And by “game preview,” I mean “a bunch of graphs interspersed with random observations and questions of an unanswerable nature.”
Big Picture Reasons I Am Fairly Optimistic About Saturday’s Game
With one spectacular except, MSU has simply been a much better team than Michigan this season. The graphs below show game-by-game ratings under the Patented Spartans Weblog College Football Game Rating System for the two teams.
Michigan State had basically played at the level of a top 25 team (a rating of roughly 80) in every game prior to the debacle against the Buckeyes.
Michigan, meanwhile, has played well below that level all season. Their best performance under this system was actually the loss to Utah to open the season (Utah currently stands at 8-0). Even the win against Wisconsin doesn’t look that impressive at this point, with the Badgers yet to win a conference game.
With half a season gone, all but one data point indicates MSU is clearly a superior football team to Michigan.
Smaller Picture Reasons That My Optimism is of the Extremely Cautious Variety
Reason #1: Turnovers
From a Spartan perspective, these graphs are generally happiness-inducing. Both MSU’s success and UM’s failures have been, to a large degree, a function of winning the turnover battle. MSU had a turnover differential of +10 going into the Ohio State game. UM’s turnover differential stands at -8 on the season.
To some degree, these numbers are a function of the two teams’ abilities and playing styles. In MSU’s case, those things are (1) a conservative offense, (2) a running back who holds on to the ball with an iron grip, and (3) Otis Wiley. They’ve also just plain benefited from their opponents making some mistakes.
Less clear is what the fundamental causes of Michigan’s turnovers problems are. Twelve of their 20 offensive turnovers are lost fumbles. In total, they’ve dropped the ball 25 times. Steven Threet has accounted for 9 of those; that still leaves another 16 (2.3/game) spread across the rest of the team.
Turnovers tend to be more random than other football outcomes. So, what happens if the turnover numbers revert to the mean?
Reason #2: Running the Ball
Michigan State has gone into every game this season hoping to establish the run. They’ve been much less successful doing so as they’ve gotten into conference play. They gained less than 4 yards/carry against Iowa and Northwestern and only had the chance to attempt 18 rushing plays against Ohio State. Further, defending against the run is the only major statistical strength Michigan has going into the game (unless you count punting as a “major” strength). Penn State was the first opponent UM allowed to rush for more than 4.2 yards/carry.
Michigan’s own running game has been wildly inconsistent. But with Brandon Minor taking over the feature back role, they were able to average 5.1 yards/attempt against a good Penn State defense last week.
My hope is that this MINOR RAGE offense is something they can work from as a baseline. I think they’ve found an effective rushing offense that’s going to move forward most of the time—even when rushing plays didn’t work that well against PSU the result was usually a 2 or 3 yard gain, not the epic losses from previous games—and must be defended foremost. From there Michigan can add in racing stripes and a spoiler and maybe move away from the basement of total offense rankings.
I think they’ve got something to build on now. As long as the gremlins cooperate.
Going into this game, does the MSU coaching staff anticipate they won’t be able to run the ball consistently and give Brian Hoyer the chance to make some plays downfield on first down early in the game? Or do they stick with the grind-it-out approach and hope Michigan eventually beats itself? (Third option: They try to keep UM honest with a short passing game; Hoyer’s been inconsistent on shorter passes most of the year, though.)
When Michigan has the ball, the likely scenario is for MSU stack the box to contain the run and take their chances with Steven Threet. The health of Threet’s right elbow may be as much of a key as anything in this game.
On That Note . . .
Missing from my graphical expose’ is information on the two teams’ passing games. As erratic as Hoyer has been this year, Michigan’s passing game has been utterly awful. They’ve averaged 5.0 yards or fewer per passing attempt in 5 of 7 games. We’ve at least seen glimpses of what the MSU passing game is capable of if everything clicks (vs. Indiana/Northwestern).
Tentative Gut-Level Conclusion
You couldn’t ask for a better game to test whether Mark Dantonio has really instilled a new mindset in the MSU football program. Consider that the team is:
- Coming off a disappointing blowout loss at home.
- Playing in front of a large, hostile crowd.
- Facing an opponent undertaking its last realistic chance to salvage its dignity this season.
- Going in as a favorite that’s clearly the more fundamentally-sound team.
The question is whether MSU can maintain (4) despite (1), (2), and (3). My gut says they do it.
If MSU can regain its composure after the Ohio State game and find a way to generate at least a small positive turnover differential, Javon Ringer, Mark Dell, and B.J. Cunningham should be able to make just enough plays on offense to put them over the top.
Let’s hear what the rest of your guts have to say.