The Michigan football team’s first rivalry week is here, and the Wolverines are in a position few thought they would be in before the season.
No. 7 Michigan State (2-0 Big Ten, 6-0 overall) comes to town Saturday in a four-way tie for the Big Ten East and contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the real surprise has been Michigan (2-0 Big Ten, 5-1 overall), which is also tied for first in the division and enters this weekend’s game as a 7.5-point favorite.
Yes, much has changed since the Spartans rolled the Wolverines, 35-11, last season. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has turned his team around, and in many fans’ minds, last season’s game is a distant memory. The Wolverines can put it even further in the rear-view mirror with a win Saturday.
Here’s how the teams stack up:
Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense
Michigan hasn’t needed to worry about its pass offense much lately, leading comfortably in each of its past five games. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the Wolverines rank 97th nationally in passing offense with 189.2 yards per game — they have spent most of their fourth quarters milking the clock.
This Saturday could be different (though the same appeared to be true when Brigham Young and Northwestern visited the Big House). The Spartans are Michigan’s third ranked opponent in four weeks, and they are also ranked the highest of the three.
But their secondary also isn’t what it has been in the past. The Spartans, who lost safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes from last year’s unit, are allowing 242 passing yards per game (88th in the country) and struggle to get off the field on third downs. Last week, they allowed Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo to catch seven passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns.
In recent years, Michigan State’s pass defense has locked down Michigan’s wide receivers, and the Wolverines have lacked a home-run component in their passing game so far. But even a big play or two could change the nature of the game Saturday.
Edge: Michigan State
Michigan rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense
The Spartans’ front seven has stifled Michigan’s running game the past two years, but this season, the Wolverines might have a remedy: junior running back De’Veon Smith. Smith has 390 yards in just five games — he missed the Maryland contest with an ankle injury — and has shown the power ability Michigan has sought in the past. Redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson has played a supporting role, as have the Wolverines’ blocking fullbacks and tight ends.
The question Saturday will be whether that ability holds up against a Michigan State front led by fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Behind Calhoun, middle linebacker Riley Bullough leads the team with 55 tackles to go with three sacks.
Former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is gone, and the Spartans’ defense doesn’t quite have the same teeth this year, ranking 34th against the run. But with four seniors in the front seven, they have plenty of firepower to give Michigan problems.
Edge: Michigan State
Michigan State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Michigan State’s key to the Paul Bunyan Trophy doesn’t usually include an aerial attack, but the Spartans don’t usually have a quarterback like Connor Cook. Their fifth-year senior quarterback is completing 60 percent of his passes for 1,344 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. And he’s 2-0 as a starter against Michigan, too.
Cook throws to an experienced receiving corps, including senior Aaron Burbridge (570 yards, four touchdowns). The bigger issue might be protecting Cook, though. Two of Michigan State’s starting offensive linemen — left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen — are questionable for Saturday’s game, though the Wolverines are preparing as if they will play. If one or both of them can’t go, stopping Michigan’s fierce defensive line becomes that much tougher.
Across the line of scrimmage, the Wolverines’ pass rush is rolling. Michigan sacked Northwestern four times last week and has made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks in five straight games. Despite losing sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone to injury before the season and senior defensive end Mario Ojemudia to injury against Maryland, the Wolverines haven’t missed a beat.
Their secondary doesn’t make life easy on opponents, either, ranking second in the nation in pass defense. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis stripped the ball away from a receiver last week en route to a 37-yard pick-six, and junior cornerback Channing Stribling should return from an injury opposite Lewis this week.
Michigan State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Spartans haven’t yet established a feature back in their offense, instead splitting carries between running backs LJ Scott and Madre London. London injured his foot in the third quarter against Rutgers, and his status is also unknown. Between Scott, London and Gerald Holmes, Michigan State’s rushing attack ranks 67th in the country.
Michigan, meanwhile, is just as stingy against the run as the pass. The Wolverines are allowing just 65.8 yards per game on the ground (third nationally), stopping even talented running backs such as Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. Their front is also a big reason for the defense’s No. 1 third-down defense. If Michigan can limit the opposition on first and second down, it creates difficult 3rd-and-long situations, when the secondary does its best work and the blitz schemes create pressure.
Much of the battle in the trenches depends on the health of Michigan State’s offensive line. The Wolverines, too, are short-handed: They will play the first half without senior linebacker James Ross, who was ejected for targeting in the third quarter last week. Senior linebacker Allen Gant is listed behind Ross on the depth chart, so he could play until halftime, with fellow senior linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone already filling in for Ojemudia on the other side of the field.
Michigan special teams coordinator John Baxter’s methods are beginning to pay off. The most explosive result came on last week’s opening kickoff, when redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson returned the kick 96 yards for a touchdown.
But the dividends have come in other areas, too. Senior kicker Kenny Allen is now 7-for-9 on field goals and has also been good on kickoffs. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s Michael Geiger is just 5-for-9 on field goals.
Both teams have avoided giving the other any bulletin-board material all week, knowing the energy it could incite on the other side of the rivalry. The vandalism of the Magic Johnson statue in East Lansing will rile up the Spartans a bit, and Michigan heads into the game as the favorite despite being far outmatched in the last two meetings.
The Wolverines could find a reason for a chip on their shoulder, too: They have been outclassed for two straight years and have the pieces to do something about it this season. And the game is back in Ann Arbor after two years in East Lansing, so Michigan Stadium should provide a noticeable home-field advantage.
Pick: Michigan 21, Michigan State 19