Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knows one thing: If the No. 7-ranked Spartans fail to run the ball Saturday, they won’t be ranked No. 7 for very long.
The quest for the College Football Playoffs includes a stop in Ann Arbor this season; and it’s a meeting unlike the past few–and that’s because the No. 12-ranked Michigan Wolverines actually have a chance of winning this year.
That hasn’t been the case lately.
Michigan State ran all over Michigan in 2014, cruising to a 35-11 victory, and it did the same while sacking its way to a 29-6 win in 2013. Former star running back Jeremy Langford did most of the damage, though; and he’s not around to post 120 yards and a touchdown like he did in 2013, nor is he available to rack up 177 yards and three scores like he did in 2014.
That leaves true freshman L.J. Scott and redshirt freshman Madre London to handle things versus the No. 2-ranked defense in the land. And that defense is pretty stingy, allowing roughly a body-length’s worth of yardage per carry. Don’t even call them yards, just think of them as the result of a 6-foot-tall running back being lucky enough to fall forward.
“I think we’ve got to run the ball,” Dantonio said during Tuesday’s conference call. “I think we have to be able to be balanced on offense–I think that’s the key to success. It can’t just become a game where we’re going to throw 55 times. We’ve got to be able to run the ball. We have good running backs. Our tight end situation (for blocking) is solid. Our fullback situation is solid.”
But with injuries to star center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin, among others, the offensive line has holes that must be filled and issues that must be corrected by 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
“Internally, on the offensive line, we’ll find a way–and it’s the nature of this game in general, that you’ve got to be able to run the football to win,” Dantonio said. “So we understand that aspect, and I’m sure that they (the Wolverines) understand that aspect as well.”
Michigan understands that. In fact, the Wolverines have tuned-up their running game on a weekly basis in anticipation of Michigan State. It seems that big carries are just around the corner for junior De’Veon Smith and redshirt junior Drake Johnson.
But enough about Michigan running the ball; it’s all about stopping the run in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines give up 2.21 yards per carry. That’s it.
Video: Michigan D-line coach Greg Mattison talks progression of defense
“That’s our biggest goal each week, is to stop the run–so it’s going to be nothing different this week,” said Michigan defensive tackle Chris Wormely, a redshirt junior who is considered one of the best interior D-linemen in the Big Ten.
“Just going up against them, they have a good offensive line–they have a good running back/running corps. They have three or four guys who rotate in, so that’s been the main emphasis and we’re ready for the challenge.”
In 2012, the Wolverines won the rushing battle, 163-112, and ended up winning that game 12-10. Of course, Brendan Gibbons left foot had a lot to do with that–he kicked a game-winning, 38-yard field goal late in the fourth–but the Wolverines were able to stay afloat because of a 1-2 punch of quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint.
This is what happens when a team runs the ball well…
In 2011, Michigan rushed for 82 yards during a 28-14 loss to the Spartans, who rushed for 213. In 2010, Michigan lost the ground battle, 249-162; that game marked its first back-to-back loss to Michigan State since 1965-66.
Neither Scott or London have been overly impressive. Some of that has been due to a banged-up O-line, and some of it has been due to inexperience/growing pains. Or, in London’s case, an injury to a right ankle. Two weeks ago, Scott topped out with 146 yards and two touchdowns during a 24-21 win over Purdue. This past week, he rushed for 42 yards and two touchdowns during a 31-24 win over Rutgers.
London has three touchdowns on the season but hasn’t broken 100 yards since posting 103 during a 31-28 win over Oregon in Week 2. Two of his touchdowns came during a 37-24 win over Western Michigan in Week 1.
Michigan allows crumbs on the ground. Michigan State has struggled just to get a few scraps via the ground game. Expect a lot of non-action at the line of scrimmage, because there aren’t signs pointing to this being a field day for the Spartans’ running backs.
Then again, Michigan could have difficulty, too. Despite inconsistencies, the Spartans can still stop the run. Granted, their average of 3.77 yards per carry pales in comparison to Michigan’s 2.21, but they’ve yet to be ran over by any running back this season.
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