|Photo: Detroit Free Press|
Most rivalries in college football generally arise first by proximity of the schools to one another, and second, by the consistent high level of performance the two programs display for an extended period of time. Now there are only 64 miles that separate Ann Arbor and East Lansing, so that part makes sense. But the head scratcher for me in this rivalry is that it’s almost never the case that both programs are up at the same time. Michigan State had the 50′s and 60′s, and Michigan pretty much had the next 40 years. The rivalry had some new life breathed into it with the arrival of Mark “Don’t Call Me Mike” Dantonio, who ushered in an era of MSU football success that hadn’t been seen in two generations (hence little brother), while the UofM football program stared into the abyss of prolonged mediocrity under Rich-Rod and Hoke. If Mark Dantonio was the figure to give the rivalry a bit of the figurative ‘mouth to mouth’, then Jim Harbaugh brought the defibrillators to the party.
Last year’s meeting, the first between Harbaugh and Dantonio, was the first in a long time that saw both teams highly ranked with equally high expectations for their seasons, and it certainly lived up to the hype. I could at this point talk about punters, voice cracking ESPN commentators and surrender cobras… But something tells me our readership would much rather I focus on breaking tomorrow’s game down…
Michigan State Offense
Every student of the game of football understands that success on either side of the ball starts with the big boys up front. It’s a topic that is brought up in football discussions ad nausea, but in the case of the Michigan State offense, the topic is unavoidable. It’s understandable for an offense that’s lost three starters on the O-Line to be a bit down the next season, especially at the start, but the play that the Spartans have gotten from the boys up front has been absolutely atrocious. The fact that the MSU RBs have managed to rush for 1,087 yards is somewhat incredible. The Quarterback play isn’t exactly what Spartan fans (or coaches for that matter) have become accustomed to either, with an 8 to 12 INT to TD ratio. To be fair though, they haven’t exactly had ample time to work with in the pocket. I know the Spartans will come out fired up for what is in essence their bowl game, but I don’t see how they’re going to be able to move the ball for four quarters against the top ranked defense the Wolverines will be bringing into East Lansing.
Michigan State Defense
It’s debatable which side of the ball the Spartans have been worse on this season, but I’m going to say defense. What had been the cornerstone of MSU football under Mark Dantonio, has this season fallen to become one of the worst in the Big Ten. Allowing opponents to score 44 more points than the Illinois defense that Michigan faced last weekend. Their defensive line play has been abysmal, with the secondary play being even worse. Really the only bright spot on the MSU defense is future 1st round NFL draft pick, DT/DE Malik McDowell, who also hasn’t put up what I’d consider outstanding numbers, with just 5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Once the adrenaline wears off, and the game settles into a flow, Michigan should be able to move the ball pretty easily on this defense.
With Wilton Speight’s outstanding performance in the Illinois game last week, and the vastly overmatched Michigan State secondary, look for Michigan to pass early and often tomorrow. I’d expect the type of balance we’ve seen all season from the Michigan offense with the run game as well. I think we’ll see more of the speedier backs, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, who’ll be able to better exploit the gaping holes that are going to be created by the O-Line. The play action midway through the game should consistently draw MSU’s linebackers and safeties, and leave the crossing routes to Jake Butt and the post routes to the WRs open for big gains. I’m calling a big play from Eddie McDoom as well. Once Michigan gets control of the flow of this game, and it could be immediate, I’m expecting the Michigan offense to put on a clinic.
It’s a perfect time in the season for the Michigan defense that’s firing on all cylinders to be facing one of their rivals. It’s a game that has a palpable feel of payback going into it, and I expect the Wolverine defense to be absolutely punishing and relentless. I’m not sure the numbers they put up Saturday will be comparable to the numbers that they put up against Rutgers, but they’ll be in the same ballpark. I expect whoever gets snaps at QB for MSU to get even more familiar with the turf at Spartan Stadium. I’d be shocked if LJ Scott rushes for much more than 75 yards, and I’m going to call at least one defensive TD for this #1 ranked Michigan unit.
Most of the points the Spartans do accumulate on Saturday (which won’t be many) I’m anticipating will come from Michael “Windmill” Geiger, who’s also struggled this season at just 5 for 8. And as always, if MSU puts the ball in the hands of Jabrill Peppers, look out.