Prior to the start of the season, this Saturday’s contest between Michigan and Michigan State was expected to be one of the defining games of Big Ten play.
Oh, how things have changed. The Spartans have lost their last five games and sit at 2-5 on the season. They are now fighting an uphill battle to become bowl-eligible.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, are 7-0, ranked No. 2 in the country and very much in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.
But even with the stark contrast in the directions their seasons have taken, nothing is predictable when these two teams meet. The Daily broke down what to expect when they take the field:
Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense
Here’s guessing Michigan throws for about 225 yards against the Spartans.
Through seven games, the Wolverines are averaging 225.9 yards through the air, and Michigan State is giving up 225.4. It’s probably unlikely those numbers will hold exactly, but hey, we might as well have fun with this statistical coincidence.
In non-numerical analysis, the Wolverines are hoping redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight can build on what may have been his best start of the year against Illinois. Speight completed 16 of 23 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Spartans, he faces a unit that has certainly had its ups and downs.
Two weeks ago, it allowed Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson to throw for 283 yards and three touchdowns in a 54-40 loss. The week before that, Michigan State held BYU standout Taysom Hill to just 138 yards passing.
The defense that shows up against the Wolverines could make the difference in deciding whether Michigan throws for 225.4 or 225.9 yards.
Michigan rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense
This matchup should be a little more clear-cut. Michigan boasts the nation’s 11th-ranked rush offense and comfortably rotates four backs to do its damage. The Wolverines could be without freshman Chris Evans, who sustained a concussion against the Fighting Illini, but depth should not be a concern.
Sophomore running back Karan Higdon continues to put together a breakout season with 214 yards and three touchdowns in his last two games, and senior De’Veon Smith is still his usual workhorse self. Redshirt junior Ty Isaac has seen an increased role this season, too, and could get even more reps if Evans can’t play.
And then there’s the Hammering Panda. Redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill has been a force at the goal line this season for Michigan, and he has the stat line to prove it. Hill has 25 yards rushing on 15 attempts, but more than half of them (eight) are touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown this season, which likely makes him the most productive fullback in the country.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is having a down year in rush defense, and it’s 66th-ranked unit will likely have its hands full all game against an offense that has proven a commitment to smash-mouth football.
Michigan State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The big question is who starts at quarterback for the Spartans. Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke started in their 28-17 loss to Maryland last week, but senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor is still an option after he missed last week’s game with an injury.
But whoever it is, he won’t be in for a fun day. Michigan’s pass defense is currently giving up the fewest yards in the nation, and its cornerbacks are playing at a truly elite level. According to Pro Football Focus College, opponents are 11-for-39 for 131 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions while throwing at them.
Michigan State’s receiving corps is strong with players like R.J. Shelton and Donnie Corley, but even they likely won’t be enough to overcome the Wolverines’ stingy secondary.
Michigan State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
It doesn’t get any easier for Michigan State’s offense on the ground. The Wolverines are giving up just 96 yards on the ground per game this year, good for fourth-best nationally. The Spartans, meanwhile, are averaging a modest 155.29 yards a game.
Michigan’s 63 tackles for loss are also fourth-most in the nation, which doesn’t bode well for an offense that will already have to be cautious in the passing game. L.J. Scott has carried the load for the Spartans early in the year, racking up 464 yards on 93 carries, and Gerald Holmes has tacked on 272 of his own. But against Michigan, it’s a whole different challenge. The Wolverines rotate two full defensive lines, keeping them fresh for constant pursuit in the offensive backfield.
If Scott gets hot, Michigan State could have a real chance on Saturday. If he doesn’t, it could get ugly.
The Wolverines have had some notable struggles in the kicking game, but Saturday, all eyes will be on the punter.
Fifth-year senior Kenny Allen is averaging 42.3 yards per punt, and he has consistently given the Wolverines strong field position. But after Michigan State’s unforgettable botched-punt return touchdown to snatch victory at the end of last season’s meeting, Allen just needs to keep special teams mistakes to a minimum.
The Wolverines rank 14th in the country in special teams efficiency, compared to 70th for the Spartans. Sophomore Tyree Kinnel has developed a penchant for altering punts, and redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers is the ultimate weapon on returns.
Michigan will need Allen to be solid kicking field goals, but as long as the Wolverines can avoid major mistakes, they should be in good shape against an average unit on the other side.
The Wolverines say they’ll treat Saturday like a championship game, but that’s how they say they treat every game. To the Spartans, this game could salvage their season.
Michigan State sits at 2-5, and without a win Saturday, the season can’t be considered anything other than a disappointment for a team coming off a College Football Playoff appearance. For Michigan, a loss could have dire ramifications for its own playoff potential this season.
And while the Wolverines will no doubt be out for revenge, the Spartans will be absolutely desperate to snap their losing streak and spoil a potentially special season for their rival.
Edge: Michigan State
Prediction: Michigan 31, Michigan State 9