In anticipation of Saturday's heated in-state rivalry, I teamed up with Michigan State writer Joe Guarr. Each of us presents his case for how and why his respective team will win the game. Joe's article can be found here.
For the first 23-odd years of my life, my younger brother was, well, my little brother. I remember fondly taking him out on the driveway and beating up on him in one-on-one (though he’ll probably deny it ever happened). I also remember one Christmas when we were much younger and got pajamas. I got Batman, while he was stuck with Robin.
But then he grew up—literally. The scrawny teenager gave way to the bulky college kid and then the rugged Marine. And now, while he’s fighting to defend my freedom in Afghanistan, I can honestly say that I look up to him.
Many around the country, especially those in East Lansing, Mich., expected a similar situation to happen this year.
Former Michigan running back Mike Hart pinned the term “Little Brother” on rival Michigan State, following Michigan’s come-from-behind win in 2007.
“Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead,” Hart said. “Then you come back and take it from him.”
Michigan State players, coaches, and fans took offense to it, while Michigan fans played it up and took pride in the fact that the maize and blue have won nearly 70 percent of the all-time meetings.
Last season, however, Michigan State came to Ann Arbor set for revenge and won 35-21. Prior to this season, Michigan State looked primed to take control of the rivalry and make a serious run at a Big Ten title, while Michigan seemed to be in turmoil, fresh off a 3-9 season and allegations of NCAA violations.
And then the season began.
Michigan soared out of the gates with the Big Ten’s best scoring offense, while Michigan State stumbled to a 1-3 record that included a home loss to Central Michigan.
By merely comparing records, one would deduct that Michigan should win this one quite easily. But, as in all rivalry games, the record doesn’t mean much when toe meets leather.
The players certainly don’t need anyone to tell them they can’t win. Just ask Michigan State defensive end Trevor Anderson.
“Before the game last year, Coach D [Mark Dantonio] told us that if you haven’t played Michigan, within 30 seconds you’ll realize why we don’t like them,” Anderson said. “After about 15 seconds, I realized why I didn’t like them. Just the total lack of respect that they have for our school in general. Not just the program, but the general lack of respect they have for us.”
Now, I don’t have a problem with what Anderson said. After all, respect is earned, and when you’ve only won 29 of the 101 all-time meetings, you haven’t earned it.
So what does Michigan have to do to avoid losing back-to-back games to Michigan State for the first time since the 1966-67 season?
Here are five keys for Michigan:
1. Keep Tate Forcier Healthy
Forcier could be the most important player in this game for either team. The cool and confident freshman has played well beyond his years at times when it mattered most.
He’s had his freshman moments, but he out-dueled Notre Dame junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the final minutes and overcame a sprained shoulder to lead Michigan on not one, but two fourth-quarter comebacks last week against Indiana.
But how healthy is that shoulder? And what happens if he can’t go?
“I fully expect Forcier to be ready to go and do everything,” said head coach Rich Rodriguez on Wednesday.
Is that just hyperbole, or has Forcier’s shoulder significantly improved since this?
I think it’s safe to say Forcier will at least give it a go, but he better play smart. You can bet Michigan State defenders will have that shoulder in mind when given the opportunity to hit him. One hard hit or one bad fall and the reigns of the offense would be handed to Denard Robinson.
Robinson has shown incredible quickness and elusiveness in running for three touchdowns. He hasn’t, however, shown he can lead the offense for an entire game.
Against Indiana, Robinson pioneered a seven-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. The biggest play, a 36-yard pass to tight end Kevin Koger on 3rd-and-8, showed a glimpse of Robinson’s capabilities.
Yet, while I love Robinson as a change-of-pace quarterback to compliment Forcier, I’m not yet sold on his ability to quarterback an entire game yet.
So the biggest key to Michigan’s success is keeping Forcier in the game.
2. Score Early
As I mentioned in my piece on how Michigan beat Indiana, Michigan has shown a propensity for getting off to fast starts.
Michigan has scored 52 first quarter points through four games and given up just 20.
In three of the four games, Michigan scored on its first possession (two touchdowns and a field goal). In the fourth, against Notre Dame, Michigan scored a touchdown on its second possession, and followed it up with a kickoff return for a touchdown the next time it touched the ball.
A fast start is important in this game for two reasons:
First of all, to get the Michigan State crowd out of the game. This is Forcier’s first road test of his career, and while he’s done an admirable job of running the offense to this point, he hasn’t had to do it with a stadium full of rabid fans yelling at him.
Spartan Stadium will be electric on Saturday because for those in green and white, this is the biggest game of the season. This is the game that gets the blood boiling more than any other. Saturday is a chance to avenge a poor start and re-claim another piece bit of older brother’s birthright.
If Forcier can march down the field and score on the first possession or at least put up a couple of scores in the first quarter, it could mean a much quieter crowd than if he gets sacked a few times or knocked out of the game.
Which brings me to the second reason a fast start is critical: to build a lead in case Forcier isn’t able to play the entire game.
Michigan State leads the Big Ten in passing offense, and with three talented receivers in Blair White, Mark Dell, and B.J. Cunningham, it can put up points.
Michigan’s secondary, outside of junior Donovan Warren, has been suspect so far this season, giving up an average of 243.8 passing yards per game. Notre Dame, a comparable passing offense, torched the secondary for 336 yards and three touchdowns in Week Two.
I’m not confident that a Denard Robinson-led offense can keep up, especially if it doesn’t already have a lead.
Robinson has established he can run, but he hasn’t shown that he can make the big throw when needed, or lead the team down the field in the final minutes like Forcier can.
If Forcier gets knocked out of the game, whether by Michigan State or not, Robinson needs to have a lead and Michigan needs to be able to pound the running game and work the clock.
3. Get Solid Play from the Offensive Line
Last week, against Indiana, Michigan surrendered about 70 yards on poor snaps from guard-turned-center David Moosman. The fifth-year senior moved from right guard to center when David Molk broke his foot against Eastern Michigan.
One of those, early in the third quarter, took Michigan out of field goal range, forcing a punt. Fortunately, those mistakes didn’t cost Michigan a win against Indiana, but you can’t keep giving away points and expect to win.
The offensive line has given up just six sacks so far through four games, though it’s hard to compare sacks against a spread-option offense to those against a drop-back passing offense.
Still, the line has done a pretty good job of protecting Forcier, and has paved the way for the nation’s seventh-ranked rushing offense, averaging 240.3 yards per game.
Expect Michigan State to bring a lot of pressure to try to rattle Forcier and knock him out of the game. It’s up to the offensive line to give him time to throw and lanes to run through.
Michigan State features probably the top linebacker in the Big Ten, in Greg Jones. Jones was picked as the Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and has lived up to the hype, leading the conference in tackles (52) and tackles per game (13).
The line, as well as backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown will have to be ready to pick up the blitz of Jones and junior Eric Gordon. Look for some big plays by the slot receivers and tight end Kevin Koger to neutralize the pressure.
Michigan State will be ready to go and eager to atone for its early disappointment. Michigan might even make State feel disrespected less than 15 seconds into the game this time, although seconds have a way of standing still in East Lansing, so who really knows how long it will take?
All kidding aside, this should be a good old-fashioned shoot-out, just like Michigan’s games against Notre Dame and Indiana.
Prior to the season, I predicted Michigan would lose this one, but after seeing the two teams play the first four weeks of the season, it seems Michigan has the hot hand, while State is returning home with its tail between its legs.
Yet, the game is in East Lansing, after all…a place where Michigan is just 4-4 since 1993 (though Michigan has won the last three).
However, cold and rainy weather is expected in East Lansing on Saturday and that should favor Michigan’s running game.
I foresee Michigan reclaiming the Paul Bunyan Trophy by pulling out a close one. Minor and Brown combine for a pair of touchdowns and 150-175 yards, Koger and Junior Hemingway catch TD passes from Forcier, and Robinson runs for a score.
Michigan wins 35-31.