Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan for Landof10.com, and Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. They faced off to discuss Saturday’s noon game between Michigan and Michigan State.
It’s been more than a year since Michigan’s fateful bobble against Michigan State, one that allowed the Spartans to continue their dominance in the intra-state rivalry.
But since Michigan State’s 27-23, last-second win Oct. 17, 2015 at Michigan Stadium, the Spartans and the Wolverines have headed in opposite directions. Michigan State is still in search of its first Big Ten win this season, while Michigan is undefeated and has a shot, many believe, to run the table going into its regular-season finale Nov. 26 at Ohio State.
Michigan leads the all-time series 68-35-5, but Michigan State has won seven of the last eight meetings between the two teams. Some wonder, though, if Michigan State’s recent stumbles will help Michigan get what’s become an elusive win against the Spartans.
GOHEEN: Michigan State has had the recent dominance in this series. Last year’s ending must still sting. What’s the mood like in Ann Arbor this week?
LENZI: The mood is … tempered, at least inside Schembechler Hall. You’re not hearing Michigan’s players or coaches make any kind of statements like, “Little brother” — yes, I brought that up — or “Pride comes before the fall” — yes, I brought that up, too — because face it, those are the most recent defining off-the-field statements in this rivalry. But if Michigan is taking Michigan State lightly at all, the Wolverines aren’t showing it. Not at all. There’s a business-like mindset among the players.
In town, there’s definitely a chatter around this game, a confidence that Michigan is a likely winner, for the first time since 2012 and for only the third time since 2007.
LENZI: I’m in Ann Arbor and you’re in East Lansing, so what’s the mood like there? Is the general feeling that this will be a rout or that Michigan State will find an extra gear against Michigan?
GOHEEN: Michigan State has failed to find first or second gear this season, so getting to an extra gear is relative. I would say there’s a feeling of resignation around town and campus that Saturday won’t be very pretty for the Green and White. If Northwestern puts up 54 points on the Spartans in East Lansing, what’s Michigan going to do, especially with last year’s ending still fresh in their minds?
How is the team feeling? The players and coaches aren’t going to publicly say anything that says they have no chance, but during a Tuesday press conference tight end Josiah Price, wide receiver R.J. Shelton and middle linebacker Riley Bullough weren’t exactly guaranteeing victory. They know they face their biggest challenge of the season and there is a lack of confidence in the entire team’s play. Michigan State has been in games late, but has been outscored 87-30 in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
LENZI: This is a team that made the College Football Playoff last year, yet this is the most I’ve seen Michigan State limp through a season in recent memory. Is there one cause for Michigan State’s downward slide, or is it a number of small things that have piled into big things?
GOHEEN: A couple of big things and a lot of little things. As Mark Dantonio says, “it’s all-inclusive.”
What really stands out is the lack of consistency and production by the offensive and defensive lines. These are two units that traditionally have been a strength of Michigan State under Dantonio, but not this season.
The run game is 13th in the Big Ten, averaging only 135.9 yards a game, and that’s with games of 260 yards at Notre Dame and 270 yards at Maryland. The pass defense is 13th in the Big Ten (225.4 yards). No more “No Fly Zone,” but it’s not all on the secondary.
The Spartans have just seven sacks this season. Junior Malik McDowell is a possible top-10 NFL draft pick but he’s getting little help from others. There were three freshmen playing on the line at one point in the second half of last weekend’s loss at Maryland. Sacks aren’t the only measure of quarterback pressure but when there are this few of them, it’s a good sign things aren’t well.
Turnover margin is also telling. The Spartans are minus-4 this season. They were in the top 10 in the nation in terms of turnover margin each of the last three seasons. It’s a complete turn-about this season.
LENZI: This sounds like a Michigan team I covered two years ago. Lots of freshmen, an inconsistent offensive line, plenty of scrutiny following so much success. Is there an end in sight for Michigan State’s losing streak? The Spartans have Michigan, but may have a chance with Illinois and Rutgers on the schedule next?
GOHEEN: The trip to Champaign next week would be the next obvious chance to get a win.
You think coming back from two points down with 10 seconds left to play and not having the ball last year in Ann Arbor was a long shot? I’ll argue that for the Spartans to get a win this weekend will be a bigger Hail Mary. That was one play. They’ll have to find a way to make 60 minutes (or more) of plays, which is something they haven’t done since the Notre Dame game on Sept. 17. Even then, they had to survive a fourth-quarter rally by the Irish.
The Illinois game would seem very winnable, but then again so did games at Indiana and Maryland as well as the home game against Northwestern. This is such a young, inexperienced team that it’s hard know what will happen.
GOHEEN: What about Michigan State worries Michigan? Anything?
LENZI: Wilton Speight on Tuesday exhibited some concern about MSU’s linebackers, particularly Riley Bullough, whom he called an “angry guy.” But Michigan is likely concerned with Michigan State’s ability to find that extra gear, especially in a rivalry game. A gear that Michigan wasn’t able to find — or that Michigan State broke in 2013 and 2014. The intensity was there last year, even down to that fated final play in which Jalen Watts-Jackson scored the game-winning touchdown off the bobbled punt by Blake O’Neill.
LENZI: We’ve named two of the focal-point players from last year but that was … last year. Who are two players to watch this weekend from Michigan State and why?
GOHEEN: Offensively, running back LJ Scott. He’s coming off his best game of the season (20 carries, 128 yards, 48-yard touchdown run) and if Michigan State is going to have any chance in this game, the offensive formula has to include an effective run game that keeps Michigan’s offense — and Michigan State’s defense — off the field. If not Scott, then Gerald Holmes fits this same scenario.
Defensively, it has to be McDowell. He’s the one player for Michigan State who can disrupt any play at any time. Opposing offenses focus on handling him and take their chances with everyone else.
Two players from Michigan who’ve stood out to me are quarterback Wilton Speight and do-it-all Heisman Trophy hopeful Jabrill Peppers.
GOHEEN: Speight’s touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-2 is ridiculously good. Is this the product of conservative play-calling? Or is he handling all throws necessary and just making good decisions?
LENZI: Speight is a solid decision-maker, and his biggest assets are his consistency, his mobility, his chemistry with his receivers and his ability to be resilient. He’s a golfer in the offseason, and takes that golfer’s mentality into each drive and each play — the attitude of “well, if I bogey this hole, I’ll go to the next one and get another chance.” If Wilton Speight panics, you just won’t know it. And, yes, he’s an efficient quarterback.
GOHEEN: What’s the best part of Jabrill Peppers’ multi-faceted game?
No, seriously. Jabrill Peppers’ versatility is likely Michigan’s biggest asset. In Michigan’s opening drive last week in a 41-8 win against Illinois, Peppers played at three positions: running back, wide receiver and at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Seeing him excel on offense and on special teams (averaging 36 yards a kickoff return and 17.8 yards a punt return) makes you almost forget that he’s a pretty good linebacker, too — and he moved from defensive back to linebacker prior to this season, in a hybrid pass-rushing role.
The linebackers were supposed to be the biggest question mark this season, but Peppers is part of a unit with Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray that has played a big part in Michigan becoming the top defense in the country.
LENZI: The players are the most visible part of this game, but what will be Michigan State’s most significant challenge against Michigan?
GOHEEN: Handling the beginning of the game. It will be emotional and could go either way for the Spartans. They jumped out to leads of 14-0 and 17-7 against Northwestern with all of the energy inside Spartan Stadium on their side, but they weren’t able to sustain that. That’s a sign of the team’s inexperience. If Michigan gets out to an early lead by more than one score, all of the worst fears of Michigan State fans could become reality. The confidence level of this team is very fragile right now.
GOHEEN: the confidence around Michigan has to be high. With Ohio State losing last week, how do the Wolverines not look ahead to Nov. 26?
LENZI: The fan base is certainly looking ahead to this date, but again, this goes back to the mentality that Harbaugh and his staff instills in its players: Treat every game like it’s the biggest, most important game on the schedule.
True, the Ohio State-Michigan game Nov. 26 in Columbus may have lost a bit of its luster after Penn State’s win over the Buckeyes last weekend — or may have gained a little more, if you’re a Michigan fan — but Michigan’s schedule includes an upstart Maryland (coached by former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin), a night game at Iowa and a game against erratic Indiana team. Oh yeah, and Saturday against Michigan State, which Michigan is also treating as a “championship game.”