's a back foot bonanza. As Brian detailed in this Picture Pages post, whoever is pulling (which, for now seems to be Schofield given Omameh's surprising inability to pull well) must seal the edge, otherwise we get dudes in Denard's face and that's when interceptions happen with alarming regularity. Again, the decisions will have to happen much more quickly this week, and Schofield hesitating will result in Denard getting killed and/or making a bad decision with the ball.
Otherwise, in non-rollout situations, the Molk and the guards will have to stay strong in the middle against Mr. Hilariously Ineffective Attempt At Trolling Via Tattoo Guy. With Marcus Rush and William Gholston coming off the edges, Michigan's tackles have got some talented but very inexperienced guys to deal with (Rush=RS Freshman, Gholston=Sophomore). What does this mean? Well, I quite frankly don't see Michigan having much success running between the tackles, and the numbers for Toussaint, Smith, and Shaw will probably look similar to what they did last week unless Michigan looks to bust out the option for real. This is the time to do it. Denard might get rocked once or twice but it'll be worth it when Michigan can find some room later on for Fitz/Smith to wiggle through for some 4-7ish yard carries, making third down not a throwing down much of the time.
Speaking of, Michigan is third in the country in 3rd down conversion, and the Spartans are 7th in conversion prevention percentage. Something's gotta give. This is pretty common sense, but the less Michigan has to throw on third, the better. MSU's front is good, but I'll still feel comfortable in Denard wiggling ahead for a few yards (i.e., the Northwestern 4th down conversion) every single time.
I don't know as much about the Spartan DBs as I would like, but I feel pretty confident in saying that they're probably equivalent to what ND had. Michigan's receivers should be able to get theirs, and for some reason I keep thinking that Gallon and Koger will be Denard's best friends against State's more traditional Cover 2. The Spartan linebackers are good, but I'm not 100% sold on their overall speed and cover skills, leading me to hope that Koger will get more than a few looks in the middle of the field and that Gallon can somehow find himself matched up on a linebacker.
*This is obviously a big if, as Denard sometimes doesn't even set his feet when he has the time to do so, such as the Watson TD that almost never was.
Defensively, things look a little better for us. Read that sentence again. It is 2011, and cats are befriending dogs and up is down.
Michigan State's offensive line struggles are at this point fairly well-documented. If Michigan is unable to get any "organic" (i.e., without blitzing) pressure on Cousins in this one they that does not bode well in general. Unfortunately, I think Michigan State realizes that their line is not up to snuff, and will look to get the ball out of Cousins's hands as quickly as possible. That's right: Bubble Screen Bonanza Redux. It will be teeth-gnashingly frustrating, but the Spartans will probably bubble us to death early on, and probably with some success. Michigan adjusted to it last week via one Jake Ryan, and it kind of worked; however, MSU has some legit playmakers outside, unlike NU. Keshawn Martin is the type of guy who you could easily see taking a bubble for a big gain against us. BJ Cunningham might be the best wideout in the conference, which, even in a down year for the Big Ten, means that he's pretty good.
We've been talking up MSU's line struggles for weeks as our ace in the hole, but if we fail to get pressure on Cousins and they manage to bubble us to death--thus pushing the backers back and out--then yeah, we're in trouble. State has talented backs that will make us pay for being undisciplined or slow; as good as our defense has generally been, this is our first legitimate road test, and you have to expect some game slippage for guys like Ryan and Countess.
In short, if Michigan can make this game one played largely between the hash marks then that should go a long way toward getting us into Mattison Diabolical Blitz Opportunities. Cousins will make mistakes if we get to him--like any other QB--and out defensive backs are now competent enough to be able to capitalize.
Uh, hope that we don't have to kick a field goal? Also, Hagerup please start being 2010 Hagerup again.
Otherwise, don't fumble and keep Nick Hill in check on kickoffs.
Five Things I Want to See
- Kevin Koger having the best game of his career. I don't know why I think we can make hay with him this week, but I do.
- Martavious Odoms getting a look or two. According to Brian, Odoms in the game basically equals run, at this point. This is the game to dust off that Odoms screen that Denard overthrew earlier in the season (against Eastern, I think?). This will be a game of change-ups and counters anyway, so might as well.
- Michigan pitching off of Rush/Gholston on the edges...maybe this is an opportunity to use Shaw's speed a la the Northwestern game?
- If it happens, I really really really would like to see Denard connect on that deep ball that seems to happen every other game in which Hemingway/Roundtree/whoever have good separation down the field only to get overthrown. This is the time to do it...if Michigan can connect on one of these then I have to think their chances of winning will spike tremendously.
- Defensively, STOP THE BUBBLE. Narrow the field, cliches, blah blah blah. Still, though, after last week you have to expect the Spartans will do it, and surely Mattison is working on it.
Michigan 28, Michigan State 24...2007 style.