Breakdown: Michigan, Michigan State set for defensive battle

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By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 18, 2012

The only thing on the line this Saturday is, well, pretty much everything.

Both Michigan and Michigan State will take the field at the Big House with their backs against the wall. The Wolverines (2-0 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) are desperate to right the path of a rivalry that has veered well off track, having lost in each of the last four meetings with Michigan State. And the Spartans (1-2, 4-3) can’t afford to pick up their third loss in conference play this early in the season if they want to return to the Big Ten Championship game.

The winner of Saturday’s matchup will likely be the team that owns the trenches, as both teams favor the running game. Neither starting quarterback — Michigan senior Denard Robinson nor Michigan State junior Andrew Maxwell — has a stellar arm, so the offensive linemen and the defensive front sevens will be ready to battle.

Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense

Michigan fans breathed a sigh of relief after last Saturday’s game against Illinois, as Robinson didn’t throw a single interception for the second straight game.

Robinson threw picks against laughable defenses such as Massachusetts and Air Force but has made it through his first two contests in Big Ten play without one. Granted, he has had fewer opportunities to throw them in the last two games because offensive coordinator Al Borges reverted back to a run-first offense following Robinson’s abysmal five-turnover performance at Notre Dame before the bye week.

Still, Robinson has been throwing confidently lately, which isn’t bad no matter how you look at it.

If he wants to succeed in the passing game, though, the offensive line will have to protect him better than it did against Michigan State a year ago. Last season, the Spartans sacked Robinson and backup quarterback Devin Gardner a combined seven times. The Spartan secondary isn’t the strongest, but it doesn’t have to be if Robinson has no time to go through his progression.

With memories of last year’s loss branded in their memories, expect the Michigan offensive linemen to protect Robinson like their lives depend on it on Saturday.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense

This is the big showdown to look for on Saturday.

The bread and butter of Michigan’s offense is the run game, split primarily between Robinson and redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Michigan State wins by stopping the run and it gives up just 91.3 yards on the ground per game, which is the top in the Big Ten.

The Spartan defensive line got a touch weaker in the offseason with the departure of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to the NFL, but the front seven is still quite formidable. Whatever holes open up in the middle in Worthy’s absence, junior linebacker Max Bullough is routinely there to plug the gap.

Still, Borges has maintained that his offensive unit won’t change its game plan just because Michigan State is good at stopping the run.

Edge: Michigan State

Michigan State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Maxwell, the first-year starter replacing Kirk Cousins, is having a rough time filling some large shoes.

The Spartan pass offense is easily Michigan State’s biggest deficiency on the football field. Maxwell isn’t particularly accurate, and his receivers drop passes on a consistent basis.

Michigan’s defensive line hasn’t done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks this season, but it has an opportunity with Michigan State this weekend. The Spartan offensive line has been devastated by injuries, and pass protection has been a serious issue that’s yet to be resolved.

If the Wolverines could get some pressure, don’t be surprised to see cornerback sensation Raymon Taylor pick off a hurried pass. Then again, don’t be surprised if Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn't give Maxwell many opportunities to throw the ball, either.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Whatever the Spartans lack in their passing game, they make up for in the ground game.

Junior running back Le’Veon Bell is one of the premier tailbacks in the country, having already picked up more than 900 yards on the season. It’s scary to think what he could do if his offensive line was healthy, but he’s proven this season that he doesn’t need much of a hole to break a big run.

Michigan’s front seven hasn’t been terrific at stopping the run this season, but it hasn’t been terrible either, ranking midway through the Big Ten in rush defense.

Fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens is possibly playing possible the best football of his career right now, and he’ll be hungry to blow up some running plays against a weak offensive line. And per usual, you can expect redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan to make a flying tackle or two in the backfield.

Still, Bell touches the ball around 30 times a game. With a sample size that large, he’s bound to break off at least couple big plays.

Edge: Michigan State

Special teams

Michigan’s return unit has been pretty solid this season with the tandem of Jeremy Gallon and Dennis Norfleet. Norfleet nearly returned a punt for a touchdown against Illinois last week, but he waited too long to make a move on the punter, and he wound up running straight into him and falling.

On field goals, redshirt junior placekicker Brendan Gibbons has been solid this season, hitting seven of his nine field goal attempts, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke has praised his development. But Michigan State senior kicker Dan Conroy is at least as solid, and he is 14-for-19 on the year.

Edge: Push

Intangibles

The biggest factor on Saturday is going to come down to who wants the victory more. The stakes in this game, for bragging rights and possibly a berth in the Big Ten Championship game, are beyond measure.

Michigan Stadium will provide for an epic atmosphere this weekend, as Wolverine fans are hopeful that Hoke will finally deliver against the Spartans. The student section will be packed. Alumni will show up. It will be loud — very, very loud.

With the crowd on its side, Michigan has a clear advantage in Ann Arbor.

Edge: Michigan

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 17, Michigan State 10