Michigan State Preview
Games are about player match-ups and coaching chess games. The emotional angle will be intact, but wear off. Michigan must be ready for some high level intensity and this is a fair test of how well the offensive staff can work a game plan, before and during a game.
The game has been long anticipated. The game has also long been suspected as eventually being scheduled as a night game, a rare but exciting event in Michigan Stadium. And so this Saturday the Paul Bunyan Trophy game will be awarded under the lights.
But the game means so much more than a legendary and notable artifact and title. The game is personal, it can be argued as to why it is personal and who has made it personal, but such gabfest is meaningless. Just accept the determination that it is personal. Michigan is 4-0 and somewhat untested. Michigan State is 3-1 and playing solid if not spectacular ball.
A few months back, many Wolverine fans were swayed into thinking that this year’s game against the Spartans would be a check-mark in the win column. After all, Michigan State limped to a 3-9 overall record with only one conference victory. But there needs to be a look back at the conditions related to the unexpected fall from national contender. Michigan State had an inordinate amount of injuries: quarterbacks, linemen, you name it. Michigan State lost several close games, perhaps notably to Michigan (a game that should not have been close) and Indiana.
Then came the brutal off season where Michigan State entered the headlines with the gymnastics scandal and several Spartan players having legal troubles. So, the common thought was that the Spartans would struggle to recover.
Well, last year is gone and 2017 has arrived. The Spartans have health at the quarterback position and have been fortunate to stay healthy overall entering this game. With the exit of dismissed players the one thing Michigan State cannot afford is the rash of injuries that occurred last season. Overlooked is the improved recruiting Michigan State has done the last few years; the cupboard is not bare, there is talent. The Spartans continue to be a physical team that game-plans well and is one tough team to beat, going toe to toe with the Spartan players and mind to mind with the Spartan staff.
Notre Dame kicked the Spartans around earlier this season due to two reasons: (1) an excellent offensive line that could pass block against Spartan defensive schemes and (2) a very good downfield passing attack that hurt the Spartan secondary with big plays.
The problem for the Michigan Wolverines is that the offense currently does not possess either of the above abilities. Simply, on paper and seeing what we have seen from both teams this year, Michigan State matches up very well for this game, more so the Spartan defense against the Michigan offense. The weaknesses of the Wolverines play into the historical strengths of the Spartans.
The game should be a dogfight and not likely to be a finalist for a beauty contest.
Michigan had two weeks to prepare for this important match-up and plays at home, something that had to fry the Spartan staff. However, Penn State has two weeks to prepare for Michigan at State College. Michigan, according to published counts on many sites, used week one as a week of improvement. Scout reported in a blog that Offensive Line Coach Greg Frey worked on “exploitable issues” with his line. This is essentially an obvious admission that the staff realizes the match-up between the Spartan front seven and the Michigan offensive line is problematic. But kudos to the coach for analyzing, preparing, and practicing in an intelligent fashion to abate as much as possible what could be the determining flaw. Eventually the line has to perform or Michigan is a very vulnerable team.
Michigan State has seen the troubles of the Wolverine line, especially the right side, and will send the usual double A gap and zone blitz scheme but much more as well. Michigan’s offense has indeed had two weeks to prepare and it is critical that the entire offense correctly identifies State’s schemes and then executes sound counter strategies arrived at by the offensive staff.
The most pressure on the coaching side in this match-up goes to the offensive staff of the Wolverines. Frey has to improve and prepare his group, of course as well does Coach Drevno need to work on his interior group. Coaches Drevno, Hamilton, and Harbaugh must exactly analyze the Spartan schemes and develop a winning game plan. This game will be a true test as to whether or not the Michigan offensive staff can game plan and effectively call an intelligent and effective plan against a pretty good but not superior defense.
The trouble remains that Michigan State’s defense matches up very well against Michigan. Iowa, a team that looked spent against the Spartans, could not run the ball effectively and when necessary. Iowa has a very capable back and he was held in check. Running the ball between the tackles play after play is likely a recipe for three and out; the offense must be more innovative and attack.
Michigan’s personnel packages give away tendencies and Michigan State already knows these traits well. Toss sweep left with Issac, Michigan’s most effective run play, must yield some yardage. Michigan State’s middle linebacker, Joe Bachie, is a high level linebacker. Not only does he excel at middle blitzes, but he flows well to the ball. Michigan must scheme to keep him from becoming a deciding factor.
The Notre Dame game demonstrated that if an offensive line can protect and provide time, then damage can be done downfield. Now this sounds simply, but Notre Dame had a big experienced line that possesses a lot of talent and provided the time to hit good downfield receivers. It is a fair question to ask if Michigan’s line can provide the time necessary and if Michigan’s downfield receivers, namely, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Grant Perry, and Kekoa Crawford have been prepared enough to execute a good sound downfield game-plan. Then of course the quarterback must hit the throw.
Michigan can go to the tight ends of course, but clearly the Spartan defensive staff has long prepared to disrupt this part of the Michigan offense.
Year after year, folks keep expecting a Michigan horizontal game to yield flank plays and screens. Now and then, perhaps even rarely, this happens. But lately, Michigan’s horizontal offense has been the seemingly obligatory and obvious jet sweep to Eddie McDoom and an occasion old school reverse to a wide-out. Ty Issac can break a screen all the way if it is set up properly and the opposing defense is caught in a bad call.
Pep Hamilton, in the spring and summer, spoke of a quicker and more horizontal west coast style approach to the passing game. Perhaps youth has depressed this vision, perhaps the will to continue with the traditional Harbaugh offense by the Head Coach has intervened. But as of now, it is highly questionable that Michigan can attack with wide outs downfield, even with average time.
Big plays may win the game. Michigan’s best bet at big plays is for Michigan State to blow a gap in the middle and Chris Evans gets past the linebackers, or for Donovan Peoples-Jones to beat the deep defense and John O’Korn hits the big one, or Issac smacks the seam. Hopefully, the Michigan defense does not become the only option for a big play.
The specialty of Coach Dantonio is game preparation; old-fashioned, time consuming, hunting for a weakness and devising a situationally or scheme to take advantage. Few are better at this endeavor, if any. This will entail offense, defense, and especially special teams. Many times in the past, Michigan State has executed fakes on punts and field goals, and of course is ready to block a punt in a last resort situation. Michigan knows this and must be prepared by looking for their own weaknesses, as Coach Frey did, and being prepared. It is a good idea to be in a safe formation when Michigan State punts and maybe even for field goals. Michigan has blundered several times lately by hitting the punter on situations where the offense would have taken over in good field position.
On defense Michigan simply matches up much better against the Spartan offense than the Wolverine offense does against the Spartan defense. The greatest hope is that the Michigan defense can hold the Spartan offense to a bare minimum of points. To accomplish this aim, the defense cannot give up may if any big plays after holding the Spartan offense to minimal yardage on most plays, which should happen. The Spartan offense would shock the world by running all over the Michigan defense; possible but don’t hold the breath too long. The big play will be of great value to either team.
The Michigan offense must do its part by not giving up critical mistakes that lead to touchdowns or short drives for the Spartan offense.
Michigan State has a decent, hard working runner, LJ Scott, who is a big back that in the tradition of MSU backs under Dantonio just never gives in and makes every run personal and physical. He has averaged around five yards a carry over his career. He has fumbled in the past and has recently been holding a football everywhere he goes; a time old remedy to fumbling, or so the theory goes. Scott can be stopped, he was held to just 28 yards by the Iowa defense and his 2017 production is down somewhat. The key to stopping Scott is not giving up the big play by blowing a gap coverage and making the game as physical as he would like, starting in the offensive backfield.
Now last week Iowa the Spartans could not run the ball either, but Brian Lewerke had a big game against Iowa and that was the deciding factor.
Lewerke is a typical Spartan pocket quarterback; he has size, a good understanding of the Spartan scheme and better than average arm strength. Unlike most Spartan quarterbacks, Lewerke can be used in the traditional running game and be a very effective scrambler. In short, Brain Lewerke’s arm and feet are the most dangerous item the Michigan defense will face. It is typical for him to scramble on third and long and pick up the first down.
Now we all know that Coach Don Brown is not going to change his approach because Lewerke has good feet. Michigan will be in man to man coverage, the Michigan State staff is obvious to this. Michigan’s staff is obvious to the fact that Lewerke will look to sneak out for big gains, especially on third and long calls. Michigan has prepared, so it remains to be seen if Brown’s scheme of pressure wins or Lewerke’s feet beats the scheme. Contain becomes a real concern and Um did give up the edge against Purdue more than once.
The view here is that Michigan State’s receiver group is better than some think. Collectively this group does two things very well: (1) pattern sharpness and (2) catching the ball, at least so far. This group plays hard, has progressed nicely, and there is talent.
Michigan State has the traditional pro offense that with a sound pass pro from the line and a strong arm quarterback can still be very problematical for a defense, even in this age of great defensive athletes and spread offenses. While this offense is not as white hot exciting as say a Furtwangler Beethoven performance, it has variety enough to offer smart options and the chance of creating a balanced offense.
Michigan State runs quick slants well, expect this against young man to man receivers. Lewerke has good accuracy on this pattern and the young defenders biggest task is to prevent the mess up that turns a ten yard pattern into a touchdown. Michigan State will run the fly, the fade, the deep out, the deep post; nothing exotic, just time tested. The Spartans simply try to isolate on the perceived weakness after setting up a situation and hit a play. The key remedy is pressure and contain, enough pressure to put Lewerke on the run, and enough contain to pin him down. Easier said than done but UM has the talent and coaching to pull this off.
Michigan State will see how well Purdue used Michigan’s defensive speed against itself and use reverses, trick plays, like the quarterback throw back and flea flickers, and the screen package. Michigan’s defensive line usually does a good job of picking up screen action.
Special teams are sound and for the first time in years, Michigan may have an advantage.
Weird things happen in this game. The key is to be prepared for everything, and that is where the Spartans may think they have a slight advantage. We will see. Hopefully, Lewerke has a much tougher time against the Michigan defense and does not have a chance to pull it out at the very end.