The No. 2 Michigan football team’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing this weekend won’t be the top-10 showdown some fans thought it might be before the season, but that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t be worth watching.
It’s cliché to say that records are thrown out the window in rivalry games, but this rivalry in particular has proven that to be true. From the “Clockgate” game of 2001 to Braylon Edwards’ three-touchdown performance in 2004 to Chad Henne’s fouth-quarter comeback in 2007 to Blake O’Neill’s dropped punt last season, the Wolverines and the Spartans have proven that anything can happen when they face off.
It might be unrealistic to expect much drama this year, though — behind the nation’s top defense, Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 7-0 overall) has its sights set on the College Football Playoff, while Michigan State (0-4, 2-5) has dropped five games in a row for the first time since 1991. Despite being on the road, the Wolverines are favored by more than three touchdowns, one of the largest spreads in the rivalry’s recent history.
The Spartans may not have the pieces to turn Saturday’s game into another instant classic, but here are a few things to watch for when the in-state rivals square off.
1. Who wins the battle in the trenches?
There have been plenty of flashy moments throughout the rivalry, but nearly every game has been won on the ground. The team with the most rushing yards has won 42 of the last 46 meetings, making the battle in the trenches extremely important. Michigan State has won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams, in large part because of its talented offensive and defensive lines. The low point for Michigan came in 2013, when the Spartans sacked quarterback Devin Gardner seven times and left the Wolverines with a program-low negative-48 rushing yards.
This year, though, the roles could be reversed. Michigan State lost three offensive linemen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun to the NFL Draft in April, while Michigan boasts two of the most experienced offensive and defensive lines in the country. The Spartans still have plenty of talent on their roster, starting with a potential first-round draft pick in defensive lineman Malik McDowell, but they haven’t produced so far this season. They’ll need to take a huge step forward to stop the Wolverines.
2. Will Michigan State quarterbacks throw at Jourdan Lewis?
Partially due to Michigan’s outstanding pass defense and partially due to Lewis’ All-American reputation, the senior cornerback has only been targeted about once a game since returning from injury. Lewis admitted he’s a little frustrated by the light workload, but he’s feeling as fresh as he’s ever felt this late in a season before.
Last year, though, the Spartans were one of the rare teams to repeatedly go after Lewis. Quarterback Connor Cook targeted Lewis’ man, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, 19 times throughout the game. Lewis and Burbridge essentially battled to a draw — Burbridge had nine receptions for 132 yards, but Lewis had seven tackles and six pass breakups.
Things might be different this year, though, with both Cook and Burbridge in the NFL. Michigan State has struggled to get consistent play from quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke, but it does boast talented wide receivers like R.J. Shelton and Donnie Corley. We’ll find out Saturday if coach Mark Dantonio trusts any of those players enough to challenge Lewis again.
3. How will the Wolverines use Jabrill Peppers?
Peppers has played over a dozen positions this season, but the redshirt sophomore linebacker has hinted that he has a few more tricks up his sleeve that Michigan hasn’t shown yet. His minutes on offense have drastically increased since Big Ten play started — he has seen consistent reps at wildcat quarterback or running back, both early in the game and when the score has already gotten out of hand.
Illinois did a surprisingly good job holding Peppers in check last week, as he picked up just nine yards on five carries. Most of his plays were obvious designed runs, though, and it’s likely that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will be a little more creative this week. Peppers says he can throw the ball 65 yards — will we see him attempt a pass this weekend? Will he score a touchdown on a trick play we haven’t seen yet? Will he kick a 45-yard field goal?
All possibilities are on the table. Except probably that last one.
4. If the Wolverines go up big, will Harbaugh run up the score?
Harbaugh has already shown that he has no mercy in blowouts — the Wolverines inexplicably went for two at Rutgers to run the score to 29-0. Though he has shown nothing but respect for Dantonio this week, praising the job he has done at Michigan State, Harbaugh might have a chance to make a statement if things get out of hand Saturday.
Given the way that last year’s game ended — with Dantonio being captured on video asking fans at Michigan Stadium, “Where’d all those Wolverines go?” after the victory — and the fact that Dantonio offered some veiled criticisms of Harbaugh’s satellite camps over the summer, let’s just say we wouldn’t be surprised if Harbaugh fired one of his infamous “shots over the bow.”