We will be facing a team who is throwing traditional uniforms out the door and going with a combination of South Florida, Baylor, and doggie poo...
Who: Little Bro (Line: Mich +2.5)
What: The Battle for The Paul Bunyon Trophy
When: 12:00 Eastern (ESPN)
Where: East Lansing
Weather: High near 57, 25-30 MPH Winds
I grew up in a quaint community nestled about 25 min from East Lansing and unfortunately grew up as the lone Michigan fan out of my entire group of friends. For the vast majority of my life, minus a hiccup hear or a hiccup there, this was never a problem and when football season came around they new their place and my disdain for Spartan fans was of the "LOL" type.
The year this all changed was 2001, at the devine age of 14 where true dislike, for an individual (in this case collective fan base) rivaling hatred can really seap into your being. You will all mostly remember this game as the TJ Duckett back of the endzone catch with no time left, infamously known as "The Catch", "Clockgate", or "Spartan Bob". For those of you "not in the know", Michigan should have won this game but the hometown Spartan clock keeper stopped the clock early on a Jeff Smoker spike allowing the Spartans one more play resulting in the afforentioned shenanigans.
I went to the game with my father, who had gotten us 2 tickets through my grandfathers company. We spent the afternoon tailgating with the partners of my grandfathers company (all sparties) enjoying the afternoon all in good fun. I was leaning along a fence near the stadium waiting for my dad to head into the game when not one, but two grown men came up to me (who I had never met or seen before), bent down to get directly in my face (close enough to smell rotten stench of cheap whiskey and Natural Light). These two "gentleman" thought it would be the right thing to begin shouting profanities at me along the lines of, "Hey kid, F*ck you and F*ck Michigan, go green!!!" All the while other green and white fans walked by laughing. I was an even tempered kid, brushed it off and thought I would have the last laugh before the day was over. But, the transformation from an "LOL Sparty" to complete unadulterated hate had started to begin.
Than the unthinkable happened and Michigan lost. On the way out of the Stadium I had my head down as distraught as I ever have been outside the loss of a loved one. At least 3 times I had groups of Guido wanna be bros, bump into me all the while pointing, laughing, and shouting go green in my face. Yup, the transformation to hatred was done screw, East Lansing. None of us will ever get the last three seasons back. Hell, I know even with a Michigan win on Saturday the only thing that will be heard from Sparty fans will be of the "Wait until basketball" or "What about the last three seasons" variety of responses. But, damnit we need this win not to prove just to Sparty who the real football power in the state is, but to prove that this Michigan team isn't the same team that we've seen the past 2 seasons. So I'm done, I've prefaced my hatred for Little Bro, and promise this won't be a yearly thing. So onto the most rationalistic preview of this game I can let my Maize and Blue colored lenzes allow.
Offense vs. Sparty
Sparty's defense is ranked pretty darn good... Rankings? Scoring Defense ranks3rd ationally, 10.2 pts/gm. Total Defense, 173.4 yds/ gm: 1st nationally. The Rushing defense is ranked 3rd nationally giving up a mere 64 yds/gm. Against the pass MSU is 2nd nationally allowing just 109.4 yds/gm. Needless to say, on paper, holy crap, Michigan will have their hands full with this defense. However, especially this early in conference season, it's good to look and see at how these stats were compiled. I'd like to avoid using anything from games against an FCS school but, Youngstown State is 8th Nationally in FCS in total offense. Florida Atlantic, who supposedly is a Div 1 team, is 118th Nationally in total offense. Notre Dame is 20th Nationally. Lowly Central Michigan is 88th nationally. Lastly the mighty Buckeye offense moved up from 108th, last week, to 105th this week after their performance against Nebraska.
Now, save Notre Dame, all these offenses are garbage, you know it and I know it. But, to be fair Sparty did hold a very talented Notre Dame offense to just 275 yds on the road. Michigan will come into this one 26th nationally in total offense, 7th rushing, & 90th passing. But, what dominant defensive team has Michigan played to date? To say that this will be a telling game for both teams is a complete understatement.
At the end of last season the Spartans lost some key pieces to the defense, most importantly linebackers Eric Gordon, Greg Jones, and Strong Safety, Marcus Hyde. This years strength seems to fall on the Defensive Line, lead by NFL prospect NT Jerel Worthy and DE William Gholston who appears to be finding his groove in this, his sophmore campaign for the sparties. The Spartan defense was able to bottle-up Denard last season to the tune of 84 yds rushing and 3 interceptions. 2 of those being very costly ones in the endzone.
Last season, Michigan ran Denard quite frequently with zone stretch-runs and this season, it appears as though the designed runs are more power off tackle run plays. Gordon and Jones were phenomenal last season at filling the gaps in the zone stretch plays leaving nowhere for Denard to go. A major match-up will be Al Borges finding ways to get Denard out in space and keeping Jerel Worthy and William Gholston non factors.
As mentioned above, against the pass the Spartans are nearly just as good as they are against the run. Denard has had moments of, "Wow didn't know you could do that" mixed with "Umm where were you throwing the ball" this season, the latter has happened more frequently. Minus the 3 INT's last week Denard showed improvement stepping up in the pocket and making good throws and did strikingly well against Minnesota. For Michigan to have any chance here Denard needs to show that continual improvement instead of the deep ball quacks that have plagued him this season.
If sparty is able to apply a ton of pressure I am worried about Denard's decision making but also think they will feel comfortable enough sitting back making Denard read the defense and throw a good ball against the zone something, he's struggled with mightily this season.
What To Watch For:
Denard " OHHH NOOOO'S" vs. The Spartans base defense. If we can keep the turnovers to a minimum and move the ball consistently, I believe that will start to open up some run lanes for Robinson and the backs on the edge. It'll be interesting to see if Sparty uses a spy on Robinson and if they do whom? I think this will be a game where if there isn't a pass Denard may be able to step up in the pocket with the defense sitting in zone and take off through open running lanes... I hope...
Defense vs. Sparty
The Spartan offensive line returns only 2 guys from last years running attack that crushed the Michigan D to the tune of 246 yds. 2 major factors this season are that, 1.) Michigan isn't running a 3-3-5 coordinated by Greg Robinson and State is using a makeshift line that hasn't pummeled really anybody on the ground this season. In the their non returning offensive line spots they have resorted to a Freshman JUCO transfer, Fou Fonoti, a spring ball position switch player in Dan France at Left Tackle (yeah, that's the guy protecting Kirk Cousins blindside), and lastly redshirt Freshman Travis Jackson.
Rushing the ball their only success has come against Non BCS schools. Notre Dame was able to pile up tons of yards on the ground, and Northwestern and SDSU were able to compile very respectable games on the ground so, like every other facet of this game this will be a very telling matchup for the Michigan run defense and the sparty rush offense. One big component will be the play of Kenny Demens plugging up the middle and Michigan being able to hold contain on the edges, which has been the crux of the Michigan defense to date.
While I don't think BJ Cunningham is half the man Michael Floyd is, he is still a very talented WR whom Kirk Cousins definitely relies on when nothing else is available. The glaring thing for Michigan is past Cunningham the WR's aren't very deep for sparty.
With the Michigan State offensive line being shaky, I'm looking to see Mattison dial up some blitz to get some pressure on Cousins to speed up his internal clock hopefully leading to some poor throws on his part. He hasn't been brilliant yet this year and it could only get better for Michigan if the front 4 can get pressure through this rag tag offensive line allowing Mattison to have his LB's and secondary play freely.
What To Watch For:
Michigan keeping contain. If Michigan can keep contain and keep the Spartan RB's bottled up inside the Spartan running game will look just as mediocre as they have all season. Making sparty put the game on Kirk Cousins back can only benefit Michigan here.
Special Teams vs. MSU
Kickoff and punt coverage is the key here. MSU has always hyped and dangerous speedster Keshawn Martin and if coverage continues to be shaky look for sparty to take one to the house. Having Hagerup for this one is big and I hope the wind doesn't become to much of a factor and he can boom some high bombs not giving Martin much of a chance for a return.
I'll say it once, and I'll say it again, but this game will be a very telling game for both teams on what they actually have. If Michigan wants to prove to the country this isn't the same team as the past 2 years, this will be their time to prove it. Brady Hoke has come in and put back an emphasis on this Rivalry. I do believe that this one will not be a shoot-out with the strengths and weaknesses on both sides basically coinciding one another. The last three seasons have caused me to fear road games to the point where I like to sit at home underneath a blanket and watch road games alone. But damnit, this cannot be the same team we've seen the past 2 seasons and this sparty dominance has to stop at some point. I think realistically it's a toss-up but because I'm a homer, I am going with Michigan in a close one. Meeechigan wins.... 24-20