Throughout the season during game week, we will be taking a look at what Michigan's opponent that Saturday has done so far and what the team looks like. With the game against Michigan State being a week seven opponent, we automatically go to the Spartans' win over Rutgers this past weekend and their battle with injuries.
Michigan State Overview: Health A Concern
Zach: Before we get into arguably the most anticipated matchup between both Michigan and Michigan State since 2003, let’s focus on the fact that the Wolverines are ranked No. 12 in the latest Associated Press Poll. The highest ranking for U-M since September 11, 2013 when they were ranked No. 11. The catastrophic climb from being counted out in the preseason to now becoming a bonafide Big Ten contender in just half a season under Jim Harbaugh has been nothing more than impressive. You cover Michigan football on a regular basis with the Michigan Journal and SB Nation, how much fun has it been to follow this team this year?
Ricky: It has been a wild ride, to say the least. The energy is definitely back; you could feel it as the teams lined up for the opening kickoff last weekend. While venturing through the concourse on my way to the post-game press conference, I got goosebumps from the atmosphere. The past few years were miserable, and it hit a tipping point last year. I try to disassociate myself from the “fun” part but when you’re around the team so often, and the players are the same age as you, you definitely feel some sort of excitement for them. It was great seeing Jabrill Peppers flash that signature smile so often Saturday. Zach, you know your way around Michigan State football. The Spartans were ranked No. 2 in the nation a few weeks back have continued to drop, all the way to No. 7 this week. There also been talks...errrr, arguments, on Twitter regarding injuries. What’s been going on with this team?
Zach: Injuries man. Knowing the impact of how detrimental injuries have plagued the Spartans this year is rather unfortunate, considering how much talent is lost on both sides of the ball. Starting with linebacker Ed Davis, offensive tackle Jack Conklin and cornerback Vayante Copeland, among others. The list goes on, totaling 13 different key contributors battling with health issues. MSU has found a way, however, to overcome the adversity and squeeze by with a couple close wins in Big Ten play this season. That train may close to a screeching halt in Ann Arbor this Saturday, it’s just a matter of how badly the Spartans want to win. That being said, despite the injuries, MSU has a winner at quarterback in Connor Cook and an explosive wide receiver corp. Will this be the game that Michigan finally gives up some points?
Ricky: I believe so. All good things must come to an end at some point, right? Might as well have it end against one of the best teams in the Big Ten rather than Minnesota two weeks later. I think Michigan is going to make it tough for MSU to find the end zone, though. They will have to earn those points the hard way with the Wolverines’ defense playing at an extremely high level right now. You mentioned Cook. The country knows who he is. But he has to go up against Jourdan Lewis. It’s such an intriguing matchup, with Lewis recently being graded the top cornerback by Pro Football Focus, and Cook more than likely landing as a top pick come spring. What do you make of that matchup, and who has the edge?
Zach: Lewis is the best shutdown cornerback in the Big Ten right now. No question. He has speed, he has agility, he has great coverage skills and has athletic footwork. To top it off, Lewis has confidence, something that can’t be coached. Lewis’ next test will likely be Aaron Burbridge, who’s had three consecutive 100-yard performances at the beginning of the season. Connor Cook has weapons, which makes it even more likely that he’ll throw away from Lewis. Cook is too smart to risk an interception testing Lewis. How about Jake Rudock? Not as flashy as Cook but as quietly gotten the job done at quarterback for Michigan. He faces a secondary who’s ranked 89th in the country in pass defense. Who wins this matchup?
Ricky: The days of the “No Fly Zone” are over. Three opposing quarterbacks have posted completion percentages of 66.0 percent or higher this season, and two of those players are from MAC schools (Western Michigan and Central Michigan). It’s hard for me to believe that Zach Terrell (WMU) or Cooper Rush (CMU) are better than Rudock, a veteran who has been around the Big Ten for quite some time and seems to be progressing day-by-day. I think Rudock wins the matchup against MSU’s passing defense. He doesn’t have to carry the team; all he has to do is complete a few passes to one of what seems to be dozens of weapons and control the ball. That’s because he has De’Veon Smith and company in the backfield, and boy, that certainly helps.
Recap: Michigan State 31, Rutgers 24
For the second straight week, MSU had to grind out a Big Ten game that, on paper, it should have won handily. This time, it was Rutgers, who gave the Spartans a hell of a fight.
Tied at 24-24 with under a minute remaining in the game, LJ Scott found the end zone on a three-yard scamper for the MSU win.
Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano had a strong game against Spartan defensive backs. He went 15-for-24 passing for 208 yards and three touchdowns. But Laviano will be remembered for a boneheaded play with just seconds remaining; he spiked the ball on fourth down to kill the potential comeback drive.
MSU quarterback Connor Cook picked up a lackluster running game, passing for 357 yards and two scores.
MSU’s Aaron Burbridge and Rutgers Leonte Carroo duked it out at wide receiver. Burbridge bested his foe by two receptions and 12 yards, but Carroo caught three touchdown passes.
Key Players To Watch
Montae Nicholson, Safety
A sophomore slump resides over Nicholson this season, after finishing his freshman year on the Big Ten and ESPN All-Freshman team. The tip of the iceberg of Michigan State's secondary woes came last weekend against Rutgers when reinstated wide receiver Leonte Carroo caught seven passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns in his first game back after his assault charges were dropped. Nicholson will be no question be tested once again in Ann Arbor.
Aaron Burbridge, Wide Receiver
Reiterating what was said in the conversation, Burbridge will likely square off with Jourdan Lewis, the former Detroit Cass Tech standout. This will be Lewis' most challenging test, as Burbridge is coming off a 146-yards and a career-high nine catches. The true shutdown corner has had four pass breakups and an interception this season.
Special Teams, All 11 Players
Zach: Michigan is a hungrier team at this point of the season. Close victories in recent weeks over Rutgers and Purdue, topped off with injuries on both sides of the ball has put Michigan State on upset watch. Expect a win for the Wolverines, a hard fought win.
Ricky: Finally, a Michigan-Michigan State game worth watching. Jake Butt has a superb day — one we’ve been waiting for since his performance vs. No. 4 Utah — to give the Wolverines a signature win over the Spartans and catapult them into the College Football Playoff conversation.