Monday, September 28, 2009

UM Defense: Take All the Yards You Want

It’s rivalry week in the state of Michigan.

Both teams are trying to gear up for the upcoming gridiron showdown in East Lansing this coming Saturday, where Michigan State (1-3) hosts No. 22 Michigan (4-0). These days it is probably true that when it comes to rivalry football games at the collegiate level, you can pretty much throw out team records. Conference rivalry games are different than your run-of-the-mill conference games in that there’s a massive amount of external pressure placed on players and coaches from partisan fans and alumni heading in to the game. There’s a lot of internal pressure generated from the players themselves as well. As a result, emotions really run high heading in to such games. They can get so high sometimes that players and coaches become blind to important assignments and game preparation. After the first hits are exchanged, both teams eventually start to settle down, and the very nature of the college game takes control and gradually overrides all of those pre-game emotions. It’s part of what makes the college game eleventy billion times better than NFL football could ever hope to be.

One month ago, one would have been hard pressed to convince anyone in the Michigan and Detroit sports media, let alone national college football fans, that the Michigan Wolverines would be unbeaten and ranked heading into this football game Saturday.

Going one step further, it would have been next to impossible to convince those same sports pundits that Michigan State would be 1-3 at this stage of the season and positioned last in the Big Ten. I include myself in that group of “would-have-been-difficult-to-persuade’s”.

I thought the “Bakery Basket Opponent” for the Spartans would be Montana State, and I was right. I thought the “Falling Anvil Opponent” for Michigan State would be Michigan.

But today I don’t know. I really don’t know.

If we look at both teams and what they’ve achieved so far, there are some very interesting similarities. In any college football match up, we tend to focus on the differences and any identifiable competitive advantages between the two opponents. Let’s took at some important statistics to compare these two teams after just 4 football games.

Michigan State's Offensive and Defensive Yards Per Point Statistics:

MSUMSUOppPlaysYardsPPPYpPlayYpPointOpp YardsDef YpPoint
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Michigan's Offensive and Defensive Yards Per Point Statistics:

UMUMOppPlaysYardsPPPYpPlayYpPointOpp YardsDef YpPoint

MSU Offense Vs. Michigan Defense

Michigan State’s offense is currently 22nd in the land, average a staggering 438 yards per game. They are ranked 34th in scoring, averaging 33 points per game. How do the Spartans attack their opponents offensively? They throw the football. They throw, and throw, and then throw some mo’. It’s a weird change from 2008, particularly when one considers the young talent and speed of the MSU backfield of Caulton Ray, Larry Caper and Glenn Winston. Yet Michigan State’s passing attack is ranked 3rd in the country right now! I read that and think, Christ, does former quarterback Ed Smith have another year of eligibility we didn’t know about? Did Dantonio hand over the keys to former coach Darryl Rodgers before heading to the Bahamas or something? MSU averages 321 yards passing to only 118 yards rushing per game. While on paper the Spartans are looking powerful offensively, the problem for Michigan State football this year has been translating all of that marching up and down the field into something meaningful on the scoreboard. MSU has been outscoring it’s opponents only 33 to 26 over the last 4 games. Unfortunately, their offensive Yards per Point have been increasing each week against tougher and tougher defenses. MSU’s average Yards per Point statistic is currently 13.4. For every 13 yards gained offensively by Kirk Cousins and Co., they score 1 point.

So what happens when the Spartans unleash their aerial assault on Michigan this coming Saturday? They’re going to gain lots and lots of real estate, that’s what. In 2009 Michigan defensive team can only be described in four words:


OK, actually I really meant “Bend But Not Break”.

Against the pass this year, Michigan has been spectacularly awful (to put it mildly): 975 yards given up, 244 yards per game, ranked 102nd of all 120 FBS teams. Rushing defense is only slightly better, but nothing to crow about: 568 yards given up, 142 yard per game, and ranked 77th in the land.

But when it comes to scoring defense, Michigan’s "Bend But Not Breakedness" in 2009 shows up on Saturday like an unexpected jack-in-the-box, giving up only 23 points per game and ranked 58th in the country against the score. Michigan’s Defensive Yards per Point after 4 games is, well, startling: 17.0. This means that UM opponents need to gain 17 yards to score a single point (on average) against the Wolverines.

So yes, Michigan’s defense has allowed opponents of every level of offensive potency to march up and down their backyard. For all I know, GERG and the Michigan defensive players may as well be serving their opponents free refreshments while they toil away running max protect 52 red stack all game long. But despite all their “fun in the sun” against Michigan offensively, Wolverine opponents have been so far unable to capitalize on such efforts and place points to the scoreboard.

That’s where the bending comes in.

You know – bent over completely with discoloration at cracks and the seams, coming damn close but not quite snapping right in half?

Yeah. That’s Michigan’s defense this year.

Yet, with this being Michigan’s first road test against a hated cross-state rival, one might call into question Michigan’s ability to successful mix past fortune with the walking disaster that represents Michigan’s overall defense and expect anything but a huge letdown this week.

Michigan Offense Vs. MSU Defense

If there’s any goods news in 2009, it’s that Michigan has officially turned the corner offensively. That’s right. It hasn’t always been pretty, and there will most certainly be moments of horror to come in 2009, but even the most disingenuous doubters must now admit that Rodriguez has done his homework and laid a foundation for those same strategies and tactics that worked so well at West Virginia between 2002 and 2007 to find root and flourish at Michigan.

Offensively, the Wolverines are ranked similarly to the Spartans nationally, averaging 422 yards per game, 38 points per game, and ranked 30th in total offense. When it comes to running the ball, Rodriguez has proven that his methodology for this game delivers results in about 24 months. Michigan’s rushing offense is currently ranked a jaw-dropping 7th in the country. The Wolverines now average 240 yards per game on the ground per game. The Wolverine passing offense is certainly not high on yardage, 182 yards per game and ranked 69th nationally, but Michigan already has 7 passing TDs in 4 games.

Defensively, Michigan State is about as pathetic as Michigan has been. The Spartans are almost identically useless at pass defense, giving up 997 yards passing so far, 249 yards per game, and ranked 105th nationally. Against the run, MSU is clearly better than Michigan, giving up 114 yards per game, ranked 52nd nationally. Against the score, the Spartans are giving up a comparable 26 points per game on average.

So What Gives?

OK, so Michigan State slays opponents by carpet bombing them from the air and displaying some decent run defense. Meanwhile, Michigan shreds you to ribbons with a deceptive read option rushing attack and just outscoring you because they know the defense couldn’t stop a 90 year old lady from Pasadena from rushing 85 yards for a touchdown.

Is that all? Is there any other compelling difference here between the two teams?

Above we noted that MSU’s offensive yards per point has been 13.4 so far. Michigan’s offensive yards per point is 11.3. So one difference is that offensively speaking, Michigan has been less prolific than Michigan State, but far more effective in terms of translating yards gained into points scored.

While MSU is doing an equally horrible job on defense of stopping anyone this year as Michigan, their total defensive Yards per Point is 14.3. This is worse than Michigan’s defensive yards per point of 17.0 so far after 4 games. This means that Michigan’s defense is forcing opponents work harder and gain more yards in order to score points than Michigan State’s defense is.

The Good Match Ups Unfortunately Don’t Match Up

When MSU is on offense, it will be MSU’s strength (awesome passing) versus Michigan’s weakness (god awful pass defense).

Sparty, here’s that perfect scenario you’ve been looking for but could never find after the first 4 games.

Wolverines, wake up! Coffee’s on! Hibernation time is over!

When Michigan is on offense, it will be UM’s strength (turf shredding, rototiller ground game goodness) versus MSU’s strength (run defense). Optimal situation for Sparty. Not the end of the world for Michigan, but certainly not ideal.

Unbreakable my ass

Michigan will not be able to stop Michigan State offense from gaining continent-sized chunks of yardage in Spartan Stadium. It would require a Herculean defensive effort and a major overhaul of the Wolverine linebacking corps and secondary to make stopping MSU an even remote possibility.

In summary, defensively speaking, Michigan is a bad football team. As if the Indiana and EMU games didn’t make that abundantly clear. The Spartans will ensure plenty of exposure to this truth on Saturday. Offensively speaking, this is the perfect game for Michigan to unleash the throwing prowess of Tate Forcier and his long list of healthy receivers like Greg Mathews, JR Hemingway and Kelvin Grady. By now there is no mystery anymore that Michigan State cannot stop and will not stop anyone through the air this fall. Unfortunately, Forcier is injured, may not play, and even if he does will not be 100%. Due to the anemic play of the Michigan defense, Forcier will also likely find himself in circumstances that require him to try to do too much. Whereas Indiana’s defensive front 7 was pretty tough at times, Michigan State’s might be the best defense Michigan has faced all season.

Penalties and Special Teams

Sometimes rivalry games go down to the wire and like that ridiculous sport called "soccer", it can all boil down to penalties and infuriating sissy kicks in the final moments to determine the victor.

Michigan and Michigan State are comparable in the penalties department. MSU has 28 for -221 yards, and Michigan has 25 for -209 yards. So both teams probably cancel out on the probability of penalties, though I would be unsurprised to see UM to get the shitty end of the stick with penalties and officiating on the road in East Lansing this weekend. Just somebody watch the clock, please.

As for special teams, both punters are excellent. Michigan’s Zoltan Mesko has a 44.3 average while MSU’s Aaron Bates is just killing it this year with a 45.6 average. For PATs and field goals, both teams have been extremely well served by their specialists. Michigan’s walk-on kicker Jason Olesnavage is 19 of 19 on PATs and 3 of 4 on FGs with the longest being 44 yards. MSU’s Brett Swenson is 14 of 15 on PATs and 6 of 7 on FGs with a long of 45 yards.

A final game preview of Michigan at Michigan State will be coming soon later this week.....

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