Preview: Michigan Wolverines vs Michigan State Spartans

This game features in-state rivals who have had many memorable meetings over the years.  The last time Michigan won was in 2007, prior to the Rich Rodriguez era.  To win that game, the Wolverines had to come back from a 10 point deficit with just 7:40 remaining.  After the game Michigan running back Mike Hart was asked what he was thinking after the Spartans extended their lead. He responded, “I was just laughing, I thought it was funny.  Sometimes you get your little brother excited, like when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. And then you just come back and make adjustments.” Well, the little brother grew up and dominated the following year in 2008 and won in overtime in 2009.  But now Vegas is favoring Michigan by 4 points and predicting that Rich Rodriguez will have his first win for Michigan against the Spartans on Saturday.

ESPN analysts call Denard Robinson the most exciting player in college football and they believe that he alone is enough for the Wolverines to win.  But Michigan and Michigan State have more similar offenses than people may realize.  Their passing statistics are almost identical, with their Quarterbacks completing a high percentage of passes for 240.5 yards/game.  They both attempt to run the ball more often than they pass it.   And the emphasis on the ground game has led to both teams being in the top 20 in the nation in rushing yards per game.  While Michigan’s rushing numbers exceed Michigan State’s by about 100 yards per game, if you remove the outlier in the statistics (a Bowling Green opponent who gave up 466 rushing yards to Michigan two weeks ago), the gap between their numbers shrinks.  The main difference between these offenses is how they utilize their Quarterbacks.  For the Spartans, Kirk Cousins is relatively immobile and the majority of rushing attempts are distributed amongst running backs Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell.  But for the Wolverines, Denard Robinson is not only the starting Quarterback, he is utilized as if he is the starting Running Back as well. In fact, he has more rushing attempts than all but seven players in the country.

For the past week ESPN has done nothing but talk about Denard Robinson and in doing so they have missed the important story of defense. This is not something I thought I would ever say about a Michigan team, but not only does it have one of the worst defenses in the nation, it is ranked dead last out of 120 teams in defending against the pass.   The Wolverines are coming off of a 42-35 victory at Indiana last week, in which the Hoosiers passed for 480 yards, held the ball for almost 42 out of 60 minutes and moved into the Michigan Record Book with the most net passing yards, the most first downs and the most plays ever given up by a Michigan defense.

What this means is that while the story leading up to this game has been Michigan’s offense, Michigan State’s offense might be the one providing the highlights given the weak defense they are facing.  And on the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s own defense could be a big factor as it is the first quality unit that Michigan will have faced all year.  The analysts have gushed over how many yards Denard Robinson is on pace for if he continues with his success running the ball.  But I assure you those numbers will decline this weekend against a Michigan State defense ranked 20th against the run and in the following weeks as Michigan’s opponents improve. It’s not that I’m anti-Robinson, it’s that ESPN’s presentation has been so one-sided that it has failed to provide a complete picture of Michigan’s team this year and what fans can expect to see.  There may be a letdown this week as the much overlooked story of defense comes to the forefront.

One final note is that the Spartans also get a boost from the return of their head coach, Mark Dantonio, who has been out since suffering a heart attack and further complications following the Overtime win against Notre Dame on September 18th.