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Friday, November 02, 2007

Alan Weymouth on Minnesota and MSU:

We won again, behind a true frosh at QB and behind a OL that remains in constant flux. It took a while for the offense to get going, but once the OLs decided to have at Minnesota, and our backs started running a little harder AND we negotiated our way through our early mistakes, we got the result we thought we'd get. Minnesota's defense was slow... very slow. Shouldn't have been that difficult, and wouldn't have been with Henne and Hart.

Defensively, aside from getting gashed early by the zoneread, we played pretty darn well. Only gave up 3 with a gift from the O. 'Backer fill still a problem on those Zone, DLs needing to get off blocks.

MSU: Offense is pretty good. Among the top 5 in the Big 10. Better balance than Purdue. I'd put them on a par with Penn State perhaps. Ringer is the real key. We can't let them get Ringer untracked and hurting us, and I GUARANTEE that MSU will show us 3 wide, with FB or HB and run a lot of ISO right at our LB corp. If we control Ringer, we control this game defensively. Hoyer is okay...WR group is okay. Thomas reminds me of Arrington a bit, though not quite as tall. He's the WR threat.

MSU's offensive line is very vulnerable in pass pro. The right side especially, as both Miller and Martin don't move their feet very well. They struggle to keep a pedestrian Iowa team off the QB last week. The left side isn't much better though. We can have a lot of fun against this team, if we can stuff the running game. Caulcrick doesn't scare me at all ...a big bruising back who they use at the goal line and in short yardage.

Defense is not very good against the run or the pass. Iowa's offense was pathetic. I mean really, really bad. The worst in the Big 10 by a long shot. As one dimensional as Iowa was, Sparty couldn't keep the run game bottled up. Henne and Hart should have a field day against this crew. They love to stunt their two DEs, so picking this stuff up will be key. Can't have mental breakdowns here. Iowa had guys open a lot against MSU, but Christensen couldn't hit them...or found a DE in his face a lot. Iowa went to the zone run game, and really got after those two DEs on cut backs. Look for us to do the, we'll probably see some of that TE across the formation with the backside handoff we saw against Oregon.

As usual in this game, we'll have to weather the initial Sparty emotion. They'll come out all jacked-up trying to get bowl eligible. Coaching staff will have to use that against them with draws and screens..and make sure we don't give them cheap points. Get Manningham loose early. I suspect they'll do their best to take way Mario, but we've got way too many weapons to stop. Look for Butler to get loose too.
I'd like to see more McAvoy at RG this week, and less Ciulla. Ciulla doesn't have near the agility that McAvoy does. Wish Schilling would accept the move to guard..but doesn't look like he will.

Run Offense vs. Michigan State

First, Mike Hart's status: he has a high ankle sprain of unknown severity and rumors have been flying left and right about his availability all week. I have nothing solid; I do believe he will play given the quotes he offhandedly gave the Daily whilst walking off the field after the Minnesota game.

Will it matter? Maybe not. I'm not sure how Michigan State currently boasts the #38 rushing defense in the country, because, uh...

LeSean McCoy2517216.964
James Aldridge1810405.843
P.J. Hill3415524.622
Chris Wells3122117.147
Albert Young3417925.329

By any reasonable measure, they were completely full of fail against everyone except Indiana and Omar Conteh, Backup of Northwestern. I mean, seriously, Michigan State lost a game in which Jake Christensen was 5 of 15 for 53 yards. And they gave up 100 yards to a Notre Dame running back. Hell, Michigan State has given up 42% of Notre Dame's net rushing yards on the year, and that was with 32 yards in sacks!

So please ignore the kindly statistics: this is an awful run defense and Michigan should crush it no matter who's running the ball. It would certainly be nice if it was Hart, but over the past couple weeks Brown and Minor have proven they can ramble for large quantities of yards against defenses of BB gun caliber.

Key Matchup: Boren/Kraus/Ciulla/MacAvoy versus Reach/Scoop Blocks. The MSU linebackers are really bad and will provide little opposition if Michigan can just execute those tough blocks where you end up chasing DTs who lined up playside of you. Boren did a great job several times against Minnesota, Rotating Right Guard not so much.

Pass Offense vs. Minnesota

Yeah, if the MSU run defense is bad, uh...
  • Todd Boeckman, OSU, 15/23, 193 yards, 8.5 yards per attempt
  • Kellen Lewis, IU, 13/19, 171 yards, 9.0 yards per attempt
  • CJ Bacher, 38/48, 520 yards, 10.6 yards per attempt
  • Tyler Donovan, Wisc, 17/24, 247 yards, 10.3 yards per attempt
...the MSU pass defense may as well be sporting Jaren Hayes.

Christensen, as mentioned, was clubbed to death. The other QBs MSU has faced: Jimmah Clausen, true freshman Kevan Smith at Pitt, and whoever's playing at UAB and BG these days. There is a clear grouping here: the resolutely awful and those who have shredded the State secondary.

The pass numbers do conceal one salutary aspect of the State defense: sacks. As mentioned, MSU is sixth nationally in sack yardage, and this isn't all because of the nonconference schedule. (It is, however, partly because of it: 21 of MSU's 32 sacks came against their candy nonconference schedule; against conference opponents MSU is averaging a respectable-but-not-horrifying 2.2 a game.) Jonal Saint-Dic, hilariously dubbed "The Sackmaster" by his coaches, is sixth in the country with nine. Michigan, meanwhile, is average at conceding sacks (51st nationally at 1.67 per game).

If Henne plays (and is not unduly affected by his shoulder injury), this will be a massacre on a par with the bullets above. The Michigan line is better than anyone up there save Ohio State; the Michigan receivers are way, way better than anyone up there as long as Manningham retains the form he's come into over the past few weeks.

Mallett, on the other hand, is a dodgier proposition. Free touchdowns and screens winged to Tacopants -- Tacopants don't do screens -- created an uncomfortable first half against the worst team in the conference; against Michigan State they might create a loss. The best prescription might be a steady diet of bombs. Mallett's unlikely to go 5/5 on them, but a few should hit home and the downside on them is low. As long as his completion percentages on 40 yard passes and 0 yard passes remain the same, bombs away. A Moeller-style offense where the ground game pounds ahead and the killshot comes from above would squeeze out a decent number of points.

Who will it be? Again, I have to plead ignorance. I have heard both things from the grapevine. I honestly don't know; I think Henne is more likely to be out than Hart, especially given Angelique Chengelis' public airing of a belief you'd see "a lot of Mallett." If you put a gun to my head, I would say Mallett starts. Then I would be like "dude, I think you should calm down." [UPDATE: Now if you put a gun to my head, I believe Henne starts. WOOOOOOO internet rumors! -ed]

One serious concern: Steve Schilling's pass protection. The freshman right tackle has been responsible for most of the pressure getting through to Michigan quarterbacks the past few weeks, and Michigan State's defensive ends will pose a stiff (ha!) test.

Key Matchup: Schilling versus Saint-Dic The Sackmaster. Obvs. Time for Michigan quarterbacks will yield many yards.

Run Defense vs. Michigan State

Unfortunately, you could take the damning text in the "Run Offense" section above and reapply it to Michigan's run defense, albeit with a significant reduction in ferocity if you wish to retain credibility. Like MSU, a bunch of sacks has obscured the true quality of the run defense. In Michigan State's case the quality is "atrocious"; in Michigan's it's merely mediocre.

Michigan, so used to the zone read by now, will have to change gears and take on the first traditional rushing attack they've opposed since Penn State and, if you reasonably discount Notre Dame as an actual threat, only the second they've faced all year. There is surprisingly little data to be had against "conventional" offenses, as they now defy convention. The Penn State numbers:

2Derrick Williams16066
14Anthony Morelli4-90-2.33
20Rodney Kinlaw126905.838
22Evan Royster11011
33Austin Scott93503.919
34Matt Hahn11011
198 Team1-20-20


A replica of those -- one long run from Kinlaw, one twenty-yarder from Scott, and 2.3 YPC otherwise* -- would surely result in a twenty-point win. That seems unlikely given the quality of the Michigan State backs and the troubles Michigan has had to date up the middle.

Meanwhile, Michigan State ran over Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame before getting crushed by Ohio State (59 yards on 28 carries) and stalemated by Iowa (148 yards by the tailbacks but on 42 carries, 3.5 per). Jehuu Caulcrick is the short-yardage battering ram and all around YPC killer; Javon Ringer is the one who's actually good. To date the pair have come close to splitting carries, which is either evidence of a lot of third and short or certified insanity on the part of Michigan State coaches: Ringer averages 6.3 YPC but is only getting 19 carries a game.

This will be difficult, especially with Michigan fully in zone read mode, but in the limited time Terrance Taylor has had against traditional run attacks he has been disruptive; a steady enough diet of 0 yard runs should keep Michigan State from pounding its way down the field. Ringer is a serious threat to break a long one, however, and an Iowa-like performance would be a win.

*(not counting Morelli carries.)

Key Matchup: The Usual: Michigan linebackers versus hesitancy, fullback blocks, misdirection, and inability to get off their blocks. (Yeah, I didn't even bother changing this for this game.)

Pass Defense vs. Michigan State

To look at Brian Hoyer's stats is to disbelieve in the power of statistics. Whenever Michigan State has flicked through my consciousness this year, he's been winging things wide and looking generally horrible. The stats, however, say otherwise.

Michigan State is a one-receiver sort of team this year: JUCO transfer Devin Thomas has 51 catches and almost 1000 yards, but the next guy on the list is Ringer with 28 catches. True freshman Mark Dell, sophomore Deon Curry, and tight end Kellen Davis have totals in the mid-teens. Davis could be a problem on play action, and Dell/Curry are likely to pick up a couple possession catches, but the mission is clear: stop Thomas.

Michigan doesn't have a corner lockdown enough to bother with a straight matchup, but both starters have been very good this year and freshman Donovan Warren is rapidly maturing into one of the Big Ten's better corners, always in the hip pocket of his assigned covers unless he's blown the coverage and is busy giving up an easy 30 yard touchdown. Freshmen will be freshmen. Meanwhile, Morgan Trent has gone from liability to strength and nickelback Brandon Harrison has jumped all sort of slot routes this year.

And then there is the pass rush. Michigan is just four sacks behind Michigan State in this category and has consistently gotten to quarterbacks unless they were terrified of losing containment, -- Illinois featured lots of time for Williams and McGee, not that it mattered; Oregon not so much -- something that does not figure to be an issue against Brian Hoyer. Michigan will tee off in third and long. The results will be gory.

Key Matchup: Warren and Trent versus Thomas. To win the game Michigan State needs 100 yards from Thomas; to stay in his pocket -- he's always the first read given the catch numbers -- and force Hoyer to come off him equals sack, sack, sack.

Special Teams

A secret reason why MSU kind of sucks, their special teams may be as bad as Michigan's. The first problem: horrible punting. Aaron Bates is 86th nationally with about 39 yards a kick; Michigan State compounds this by giving up around 7 yards a return and falling to 102nd in net punting. Punt returns are another sore spot: at 5.4 YPR, Michigan State is 108th. Zoltan should have full license to pull that Incandenza stuff this week after several games lofting unreturnable fair-catches.

Oddly, Michigan also appears to have an advantage in the kicking game. Kicking Competency Lopata is 8/8 on the year and hit a 42-yarder against Minnesota. He appears to be pretty good. Meanwhile, MSU's Brett Swenson has dropped off after a strong freshman year, currently just 10/16.

The one fly in the ointment: Michigan State's outstanding kick return teams are 2nd without a distorting touchdown return. Devin Thomas is remarkably consistent and good at these things; expect a lot of popups to the 30.

Key Matchup: Kick coverage versus Thomas. It's doubtful we see many long kicks, but if we do there's serious danger of a big return.


Yeah, lame that it's just a drawing, but clocks are so integral to this rivalry, such as it is.

Cheap Thrills

Worry if...
  • Henne does not play, or is off because of injury.
  • The issues against runs up the middle are not limited to the read option.
  • Schilling can't handle Saint-Dick The Sackmaster.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
  • Gashing lanes appear in the run game and MSU is forced to choose their poison.
  • Taylor dominates.
  • MSU's line is as shaky in real life as it is on paper.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for Their Offensive Strength Points At Our Weakness, -1 for Their Defensive Strength Appears To Be Cowering, -1 for Hart... Returns! Probably, +1 for Henne... Does Not! Probably, -1 for Their Special Teams Are Worse Than Ours, +1 for This Would Be So Michigan State To Win).

Desperate need to win level: 8 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for It's State, And They Are Annoying When They Win, Or At Least I Think I Remember Them Being Annoying, +1 for This Locks Up A Shot At Pasadena, +1 for If Hart's Back And Has A Big Game And We Win The Heisman Thing Is Still A Possibility)

Loss will cause me to... install a countdown clock in my house to the next Michigan State game.

Win will cause me to... light a candle for Chad Henne's shoulder.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This is the second spread this year I have completely failed to understand. The first: Michigan -7 versus Oregon. This one seems just as nonsensical but in the opposite direction. State's defense is a bunch of sacks and a bunch of crap, likely to fold in the face of Jake Long and Co no matter who is carrying the ball behind them. The secondary can't tackle or, apparently, cover. The Michigan State sackfest has been greatly muted by Big Ten competition. Despite the five wins there's hardly any evidence this team is any good at all.

Hoyer has good efficiency numbers that I don't believe given what I've seen of him, and Michigan State's sacks yielded combine with Michigan's sacks gained to paint a picture of one slow white dude running for his life most of the day. Third and long will be a near-automatic punt.

Getting the Spartans in third and long might be difficult, though. It's hard to get a feel for how the run game will go, since Michigan's last and only effort against a similar offense was against Penn State's prehistoric attack. (There were a number of carries for Illinois down near the UI endzone run from the I-formation. The results against these were highly encouraging.) Meanwhile, the zone read has consistently gashed Michigan up the middle. I expect one long Ringer run, a lot of ineffective pounding from Caulcrick, a lot of Terrance Taylor, and Michigan State drives that pick up a first down or three before the inevitable punt. They don't have the pass protection to move the ball consistently and will struggle to put up points without being provided a short field.

In the end, this is a mediocre conventional offense and a bad defense going up against Michigan. "Throw out the records" and all that, but, uh, don't. This shouldn't be close.

If Mallett plays, retract the above prediction of a blowout. The dropoff from Henne to the freshman is enormous and the result will be a lot of drives upon which Michigan stops itself; still, this is not a good Michigan State team and a loss is not likely even with the freshman in the game.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
  • Hart plays.
  • Henne... doesn't.
  • Prediction One (With Henne, Hart): 35-10, Michigan.
  • Prediction Two (Without Henne, Hart): 21-13, Michigan.
  • Prediction Three(With Hart, Without Henne): 28-13, Michigan