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Michigan Football: Spartans Will Measure the Progress of the Wolverines

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Michigan Football: Spartans Will Measure the Progress of the Wolverines
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry always has its own highly individualized brand of tribalism. The Ohio State game is different. It may be the frenzied height of the season, but during that week I think the entire state can agree to direct its hate southward; Michigan and Ohio are divided by state lines and possibly blood alcohol levels.

On the other hand, Michigan State is the one game during the year when it is okay to actually hate your neighbor.

That seems especially true now, when the future of both programs is still in play. Michigan's blunders have given the Spartans an opening to dominate the rivalry and make the program more vulnerable. For Michigan every game seemingly becomes The Most Important Game of the Rich Rodriguez Era, but this Saturday's matchup between No. 18 Michigan and No. 17 Michigan State certainly has a much greater sense of excitement and an awareness of its own historicity.

A few years ago before Rich Rod had even coached a single game at Michigan, no one was sure what to expect. I remember Brian Cook saying (paraphrased) that the 2008 season was likely to be unpredictable and thrilling and fun. In reality, it was the exact opposite of all those things. It had all of the opprobrium and bloodletting of a Sam Peckinpaw film, and halfway through the season I had to regard things dispassionately just to insulate myself from the blistering grease fire that the team had become.

Fortunately, this season is probably the kind of thing that Brian Cook had originally envisioned. Yes, it’s frustrating, but there is also a visceral thrill in the raw emotion that is experienced as the team graces the line between glory and disaster. There is optimism and fatalism all at the same time, which is actually kind of common in sports. This is not the worst thing that has happened during the past three years.

This is the kind of thing that passes for optimism, but it is more than optimism. It is an awareness that this is just the start. Eight wins definitely seems achievable this year, with possible victories against Purdue, Illinois, and another team at or slightly above Michigan’s level. This would easily be enough to guarantee Rich Rod a fourth year. Even if Michigan loses to the Spartans and goes 0-6 against the two main rivals in the span of three years, fans will have to continue demonstrating a biblical capacity for patience, at least until 2011.

And this is largely due to the current state of the offense. If Michigan was merely competent but unspectacular on both sides of the ball and still only won seven or eight games, then I think fans would be much less forgiving than they are now. It is easier to tolerate a porous defense when you have greatness on offense. The offensive talent is so potent that, barring another complete collapse, it seems unthinkable to risk tearing it down now.

Some people still seem to be critical of Rich Rod’s ability to construct a good defense, but historically I think that his tenure at West Virginia proves the conventional wisdom wrong. In each of his final three years there, the team maintained a top-20 rush defense. The pass defense also ranked quite high and only performed poorly once: It finished 109th in 2006, but that same year West Virginia was still 20th overall in points against.

Right now it is obvious that Michigan has a fundamental talent problem. Until Michigan acquires something more than a walk-on, Carr recruits, and a plethora of young, out-of-position underclassmen, I don't believe that Greg Robinson is to blame. It's not a large developmental problem. Very few guys are playing wildly out of character or below expectations. Nor do I blame the scheme, which cannot overcome a talent gap. It's simply a matter of preference. Is the defense configured to allow the immediate cataclysm of one big play or the slow, waning dissipation of a long drive? Those are about the only choices.

In the future, however, it is wins that will attract defensive talent and begin the long mending process. In combination with the offense, even mere competence in the defense portends a Michigan team that can compete for Big Ten titles.

For now the Michigan pass defense ranks dead last in FBS, surrendering 307 yards per game. Consequently, it has also managed to elevate a very good Indiana air attack to the position of fourth best passing offense in the entire nation. Ben Chappell is ranked third amongst quarterbacks in yards per game, and Tandon Doss, who expertly exploited the matchups in the defense, is now the eighth best receiver. Michigan seems to inspire temporary bouts of genius, allowing the opposition to have their own Algernon moments. Saturday’s game was, by my count, the fourth worst performance by any FBS pass defense this season.

Fortunately, no offense is likely to compare again to the talent and proficiency of the Indiana passing game, which is definitely a strange thing to say. Michigan State is only passing 40 percent of the time and probably isn’t going to execute in quite the same capacity.

However, a consistent running game by the Spartans could have the same effect of slowly grinding the defense down into dust. Michigan’s run defense has also been somewhat erratic, trending toward good. It is difficult to tell, though, because UConn is the only competent running team that Michigan has played amongst the FBS schools, and then there's UMass.

Ultimately, Michigan State’s balanced offense has the potential to keep Michigan out of sorts, especially if they heavily exploit the James Rogers matchup. Fortunately, the defense should be better than last week: Craig Roh will revert from linebacker to his natural position, where he can do some damage.

But the most intriguing matchup is the Michigan run offense versus the Michigan State run defense. The Spartans feature the 20th best unit in the country and managed to hold the Wisconsin running backs to about 60 rushing yards below their season average (however, they still went for 184 yards, and James White had a 9.8 YPC). Michigan only accumulated an anemic 28 yards last year, allowing the offensive line to get blown back, but the team's explosiveness this year is probably different than anything the Spartans have faced.

The most impressive thing about this offense is its ability to make huge plays out of the run, which is normally the sole province of the passing game, and then subsequently set up the pass for its big-play capability. According to Ivan Maisel, the Wolverines have six scoring drives of 90 yards or more this season, which is two more than they’ve had in any full season since 1974, when the statistic was first kept. All but one of these drives had a play of at least 40 yards. Against Indiana, the Wolverines accumulated 60 percent of their yards on just six plays.

Meanwhile, the pass defense of Michigan State is harder to figure out. Dayne Crist threw for 369 yards against it, but Wisconsin seemed to be in a general malaise and managed only 127 yards. Michigan is probably somewhere in between these two extremes. Given how many plays are devoted to the run in this offense, 250 yards passing would be considered a phenomenal game. Either way, it's difficult to predict who is going to prevail or how it will be accomplished. Let’s hope that the fate of the game remains firmly in Robinson’s capable hands.

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