EAST LANSING – In one fashion or the other, this weekend’s Michigan-Michigan State game will come down to which team can move the ball through the air.

Mira Levitan
Michigan punt returner and receiver Steve Breaston has combined with Braylon Edwards and Jason Avant to form one of the best wideout trios in the country. (DAVID TUMAN/Daily)

Considering Michigan State will rely heavily on the air attack through its spread offense, it will probably be Michigan’s passing game that will be the difference maker as a complement to its running game.

And the Spartans know that this game will come down to whether its David of a secondary can compete with the Goliath of a trio the Wolverines have in Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston.

“On paper the matchup is incomparable,” Michigan State defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said. “They do have a lot of talent.”

Haynes also went on to say that this Michigan receiving core was “by far” the best he had seen this season.

“They’ve got a good stable of wideouts … as good as you’ll see anywhere in the country,” Michigan State head coach John L. Smith said.

Given that this stable of horses is able to break a big play at any moment, it will be up to the four or five defensive backs to contain Edwards, Avant and Breaston, so that the other six or seven defenders can focus on Chris Perry and Michigan’s running attack.

One aspect that the Spartans have already begun preparing for in the secondary is the physical play of Edwards and Avant – either in down-field blocking or stiff-arming opponents to gain extra yards.

Two plays that exemplify this were Edwards’ bull-rush of a Minnesota defensive back for an extra four yards and a first down (setting up Breaston’s throw-back to Navarre), and Avant’s stiff arm of Purdue’s Jacques Reeves, turning a one-yard gain into 34.

“They better be,” said Haynes of his cornerbacks’ preparation for the game. “I mean they have to be. With this game, everything is thrown out the window. Guys elevate their games.”

Elevation is one thing Michigan State is concerned with. Against Minnesota two weeks ago, the secondary, led by cornerbacks Darren Barnett and Roderick Maples, gave up 377 yards in the air.

“They’ve made improvements,” said Haynes of Barnett and Maples. “Early in the season we had communication problems. We got that situated, and I thought they were improving. Then two weeks ago, I challenged them again and they didn’t play that well. They took two steps back against Minnesota. The thing about those two guys is that they don’t have a lot of game experience. I challenge them week by week, you don’t want to take those steps back.”

The Spartans’ secondary is going against scout team members to simulate the play of Michigan’s trio.

“Our scout team has done a great job,” Smith said. “Whether it’s dressing (for an award), they fight for it. You can’t put a number on the equation of how important that is. If your scout team is good, your other guys have to work to stay good.”

But even though Michigan State’s scout team has stepped up to the challenge of running the right routes, there are other things that can’t be emulated.

“As far as the actual receiver, I don’t think we can get that,” Haynes said.

Meanwhile … a few miles south: Michigan coach Lloyd Carr announced that Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Marlin Jackson would be back in action this weekend. He had been bugged by a muscle pull in his right leg against Minnesota. Jackson didn’t dress against Illinois and could have played against Purdue, but it wasn’t necessary.

Also, Carr said defensive end Alain Kashama would be “ready to go.” The senior, who had been seeing significant playing time early in the season, will return after not dressing against Purdue.

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