As one who has ridden the MSU secondary unmercifully the past two seasons for their ineptness I know when accolades are merited. The Spartan secondary did a terrific job in locking down the Badger receivers, and keeping Scott Tolzien, to under 150 yards passing. Though I still have an issue with them not looking back for the ball, all the Spartan defenders played tight enough coverage that they typically delivered a hit just as the ball arrived to break up the pass or limit the yards after catch. If they can continue to maintain and eventually improve upon the coverage they displayed on Saturday MSU will have as close to a championship style defense as the 1987 Rose Bowl Team.
Hats off to the offensive line for paving the way to 175 yards rushing against a very solid Badger front seven. I was going to reserve judgment of this unit until they played a respectable defense. The four 200 yard rushing games were a welcome sign, however it would have meant little if they were unable to have similar success against what I and many others considered an upper tier Big Ten program. Even the failure to score on fourth and goal from the one yard line was excused. UW had six down linemen, and the lead blocker on that play, Brian Linthicum lost his footing preventing him from gaining any momentum to push the pile or block his defender. I stated in an earlier article that the sign of a solid offensive line is if they can get a back to the 1000 yard plateau. This starting five has that ability and with the three-headed monster at running back that MSU can unleash it is plausible that MSU could have two or possibly three backs with more than 800 yards rushing apiece.
I know that much of the media attention regarding the most electrifying player in the Big Ten is focused on Denard Robinson, but that may certainly change a bit come Saturday. Keshawn Martin is equally as electrifying as he is truly a triple threat catching, running and receiving on offense and as a return man. The kid is a game changer and because of him being a threat as a return man he affects how punters and place kickers approach the mental side of kicking a football. Punters fear over-kicking their coverage or line-driving a punt that will allow Martin a chance to take it to the house. That shanked punt by Brad Nortman can be directly attributed to Martin. In his attempt to get more hang time, Nortman altered his natural mechanics to prevent Martin from making a return resulting in a 14 yard punt. I would not be surprised if Martin received the Big Ten special teams player of the week award for his performance.
Overall it was a very satisfying Saturday and not just from the aspect of the win. MSU made a statement that they are capable of competing with the upper tier teams on an equal level. The game was exciting as neither team budged much and the outcome was still in doubt with less than five minutes to play, requiring the fans to stay to the very end. Blowouts are nice, but nothing creates a buzz in a stadium for the players and crowd when every play in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter is critical.
Now it is on to Michigan. I am struggling to keep myself from coming out directly and saying MSU is going to win, but it is difficult not to. When you examine the three main categories, offense, defense and special teams, Michigan is woefully deficient in two of the those three, and the only one that has performed well still has a huge question mark about its true capabilities.
The UM offense consists of Denard Robinson and little else. He is Antwan Randal El deux, only with more national media attention. To be honest, comparing him to the former Indiana quarterback is a disservice because ARE was actually a very good passer who just had extraordinary running ability. Robinson on the other hand has extrodinary running ability and …well let’s face it, if the Heisman trophy depicted a quarterback throwing Denard would not even be in the discussion. To be fair, the UM offense is not set up to throw the ball down field more than 7 to 10 yards and hope that the receiver will do the rest. Last Saturday against IU’s “We can’t cover or tackle” secondary UM was successful in turning those short throws into huge gains.
I am not naïve to think that Robinson is not a threat every time he has the ball in his hands, because he is capable of eluding tacklers and going all the way. What will be interesting to see is how he and the UM offense will operate if MSU is somehow capable of effectively limit his rushing production. If the MSU defense bottles up Robinson and his running, they essentially have shut down the UM offense. UM does not have a viable running game strictly using their running backs. Robinson may be able to dink and dunk his way down the field using five to seven yard routes, but once inside the red zone the spread loses its advantage of operating in space, making it less effective at scoring touchdowns. At some point Rodriguez will have to make the decision to stay with Robinson and have him try to win the game using his arm if MSU shuts down his running ability, or make the move to bring in another quarterback who is more adept at passing?
I have read some of the UM bravado about having two capable backups, one having starting experience. But playing Forcier would be conceding that Robinson is nothing more than a glorified running back operating in the wildcat. I am looking forward to see how MSU will handle Robinson’s running. Shut the Robinson ground game down and all the air goes out of the Robinson for Heisman balloon.
Defensively I will give credit to Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh. These three are the elite of the UM defense, unfortunately for them the other eight they play with are the dregs of the defense. Neutralize or exploit the effectiveness of Martin, Van Bergen and Roh and MSU will have a field day both running and throwing the ball. UM has not faced a truly balanced offense this season, but they have proven that they are totally incapable of defending the pass and only slightly better at stopping the run.
If MSU’s front five dominate the line of scrimmage don’t be surprised to see Baker, Bell and Caper each owning multiple 20+ yard carries. UM’s two veteran linebackers Mouton and Ezeh don’t possess the speed and the instincts to keep this trio of MSU runners from breaking into the secondary and making road kill of some helpless Wolverine defensive back. Baker specifically, with his combination of explosive speed and deceptive moves, will likely require many of the UM back eight to pick up their jockstraps after getting juked by him. Throw in the issues that both Gantt and Lithicum provide in coverage for all three of the UM linebackers and the term “First and Ten, Spartans” will resonate repeatedly through the Big House.
As maligned as the MSU secondary has been over the last two seasons is nothing compared to the 2010 version of the Michigan secondary. Individually and collectively this is a horrible unit, with equal parts of little experience and ability. IU put up 480 yards of passing because they simply could. UM had no answer for the IU passing game even though they knew they could readily ignore any attempts that IU made at running the ball. UM knew they were going to throw, dropped eight into coverage, often against four, and still gave up huge plays. It was an exercise in futility, but now according to some UM pundits this will all magically be resolved against the likes of Cunningham, Dell, Martin and Nichol. The only way UM’s secondary holds Cousins and the MSU passing attack under 200 yards is if MSU only throws the ball a total of five passes, and even then the total yards could possibly near that figure.
The final observation is regarding UM’s special teams play. When you have a group of place kickers who are a combined 1 for 5 in field goals you better hope that your offense scores a lot of points. In all honesty I don’t expect Rodriguez to attempt a fieldgoal unless it less than thirty yards, meaning that their drive stalled at the thirteen yard line. Even then I would expect Rodriguez to opt for his offense to try and score or convert on fourth down rather than trot his kicking unit.
UM has not had to punt a great deal, and true freshman Will Hagerup has performed adequately in those few occasions, however he has never had to punt to as gifted a return man as Martin. And only averaging 38 yards per punt doesn’t allow for much in the way of returns because the Wolverine punt coverage team doesn’t have to run too far. The test for this true freshman will be how he handles kicking from deep in his own territory and needs to really boom a long punt. If he does get a hold of one and out kicks the coverage Martin will make them pay.
UM Kick coverage is abysmal at best with opponent’s generally obtaining starting field position at the thirty yard line or greater. Again, Martin and Bell have the potential to provide MSU with a short field every time the Wolverines kick off, but hopefully those opportunities will be few and far between.