Michigan State vs Michigan: Offensive line most important matchup?


In rivalry games, both teams understand their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, making execution even more difficult than usual. Michigan State vs Michigan showdowns are no different; when looking back at the last five meetings, certain statistics stand out more than others in determining the winner.

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One, often under-appreciated, position group single-handedly impacts the direction of the game: the offensive line.

For the first time in recent memory, the Spartans have been hampered by injuries at almost every position along the line. If you examine this week’s depth chart, one can quickly see just how complicated the “o-line shuffle” has been for offensive line coach Mark Staten.

Currently, there are co-starters listed at all five positions, and I do not anticipate head coach Mark Dantonio clarifying the situation prior to kickoff.

If Jack Conklin, Kodi Kieler and Jack Allen are able to play, I believe the Spartans will not only keep Connor Cook upright, but the line will open up running room for L.J. Scott & Co. However, a hodge-podge grouping of guys playing out of position could mean trouble for the Spartans.

Rushing Yards

The bread and butter of both teams, total rushing yards will likely be the most important stat in this game. In the last five meetings, the team with more rushing yards won the game. In those five games, Michigan State averaged 187 yards per game, while the Wolverines mustered only 84 ypg– due in part to the memorable -48 yard performance in 2013.

Sep 4, 2015; Kalamazoo, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Lj Scott (3) runs over Western Michigan Broncos cornerback Ronald Zamort (7) during the 2nd half of a game at Waldo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, the Spartan offensive line has out-performed their counterparts from Ann Arbor in recent meetings. Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has returned to their run-first mentality, abandoning the passing attack implemented by Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.

For that reason, Michigan State will see a lot of heavy formations aimed at opening up holes for their running backs. Sound familiar?

With Madre London likely questionable after suffering an injury, Scott likely becomes the go-to running back for the Spartans, with a dose of Gerald Holmes and potentially Delton Williams mixed in.

The Wolverines may field the best defensive line the Spartans have faced all year, and it will be crucial that the offensive line plays its best game.

Passing Yards

While most fans do not credit the offensive line for passing yards, they should. If a quarterback is constantly under pressure — Devin Gardner in the 2013 and 2014 games — he is unable to trust his blocking scheme, forcing dangerous throws that often lead to costly mistakes.

One of the most notable stats, and the one all offensive linemen are blamed for, is the amount of sacks allowed. So far this year, the Michigan State defense has recorded 21 sacks (good for 7th in the country) compared to the 15 (38th) tallied by the Wolverines.

Conversely, the Spartan offensive line, although burdened with injuries all year, has allowed only four sacks, compared to the eight allowed by Michigan. In the last two years, the Michigan State offensive line has done a tremendous job keeping Connor Cook upright, which has allowed him to pick apart opposing secondaries.

In a game that could easily turn one-dimensional for the Spartan offense, (the U of M defense is allowing an impressive 66 yards per game on the ground) it is imperative that the line keeps Cook upright.

If that happens, I believe Aaron Burbridge & Co. will find holes in the Wolverines’ secondary.

Time of Possession

Finally, and one of the stats that Coach Dantonio frequently preaches, is dominating the time of possession.

This year, the offense is on the field for an average of 32 minutes per game — good for 24th in the nation — compared to Michigan, who is averaging 34 minutes per game, ranking 4th nationally.

With a struggling defense, it is crucial that the offensive line protects Connor Cook and opens up holes for the running game to keep the defense off the field for extended periods of time. If that happens, the Spartan offensive line will wear down the Wolverines’ front-seven and make it easier for the running backs to find holes and Connor Cook to find receivers on play action passes.

As game time quickly approaches, the biggest thing I will be looking for is whether or not the Spartan offensive line is Jack Conklin, Brian Allen, Jack Allen, Donavon Clark and Kodi Kieler. If it is, I believe the Spartans have a great chance to retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

Next: MSU vs. Michigan: 7 most memorable plays ever

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