Friday, October 30, 2009

On Paper (or in HTML) This One Is Over

I'd liken the season Illinois is putting together to Brandon Minor's chronic gimpy ankle, but that would be an insult to Minor's persistent limping.

Illinois is not just limping into this game, they are barely crawling in. The Fighting Illini are 1-6, winless in the Big Ten and generally give a bad name to all other teams described as being in "disarray."

Remember how they went to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago? Remember how Ron Zook was the Big Ten renaissance man and his teams were only going to get better given his SEC-mentality and recruiting roots? Ah, time really does fly.

How in the world did Juice Williams and Eddie McGee become the least potent 1-2 quarterback punch in the conference since Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan? And let's keep in mind that Williams and McGee were supposed to be stars, Threet and Sheridan were supposed to not die.

There are so many questions to ponder with this Illinois team and at this point in the season the most worrisome is to wonder if they can beat Michigan this Saturday?

They shouldn't and here's why: Illinois simply encourages teams to run on them. They are giving up 227 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play. Michigan will likely be without Brandon Minor and center David Molk is gone for the year, but the Wolverines should still increase that rushing average. With its stable of running backs (Carlos Brown is expected to play a lot on Saturday), Michigan could run for 250 - 300 yards against Illinois. Given that Michigan is playing only its third road game, expect them to run a lot to put Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson back into a comfort zone after a dreadful game against Penn State.

I know Michigan had fumble-itis last week against Penn State and did have trouble moving the football for about 30 minutes in the middle of the game, but the Fighting Illini will basically be inviting the Wolverines to run. Don't turn them down.

Offensively Illinois is a mess - they are only scoring 16 points a game. Considering Michigan scores more than 30 a game (yes I understand the Delaware State game skewed the average), the averages are on Michigan's side. Despite the Fighting Illini's inept offense, you've got to worry that its dormant weapons could catch fire against a weak Michigan secondary. Hopefully Brandon Graham will get to whichever QB Illinois trots out there before he can throw.

The big question is how Michigan will handle the road. It's shocking and a bit troubling that on October 31 Michigan is only playing it's THIRD road game. This goes to scheduling and Michigan's unwillingess to go on the road for non-conference games, and I think it does a disservice to the team.

But Michigan really has been in both of its road games (both losses) when it played Michigan State and Iowa - both which would be on the "greater than" side of a mathematical equation involving Illinois. This leads me to believe Michigan will finally put things together on the road against the hapless Juice & Co. and win their first road game.

By Saturday night Michigan will be bowl-eligible, will be 1-2 on the road and you'll be buzzing from either Halloween candy or Halloween booze.

Final score: Michigan 33, Illinois 21

Friday, October 2, 2009

Committing to Making a Non-Commitment for This Rivalry Game

Will you at least give me a three step head start?

I’m going to need it to run away from the mobs of angry Wolverine fans after they read this: Michigan State should win this game and they probably will...but it's definitely not even close to being a sure thing.

Before last Saturday’s debacle against Wisconsin (not to mention the blown game against Notre Dame and the embarrassing, mistake-filled loss to Central Michigan) I would’ve have written Michigan State will win this game. But that all changed now that the Spartans are limping into this game with a 1-3 record and the clouds of failed seasons past are beginning to gather overhead.

Let’s take a look at this game realistically: no one expected the Spartans to be this bad coming into Week 5 and no one expected the Wolverines to be this good. You are simply lying to yourself if you thought otherwise.

Combine those two factors with the Spartans home field advantage and I think you’ll reach the same flimsy conclusion I did: the Spartans should win this game, but they might not.

Now for the why.

The one thing that should be staring everyone in the face is that MSU will be DESPERATE to win this game. Mark Dantonio’s career might depend on it. If he doesn’t win this game and the Spartans drop to 1-4, MSU will lose public support faster than Kanye West.

MSU players can’t stand the fact that they are coming into this game at 1-3 (although they didn’t seem to care enough in their previous three games to actually try and win them) and they hate that Michigan is 4-0. These Spartans want to be the team that brings Michigan back to earth. They will be motivated and will be fired up by a home crowd that last saw the boys when they were 1-1.

The Spartans can move the ball through the air – they threw for nearly 400 yards last week against Wisconsin. Blair White and Mark Dell are very good receives and BJ Cunningham provides another game-breaker. The problem is who will get them ball. This might not be the game for Dantonio to keep the two QB experiment going. MSU needs to air it out against Michigan’s soft secondary to win this game. That means keeping Keith “Crazy Legs” Nichol on the bench in favor of Kirk Cousins.

Just like USC, the Spartans have a stable of backs. Unlike USC, none of them are very good. If the Spartans are forced to run the ball they will be in for a long game.

If the Spartans go after Michigan through the air, they should put enought points on the board to outscore the Wolverines.

This brings me to the “X-factor” and I’m not talking about whether or not Denard Robinson will tie his shoes…I’m talking about THE WEATHER.

The forecast is calling for rain and lots of it. That should favor the Wolverines for two reasons: 1) it will limit the Spartans ability to throw and 2) it will limit the Wolverines ability to throw – and that means letting Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Michael Shaw, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will be running wild (that’s assuming David Moosman can get the snaps to Forcier and Robinson – a very real fear I pointed out in an earlier column).

Michigan averages 240 yards per game on the ground. Michigan State gives up 113 yards per game but has not seen a rushing attack like the Wolverines have. If the pass game is neutralized for both teams, the edge has to go to Michigan.

Also don’t be surprised if Forcier gets banged up and the Wolverines insert Nick Sheridan into the game. This is the Wolverines first road game and if the weather is bad, the coaching staff might turn to the veteran to simply hand the ball off.

Bad weather will also affect the Spartans’ kicking game. MSU Brett Swenson will be the best kicker on the field (he might be State’s best player) but lots of wind and rain could create problems for thim.

You may be asking yourself – why haven’t we discussed the either team’s defense? For the simple reason that neither team plays defense. This game is all about which offense shows up and which offense handles the elements.

I don’t even have the guts to make a prediction on this game but I will…sort of.

Non-tsunami weather: Michigan State 37 – Michigan 35

Tsunami weather: Michigan 31 – Michigan State 24

sPARTY showdown

This should be an interesting, if not completely gut-wrenching, game.

As expected, Michigan has shown flashes of brilliance mixed with flashes of frustration. They have played up to defeat Notre Dame, but they let EMU and IU run all over our thin and inexperienced D. Thus far, though, when the chips are down, Michigan has come through.

The only consistency we have had is that we have been exposed as being unable to stop even the most meager rushing attack. Thankfully we're playing an MSU team that doesn't feature Javon Ringer (or Jehuu Caulcrick!), and has already had swift reminders in this young season of why they're Michigan State: critical dropped balls, late game meltdowns, losing to directional Michigan, you get the picture. But I will join the pundits in saying that this is a very, very good 1-3 team and they certainly are good enough to beat Michigan (heck, IU was almost good enough!).

MSU's quarterback carousel has firmly landed on Kirk Cousins to start, and he is no slouch. He beat out the Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol, who is very good in his own right (As an aside, boy I bet Oklahoma still wishes they had that guy). and he has all the physical tools of a good QB. MSU also has a great passing attack, probably the second best we'll see all year next to ND's. Blair White is probably the heir to the MSU NFL WR throne (As another aside: Charles Rogers is NOT doing great and Plax is in jail. That's why you're MSU). They also have another good WR in Dell, who has made some clutch plays this season.

Look for MSU to go straight at the corner who is not named Donovan Warren. Early, often. With anybody who can strap on a pair of cleats having 100-yard rushing games on our D, combined with a potent pass offense, look for this game to be a high scoring one. Let's keep our fingers crossed, and hope that this year we can put little brother back where he belongs.

Go Blue, friends.