Michigan State-Michigan preview
When Jim Harbaugh took over as the head coach of Michigan, there was a general confidence that he would, in time, return them to national relevance. Few could have expected that process to occur so swiftly. Have the Wolverines really returned, or is this an illusion that will be shattered when they face a more challenging opponent?
It certainly doesn’t feel like an illusion, but the proof will be found when a 5-1 Michigan host a 6-0 Michigan State team that has thoroughly dominated the Wolverines in recent seasons.
Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has won six-of-eight games against Michigan, the two most recent (both in East Lansing) were crushing victories that helped to end Brady Hokes’ tenure in Ann Arbor. In truth, the Spartans have been operating on a different plane than their rival; they won the Rose Bowl in 2013, the Cotton Bowl Classic last season, and have aspirations of forcing their way into the 2015 College Football Playoff. However, they haven’t exactly been performing to that level, needing to squeeze out victories over Purdue and Rutgers in their two most recent outings. Victory at the Big House would certainly put them back on course.
In contrast, Michigan is the hot team of the moment. They may have a loss on their record (on the road against an excellent Utah squad), but they have won their last three games by a combined score of 97-0; two of those opponents, BYU and Northwestern, had some buzz of their own ahead of their trips to Ann Arbor.
So, with plenty to consider, here are the key areas to focus on when each team has the ball:
When Michigan State has the ball
The offense depends on the performance QB Connor Cook. He was a little out of sorts when Michigan State beat Oregon earlier in the year, earning a -0.4 grade, but may have found his form at the perfect time. Cook’s +6.9 grade against Rutgers is the best we’ve seen from him—he completed seven-of-eight deep passes (20+ yards in the air) for 172 yards and one touchdown. Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge caught three of those deep passes, taking his season total on deep passes to nine receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Burbridge currently ranks third in the nation among receivers with a +11.7 overall grade.
That Cook-to-Burbridge connection is key for the Spartans, and it will be interesting to see how well it holds up against a talented Michigan secondary. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis, +15.3 is performing at an elite level. He has allowed just 32.4 percent of passes into his coverage to be completed, has two interceptions, and eight further passes defensed. Redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers, +12.5, has graded out at +2 or higher for four straight games.
Michigan State’s biggest issues on offense have come on the offensive line, where they have had injury concerns. LT Jack Conklin (+12.1) has missed the last two games, while C Jack Allen (-0.2)—who has struggled when filling in at LT—is doubtful for the Michigan game. This is poor timing ahead of their encounter with a Michigan defense that has been playing at an exceptional level.
The Wolverines’ defensive linemen seem to be taking turns at dominating. First, it was Chris Wormley, then it was Maurice Hurst, and now it’s Ryan Glasgow, who had a huge game against Northwestern (seven pressures and a +7.2 grade). Six defensive linemen have grades of +7 or higher; five have registered at least 15 pressures. Behind that group, LB Desmond Morgan leads the team with 17 defensive stops.
When Michigan has the ball
Offensively, Michigan’s success has been more qualified. The offensive line has improved, and the running game has been good, particularly when De’Veon Smith has been fit, but the passing attack less than convincing. Quarterback Jake Rudock has a -17.9 grade for the season, and while his +0.7 overall grade against Northwestern was his best of the year, he has yet to grade positively as a passer.
At first, Rudock was a liability; he was forcing throws and turning the ball over. However, the Michigan staff has been able to get him to alter his approach, so that when the throw isn’t on, he is more willing to scramble or throw the ball away than he is to force throws that just aren’t there. In the first three games, he had five interceptions to one throw-away; in the next three, it was one interception to five throw-aways. The Spartans’ secondary has been struggling—none of the current starters have a positive overall grade—but it doesn’t appear that Rudock has the form to exploit that.
Nor is it certain he would have the time to do so, as Michigan State has an imposing defensive line of their own, led by DE Shilique Calhoun, who has been dominant. Calhoun has registered at least four pressures in five games this season, leads the team with six sacks and 33 total pressures, and also leads the defensive line with 14 defensive stops. Sophomore DT Malik McDowell is second on the team with 18 total pressures. Six Michigan State defensive linemen have grades of greater than +1 in run defense, led by DE/DT Lawrence Thomas with +4—but that run defense will be thoroughly tested against Michigan.
If the Spartans win that battle and stop Michigan’s run game, they will have confidence that their advantage at the quarterback position can translate into victory. For Michigan, the key is to continue playing defense the way they have been—the opposition cannot win if they cannot score—and even an experienced offense like the Spartans’ can be unsettled.