Coming off a 42-3 blowout over Illinois, the Spartans (7-1) return home to host the Michigan Wolverines (6-1) at 3:30 this Saturday.
What a crazy day in Champaign. It looked awfully ugly early and potentially over for Connor Cook at more than one point in the 1st Half. But after an incredible string of luck, he led the unit to a 14-3 lead after 30 minutes. The momentum was theirs, and it wasn’t going away. From that point, they pounded the weak Illini and ended up 28-0 just in the final 30-minutes of play. Cook’s final numbers may be the most deceiving you’ll ever see out of a Quarterback. 15/16 for 208 yards and 3 TDs, plus the fumble, are far from telling the entire story. He had an extremely shaky in the 1st Half, but it ended of a big positive and he found another gear in the 2nd Half. It feels like Cook’s survived the worst of any growing pains, and is about to elevate himself to a new level. It also seems like he understands what he went through and survived during that 1st Half, and will be able to appreciate the better times ahead. He looked different after completing his work for the day and relaxing on the sideline than he has all year.
Getting to that point though, was rough. Cook first fumbled on the Goal Line late in the 1st after a drive that started at the Illinois 44. Mark Dantonio has stressed ball security in the past, and this was an enormous error by Cook, who just tried to do too much when it was not necessary. That error alone could’ve started a downward spiral that could’ve conceivably forced a change at Quarterback.
Dantonio didn’t have very long to think about making a change, however, because only 1:04 later, though now into the 2nd Quarter, Illinois’’ reverse-gone-wrong ended up in a fumble. MSU had it back on their 23, and Cook was back in, probably benefiting by such a quick turnaround. On 1st Down he hit Jamal Lyles for 18-yard, and MSU was in position to bounce back fast. Three plays later, Jeremy Langford jammed it in to put MSU ahead 7-3.
There’s no doubt the drive of the game, if not drive of the season, was the whacky one that ended the 1st Half. Its result may have energized the entire season into a higher gear. Starting at their own 1-yard line with about 8:17 left, MSU drove into Field Goal territory before Cook converted a 3rd and 1 on the ground. MSU was 1st and 10 from the 14, planting the Illini even more firmly into their heels. After calling Time Out, MSU wisely wanted to chase another TD to set Illinois up for an early 3rd Quarter Knock Out punch. Things got wild in a hurry.
MSU lined up 5-wide, but Cook either didn’t notice his Offensive Line was outnumbered or just didn’t get rid of it fast enough as he took a sack and loss of 6. On 2nd Down, Cook was sacked for an even worse loss of 9, putting the spot back to the 29. Heading into a stiff wind, MSU was likely out of Field Goal range, and it was mostly Cook’s fault. With who knows how much hanging in the balance, Cook scrambled on 3rd Down for space before throwing it up towards the Goal Line. As it made its way, it looked clearly destined for an Illinois interception as two players were in position. Yet, somehow neither guy could handle it, and one actually bobbled up in the air and right towards an on the spot Bennie Fowler who cradled it in and fell backwards into the End Zone to make it 14-3. That play set into motion whatever is going to come from the Spartans November chase.
There was probably more good luck in the Offense’s 1st Half than there was in the entire John L. era, as a point of reference. Cook fumbled on the Goal Line, took two sacks when he shouldn’t have, took penalties he shouldn’t have, and threw at least two balls that should’ve been picked off, but not only survived them all, he ended up with his best statistics of the year so far. And out of that experience came a major confidence boost along with a sense of calm from the Offense that they haven’t shown since the Citrus Bowl win over Georgia. Cook’s transition out of the 1st Half will probably be the turning point of his Spartan career. There’s a really good chance that we’ll look back at it as the turning point for this team this year as well.
Now Cook heads home to feel a pressure he hasn’t felt before as Michigan comes calling. Not necessarily more pressure, but a different kind of squeeze. The numbers don’t like, the Michigan Defense can be had. As we know, the ground game will be the point of emphasis, so as much as Cook needs to bring better command of his game, the Offensive Line must win and win convincingly up front to create the running space needed to control the game. If MSU can control that space, the Offense should have a have a pretty nice day on a less than outstanding Michigan Defense. After the way the 1st Half in Champaign developed, the Offense may finally be over the hump of looking ugly for good.
At the end of the 1st Half we might have seen it all hanging in the balance for Cook, and maybe even this entire team. Then it all fell into place and this unit built steady momentum towards Michigan. This one will be won on the ground, as usual. Jim Bollman has the ground game starting to work. The Line is far better than it’s been since ’07, and this unit is ready to make a statement next week that the Spartans are back in the business of chasing Championships in November.
Just in time for Michigan, these Spartan Dawgs are reaching their fall peak. After shutting out the not-so-good Boilermakers, MSU stuffed Illinois for just 3-points in their own home. They got a little more of their snarl back too as they head towards a November schedule that is exponentially tougher than the October they just rolled through. There’s no better way to kick off the big month than with Michigan.
As you know, this is not Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan Offense. Piece by piece, season by season now, Brady Hoke and Al Borges are bringing the Wolverine Offense closer to that program’s pro-style roots. They don’t have quite enough horses yet to run the Offense of their dreams yet, but have put up 40-points or more regularly.
Devin Gardner is an upper classmen, though not necessarily a Senior based on eligibility because of a bizarre set of circumstances we can review before next season. He is the key to shutting down the Michigan Offense. Gardner has looked really good at times, and at other points like he’s still learning the position. His 13 TD passes to date have been offset by 10 INTs. The Spartans will of course look to shut down the running game, including Gardner’s scrambling ability, and force him to throw the ball effectively.
Michigan’s ground game is far from where Brady Hoke wants it to be at this point, but considering they’re coming into town off a Bye Week, which usually leads to a boost in execution in that next game. Averaging only 13-yards less per game on the ground than MSU, the expected ground game matchup looks like it will set up pretty evenly. Fitzgerald Toussaint has 11 TDs for the Blue, and remains their agile running threat. But the Spartan Dawgs are shutting down the run better than they have in a very long time right now, and will make it a top priority to keep Michigan’s rushing total safely in the double digits. If that happens, we could see a wide disparity in total rushing production.
Michigan has scored some points this season, but has only played against one decent Defense, Notre Dame. MSU should look like a completely different animal that’s flying around at a hyper speed relative to what they saw two weeks ago against Indiana. They have some weapons though in Gardner, Toussaint, and their top pass catching threat Jeremy Gallon. There’s no doubt that MSU will have their hands full with Michigan Saturday, but also no question that the Spartan Defense has an edge on the Blue Offense, which may make the difference in the game’s final result more than any other unit on the field.
Macgarrett Kings came awful close to a big time mistake last week, but avoided it and hopefully learned a lesson. This unit can make or break MSU on Saturday, as we’ve discussed in the past, and it’s safe to say the players understand that. Being at home should lend an advantage to MSU, but nothing can set you up to start playing really tight like making a big error on Special Teams. This unit doesn’t need to overdo it or press for a big play on Saturday, they just need to play within themselves.
Nothing but extra points for Mike Geiger last week wasn’t ideal, but he’s looked solid enough to date that MSU won’t be afraid to send him out for a key Field Goal try. And after nothing but a heavy work load to date, Mike Sadler practically took the week off with just one punt that again was downed inside the 20. There’s no doubt he’s ready to go, but if he’s awful busy on Saturday, that will not be a great sign overall.
The intensity of Michigan-Michigan St. is unlike any other game of the year. This rivalry is more bitter and personal than any other game on either team’s schedule. All you have to do is watch this game and compare it to other rivalry games, it clearly jumps off the screen. The Michigan-Ohio St. game is so enormous that it can’t really be that personal or bitter anymore. For MSU, a similar statement could be made about their contests with Notre Dame, though they’ve had flare ups at different points. I point this out because there’s been a bad penalty or two from the Spartans this year, and this unit especially must be sure that their not too jacked up and commit a foolish penalty that changes the shape of the game.
It was a wild one in Champaign that turned into the beat down MSU needed to levy on the helpless Illini. Something changed after MSU’s flood of good fortune in the 1st Half. After their luck played out with the Fowler catch, something felt very different the rest of the day. The team sprouted confidence, and apparently a belief that’s been lacking since Kirk Cousins and others left town for good. That’s the type swing of luck and momentum a team usually needs to make it to a Rose Bowl. It’s far too soon to say that MSU will make it to the Granddaddy, but rather to recognize that luck for what it may turn out to be.
Saturday, these team’s Countdown Clocks will sync up as the state of Michigan’s sibling rivalry is renewed for the 106th time. This game is the bitterest rivalry in the country, many believe. If you’re lucky enough to spend any time watching it from field level, you can hear and see the difference. We all know the adage and numbers story, the team that runs the ball the most wins this game. Michigan has looked porous at times this year and probably should have another loss or two on their schedule, but they had bye last week and will be sharp and ready to match what MSU will bring.
This one looks like it will be closer than this game has been in a little while, which is saying something off of last year’s 2-point Michigan victory. Expect Michigan to play better than they’ve looked so far this season, however. That makes it more important that MSU come in ready to play, avoids a flat start, and avoided thinking too much about how well it went for them in the downhill 2nd Half in Champaign. Michigan won’t look anything like the Illini come 3:30.
October is now history for the Spartans, and the final Saturday that couldn’t have gone much better for their Legends Division hopes. They’re right where they hoped they’d be, if not in better shape, but sure didn’t look like they’d be here earlier this year with such a malfunctioning Offense. After the wild 1st Half at Illinois, those days look finally behind them, and this team is ready to take off. The other crazy things happened last Saturday in the Legends have set this game up to mean even more than the Paul Bunyan Trophy. If MSU wins this one, they’ll be a very heavy favorite to play for the Big Ten title in Indy next month. If Michigan pulls off the road win, they’ll give themselves a fighting chance for the balance of November. For Mark Dantonio’s 2013 Spartans, there could not be a better way to take a firm hold of the Division Championship than by facing their sibling rivals at home to start their November chase.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- It’s gotten to the point where the 4-letter Network led College Football media has hammered the Big Ten so hard for so long that a 7-1 MSU team that outplayed Notre Dame in their only (controversial) loss has barely cracked the Top 25. Winning the now greatly over emphasized Bowl Games is the only way the Conference can regain any respect.
- The Michigan St.-Michigan game comes along at a nice point in the schedule. In fact, making it the November opener might be a good idea for seasons to come. It’s not too early in the year to end up downplayed, but not too late in the year to become less significant or overshadowed by “The Game” that wraps up the Michigan schedule.