For the better part of the last seven years, football in the state of Michigan has been run by the underdogs, the Spartans, and yes, as it gets brought up every year at this time, the Spartans have taken the back seat to the throne for many of the years prior.
While their counterparts and in-state rival Michigan Wolverines have cycled through coach after coach for the past several years, MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has steadily built a powerhouse program down the street in East Lansing, one that’s gone 32-3 throughout the course of their last 35 games.
That perception all changed on Dec. 29, 2014, when the Wolverines hired head coach Jim Harbaugh to head their program.
Harbaugh’s rejuvenation of the Stanford football program from 2007-10 was followed by a four-year stint with the NFL 49ers, during which he lost the 2013 Super Bowl with a quarterback in his first full year starting.
And now as the 108th meeting between MSU (6-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten East) and U-M (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten East) gets sent to take place at the “The Big House” on Saturday, a changing of the seasons can be felt with Harbaugh’s renewed success.
The U-M team will enter its stadium fresh off of three straight shutouts, which have led to its No. 12 overall ranking in the AP Poll. MSU enters the game ranked No. 7 overall in the AP Poll and was previously ranked No. 2 before the gap in its margins of victory began to shrink after a three-point victory (24-21) against Purdue and a seven-point victory (31-24) against Rutgers.
“I will say Michigan is playing outstanding football right now, and we need to play better at certain points and times, but we are undefeated, we’ve found a way to win football games — that’s the bottom line,” MSU football head coach Mark Dantonio said at his press conference on Tuesday.
With the Vegas betting lines slotting U-M as a -8 point favorite, the Spartans will look to their playmakers to overcome a period in time when their roster has faced much adversity.
"I will say Michigan is playing outstanding football right now, and we need to play better at certain points and times, but we are undefeated, we’ve found a way to win football games — that’s the bottom line,"MSU head coach Mark Dantonio
“You’re only halfway through, but I think what you know about Michigan State right now is that we will hang in there and we will hang tough and we will play through some pain, and that we will play through some adversity and that we’ve come out on the other end, and that’s the positive,” Dantonio said. “Are we perfect? No. Do we have some playmakers? Yes. That’s what you know, halfway through.”
Of the Spartans’ 11 injuries, the first of four indefinites occurred in the preseason to fifth-year senior linebacker Ed Davis, a preseason All-Big Ten selection. In week two against Oregon, promising redshirt freshman cornerback Vayante Copeland went down with a neck injury. In week five against Purdue, sophomore tackle Dennis Finley joined the list with a broken leg and fifth-year senior and two-year starting safety RJ Williamson tore his bicep. A return for Williamson in week 12 against Penn State is possible, though, according to Spartan Athletics.
There is a light at the end of the Spartans’ tunnel, however, as six of the seven remaining injured players are listed as possible starters against U-M and the other, junior cornerback Darian Hicks, is listed as the outright starter.
"In regards to, I guess, injuries and things of that nature, you always have a plan."MSU head coach Mark Dantonio
“In regards to, I guess, injuries and things of that nature, you always have a plan — if so-and-so goes down, there is always a plan in place,” Dantonio said.
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Kodi Kieler or Jack Conklin will start at left tackle. Both are junior linemen recovering from knee injuries, and both have experience guarding fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook’s blindside. In Conklin’s 27 career games, he has allowed just 2.5 sacks on his quarterback, according to Spartan Athletics.
Next on the possible starter list is fifth-year senior lineman and captain, Jack Allen, who left the Rutgers game with an ankle injury. His sophomore brother, Brian Allen, who usually starts at left guard, is listed as his co-starter.
“There is a chance (Jack Allen) will play,” Dantonio said. “There is always a chance. It’s life.”
Then comes junior tight end Josiah Price, who left the week three game against Central Michigan with an ankle injury. Price is listed as a tri-starter this week next to junior Jamal Lyles and senior Paul Lang.
Perhaps the most worrisome of co-starters, though, are redshirt freshman running back Madre London and freshman running back LJ Scott. London left the game against Rutgers with a mild knee injury and Scott was used sparingly. The two have been listed as co-starters in previous games, but week seven is the first as a perceived health related split.
Amidst the Spartans’ lack of solidarity, their comparative statistics have been analysed as below the bar, but with a bar set at the highest standard of excellence, maybe the MSU team is in better shape than it appears.
When the 2014 MSU team wrapped up its sixth game of the season, its opponents were averaging 19.2 points per game. Through six games this season, the Spartans’ opponents are averaging 21.3 points per game, just 2.1 points more, according to MSU Athletics.
Also, through the first six games of 2014, the Spartans allowed 222.7 passing yards per game and tallied a combined 22 sacks. This season, the Spartans have allowed 242.0 passing yards per game and have tallied 21 sacks, per MSU Athletics.
The kicker, however, can be found in MSU’s ability to stop the run. The 2014 Spartans allowed on average 81.5 yards per game through its first six compared to this season’s 130.2, a 59.8 percent increase. And in correlation, the team’s total yards allowed has increased 22.4 percent from 304.2 total yards through their first six games in 2014 to this season’s 372.2 total yards per game.
These two dramatic increases have contributed to the Spartans allowing 33 more first downs this season, respectively, and in correlation, the Spartans’ time of possession margin has decreased by more than half, from plus-12:01 in 2014 (through six games) to plus-5:32 this season.
And though MSU has a 62-10 record under Dantonio when winning the time of possession margin, it is hard to score an average of 45.5 points per game (the 2014 average through six games) when the opposing team is able to run the clock — which is exactly what U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh will look to do with his pro style rushing attack.
The Wolverines are averaging 201.3 rushing yards per game, which is third in the Big Ten, according to Michigan Athletic Communications. And though Dantonio’s MSU teams have only allowed 200-plus rushing yards 14 times in 112 games, they are 5-9 in such and 16-20 when being out-rushed in general, according to Spartan Athletics.
So in a game expected to be centered around ball control, it might be the turnover ratio which sets the winner ahead.
Dantonio acknowledged U-M’s defense as “outstanding,” but said MSU’s experience will also be a key factor in the game.
"We’ve had to do things at the end of the game offensively to win, to close it out. Probably the biggest thing we have done is close out games."MSU head coach Mark Dantonio
“We’ve had to do things at the end of the game offensively to win, to close it out. Probably the biggest thing we have done is close out games,” Dantonio said. “And I think it should give us confidence in tough games, tough environments and tough situations.”
The Spartans and Wolverines are currently in a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten East with AP No. 1 Ohio State and Penn State.
And with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions squaring off Saturday as well, the winner of the MSU and U-M matchup will be making a large step toward a division title.
MSU’s 11 takeaways and three turnovers have the team tied for the eighth best margin in the nation (plus-1.33) and second best in the Big Ten. In addition, MSU has scored 41 points off of takeaways, while its opponents have yet to score off a MSU turnover, according to Spartan Athletics.
U-M has recorded eight takeaways to nine turnovers, according to Michigan Athletic Communications, but to be fair, the Wolverines have not needed takeaways.
The U-M defense ranks in the nation’s top five in seven different categories, according to Michigan Athletic Communications, including allowing just 65.8 rushing yards per game (third in the nation) and 115.5 passing yards per game (second in the nation).
“They give the ball to the fullback sometimes, they’re moving their tight end around in all different types of formations, two tight end formations, they’ve used four different tight ends, they’ve used four or five different running backs, I believe, two different fullbacks,” Dantonio said.
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