Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Michigan State
Head coach Brady Hoke has several concerns going into Saturday's Legends Division battle between his Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans.
First, Michigan has lost four straight to the Spartans, something that doesn't sit well with students, fans and players alike.
Second, the Spartan have not only defeated the Wolverines on the scoreboard, they've dominated both lines of scrimmage. Simply put, Michigan State has been physically tougher.
Third, a Michigan (4-2, 2-0) victory would virtually eliminate the the Spartans (4-3, 1-2) from the Legends Division race.
Fourth, a win would most likely push forward Hoke’s recruiting dominance over Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. In fact, several potential recruits will be on both Big House sidelines.
Let's take a look at how the Wolverines might end the losing streak.
Force the Spartans into a Passing Game
The first quarter might be critical. If Michigan allows the Spartans to score early, they'll turn ultra-conservative and keep bashing the Michigan line with running back Le'Veon Bell. Last year, it was Edwin Baker who was the lead back. All he did was battle his way to a 167-yard rushing day.
This season, Bell has taken over where Baker left off. The 6'2", 237-lb junior has piled up 916 yards and eight touchdowns.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell continues to show signs of his inexperience, but he can still throw. He's passed for 1,607 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Maxwell will most likely be without tight end Dion Sims, who's been fighting a sore ankle for the last two weeks.
An upcoming player to watch is freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who played alongside Michigan's Mario Ojemudia and Devin Funchess at Farmington Harrison.
Michigan is third nationally in passing defense and 10th in total defense but don't let those gaudy stats fool you. The Wolverines have yet to face a quarterback since Alabama who has tested them deep.
Combat Sparty's Aggressiveness
After years of playing power football, Rich Rodriguez arrived in 2008 with an up-tempo, finesse offense that could score points in a hurry.
But against the tougher Big Ten teams, Rodriguez couldn’t possess the ball, move the chains or control the line of scrimmage.
In addition, the defense was never pushed around in practice, and for lack of a kinder word, became very, very soft.
Hoke has said all along he was bringing back a tougher, smash-mouth style on both sides of the ball.
Michigan appears to be moving in the right direction and will get a real test Saturday as Michigan State plays with a special brand of toughness.
So what doesn't Michigan do to combat it? “You go out there with an attitude that you’re going to exceed their intensity and you don’t let people do that to you," Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said at his weekly press conference."It’s that simple. There’s no more to it than that.
“We practice physical as it is. You have to have a mindset that’s ready to play in a figurative fist fight. And if you don’t think that way, don’t come to this game.”
You'll See More of Thomas Rawls
The emergence of power back Thomas Rawls couldn't have come at a better time. Rawls must take some pressure away from Denard Robinson, who's basically been a one-man show.
While Fitz Toussaint is definitely going to start at tailback, 5'10", 218-lb sophomore Rawls will be called upon to get the tough inside yards, especially on third and short.
"Thomas has earned the right to get in there a little bit more," Borges said at his weekly press conference.
If Michigan can get some decent carries from the running backs, Robinson won't have to carry the load on the ground. He will been able to concentrate on his passing game, which is much improved since he tossed four interceptions in the Notre Dame game.
"He's gotten more comfortable," Borges added. "He's more grounded and his fundamentals have improved. I think the Notre Dame game had an effect on him."
Against Purdue and Illinois, Robinson completed 15-of-27 passes for 264 yards, three touchdowns and no interception. And he certainly spread the ball around. In last week's win over Illinois, nine different receivers had catches.
Deal with the Smack
Whether the "smack" is printed in the newspaper, spoken on camera or delivered by tweet, there's been plenty to spread around.
Spartan players made sure all concerned knew how well Michigan fared against Alabama in the season opener.
Several years ago, Michigan's Michael Hart indirectly called the Spartans "little brother."
The coaches often chime in to these "spats" either to calm the troops or to pour gasoline on the fire.
About the Alabama incident Hoke played it down: "I think we do a pretty good job of constantly trying to educate them (about social media pitfalls)," Hoke told ESPN. "From what I know, they (Michigan's players) do a pretty good job of managing themselves in social media. But I think it's a weekly reminder of how we want to represent this program."
About the Alabama game, Dantonio took a different stance: "Our guys need to keep their mouths shut," he added. "That blunt enough? ... Especially the ones not even playing."
Of course, Dantonio jumped all over Michigan after the "litter brother“ incident. "Their time will come," he predicted.
Michigan hasn't won since.
Difference Could Be Michigan's Special Teams
Michigan's special teams have made great strides over the last two seasons.
Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are now co-punters. Hagerup hits the long ones, while Wile has become Michigan's official pooch punter. In seven tries, Wile has dropped six punts inside the 20. Hagerup, with a 48.6 average, would be leading the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify.
Wile also handles the kickoffs. In 38 tries, he has had 17 touchbacks. There's been some static about kick coverage, but the longest kickoff return has been 34 yards, and the longest punt return has been just 19.
Brendan Gibbons, who kicked the Sugar Bowl game-winner in January, has connected on seven of nine field-goal attempts, missing only from 43 and 44 yards.
It just seems like a matter of time before Michigan breaks a kickoff return of its own. Freshman Dennis Norfleet has brought a newfound excitement to this phase of the game. While his longest return has only been 38 yards, his speed and cutting ability shows that he might take one to the house this Saturday.