Michigan may be a heavy favorite against Michigan State this weekend, but the Wolverines have learned the last two years that they can’t take their opponent lightly. The Spartans, though, aren’t just banking on dumb luck to keep them in the rivalry matchup. While their offense has been far from dominant, they have a formula that works if the defense isn’t ready for it — one that relies on the deep ball.
Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter is well aware of what he’s up against, and he wants to make sure his defense isn’t asleep at the wheel.
“I think they have really good receivers,” Minter said. “They have a quarterback who trusts his receivers, especially on those deep, deep down the sideline throws. Whether it’s deep ball or back shoulder throw, they excel in those areas. So, it’s something that our guys are prepared for.”
Michigan State boasts a strong duo of wide receivers who thrive in 50-50 ball situations. Keon Coleman has caught 31 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns and Jayden Reed has nearly mirrored the production with 32 catches for 373 yards and three scores.
Last year, the Spartans wore the Wolverines down on the ground thanks to a five-touchdown effort by Kenneth Walker. Walker has since moved on to the NFL, and Michigan State doesn’t possess the same threat it did in the running game, but it can take advantage of its strength at wide receiver.
Minter believes he has a scheme in place that limits the amount of deep balls the Spartans can conjure up. But there will be points throughout the game where he’ll have to trust his secondary to handle business.
“At times, those guys are going to be one-on-one, and (our secondary) is going to have to hold up their end of the bargain,” Minter said. “I think our guys are primed and excited about the challenge. And then for us, we just got to do a good job mixing up the looks and giving them help at times and knowing that they’re gonna be on their own at times.”
One such player who will have to be up for the challenge is Makari Paige. The junior safety mostly played on special teams during his first two seasons, but has emerged as a starter in the secondary this season — rotating at safety with sophomore Rod Moore and junior R.J. Moten.
Paige didn’t mince words when discussing the aerial threat the defense is up against.
“They’ve got speed, size, great hands,” Paige said. “You’ve got to get the ball out of the air.”
In addition to the deep ball, the Wolverines will also have to worry about the Spartans up-tempo offense. Michigan State runs the hurry-up often and averages the fourth lowest time-of-possession in all of FBS.
The fast pace can wreak havoc by preventing the defense from substituting, which Michigan likes to do. Last year, the Wolverines looked out of sorts trying to rotate players in and out as the Spartans were hurrying to the line.
No one is kidding themselves — Michigan is the more talented team on paper. But Michigan State knows it can create organized chaos, sprinting to the line to run plays to confuse the pass rush and lobbing balls deep to test the secondary.
“When they go tempo, a lot of times you shorten your menu, you shorten the (amount of) plays you’re running,” Minter said. “That’s what they want us to do. So we just got to try and combat that and when you stop it, a lot of times it doesn’t show up as much. So that’s the goal.”
It’s a tall task, but the Spartans have a strategy they believe can tip the scales toward an upset.
But Minter wants to keep it just that — a strategy — not a path to victory.