Five Things We Learned: Michigan State
The day Michigan fans awaited for a year finally arrived, and the Michigan football team came home with the trophy it expected. For the first time since 2012, and the first time in East Lansing since 2007, the Wolverines beat Michigan State on Saturday, 32-23.
The spread closed with Michigan favored by 24.5, and many expected the game to be even more lopsided. A good-sized contingent of maize and blue-clad fans dotted Spartan Stadium and generated a few “Let’s Go Blue” chants throughout the afternoon.
The Wolverines weren’t satisfied with their performance, but their offense was efficient, their defense mostly strong and their special teams solid. They struggled in the first quarter, dominated in the middle quarters and held on at the end. The latter is the most important result — Michigan is 8-0 and still No. 2 in the country.
Here are five things we learned from its latest win:
1. LJ Scott is the best back Michigan has faced this season.
Michigan State gave its fans a good reason to celebrate after the first series, and Michigan fans must have been a bit antsy. To open Saturday’s game, Scott did what no player or team had done against the Wolverines all season: He ran the ball into the teeth of their defense all the way down the field.
The opening drive went 75 yards in 12 plays over 7:02. Scott carried the ball for 10 of those plays, gaining 49 yards and a touchdown. He added a 12-yard reception on the only third down Michigan State faced. Michigan had given up long touchdowns before, but the Wolverines had not been dominated up front for an entire series. Scott was quick to get into space and elude the front seven, and he broke a couple of tackles to reach the second level.
The sophomore became the first player to rush for 100 yards against Michigan this season — in fact, only one team (Central Florida) had reached that mark before Saturday. And perhaps if the Spartans had given Scott the ball more, the game would have been much different. On their next series, they again marched into Michigan territory on a 10-play drive but didn’t run any plays for Scott. Starting at the Michigan 47-yard line, backup running back Gerald Holmes carried four times for nine yards, turning the ball over on downs. The Wolverines never trailed again.
Michigan has to shore up those issues in the run defense before the final third of the season. Its next three opponents have a combined four backs with at least 600 yards this season — before, of course, the Nov. 26 showdown at Ohio State.
2. Kenny Allen is Kenny Allen again.
Michigan’s fifth-year senior kicker has had a rough year, going 1-for-5 on field goals in a three-game span from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1. After that stretch, head coach Jim Harbaugh reopened the kicking competition between him, walk-on Ryan Tice and true freshman Quinn Nordin, and then he didn’t send the field-goal team out against Rutgers. Allen, though, maintained his job, and said Saturday his confidence never wavered.
“We’ve been practicing different situations in practice, and I’ve kicked more balls than I care to count,” Allen said. “I just knew if I went out there, just did what I knew how to do, then it would work out fine.”
Two conversions from 23 and 27 yards against Illinois began to move the needle a bit, and then Allen hit two more chip shots against Michigan State. Then came the most encouraging sign, a season-high 45-yarder early in the fourth quarter that put Michigan up 30-10. It’s not a season-changer, but Allen now looks more like himself — he’s 9-for-13 on the year heading into a final stretch in which Michigan will need him.
3. Michigan still has plenty in the playbook for Eddie McDoom.
After a solid early stretch against two overmatched opponents, Michigan went away from its freshman speedster for a while. Opponents started to game plan for McDoom’s signature jet sweep, too — Colorado and Penn State each sniffed out plays and caused five-yard losses, and McDoom didn’t touch the ball against Wisconsin.
Last week against Illinois, though, Harbaugh made sure McDoom was still a threat in the offense. He started McDoom on the left, motioned him right as if to take a handoff, then sent him back left for a screen pass that netted 33 yards. Saturday, Michigan threw another curveball when redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers took the snap as a wildcat quarterback and found McDoom on a reverse for a 33-yard pickup.
Whenever the Wolverines can get McDoom in space, it usually works out well for them. The freshman was the team’s leading rusher Saturday with 53 yards, and he’s up to 138 on the season — as a wide receiver.
4. Ben Braden is Michigan’s left tackle.
Even after Braden started last week against Illinois, Harbaugh wouldn’t commit to keeping him at left tackle going forward. Michigan started redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty in that position against Rutgers after Grant Newsome suffered a season-ending injury Oct. 1, but after the bye week, Harbaugh switched things up and moved Braden from left guard to left tackle and inserted freshman Ben Bredeson at left guard.
After Saturday’s win, it appears that’s how the lineup will stay. The Wolverines did not allow a sack against Michigan State, and they did a nice job of handling Spartan defensive lineman Malik McDowell. Up next is a Maryland team, led by former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, that’s averaging 2.5 sacks this season.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Jabrill Peppers ends up leading this team in sacks, too.
Michigan’s do-everything man already has near-insurmountable leads in punt-return and kick-return yards. He has 249 and 153, respectively, while the next player in each category has 27 and 28. He has also pulled into first by a wide margin in tackles for loss with 12.5, and he ranks second on the team in all-purpose yards per game while playing primarily defense.
But his sack of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke on Saturday gave him 3.5 for the season, trailing only defensive ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton, who have four each. Peppers keeps finding ways to do more, and should he get the opportunity in the last four games, he could end up pacing the team in sacks as well — a remarkable achievement for a player who plays all three phases of the game.