By John Harris
October 14, 2011
Michigan (6-0), beat Northwestern last week
Michigan State (4-1), had a bye last week
There has been a ton of talk about the Michigan State defensive front seven in this game and with good reason, but in my opinion, there’s an equally significant matchup on the other side of the ball. Michigan State guard Joel Foreman was a member of my pre-season Ultimate 11 offense and is one of the best run-blocking linemen in the nation.
Michigan’s defense has improved drastically from last year, and its leader is defensive tackle Mike Martin. It may fly under the radar nationally, but this is a tremendous matchup in the middle. Martin’s ability to win the leverage battle comes from his days of being an All-State wrestler and not gaining leverage is the one thing that troubles most offensive linemen at the point of attack. At a stout 301 pounds, Martin is nearly impossible to move effectively without some help from a second offensive lineman.
Foreman, though, isn’t just any lineman. He’s a mauler and one of the biggest (and best) guards in the nation. He’s instrumental in manhandling the left side of the line of scrimmage but that means controlling the heck out of Martin inside. The Spartans must run the ball between tackles to put pressure on the Michigan defense; that pressure would as intense any pressure that the Wolverines have faced this season. Foreman is a big factor in doing that – this will be a titanic matchup and a key matchup in this game.
I haven’t gotten asked this question, but if I were to do my famous “either/or” game and was asked which WR corps is the best in the state – either Michigan State’s trio of BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol or Michigan’s group of Jeremy Gallon, Junior Hemingway and Roy Roundtree, I think I’d abstain from answering. That’s cowardice at the utmost level.
On Saturday, the two groups can answer that question for themselves and help decide the outcome of Saturday’s game. MSU QB Kirk Cousins has truly found a synergy and a comfort level with Cunningham, Michigan State’s all-time leading receiver - a guy who is a difficult matchup for the Wolverine cornerbacks. He can be a catch and run receiver, just as much as he can be a tremendous downfield threat.
Martin is the X factor in my opinion – he can put a ton of pressure on the Michigan perimeter defenders because of his ability to make people miss in space. Each of Michigan’s receivers complements the others extremely well. Whereas Gallon is whippet quick in space and Hemingway is a bigger receiver with downfield skills, Roundtree is a solid combination of the two. All three Michigan receivers have made big plays for U of M this year and they’ll have to make more this week as the Michigan State front seven zeroes in stopping QB Denard Robinson on the ground.
Remember in the movie Bull Durham when Crash comes to the mound to talk to Nuke and Nuke is adamant about the fact that the hitters “haven’t seen his heat”? That’s sort of the way I think Michigan facing Michigan State’s running game. The Wolverines haven’t seen a run game with this type power and potential. Ultimately, the name of the game is to score more points than the other team, right? Nothing earth shattering there whatsoever. But how do you keep the other team from scoring?
The answer to that question isn’t always that straight forward. In certain situations, the best defense is a ball control, physical offense that controls the clock and the line of scrimmage. The three-headed Michigan State running back monster has the ability to do just that on Saturday. Now, it hasn’t done the way most would expect, averaging only 129 yards on the ground (79th in the nation), but it has potential to run Michigan right off the field. If Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper can dominate the ball, the Spartans will force Denard and company to sit tight on the sideline.
Everyone knows that Robinson can carry the Michigan offense (and the entire team) on his back and it’s a tough task for the Michigan State defense to stop the Wolverines completely and thoroughly. But, if the Spartan defense faces 65 plays instead of 80 plays, that’s a good thing, right? If Michigan State’s run game takes over, it’s a great thing.
The Spartans are breaking out the new Nike Combat unis for this one; trust me, they’re pretty sweet. But, no matter how you sexy MSU’s unis are, this one isn’t for the sexy at heart. The more physical team will win the game and Michigan State is that team.
Michigan’s defense hasn’t seen many teams that possess the offensive balance that Michigan State possesses. Notre Dame had it and if it hadn’t turned over the ball at key times in the game, it would’ve beaten Michigan by three touchdowns. Michigan State won’t turn it over like that in this matchup. Robinson will struggle throwing the ball with Jerel Worthy, William Gholston and company breathing down his neck and the offense will be effective moving the ball with balance through the air and on the ground.