Michigan State-Michigan Football: Can The Spartans Retain Their Throne?

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Michigan State-Michigan Football: Can The Spartans Retain Their Throne?
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The balance of Michigan State should prove to be the deciding factor in who is bringing home the Paul Bunyan Trophy

Tom Petty once said “It feels good to be king…if just for awhile”, but Spartan fans have become quite comfortable atop the mountain.

Yes, skunkbear nation, it has been well over 1,000 days since you have beat “little brother” in basketball or football.

Those flocking to the big house wearing blue will concentrate on the later half of the Tom Petty quote…”if just for awhile.”

This time around, the Wolverines have ammo.

Denard Robinson consistently runs as if he were shot out of a canon. Gunpowder, ACME, and facetious visuals aside, the Heisman head honcho is leading the nation in rushing. And much like when Happy Gilmore learned how to putt—Robinson learned how to pass, maintaining a fourth in the nation passer efficiency ratio.

The sophomore hailing from Deerfield Beach, Florida has been taking the nation by storm with his Vince Young-like ability to throw AND rush for 200+ yards in a game. Even the biggest of Spartan fans are left speechless at the performances thus far.

And even though the stats look more like Young, they feel with the quickness of Michael Vick.

What’s been so remarkable to me is not that Robinson has put up these all-world numbers…it’s that he’s HAD to.

As covered in last week’s pre-Wisconsin column, many of the Big 10 teams just didn’t bother scheduling tough opponents to open the season. The BCS format doesn’t reward it enough, so why would you? But, anyway, that’s for another column.

Michigan’s cake walk has included an average high school team in U-Mass, a bottom feeding (1-4) MAC team in Bowling Green, and perennial Big 10 gutter dwelling Indiana. Add a thrilling win against a weak Notre Dame (with the same effectiveness, but not style points as the Spartans) team and a decisive victory, which required 29 rushing attempts from Robinson, against Connecticut.

And in a nutshell, everything we learn about Michigan will be unveiled on Saturday—their first game against a legit defense this season. Penn State and Iowa are on deck. Yikes.

It has to be cause for concern that Robinson had to not only play eight quarters against U-Mass and Indiana, but it required his own personal spearheaded mission, and last minute heroics to escape those powerhouses with a victory.

ESCAPE.

It’s what Robinson has been able to do all season, and it has worked against over-matched opponents. Why would it be any different against the Spartans?

Greg Jones for one. The Spartan senior is one of the best linebackers in the nation. What he lacks in speed and agility (could be a problem…) he makes up for with his knowledge, feel for the game, stage presence, superior angle cutting, and steadfast persistency to seek and destroy. He will not miss tackles like the previous pee-wee footballers Robinson has steamrolled over.

Michigan State will not drop three easy interceptions like Notre Dame did, either. One thing lost in the Robinson hype, is how well Notre Dame was able to make adjustments. If you watched that game, you saw the Irish were able to fluster Robinson and force him into mistakes.

Mistakes the Irish didn’t capitalize on.

These rivalry games have a way of making people step their game up. Just watch the highlight films of Charles Woodson during his 1997 Heisman year, and the 27 interceptions he had against the Spartans, including but not limited to the famed one-hander while falling out of bounds. 

Or for Michigan State, slow yet wide DB John Miller, in 1987 (State’s last Rose Bowl team) had four interceptions against an out-matched Michigan team on that faithful day at Spartan Stadium.

The Spartans are going to need a performance like that out of their linebacking core. Expect Greg Jones to be playing some sort of hybrid “box-1” (a basketball term) or “spy” mode against Robinson. A real “don’t stand on the tracks, while the train is coming through” sort of matchup. Jones will be locked and loaded for this 1-on-1 matchup all-day-long.

With Jones keyed in on Robinson, one of the other linebackers will have to step up in the passing game. Senior linebacker, and Greg Jones’ comrade the last four years, Eric Gordon and/or sophomore Chris Norman will have to make some plays. One of those needs to be a turnover (or two). Write that down.

This is a Michigan State defense that over the last year and change hasn’t been victimized to long gains on the ground. They stay in their lanes and don’t over pursue the ball carrier. Continuing to do just that, will be the key to success for this unit that ranks 20th in the nation this year and 24th last year against the run, respectively.

I also expect sophomore DT Jerel Worthy to be a huge factor in the Michigan passing game. He stands about 10 feet tall and should just inflict havoc and chaos on Robinson’s (who is barely 6’0) passing lanes. Expect Worthy’s greasy paws to get on a few of those passes.

Speaking of passing game—Kirk Cousins has to settle down.

He has a reputation for being a smart player who has struggled in key situations. Many will say he slayed that beast with his performance last week against No. 11 Wisconsin, but he did put the team in a hole with two horrendous first half interceptions. He quickly recovered to show the moxie and competitive fire Spartan fans have come to enjoy from the sharp shooting junior.

However, time and time again the Spartans have seen dumb plays from Cousins. He is remarkably accurate—even when he throws interceptions he hits defenders between the numbers. It’s just that for a reputation as a smart player, he really continues to make dumb game costing mistakes.

For example, the ND game when he crossed the line of scrimmage, and proceeded to find his way back behind it, and throw an incomplete pass. 1) That play needed to stay in-bounds for clock purposes 2) How do you take that penalty? 3) Why would you think you can walk back behind the line of scrimmage casually can carry on as if nothing happened? 4) Was that another panic for the archives?

A QB of Cousins stature and intelligence just cannot make plays like that against Michigan. Robinson and Co. will make him pay big-time, and quick. The Spartans need a turnover free performance from Cousins.

Lastly, the myth Spartan fans continue to exonerate is that Robinson doesn’t have any help. That is simply not the fact, and if defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and the rest of the Spartans prepare in that fashion, they will be burned quickly. They have a fantastic offensive line, with all the size and speed Rich Rod’s offense calls for. They also have talent in guys like Shaw, Roundtree, Hemmingway, and burner Martavious Odoms are just waiting for their number to be called.

The fact of the matter is, this is a more veteran Spartan team. They have achieved and are prepared to demonstrate the patience and balance that comes with experience. Michigan is more apt to rely on their one-man show Robinson, while Michigan State has the advantage in overall talent deliciously spread over the offense, defense, especially special teams.  

Will Rich Rodriguez continue to be obtuse, or finally call upon a number other than No. 16? In the heat of the battle, will Robinson show the maturity to trust his other players? This MUST happen if Michigan wants to escape one more time and live to see another day.

Tom Petty continues in the song…   

“It's good to be king and have your own way
Get a feeling of peace at the end of the day
And when your bulldog barks and your canary sings
You're out there with winners...(it’s good to be king)”

The Spartans know the bulldog will bark, but who will be the canary? Will it be Roundtree or Gordon? Shaw or Keshawn Martin?

In a game that should have plenty of fireworks, I favor the tried and true sparklers over the flash-in-the-pan bottle rockets. While the noise will be loud, proud, and hard to swallow early—sparklers always seem to burn about just a little longer than you’d expect.

Expect this theory to push its way to a surprising, yet decisive shootout in the favor of the Spartans.

 

Michigan State 49 Michigan 37

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