ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Will the passing game be Michigan’s downfall? That question has echoed through the Big House walls for the better part of two months. This week against Michigan State, we’re probably going to find out.
Michigan football is having a much better season than anyone expected: a perfect 7-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country. The running game has been stout, and the defense stingy. But everyone is worried about that darn passing attack.
The first top-tier matchup of the season has arrived, as the Wolverines head to East Lansing to take on No. 8 Michigan State -- also unbeaten through seven games.
Mel Tucker has had two weeks to prepare for the team he shocked in Ann Arbor a year ago, and it’s no secret what he’ll try to do: shut down Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins.
Michigan’s offense is almost entirely powered by that backfield duo. The Wolverines are fifth in the nation with 253.29 rushing yards per game, and 104th with 189.6 passing yards per game.
Corum and Haskins combine to rush for about 190 yards per game on the ground, while starting quarterback Cade McNamara averages about 160 yards passing.
The Spartans have a defense strong enough to take away the run. So can McNamara make them pay through the air?
Michigan State defense
Michigan State’s defensive strengths and weaknesses started to emerge as early as the Miami game.
Miami tried to run the ball 24 times against the Spartans and had no luck at all, totaling 54 yards and 2.2 yards per carry. The longest run of the game for the Hurricanes went for just 11 yards.
But when D’Eriq King took to the air, he had some success. Miami threw for 388 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt. The Spartans picked off two passes and completely dominated every other phase of the game, but the passing attack was one silver lining for the Hurricanes.
The same proved true for MSU against Nebraska. Though the Cornhuskers appeared to have a balanced offensive attack, really, the passing game was much more successful.
Nebraska needed 50 rushes to reach 194 yards -- an average of just 3.9 yards per carry. Adrian Martinez averaged 7.2 yards per pass, however, and racked up 244 yards through the air.
Western Kentucky passed for 488 yards and rushed for only 72 in its loss to Michigan State. Those numbers are a bit skewed because the Hilltoppers were playing from so far behind, but the pass-heavy trend was true even early in the game.
Indiana is perhaps the lone exception, as backup quarterback Jack Tuttle only managed to throw for 188 yards on 52 attempts. Still, Michigan State stifled Indiana to the tune of 3.7 yards per attempt on the ground.
Michigan vs. Rutgers
It sounds strange, but the team Michigan State will try to emulate against Michigan is Rutgers.
When the Scarlet Knights visited the Big House a month ago, they made a point to shut down a running game that had demoralized each of Michigan’s three non-conference opponents.
The result: Michigan averaged just 2.9 yards per rush. Neither Corum nor Haskins had any explosive plays, and the offense suffered.
Michigan finished that game with just 275 total yards and 20 points -- its lowest output by far in both categories this season. Rutgers had the ball in the red zone with an opportunity to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Greg Schiano’s plan obviously worked.
Michigan State is much more talented than Rutgers, so this is a game plan the Spartans are capable of pulling off.
Michigan vs. Nebraska (and Northwestern)
What might give Michigan fans some hope is the Nebraska game, when McNamara led a passing attack complimentary enough to pull off an emotional win.
Nebraska didn’t actually play well against the run, as Michigan averaged 4.9 yards per carry. But McNamara was a much bigger part of the game plan, throwing 38 passes and completing 22 of them for 255 yards.
Most importantly, McNamara’s best passes came in the most crucial moments -- primarily a pair of completions to tight end Erick All to extend drives on third-and-long.
It felt like a possible turning point for the young quarterback, but then he came out against Northwestern and struggled, missing a handful of open receivers and averaging just 4.8 yards per pass.
The real problem
The real concern for Michigan is that when opponents pack in their defenses, there’s no way to stretch the field.
McNamara is reasonably accurate in the short passing game, but when he’s asked to make a big play downfield, he often under- or overthrows his receivers.
At Wisconsin, several Michigan receivers got behind the defense but had to come back for under-thrown passes. The opposite was true against Northwestern, when McNamara sailed a few throws over their heads. Even his longest completion at Nebraska came courtesy of a diving Mike Sainristil grab to make up for an overthrow.
Michigan State has mastered the art of exposing Michigan’s weaknesses over the years, so you can bet all eyes will be pinned on Corum, Haskins and the short passing game. If the Wolverines have to win the game over the top, advantage Spartans.
Michigan and Michigan State both looked shaky in their final tune-ups before this rivalry -- probably because they were peeking ahead. These coaching staffs will pull out all the stops Saturday, and we’ll see who’s left standing.