Michigan is an incredible 24.5-point favorite heading on the road to face Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday. Rival alums Ty Duffy and Kyle Koster discussed the game in a Slack chat. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Ty Duffy: Kyle, you are a Spartan. I’m a Wolverine. They play this Saturday. Two months ago, it looked like this game would be a big deal. The B1G East title went through East Lansing. Today, Michigan rolls into East Lansing as a 24.5 point favorite. I know you have many thoughts. I’ll start you off with a simple question. What happened?
Kyle Koster: What happened is that Michigan State’s predicted drop-off came quicker and more severely than anyone predicted. They lost two offensive lineman to the NFL, as well as the winningest quarterback in school history and his primary target. They’ve lost eight defensive linemen for myriad reasons. That’s what’s easy to understand. What’s harder to comprehend is how this team doesn’t do anything well and how the coaching staff seems incapable of fixing it.
But that’s only half of the story. This spread is also indicative of how impressive Michigan has been so far. Jim Harbaugh was tasked with turning the program around and he seems to be ahead of schedule in year two.
Ty Duffy: Yeah, I think that MSU defensive line attrition has been the key point so far. MSU has fallen from 22nd to 113th in sacks/game vs. FBS teams in 2016. They have fallen from 17th in Football Outsiders’ Front 7 Havoc to 114th. That adds pressure to a secondary not quite up to MSU standards of recent years and to the rebuilding offense. However great Malik McDowell may be, halfway decent teams can plan around him. He can only do so much on so many snaps and he appears to be wearing down.
That line may also be adding pressure on a certain middle linebacker who felt compelled to channel his energy into personal fouls.
Kyle Koster: The simple truth is that Michigan State doesn’t do anything well. I defy you to point to a part of the game where they’ve been even mediocre. Although Dantonio has suggested otherwise publicly, he’s playing for the future. More freshmen have seen the field this year than any since he took over in 2007. The handwriting has been on the wall that this would be a bloodbath for a month now. In that time, there’s been nothing to suggest harboring a glimmer of optimism is reasonable.
Michigan has only played on the road once this season and it resulted in a 78-0 victory over Rutgers. They’ve beaten three Top 25 teams in Ann Arbor, so it’s not as if they are unproven. Having said that, there’s always the rivalry game factor. Do you have any cause for concern?
Ty Duffy: I think you are being harsh. Michigan State has gotten thoroughly mediocre production from its passing game, at least against the weaker defenses on the schedule. L.J. Scott plus an offensive line that can’t open holes for him probably balances out to mediocre. As for causes for concern…
Obviously, Michigan State has won 7/8. Part of me is still shell-shocked from last year’s ending and believes this entire season is a ploy by Mark Dantonio to set up a truly epic Michigan defeat. Even before the recent stretch, away trips to East Lansing are always tough for Michigan. Whether one wants to term it a “little brother” mentality or something else, the entire stadium, players and fans, enter with a massive chip. It’s Michigan State’s biggest rivalry game, but not Michigan’s. The last time Michigan got out of there with a comfortable-ish win was 1997. Jim Harbaugh was playing the last time there was a blowout. Coming in as a huge favorite almost makes it feel more dangerous. There’s little upside to winning. There’s a lot of downside.
This season on the field. There’s not really much of an argument against Michigan. Their weak points, despite Speight’s statistical performance, are the offensive line and the passing game. That’s something MSU would want to exploit with this being the first real road game. But, as we mentioned, that is an area where MSU has struggled mightily this year. The argument here, I think, is over the spread vs. the result. There, I think it is worth remembering how many possessions there will be in this game and that Michigan has been woeful kicking field goals this year.
Kyle Koster: I’m really interested to see what type of gameplan the Spartans employ. There’s a chance they try to lose with dignity and bleed the clock, try to force Michigan into field goal attempts and take a moral victory. Conventional wisdom suggests Michigan State should put 8 or 9 in the box and force Speight to beat them through the air. The only problem is that pressuring the quarterback has proven impossible this year. Speight has only thrown one interception since his first pass of the year so it’s not like he’s been shaky in ways that hurt Michigan.
Put me down for both an offensive and special teams touchdown for Jabrill Peppers. This is his week to actually deliver on some of his hype. I expect him to get ample opportunities.
Ty Duffy:My guess is we’ll see more blitzing from MSU than in past games. Again, Speight’s numbers have been fine. But, he has been streaky. He has thrown some balls in games that should/could have been picked. I think MSU getting to him and throwing him off is really the only chance they have. They probably need to rush more than 4 to do it. The bigger question I think is how/whether Michigan State will be able to score. I’m looking at some of Michigan’s defensive stats on Football Outsiders…
They are No. 1 against the run, No. 1 against the pass, No. 1 on standard downs, No. 1 on passing downs, No. 1 on success rate, No. 1 on isolating explosiveness, No. 1 in front 7 havoc, No. 1 in general havoc. They are also No. 1 in the nation allowing just 12/92 third down conversions. Wisconsin’s one touchdown was on a 31-yard drive after an interception return. We wondered what Don Brown coaching a ton of talent would look like. It seems to be working out pretty well.
Token run plays to keep Michigan honest and try to hit the safeties over the top?
Kyle Koster: Dave Warner is nothing if not loyal to establishing the run, even if it cannot be established. Freshman Brian Lewerke faces a tough task against that defense. I am quite horrified to see how he does against that pressure. The Spartans need to find tight ends or wide receivers on shallow routes in weak parts of Michigan’s zone. For that reason, I actually think Tyler O’Connor would be a better option under center.
Lewerke has above-average footspeed, making my desire to see more read-option and run-pass options off that a la Ole Miss vs. Alabama two years ago. Alas, that won’t happen. MSU’s best offense might be defense, and getting plus field position. Can’t imagine too many 80-yard drives.
Ty Duffy: Do you see this as a one-year, roster-induced malaise or are you concerned about Michigan State beyond 2016? The defense was declining before this season. The last time the Spartans had that true shut down defense was in 2013. Pat Narduzzi and his super cool transition lenses are off at Pitt. The talent development does not seem to be of the same caliber. MSU has a very vanilla offense that has been extraordinarily blessed with very good to great pro-style QB play. Offense doesn’t seem a point to build on. Jim Harbaugh is only just starting to build in Ann Arbor…
Kyle Koster: It’s tough to say everything’s going to get fixed in the offseason but it’s crazy to think Michigan State is doomed for perpetuity. Down seasons in 2009 and 2012 were each followed with a Big Ten title. One major factor will be if Dantonio, a loyal guy, is reluctant to make coaching changes or, at the very least, adapt philosophies. The system works with NFL-caliber QBs and defensive backs and struggles without that talent.
Having said that, the Spartans are only just now getting the the marquee recruits. They have several skill position guys who could be stars next year if they develop quickly. Finding a solution on the lines will be trickier though. Long answer short, I think 2017 will be rough as well. A more favorable schedule in 2018 should coincide with a rebuilt team.
We also need to pump the breaks on Harbaugh until he actually, you know, beats his rivals. I truly believe he will lose to Ohio State later this year and in 2017 and am not sold he’s there for the long haul.
Ty Duffy: I suppose we can agree to disagree on the man who flipped Stanford from 1-11 to 11-1 and was a far superior NFL coach to Nick Saban. Going 17-3 after inheriting a dumpster fire of a team with a terrible offensive line and no quarterback has not been that impressive. Probably nothing to read into him living in Ann Arbor with a bunch of young kids, moving his parents there, or taking his compensation to be named later from Michigan in a life insurance policy. If there’s one thing we can read into the last two years it is clearly that he hates all the trappings and hoopla of being a major college football coach. I’m really sweating that potential Jacksonville Jaguars opening.
Final score prediction?
Kyle Koster: Michigan 52, MSU 10
Ty Duffy: The complete blowout is one plausible outcome. I’ll take a different tack. MSU comes out with tenacity. They keep it close for a half, have a little bit of success attacking Michigan’s safeties, maybe scores a weird touchdown. The Wolverines pull away late. Michigan 38, MSU 17.