In the final days leading up to Michigan State’s first appearance in Ann Arbor since the infamous botched punt, the No. 7 Michigan football team (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall) spoke to the media and discussed the rivalry, the offense and how fifth-year senior John O’Korn has adjusted as the new starting quarterback.
Stay up to date with the Wolverines in this week’s notebook.
Gentry’s improvement at tight end
The tight end group stepped up against Purdue, with two players — sophomore Sean McKeon and redshirt sophomore Zach Gentry — combining for 130 yards on eight total catches.
“We (the tight ends and O’Korn) have a strong chemistry,” Gentry said. “Everyday after practice we stick around with the quarterbacks and get some extra balls and run some extra routes for them. The tight ends, we’re a hardworking group and we’ve got a lot of guys who can contribute.
“… (O’Korn) was able to find us last game, and everything just worked out. We just got to hope he keeps hitting us a little bit.”
Gentry, a former quarterback who converted to tight end, caught his first career touchdown pass against the Boilermakers.
The conversion to tight end wasn’t easy for Gentry. He didn’t get much playing time at his new position early in his career, but now he’s a key player for Michigan’s offense and a favorable target for Michigan’s quarterbacks.
Gentry has improved most in pass protection and blocking, a part of the game that was completely new to him after switching from quarterback.
“(Blocking was) something that was completely foreign to me,” Gentry said. “I mean, usually, I was the guy in practice that you weren’t allowed to touch. Having to block (former Michigan defensive linemen) Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley was something else. … I was pretty bad at just getting down at pad level.”
Isaac ready for blitz-heavy Michigan State defense
The Spartans will be the toughest defensive test Michigan has faced yet, and if O’Korn struggles during his first start this season, then Michigan will have to turn to its running back rotation for offense.
The Spartans rank 16th in the nation and third in the Big Ten for rush defense, allowing just 96 rushing yards per game.
“(Michigan State has) a really tough front seven,” said fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac. “They do a lot of run blitzing, so we’ve definitely been watching on film and practicing those looks having had an extra week of preparation.”
With a trio of rushers, Michigan’s running backs have proven they might have more depth than any other position group.
Isaac leads Michigan with 89 rushing yards per game and one touchdown. Trailing him are sophomore Chris Evans (56 yards per game, two touchdowns) and junior Karan Higdon (34 yards per game, two touchdowns).
Isaac, who suffered a minor injury against Air Force, is back to full strength after the bye week. He started against Cincinnati and Air Force, but didn’t get the start against Purdue.
“Hopefully we can dial some stuff and get the run game going,” Isaac said.
That may be easier said than done. The Spartans shut down Iowa’s running game last weekend, holding the Hawkeyes to just 19 yards on the ground.
Onwenu familiar with Spartans’ defensive line
Sophomore right tackle Michael Onwenu, a Detroit native, has plenty of connections to Michigan State. His sister, Stephanie, and one of his cousins both attend Michigan State. But outside of the family, he knows plenty of players on the Spartans’ roster.
“That D-line, I probably went to camps with the majority of them, especially the interior guys,” Onwenu said. “So I know how they play. It’s gonna be a game to watch.”
While he was in high school, he didn’t play directly against any future Michigan State defensive linemen, but he went head to head with them in summer football camps. They played with less contact in camps, but he became familiar with how some of them like to pass rush.
He also watched Michigan State beat Iowa this weekend to get a better idea of how the Spartans like to line up on defense.
Michigan State has tallied just nine sacks this season — half the amount that Michigan has — but Onwenu and the Wolverines’ offensive line will be challenged nonetheless.
The Spartans will challenge the young right side of Michigan’s offensive line. It features Onwenu inside at right guard and a mix of redshirt sophomores Jon Runyan Jr. and Nolan Ulizio at right tackle. Those guys will have to step up as the Wolverines move into the thick of their Big Ten schedule.
Onwenu appears up to the task. This week, he’s not been in contact with any of his counterparts at Michigan State. He’s focusing solely on getting ready for the rivalry game.
“They might be avoiding me,” he said. “They don’t want to get hit.”