No matter what the players and coaches have to say, this year’s in-state rivalry bout between Michigan and Michigan State is more than just a fight to see who is tops in the state. This battle has national ramifications.
The winner will not only find itself in the nation’s top 10, but put itself in position to win the Big Ten Championship and play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. The stakes are high, but both teams have proven to be up for the challenge.
Michigan passing offense vs. Michigan State passing defense: The Spartans’ defense has drastically improved from last season. Unfortunately for Michigan State, the bulk of this improvement has come on the front line.
The Spartans’ secondary allows 269 yards per game. The Wolverines pick up about 273 yards per game throwing the ball, so there won’t be much clashing here. The only chance Michigan State will have to slow down Michigan’s passing attack is if it can get to John Navarre before he throws. The Spartans do lead the Big Ten with 34 sacks, so this will definitely be their best shot.
The secondary, though, will not be able to contend with the physical dominance of Michigan’s top three receivers. As long as Navarre is on target and his main guys are holding on to the ball, Michigan shouldn’t experience any turbulence in Spartan Stadium.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Michigan State rushing defense: Besides the resurgence of quarterback Jeff Smoker, Michigan State’s defensive line has been the story out of East Lansing. Leading the Big Ten in sacks, the Spartans’ front line hasn’t had a lot of trouble putting pressure on their opponents’ offense and closing the gaps. The defense gives up just 86.9 rushing yards per game and has allowed just three rushing touchdowns.
Defensive end Greg Taplin, who called out members of Michigan’s offensive line earlier this week, is a major reason for this dominance up front, as he is tied for the team lead in sacks (six) along with defensive tackle Matthias Askew.
Michigan’s offensive line might use Taplin words as fuel for its fire, but the line has been pushed around against some of Michigan’s tougher opponents this year, and Chris Perry hasn’t had any room to operate. This could be one of those days.
Advantage: Michigan State
Michigan State passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense: Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker battled back from several problems just to play this year, and nobody had any idea he would be playing so well. Smoker has thrown 12 touchdowns this season and averaged 258 yards per game. He has amassed an efficiency rating of 140.5 — 10 points higher than Navarre.
The Wolverines are coming off a game against a pass-happy Purdue team in which its secondary showed great depth and quickness — even without Marlin Jackson. Both sides should have their moments.
Michigan State rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense: Outside of its opener against Central Michigan and its game at Minnesota, Michigan has had great success defending the run this season. The Wolverines are allowing 137 yards per game on the ground, but this is misleading because they allowed 400-plus against the Gophers.
Michigan State’s Jaren Hayes has run well this season, but if the Spartans want to put points on the board, they will have to look to the air.
Special Teams: Michigan special teams and playing on the road is always a bad combination. Although the talent is there, the special teams find a way to make mistakes in the kicking game — mistakes that usually cost the Wolverines a win.
Michigan State’s DeAndra Cobb has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season and is someone the Wolverines need to be aware of. But this battle will be won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes, rather than the big plays.
Intangibles: The Wolverines haven’t won at Michigan State since 1999, and John L. Smith has his Spartans believing that they can rebound from last season’s blowout and come out with a strong effort. But that won’t be enough to slow down the Wolverines, who won’t be denied a Rose Bowl berth this year.
Michigan 28, Michigan State 21