Know Your Stuff: U-M/MSU

I don’t show my sports-nerdy side much on this blog, but I will now, so deal with it. Now, if I’m hyper-critical and neurotic about one subject, it’s college football. As such, one of my pet peeves (aside from people who pronounce milk as “melk”) is a sports fan who has blind faith in his team. Let’s face it, your favorite team is not going to win every game because “they’re the best” or “because [you] believe in them.” That’s not the way sports works. Wouldn’t it be helpful if you sounded like you knew what you were talking about while you were watching the big game with your friends and family this weekend? I thought so. That said, with the biggest game in the state of Michigan and arguably the nation playing at 3:30 Eastern Time on ABC this Saturday, here is an over-excessive look at #17 Michigan State visiting #18 Michigan.

It’s no secret that I bleed maize and blue, but that just MIGHT be representative of the fact that I gave four years of my life to that institution. Being a football realist, however, let’s take a closer look at what has transpired so far this season for the University of Michigan. For all intents and purposes, Michigan’s 5-0 start has been because of one individual. Denard Robinson (QB) is the clear Heisman frontrunner at this point in time as the best player in the nation, as he is putting up statistics that no player in the nation is doing. Last week at Indiana, he became the first player in college football history to rush for 200 yards and throw for 200 yards for the SECOND time in his career. With Robinson leading the way, Michigan’s offense appears as if it can score at will, as multiple drives this year have only taken two plays to complete. It is important to note the competition that Michigan has gone up against, however, as Connecticut, Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana are not that sound on defense. While we will learn a lot about how special Denard Robinson is this weekend against Michigan State, the Wolverines’ first true test, other players have had similar opponents to start the season and yet failed to generate the kind of buzz that Robinson is getting. And yet, he is only a sophomore. With Michael Shaw (HB) set to return from injury this week, to complement wide receivers Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway, Michigan is about as unstoppable of an offensive force as there can be in college football right now.

This is all that Michigan has going for them, unfortunately. Big Blue cannot guarantee victory in the slightest because of their atrocious defensive and special teams units. Some bright spots include Mike Martin (NT) and Craig Roh (LB), but when you’re ranked 104th/120 in total yards allowed per game and dead last in passing yards allowed per game, there isn’t much to be hopeful about. Most of the problem with Michigan’s defense lies in their secondary and their inability to tackle. However, if you rush three linemen and drop the other eight in coverage to prevent the passing game, Michigan State will run the ball with amazing success because of the huge running lanes that will be opened up. Unfortunately, the woes for Michigan don’t end there, as they do not have a halfway-decent placekicker on the team. In fact, Michigan’s offense will more often than not forgo attempting field goals, because they have only made ONE out of five attempts this year. As a Michigan fan, I love my team, but I know that every week they have and will continue to be a heart attack in-waiting because there is no such thing as a safe lead. Every game of theirs will be decided in the last part of the fourth quarter and with an opponent such as Michigan State, I don’t like the Maize and Blue’s defense’s chances.

As the football program with most wins all-time, Michigan is at a very strange place. Head coach Rich Rodriguez is in his third season with the program and after completely reshaping how the team plays football, some dividends are starting to pay off. Since Michigan is coming off of two losing seasons, which is seemingly unheard of for the program, one can hope that the high-octane offense will help the Wolverines at least make a bowl game this year. This will be challenging with a remaining schedule of vs Iowa, at Penn State, vs Illinois, at Purdue, vs Wisconsin, and at Ohio State. Ideally, Michigan ought to go at least 3-3 during that stretch, possibly better. However, Rodriguez still has to be worried about two very important things, aside from his job security. Michigan has lost six games in a row to the team’s top rival Ohio State and is on the edge of losing a third straight to Michigan State this weekend. Ending at least one of those losing streaks in these rivalry games would mean a great deal to redirecting the ship at Michigan. The other, more subtle challenge that Rodriguez still has to face is in-state recruiting. Right now, Michigan is doing well recruiting athletes on a national level, but Michigan State has the distinct advantage when it comes to recruiting football players in the state of Michigan. If Michigan is going to solidify their defense at all, or even continue an upward trend of success for the football program, in-state recruiting needs to become more evenly matched with the Spartans. With these points in mind, Michigan has some things to gain from a victory this Saturday, but also has a lot to lose with a defeat. If Rodriguez were to even possibly be fired at the end of the year, the program has no place to go but in a downward spiral.

While Michigan’s football team completely relies on its offense, Michigan State has a nicely balanced team that has strengths on both sides of the ball. Kirk Cousins (QB) is getting his name lost in the discussion regarding this game, yet he is completing 68% of his passes to a wide variety of receivers. While he is commanding the offense efficiently, his four interceptions are a bit troubling for Spartan fans. Fortunately, their offense’s real strength lies in the running game with Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell taking center stage. Keyshawn Martin has the potential to be the X-factor in the game on special teams, as he took a very impressive punt return back for a touchdown against Wisconsin last week. A team that’s 5-0 as well, the Spartans’ out-of-conference competition was equally weak as Michigan’s, with Western Michigan, FAU, a “Little Giants” salvaged Notre Dame game, and Northern Colorado. Michigan State certainly impressed many with a strong showing against Wisconsin last week, but there were analysts who questioned whether or not Wisconsin was overrated at that point in time. Still, Michigan State has the potential to go toe-to-toe with any team, especially if they can control the line of scrimmage and the running game, and the Michigan defense they will be facing seemingly can do little to stand in the way of that.

Michigan State’s defense and special teams units are significantly stronger than Michigan’s, but they aren’t without their flaws either. Greg Jones and the rest of the linebacking corps are very impressive and they will hope to keep Denard Robinson in check, but MSU’s secondary has truthfully been rather weak. If Robinson passes as well as he has all season, the game has the potential to turn into a shoot-out. The key will absolutely be the run defense for Michigan State (20th in the nation), but it won’t mean anything if the secondary can’t stop Michigan’s high-flying offense. At the same time, however, if the defense really shows up for State, this game has the potential to be a blowout. On the special teams front, Martin can be a game-changer returning the ball. However, when it comes to field goal kicking, freshman Dan Conroy has been strong, but one has to question coach Mark Dantonio’s confidence in him, choosing to go with a gutsy FG-fake play to beat Notre Dame instead. Nobody is questioning Michigan’s offense or defense, or Michigan State’s offense, but Sparty’s defense is the real unknown regarding how they will matchup with the Wolverine offense.

Let’s be very clear about Michigan State’s future after this game. The Spartans can lose this game and still have a great season. Yes, beating Michigan would be special for them, but looking at the rest of their schedule, Michigan State ought to at least contend for a Big Ten championship this year. The schedule remains vs Illinois, at Northwestern, at Iowa, vs Minnesota, vs Purdue, and at Penn State. This is among one the weaker remaining Big Ten schedules, simply for the fact that they don’t play #2 Ohio State this year. The real remaining test after Michigan for MSU will be at Iowa, so at worst, Michigan State should go 5-1 after this game. Losing to Michigan still has the potential for a great season, but beating Michigan would make for a SPECIAL season. The last time MSU started 5-0 was 1999 (the last year both U-M/MSU faced off with both teams unbeaten) and they ended up 10-2 that year, beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl, and ended the year in the top ten. Regardless of the outcome, Michigan State is on its way to closing the gap between the football programs that has existed for years, but a third-straight win against Michigan would make that gap close that much faster. Comparing the two programs and the places their programs are at this coming Saturday, Michigan has a lot to lose and some to gain while Michigan State has a lot to gain and not much to lose. This makes a win all that more important for Michigan, from a competitive standpoint.

So what will we be seeing this Saturday? Well, for one, it will very likely be the largest football crowd of all time. The current record stands at 113,090 people for this year’s season opener at Michigan Stadium vs. Connecticut, a figure that will surely be topped this Saturday. Also, it will be interesting to note that doing the color commentary for ABC will be none other than Matt Millen, the individual who ran the Detroit Lions organization into the ground, turning them into the sad franchise that they are today. These notes aside, the rivalry that is Michigan/Michigan State should make for a fascinating football game. It wouldn’t surprise me if it will end up being an instant classic, regardless of which way the game goes. The betting line for the game claims Michigan as a five-point favorite, but I don’t see it that way. Football logic claims that with such a weak defense and special teams unit, something’s got to give for Michigan. Denard Robinson may be superhuman, but he can only do so much against a good football team. On October 2nd at 6:59 PM, I said on my Facebook account after Michigan’s win against Indiana “And so the Legend of Denard continues. Should be a great game next week, but State will beat Michigan unless things change. Mark my words.” and I stand by that. I love my Wolverines, but if I were to bet on the game, I’d take Michigan State to win. It’s the most logical thing to do from a football perspective.

But then again, we wouldn’t watch sports if we could predict everything that would happen.