It’s time, it’s time for your best friends to become enemies, it’s time to “jokingly” tell co-workers to go **** themselves, Michigan week is finally upon us. This is the time where Spartan fans harass anyone wearing Maize and Blue with talks of their 8-2 record in the last 10 years. This is the time when parents across Ann Arbor tell bed time stories, reminiscing over stories of beating little brother. In East Lansing stories will be shared of the famous 2001 TJ Duckett game (yes Michigan fans, there was 1 second left) and mythical tales of the 2013 defense when the Wolverines finished with -48 rushing yards. Yes this is the game where friendly neighbors turn into bitter rivals, a game that will make or break the next 365 days. They say college football is a great game because it brings people together, well this week it rips them apart limb by limb.
At 12:00 EST this Saturday in East Lansing, the Spartans and the Wolverines will line up for one of the most important matchups in the history of this great rivalry. After Michigan put a beat down on #15 Wisconsin, they control their own destiny in their quest for their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. After a heart-stopping, come from behind victory in Happy Valley against #8 Penn State, Michigan State’s season has a renewed sense of hope after a disappointing start. In the Mark Dantonio era, MSU has been dominate in this game, with a record of 8-3 since 2007, and he has plenty of bulletin board material built up this year with so many people writing off the Spartans early in the season. Since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, however, Michigan State is 2-1 in this game, with a total score favoring MSU by just 1 point due to Michigan’s 9 point win in 2016.
Speaking of Jim Harbaugh, the feeling around Ann Arbor is that this may be his year. After a few disappointing seasons, even resulting in some talks of a “hot seat” this off-season, Harbaugh went and got Ole Miss transfer Shae Patterson to secure the quarterback position, and has his team firing on all cylinders following a week 1 loss at Notre Dame. Since that week 1 loss they have gone 6-0 in a dominating fashion, with a combined score of 250-84, with the only scare coming in Evanston against a tough Northwestern team. Shae Patterson has the offense humming, as he’s thrown for 10 TDs and only 3 INTs on nearly 70% passing (including 121 yards and a TD on the ground). The running game has been dynamic with running backs Karan Higdon, Tru Wilson, and Chris Evans combining for nearly 1,100 yards on 5.7 ypc. On defense it’s been what you’ve come to expect out of Don Brown in recent years. This group is fast, aggressive, and incredibly talented. 1st round talent Rashan Gary didn’t play last week, but that didn’t matter against Wisconsin as Chase Winovich leads a tough defensive line in front of a talented group of linebackers, headlined by another 1st rounder Devin Bush. Lavert Hill (another potential 1st round pick come April) leads a secondary that has been disruptive and opportunistic so far this year. All in all, through 7 games this unit has surrendered just 15 ppg, and has collected 20 sacks, 7 INTs, and 3 touchdowns. Jim Harbaugh and this Wolverines team knows all about their record on the road against ranked teams, they’ve heard about their record in rivalry games against MSU and OSU, and I guarantee they’re sick of it. It seems as though this is the year Jim wants to get all the monkeys off his back and lead this team to the College Football Playoff.
Nobody can dispute that Michigan State did not look good through the first 6 weeks of the college football season. It’s funny, though, how quickly feelings change. After a brutal loss at home against then 1-3 Northwestern, fans all across the state were calling for the job of offensive coordinator Dave Warner, and falling asleep to nightmares of 2016. Then Felton Davis caught a pass, and ran into the endzone in Happy Valley with 19 seconds left, and everything changed. In classic Mark Dantonio fashion, Michigan State came into their road game against #8 Penn State with their backs against the wall, ravaged by injuries, and considered by most all but dead in the Big Ten East race, and won. Before we get too excited, make no mistake, Brian Lewerke’s final drive, and Felton Davis’ ultimate game winning touchdown masked some issues that have plagued the Spartans all year. Michigan State struggled on offense all night, Brian Lewerke finished with a completion percentage under 50%, they finished with under 125 yards rushing as a team, and ultimately needed a couple big trick plays to find points against a Penn State defense that has been solid, but not great. Though, with the offensive struggles, the defense came up in big spots all night, and after giving up over 200 yards on the ground (most of which coming from 2 long runs by Miles Sanders), they kept finding ways to keep Penn State off the scoreboard. While they finished with just 1 sack on the night, there was pressure in Trace McSorley’s face all night, led by a tremendous defensive line group. Kenny Willekis came up with his 5th sack of the year, while the DT duo Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk (who have nicknamed themselves Salt n Pepper) have been tremendous all year, disrupting the A and B gaps all season long. This unit is still missing star CB Josiah Scott, but is starting to come together as a group who can make game-changing plays at every level.
For the 2nd straight year, Mark Dantonio will follow Michigan’s lead and not release a depth chart for this game, which muddies the water for people like me trying to figure out who is healthy. This team has been ravaged by injuries all year, and will field another damaged team this week. Last week we didn’t see starting offensive guards Kevin Jarvis, and David Beedle, and didn’t see much of Luke Campbell, we didn’t see wide receivers Darrell Stewart or Jalen Nailor, running back LJ Scott, and obviously Josiah Scott, Cody White, and Jake Hartbarger.
The big question mark here is star defensive lineman Rashan Gary, who didn’t play last week against Wisconsin. If Gary suits up it will be a long day for Michigan State trying to block the likes of him and Winovich with a banged up offensive line. Michigan has dealt with some injuries but got most of their players back last week, except for wide receiver Tarik Black who is out indefinitely with a broken foot.
Keys to the Game
Strength vs. Strength
Michigan comes into this game running for over 215 ypg including over 300 yards against a tough Wisconsin defense last week, and in games where Karan Higdon runs for over 100 yards the Wolverines are 10-0. On the other side Michigan State is still tops in the country with opponents running for just 62 ypg and 2.3 ypc even after Miles Sanders had a couple big runs against the Spartan defense last week. The team that runs the ball better in this matchup has had a lot of success in recent years, and I believe that will hold true again this week. If guys like Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk, and Joe Bachie can hold Michigan in check, and make this Wolverine offense one-dimensional it gives this pass rush and secondary a chance to make big plays and change the dynamic of this game. If Michigan can keep rolling behind Karan Higdon and this offensive line, MSU might have a tough time keeping up.
Rivalry games like this often come down to big plays. MSU pulled out all the stops last week, showing the gutsy nature of Mark Dantonio in big games, with a fake punt, a fake field goal, and a halfback pass. Look for Dantonio to dial up a lot more where that came from, options, screen passes, and quick throws to the slot can keep this aggressive, heavy blitzing Don Brown defense in check early. Turnovers are going to be another huge factor (as they are in every football game). MSU comes into the game with 9 picks already on the year, Michigan with 7. With two aggressive quarterbacks, look for either team getting in trouble throwing the ball into tight spots, we know how quickly momentum can change in games like this.
MSU Offensive Line vs. UofM Front Seven
I’ve already noted that the question mark surrounding Rashan Gary’s availability is going to be a huge factor this week. If Michigan fields a defensive line that’s completely healthy that could mean bad news for a banged up offensive line that has struggled to open up holes and protect Brian Lewerke. We know Don Brown wants to bring a blitz on every play, he has talented corners on the outside that he trusts, and his number one goal is getting pressure early and often. If guys like Gary, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Kwity Paye, and Devin Bush can get to Lewerke early that would go a long way toward winning this game. Look for screen plays, speed options, draws, and quick slants to try to slow down this disruptive front seven.
Michigan comes into this game healthier, higher ranked, and the hotter team coming off 6 straight wins. Michigan State has struggled but comes off a gutsy win in Happy Valley. As of the posting of this article, betonline.ag has the spread at Michigan (-7). Now I understand, it’s tough to come off such an emotional win the week before, I know how many injuries this team has sustained, I know UofM is going to be picked by just about every national writer, and logically I don’t blame them. However, Mark Dantonio is 8-3 against Michigan, and he’s an unbelievable 11-0 against the spread. While I believe this is starting to change, Michigan State has come into this game every year, proverbial nuts on the table, doing everything they can to come out with a win. On the other side Michigan has historically played “not to lose”. The Spartans get this game at home, they get a Michigan team that’s potentially over-confident, and they have a renewed sense of hope and energy for this season. Call it Spartan bias but give me the Michigan State straight up, MSU – 24, UofM – 20.