Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Michigan vs. Michigan State: Time to reverse the revenge

I guess the season REALLY begins Saturday afternoon for Michigan football – two nationally ranked teams and for the Wolverines, a chance to reverse the recent curse and show that the program has truly matured under Coach Rick Rodriguez.
I call it “Reverse the Revenge.” It’s time for Michigan to use what others have often successfully employed against it in order to win this game – the feeling that payback is due.
Michigan entered last year’s road game at East Lansing in a similar undefeated mode and lost in overtime to the Spartans (after managing a last-minute drive to tie). And every UM fan knows “the rest of the story …” The team fell apart, didn’t win another game for the remainder of the schedule and criticism fell upon Ann Arbor like a blizzard (not the ones from Dairy Queen either).
For the first five games of this season, it has appeared that Michigan plays with a different attitude (at least on offense; the defense remained as porous as it was one year ago). Quarterback Denard Robinson is the envy and talk of the college football world and except for some corners of Alabama or Florida, this is the marquee game of the weekend. When’s the last time THAT said claimed?
This is THE game on the Spartan schedule; the one East Lansing fans employ as the barometer for success of any MSU program. However, it is not true for Michigan followers; everyone knows the final game in November means more than beating Moo U (I keep asking if that is used these days to label MSU; it was back in my day).
Michigan plays Michigan State and the rest of the schedule follows; Michigan plays Ohio State and you take that feeling – win or lose – and live with it for the rest of the school year … until the next time. THAT defines rivalry importance!
The rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State is not unlike the situation here in Texas between the Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies in College Station. Texas, in all its burnt orange glory (I can’t tell you how many people drive cars with that specific color scheme in this state…), IS the big dog; the Aggies have ALWAYS been the little brother. Texas routinely gets the pick of the litter during recruiting and A&M gets hand-me-downs. While many Aggies are, in themselves, outstanding football players, UT is always in the top four nationally for recruiting classes as judged by every major service (A&M is not).
Even the association that controls high school athletics is beholden to the University of Texas; it is called the University Interscholastic League (UIL) and the “U” means UT! If it is not a varsity sport in Austin, it is not a varsity sport in Texas high schools. The inclusion of sports like soccer and girls softball had nothing to do with popularity or Title IX; it had to do with Texas adding them to its roster.
Meanwhile, the folks at A&M seethe at the thought of Texas on its throne. Aggies refer to that campus as “t.u.,” deliberately written in lower case to belittle all Longhorns. It’s written in their beloved fight song, The Aggie War Hymn.”
“Good bye to texas university
“So long to the orange and the white
“Good luck to dear old Texas Aggies
“They are the boys who show the real old fight
“‘the eyes of Texas are upon you’
“That is the song they sing so well
“Sounds Like Hell
“So good bye to texas university
“We’re gonna beat you all to Chigaroogarem
“Rough, Tough, Real stuff, Texas A&M.”
Now that is a huge chip on one’s shoulder!
So while Texas is A&M’s biggest rival, the same cannot be said in Austin. A&M is an annoyance most of the time but Oklahoma IS the big rival! OU is the major recruiting rival for UT and that annual game (amusingly marketed as The Red River Rivalry) draws more than 80,000 to the ancient Cotton Bowl at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. Half the stadium is all crimson (OU) and the other half (exactly divided down the middle) is burnt orange.
Despite changes in the upcoming Big 12/(minus-2) alignment, Texas-OU will be played regardless of where Nebraska or Colorado head. It is a separate contract from the conference and stands as the centerpiece of the largest state fair in the nation.
If you had seen the faces of UT fans around 6 p.m. local time last Saturday, you’d know how serious the game’s outcome means to each school. Thousands of Longhorn followers had their weekend ruined by a better Sooner squad; it was a long drive (200 miles) back to Austin down Interstate-35 and I guarantee you much of it was done in silence.
It will be difficult to handicap this contest: can Sparty win away from home? Blue has shown it can; can the same be said for Green?
Can Michigan stop State’s strong rushing game and can it run the ball itself aside from Robinson? If you subtract Vincent Smith’s 56-yard touchdown run, he only gained 24 yards on his remaining 8 carries … and no one else touched the ball. Michigan MUST show more versatility and personnel diversity (meaning others must step up and perform) in order to win Saturday.
On defense, I have a feeling that MSU will see different alignments than the 3-5-3 because its strength is up front. The young secondary must get turnovers, knowing it will also surrender big plays. The UM coaches must figure out what everyone else has – the Blue defense is vulnerable in the seams; IU killed Michigan with those type of routes.
And hopefully, practice has concentrated on the difference between hitting and tackling. Big hits potentially look good on “SportsCenter,” but tackling is as old as the game itself and it wins ballgames. Tackling is NOT Michigan’s forte at the moment and MUST improve … dramatically ... starting Saturday.
There has been a lot of talk about the imbalance in terms of ball possession last week, which was eschewed by all those one-play scoring drives by Michigan and slow, methodical marches by Indiana. The UM defense CAN help by stopping offenses once in a while – playing ball-control defense – so it can get off the field and rest (if only for a minute or two while Robinson and Company put more points on the scoreboard).
If UM goes to something it has not done all year long – such as a four-man front with strong run-support from the linebackers – it’ll force MSU to adjust on the fly and that’s when a team secures turnovers (when it deviates from its game plan because of opposition adjustments).
And if MSU wants to blitz Robinson and concentrate all its attention of him, Shoelace has shown the ability to throw that little “run/jump” pass to his receivers in the same exposed zone seams (just ask Indiana).
My prediction is influenced by the home crowd, which should set yet another NCAA attendance record, for a 42-38 Wolverine victory. It’s time … to show the cynics this team is for real … for this coaching staff to gain the respect it has sought for three years … and for a little revenge by the home team.
Lots of people will be watching.

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