Fire up the grills, at home and/or at the tailgate, grab a cold beverage and get ready for a good one as Michigan faces in-state-rival Michigan State. This is the first time the two rivals have played at night at The Big House, and this will absolutely be a rowdy environment for the Spartans to step into. AD Warde Manuel even sent out a note to fans, with the help of fellow/rival AD Mark Hollis, asking for civility, respect and safety.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) October 5, 2017
The Mighty Michigan Wolverines are now 4-0 and are 1-0 in B1G conference play, after a win over Purdue in Week 4. The maize and blue spent Week 5 seeking improvements as most teams do on a bye week, however Michigan prefers to call it “improvement week” to hammer home the emphasis. This may be a good thing. Even though Michigan is 4-0 at this point in the season, it is clear that there are improvements to be had on both sides of the ball, but more-so on Offense.
Where most teams would hope to have a stable offense, as far as positions go, which is starting to gel by week 4 or 5, the Wolverines lost their starting QB against Purdue. This on a late and dirty hit which will likely sideline Wilton Speight for at least a few weeks if not more. This situation brings forth another next-man-up scenario and that man is John O’Korn. O’Korn came into the game against Purdue, still in the first half and was not able to find much success early on. Into the second half, he found his rhythm and the offense looked the best it has all season long. This is not to say that the offense was fixed by having a new QB under center, although John did seem to grow in comfort/familiarity with the offense as the came wore on.
There were still plenty of problems with protections, with WRs getting open, and at times in the running game. Most of these problems stem from issues upfront. It’s worth noting that this offensive line is young, however, even the youngest is now entering his 5th game at the collegiate level and should be figuring it out by now. Shoring up the offensive line will in all likelihood help all facets of the game on offense. With more time in the pocket, the QB can more easily find open WRs and WRs have more time to get open. Running backs should then also be able to find running lanes with more consistency.
Against Purdue, the one thing that I was most happy to see was that the TEs were more able to get involved. This to me, is a sign that the line is improving since to this point, the TEs have been having to stay home and help block the majority of the time. We know that in a Jim Harbaugh offense, TEs are very important and he loves to get the ball to them. Michigan must continue to be able to do so in order for this team to flourish.
Michigan State on the other hand, is coming off an impressive win over Iowa. After the Spartans took a whoopin’ against the Fighting Irish the week prior, many people felt that Iowa was going to do similar things to MSU. That was not the case, which was the impressive part, along with the Spartan defense which played pretty well overall. The game itself was not exactly a barn-burner, MSU put up 17 to Iowas 10, and it turned out to be one of those games where the difference between win and loss was solely based on who punted less. Iowa ended up with 6 punts to MSU’s 5. It was also a sloppy game with Iowa fumbling 4 times, losing 2 and Sparty fumbling once but keeping possession.
Even with the two turnovers, the MSU offense still was not able to put the game away but we will discuss more about that below.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
In this corner we have the Michigan Defense vs the Michigan State Offense
Just like last week, and every week, our very own Darren Bennett put together a quick stat comparison for the weekly match-up. Let’s start there.
Again, Michigan will face an opponent who likes to balance their offensive attack, by taking what the defense gives them. MSU has had some success both rushing and passing, but neither area really jumps out on paper. What does jump out is the fact that QB Brian Lewerke is the leading rusher on the team with 248 yards on 38 carries, an average of 6.5 yards per attempt. Just behind him is RB, LJ Scott who has totaled 214 yards on 58 carries which is good for an average of 3.7 yards per carry. Keep this in mind as we move deeper into this analysis.
The Spartans can pass the ball, somewhat, and are getting better in that area as Lewerke has started to build chemistry with WR Felton Davis III. Davis leads the team in touchdowns (4), receiving yards (256), and receptions (21) through this point in the year. Lewerke has completed just over 60% of his passes and has spread the ball around quite a bit, targeting at least 12 different players, including an emphasis on throwing to RBs – MSU has completed passes to RBs 12 times out of 85 total receptions, good for 14% of their successful attempts to throw and catch.
Michigan State will also sprinkle in a few wrinkles. They have run a few trick plays. These tricks include jet sweeps, they tend to use WR Darrell Stewart for these, and they’ve even trotted out Sophomore QB Trishton Jackson to throw a pass to starting QB Lewerke. I wouldn’t be surprised to see tricks such as these and even other wrinkles to be shown in this game.
So if we look back at the fact that MSU is gaining more of their yards on the ground with the QB than the RB, this can only mean 1 of 2 things. Either the QB has plenty of designed runs, or he has great escapability and ability to make plays when things break down. Having watched a few of the MSU games this year, I’m going with the latter.
Last week, Iowa held the Spartans to 88 yards rushing but again, Lewerke led the way with 42 yards on 12 carries. Iowa also loaded the box to take away the run and this allowed the budding Lewerke/Felton combo to flourish.
So what does Michigan have to do different from what Iowa did to win this game against Sparty?
The man pictured above is Don Brown. If you don’t know who Don Brown is by now, you are not paying enough attention. Don Brown’s defense is to QBs what Don Brown is to the camera in that GIF, IN YOUR FACE!
Just like I’ve said in previous write-ups and as you’ve likely seen in games, U of M will certainly blitz, and blitz a lot. They will do this with what looks like a loaded box as well, but Michigan is not loading the box simply to stop the run like Iowa did, instead they do it to disguise the blitz where it may look like one guy is rushing the passer only to drop back in coverage allowing an unblocked DB, DE, or another position to bring the pain to the passer.
Here is a nice example of how this works, courtesy of MGoBlog:
If you watch closely, you can see on this play against Purdue that LBs Bush (ILB middle top) and McCray (OLB middle bottom) both line up near the line of scrimmage before the play starts. As the QB gets the snap and drops back, Bush rotates out to set the edge and or take away anything to the flats on the field side. LB Noah Furbush had been lined up above Bush and away from the LOS a bit. Furbush ends up blitzing, along with McCray, where Furbush is also working to set the edge and tries to chase down the QB from the backside. Before he can get to him, Chase Winovich defeats his man and wraps up the QB.
Purdue quarterbacks, David Blough and Elijah Sindelar have put up pretty similar stats to Lewerke in the passing game however, where the QBs differ is in athleticism. The Boilermaker duo has tried to get out and run but haven’t had the same success that MSU’s QB has. I also wonder if the limited number of sacks that Michigan State has given up has been mostly due to Lewerke’s ability to make plays.
Past success, however, is not a good indicator of success to be had against this Michigan defense. We can look to Purdue as a good example of this.
Previous to the game against Michigan, Purdue fans were cocky and thinking upset. Some Michigan fans were even worried that the gimmicky but seemingly well-oiled Purdue offense was going to give the Wolverine defense problems. Purdue was averaging almost 300 yards passing and 173 yards on the ground prior to the week 4 match-up. Michigan proceeded to hold the Boilermakers to a puny 30 yards rushing and only allowed about half the passing yards that Purdue typically averaged at 159.
Early in the game Purdue was able to catch the Wolverines up in their aggressive nature and had a couple of big plays break loose with misdirection. In the second half they had zero success. Michigan kept Purdue to only 10 positive yards and gave up only one first down over the last half of the game. This has been a trend for the Michigan defense thus far. It’s ability to make halftime adjustments has been huge in 2017, to the point where Michigan is outscoring opponents 43-0 in the 4th quarter. In fact, Michigan is only allowing 3.5 points per game in the second half this year, compared to just under a touchdown at 6.9 in 2016.
If MSU wants to have any offensive success on Saturday, it will likely have to happen in the first half if stats are any indicator of future performance. The big question is whether Brian Lewerke can stay poised and make plays while being under fire in a hostile environment. Last year at home, he had some success before breaking his leg on a sack. One thing I know for certain, night games in the Big House get crazy. Fans go nuts and it gets loud!
The Maize and Blue lead the nation in sacks (18 through 4 games, 4.5 per game), total yards allowed per game (203.2), rushing yards per game (69.2) and passing yards per game (134). This defense is fun to watch, people!
Players to watch on Michigan Defense: Chase Winovich (5+ sacks this year, relentless), Devin Bush Jr. (also 5 sacks on the year and still MVP of the defense), The entire secondary (will be interesting to see if they can keep tight coverage on Felton Davis and co. while the front 7 brings havoc)
Players to watch on Michigan State Offense: Brian Lewerke (can run and throw, everything starts with him), Felton Davis (WR mentioned above who had a big game against Iowa), The entire OL (can they hold up to the maniacal attack from Michigan?)
Edge: Michigan #1 overall D vs MSU #52 overall O
And in this corner we have the Michigan Offense vs the Michigan State Defense
Just as we did above, lets start with Darren Bennett’s stat breakdown of the Michigan offense vs the MSU defense.
Michigan State, quietly, has been pretty stout on defense so far. They are in the top ten in total yards per game and passing yards per game, and are in the top 25 in rushing yards per game, points per game, and efficiency. MSU’s 4-3 defense, under the previous leadership of Pat Narduzzi, was a thing of beauty. When Pat left for Pitt, the defense took a step back and seemed to be gradually taking more steps back as the years passed and as players like Darquez Dennard, Trae Waynes, etc. moved on to the NFL. But this year, they seem somehow much improved, even while lacking the proverbial “star power”.
MSU will still run mostly a 4-3 even alignment while using cover 4 principles to avoid the deep pass. In a cover 4, usually you have 2 deep safeties covering the deep middle and in cover 4 zone, you’d have the CBs responsible for deep coverage on each’s respective side. Michigan State does this while pressing with the CBs and having them stay in man coverage most of the time, riding the WRs if they go deep, and relying on LBs to help cover the middle, who are also covering TEs and other things in the middle. Keep this in mind as we move deeper into this analysis.
The Spartans are led defensively, by Sophomore LB Joe Bachie who has 34 total tackles (12 solo, 22 assisted). LBs Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell are two of the other key defensive players and LB play is easily MSU’s saving grace through this point in the season. Michigan State’s D-Line is decent but not stellar, where Sophomore Kenny Willekes is probably the best they have upfront. Kenny is 6th on the team in tackles (5 solo, 12 assisted), and is tied for 2nd on the team in tackles for loss with 3. There is one more player that Michigan should be alert to, and that is Junior Safety, Khari Willis. Willis is 2nd on the team in tackles with 24 total (14 of those being assisted), and also has 1.5 tackles for loss.
Typically when facing a cover 4 defense, especially one from a 4-3 base, you want to attack the middle of the field with intermediate routes and underneath stuff, and can also usually find openings in the flats. Crossing routes, slants, drags, etc. should all be options here. What we saw a couple weeks ago against Purdue, once O’Korn found his rhythm, should be open against the Spartans as well. We saw O’Korn find his TEs on a number of targets and again, TEs could be the most effective weapon against the MSU defense.
O’Korn will also want to be prepared to check-down to his RB in the flat if WRs and TEs struggle to find separation. Don’t forget that JOK can run also. We haven’t been able to see as much of it yet this year, but against Indiana last year, John had a great run on a 3rd down that went for 30ish yards, while escaping a collapsing pocket with defenders in hot pursuit. O’Korn has a history of being a play-maker with his feet from his time at Houston. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a determined QB wearing the Winged Helmet, show what he can do to answer Brian “Legs” Lewerke from the other sideline.
(Courtesy of MGoBlog)
In order for Michigan to find success moving the ball on Saturday, they must find a way, as they have in each game to this point, to run the ball. I believe they will, but the question is simply which back, or backs will have the hot hand and get the majority of the carries. Chris Evans nearly broke 100 yards against Purdue and looked closer to 2016 Chris Evans. I hope that continues because he is electric. Ty Isaac had been the workhorse for the first few games but seemed to struggle finding running lanes in the last contest. Higdon has been pretty steady in making the most of his carries in three of four games, while averaging a little over 4 yards per carry, which isn’t bad.
We even got to see Kareem Walker get a few carries against Purdue to get his feet wet. Here’s to hoping we get to see more of him. I still think he has the ability to be an every down back himself as long as he can stay healthy.
Either way, the run game will be important so that MSU has to focus some of their LB assignments and potentially S assignments on slowing the run game down. We will know this is working for us if we end up seeing MSU shift to some one-deep looks, which is more of a cover 1 or cover 3 approach, and start dedicating some defenders to loading the box. This really opens up the passing game and is the approach Michigan will likely take. They will find ways to pound the rock to wear down the Michigan State defense.
I also think we could see the Wolverines try to spread the field a bit, as did Notre Dame, since the Irish had such success with this approach. Michigan may not have quite the mobile QB and other offensive personnel to go straight spread offense, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see some spread concepts worked in.
Players to watch for Michigan Offense – QB John O’Korn (obvious reasons, he’s the QB!), Entire O-Line (maybe more specifically the right side of the line which has been a bit problematic so far this year), WR Nico Collins (maybe this is more hopeful than anything but I have a suspicion we could see him in this game. If we don’t, just watch DPJ instead. He’s pretty entertaining and could have a big day.)
Players to watch for Michigan State Defense – LB Chris Frey, LB Joe Bachie, LB Andrew Dowell (what these three LBs do will go a long way towards the success Michigan is or is not able to have on offense on Saturday)
Edge: Push (Statistically I’d give the edge to MSU’s defense but I’m not sold yet on them being as good as they are on paper. In a rivalry game at home, with a QB with a chip on his shoulder, I believe Michigan will find a way to put up points like they did on the road against Purdue. Still, it is too close to give the edge to either side in this comparison)
Final Score: Michigan 27 MSU 13
Some final thoughts:
While I’m predicting a Michigan win, this is indeed a rivalry game and it is being played at night. Emotions will run high, and all we can hope for is a well-played game with no significant injuries (along with a Michigan win if you are a Michigan fan). Rivalry games are fun and crazy rivalry things happen in the game and with fans off the field as well.
If you are going to the game, please respect your visiting rival neighbors, whether that is at the tailgate or inside the stadium. Be the bigger person and don’t get caught up in too much crap talking; of course we want to have fun and engage a little, but let it get settled on the field, then get yourself home safely. Traffic will likely be crazy in Ann Arbor so drive safe!
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