Some of the luster might be gone from this weekend's match-up between Michigan and Michigan State, as the teams come into the game with two and three losses respectively, but that doesn't mean there is any less importance to the game. And not simply because of the bragging rights involved. Sure, there's the four game winning streak that Michigan State desperately wants to extend and Michigan even more desperately wants to end. But there's more.
Michigan State is reeling, coming off a string of underwhelming performances in which its defense has disappointed and its offense has all but disappeared. It's gotten so bad that watching last week's game you might have thought classes weren't in session in East Lansing there were so many empty seats in the student section. However, beat Michigan for a 5th straight season and not only will the students be back, but Michigan State will be back in the hunt for a spot in the conference championship game. But for Michigan, the game means even more. For Michigan, the game serves as a barometer of what kind of team it is and how good it can be this season. Will it compete for a conference championship (as many predicted in the preseason), or will it end up losing four or five games (as many predicted as recently as three weeks ago)? This weekend will go a long way toward answering that question.
In Brady Hoke's first season, Michigan exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic fan. The Wolverines rallied around senior leaders like Mike Martin and David Molk, and Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison worked wonders, transforming one of the nation's worst defenses into one of the best. If there were questions about last year's team, they centered on the offense. It's no secret that Offensive Coordinator Al Borges prefers to run a pro style offense, so adapting to a talent like Denard Robinson was going to be a challenge. Granted, it's a challenge most teams would love to have, but a challenge, nonetheless. In their first season together, Borges struggled to get the best out of Robinson, and despite the Wolverines' success, the offense struggled at times. Without a consistent passing attack, the Wolverines seemed to have few answers against physical defenses like those of Michigan State and Virginia Tech. So for Michigan, the biggest question coming into 2012 was how the offense would look. Or more specifically, would the passing game progress?
Robinson gets a lot of criticism for his passing, and in many cases, deservedly so. However, it's not all his fault. Downfield passing is not Robinson's strength and it's not fair to him that he's continually put in positions where he's asked to heave 25 yard passes downfield. This isn't to say that Michigan should pass less with Robinson at the helm, just differently. Robinson has shown that he can be effective running a controlled passing game, one based on shorter, higher percentage passes. Through six games, however, there's been little evidence of this kind of passing game.
Much has been made of Michigan playing well of late, evidenced by blowout victories over Purdue (44-13) and Illinois (45-0). However, in each of these games Michigan was able to dominate by simply running over the overmatched Boilermaker and Illini defenses. In the two games, Michigan ran the ball 105 times while attempting only 31 passes. That strategy won't work against Michigan State. Sure, the Spartans have struggled defensively, but their defensive front is still strong, and if Michigan thinks it can simply run on the Spartans all day, it's going to be a long day for the Wolverines. Michigan needs to display a passing game that plays to Robinson's strengths, rather than highlighting his weaknesses. And if Michigan wants to end its losing streak to Michigan State, that kind of passing game needs to show up Saturday. If it does, it bodes well for Michigan's success, not only against the Spartans this weekend, but for the rest of the season.