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Breakdown: Big-play potential of Spartan defense may be difference

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published October 31, 2013

Needing a win against a bitter rival on the road to keep control of its Big Ten title hopes isn’t exactly an ideal position for the Michigan football team. But that’s where the Wolverines stand entering Saturday’s showdown with Michigan State.

The Spartans clearly have the advantage on defense, while the Michigan offense is by far the better of the two. So where will this game be won or lost? Probably in the trenches.

Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense

Chances are, the record-setting offensive display against Indiana two weeks ago will feel like a thing of the past once the Hoosiers’ sloppy pass coverage is replaced by the Spartan secondary, led by Darqueze Dennard. Michigan coach Brady Hoke called Dennard, who has a pair of interceptions this season, a “high-round pick,” and redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner will need to take extra care when throwing in his direction.

Gardner surely won’t be throwing for 503 yards this week as he did against Indiana. He would be extremely fortunate to escape the Big Ten-leading Michigan State defense without a turnover.

Sophomore tight end A.J. Williams’s one-game suspension shouldn’t cause too much damage to Michigan’s aerial attack. Sophomore Devin Funchess will still get his reps on the outside, and fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon is coming off the best single-game receiving performance in the history of the Big Ten.

But again, this isn’t the Hoosiers, and the Wolverines won’t move the ball with anywhere near as much ease.

Edge: Michigan State

Michigan rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense

This is where the Spartans are at their best. Teams simply do not run the football on them. They haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. And fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint probably didn’t do himself any favors by referring to Michigan State as “little brother” earlier this week.

Freshman guard Kyle Bosch will be making his first-ever start Saturday as Hoke continues to try to piece together the best offensive line possible. He may have finally found the right combination, but against the Spartans, it could easily be moot.

Expect almost all of the carries to go to Toussaint as the coaching staff tries to prevent any turnovers from Derrick Green, who might be prone to them in his first battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

Edge: Michigan State

Michigan State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has said there are still passes that Michigan defensive backs should be picking off but have not. With that said, the secondary has shown it can force turnovers in key spots, with fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon sealing the Indiana game with two late picks.

But Connor Cook, the starting Spartan quarterback, doesn’t make many mistakes. He has thrown just two interceptions, compared to 12 touchdowns, this season in eventually winning the top spot on the depth chart. Last week, he completed 15 of his 16 pass attempts, though it was against lowly Illinois.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Most of Michigan’s efforts will be focused on stopping the run, and rightfully so. Spartan tailback Jeremy Langford has nine rushing touchdowns this season and has racked up 655 yards.

The Michigan State offensive line is much improved from the early weeks when the Spartans failed to move the ball with any consistency. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio will run the football early and often, trying to wear down the Wolverines’ defense.

The Spartan offense may not have many explosive playmakers, but it has shown it can grind teams down, and Michigan is in trouble if that happens Saturday.

Edge: Michigan State

Special teams

Mike Sadler is almost enough to singlehandedly give this category to the Spartans. Not only is he an outstanding punter, but earlier this season against Iowa, he carried the ball for 25 yards on a fake. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have had problems punting the ball.

Michigan State relies on freshman Michael Geiger to handle its kicking duties, and he’s 6-for-7 on the year.

Edge: Michigan State

Intangibles

The Spartans can sense that they are on the verge of a berth in the Big Ten title game, with the schedule shaping up favorably the rest of the way.

With 27 players back from the Michigan team that was beat up in East Lansing in 2011, the Wolverines should be prepared for the physical game that lies ahead. That means no excuses if they are again bullied at Spartan Stadium.

Edge: Michigan

Prediction: Michigan State 20, Michigan 10