Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Saturday's showdown between the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State heads into this week’s matchup with Michigan hoping to improve its record to 8-3 against its top rival under coach Mark Dantonio, and that has Spartans fans feeling optimistic.
In this week’s mailbag, we cover the potential mobility of Michigan quarterback John O’Korn while wondering about the mindset around the Spartans, and we even mix in a basketball question. Hey, it’s never too early, especially considering practice is underway and we’re only a few weeks from the first exhibition game.
With that, let’s jump in to this week’s mailbag.
■ Question. Will front 7 be able to disrupt O’Korn and UM offense? Is O’Korn mobile? MSU pressured Iowa all day, will same happen Sat night? — @phillipsc11
■ Answer. It’s the sort of matchup that might play into Michigan State’s hands, considering the Wolverines have allowed 12 sacks through four games this season. The Spartans already are just two sacks from reaching last season’s total of 11 — no, that’s not a lofty number, but still, it at least shows the pass rush is no longer non-existent — and fifth-year senior defensive end Demetrius Cooper looked especially active in his first start last week, while redshirt freshman Brandon Randle continues to be disruptive off the edge.
O’Korn is definitely a more mobile quarterback than Wilton Speight. The key for the Spartans will be the coverage in the back end. While they’ve done a much better job of affecting the quarterback this season, they’ve been able to do so more often because the secondary has played well. Put all that together on Saturday and there’s no reason to think the Spartans can’t at least make life a bit uncomfortable for O’Korn.
■ Q. To what extent have you noticed a change in the off-field culture around the program this year? — @jimwoehrle
■ A. That’s a bit of a tough one to answer because often you don’t get a great idea until adversity sets in. That said, following the Notre Dame loss things seemed to be business as usual, and there was no noticeable tension, making pretty clear that the Spartans are a much more unified group than they were last season. Also, look at the way they’ve handled individual problems like LJ Scott’s penchant for fumbling the ball. There has been no finger-pointing, especially in the running back group where it would be easy for one of the other backs to start wondering why they don’t get the ball more often.
So, it appears Michigan State is in a far better place than it was last season. Players are saying the right things, but it doesn’t feel forced. It seems genuine and it has more of a feel of past teams. That hardly guarantees wins, but it at least shows division in the locker room likely won’t tear this team apart.
■ Q. Spartan safeties: Yea or nay? — @UpDeckJerkGuy
■ A. No point in beating around the bush in this question, eh? That’s another tough one to answer, but if you look at the depth chart and starting lineups, I think it shows the Spartans still are searching for the right combination back there. The one constant has been junior Khari Willis at strong safety, and he’s played pretty well. He’s second on the team with 24 tackles, got his first sack last week and has broken up a pair of passes. So, yea on Willis.
The free safety spot has been tougher to nail down. Junior Matt Morrissey started the first three games before giving way to sophomore David Dowell last week. The Spartans also used freshman Tre Person there for the first time, and we’ll see if fellow freshman Dominique Long gets a shot while the health of junior Grayson Miller — he’s missed the last two games — continues to be in issue. Mark Dantonio praised Dowell after the Iowa win, but at this point I’m taking a wait-and-see on that spot until one player truly emerges.
■ Q. With the weather being iffy, who has the advantage there? — @LuGWit
■ A. As most people know, the team that runs the ball better wins this game more often than not. So in that sense, I’d have to give the edge to Michigan. The rushing numbers show Michigan State is averaging more yards per game, but the young offensive line had trouble against Iowa last week and it will only get tougher on Saturday against the Wolverines, who happen to have the top run defense in the nation.
That said, it’s not a decided advantage. Michigan State is tough against the run, as well, and won’t make it easy on Michigan. But with the Spartans’ penchant for turning the ball over — though they avoided a giveaway against Iowa — I’d have to think the Wolverines have a slight advantage on a rainy day.
■ Q. What are Michigan State’s chances of being a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA Tournament? —@IheartWilSon3
■ A. Even during Michigan week, the basketball season is never far from the minds of most fans. There’s good reason this season as the Spartans will be one of the heavy favorites to reach the Final Four. That means they’re a pretty solid bet to get at least a No. 4 seed. That would mean they’d have to be one of the top 16 teams in the country, and barring massive injuries, I have a hard time believing that won’t happen.