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Harbaugh vs. Dantonio: Previewing Part III

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Will this be the first night game in the series history?

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

This will be a fun one. Has been for a while now.

You don't need me to tell you how important the Michigan vs. Michigan State game has become in recent years. What historically was a lopsided rivalry in Michigan's favor turned into a chain of statement games by Michigan State under head coach Mark Dantonio.

But the last two years there's been a new coach sporting the Maize and Blue on the other sideline.

Circle the date on your calendar. October 7th. Michigan-MSU week is something to see.

"What's the state of the rivalry?"

Again, you shouldn't need to be briefed on this (but since it's my job, I'll do it anyway).

Basically, Michigan won a ton (like, 67-of-100 all-time meetings) through the 2007 game. Then things changed.

You've heard the quote. Dantonio, talking to media members following former Michigan running back Mike Hart's comments about MSU being Michigan's "little brother," famously said, "Pride comes before the fall." How true. The next season, Michigan only managed to win three games.

From there, Michigan State went on to beat Michigan in seven of the next eight matchups.

Prior to the 2016 season, the MSU football staff tweeted a photo trolling former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler's famed speech, stating, "Those who have stayed are already champions."

The Spartans met an equal fate that season, winning just three contests.

"Let’s summarize the current state of the Spartan program."

Complete disarray. If you thought it was bad during the 3-9 collapse of 2016, it's gotten worse since the season ended. Scandals off the field have led to the dismissals of four players from the 2016 recruiting class, including their top three signees.

But do I expect the Spartans to continue the collapse? No way. Dantonio probably said it best back in December:

“To be honest with you, I've taken the approach of, 'Hey, I'm a new coach coming in here. Gonna fix the things that other guy did last year. And that's how I'm going to take the approach. I'm going to take the approach that I'm going to get this fixed. And this will be fixed.”

Time will tell if he can turn his words into action, but there's not much more room for the program to fall.

But beware: it's seasons like these when beating your archrival is a team's top priority.

“Game time: What are the Spartans going to show us on offense?”

All signs are pointing toward Brian Lewerke starting at quarterback. Last season he threw for 381 yards and two scores before Jabrill Peppers ended his season on a fourth down sack late in last year’s matchup.

Lewerke's been taking over a leadership role behind the scenes, and on the field he’s shown a good arm, a compact and consistent throwing motion, and comfort in the pocket. Exhibit A:

The bad news for Sparty is that the Michigan State receiving corp, like most other position groups, isn’t what it’s been in the past.

Their best returning stat guys are Trishton Jackson and Felton Davis III. Jackson (all of 93 yards last year) really showed up at the spring game, putting his speed, burst, explosion and length on display. Overall, this group could be really solid if they put in work during the summer, but right now they are still a question mark.

The good news for Sparty is that there’s serious depth in the backfield.

L.J. Scott will carry the load again (seriously, remember Iowa?), after leading the team in rushing last season and putting up 139 yards against Michigan.

Gerald Holmes and Madre London are two more guys who have not only proven themselves, but can step in and take a heavy load of carries if their number is called.

All three of these guys have good size, above average speed and can lower the shoulder. MSU should be able to rotate these guys into the game to keep not only their run game effective, but also ensure Lewerke has time to throw with solid pass protection.

Michigan should still have plenty of talent on the defensive front, and if MSU is forced to put the ball in the air then Michigan will be at a strong advantage. However, it’s not farfetched to see a scenario where this talented Spartan trio of backs grinds down the Wolverines line for a significant amount of the game.

It’s been years since this matchup has turned into a high-scoring affair. We’ll see if that changes in 2017.

"Which team has the edge when the Wolverines offense is on the field?"

This matchup should be fairly straightforward.

Yes, Michigan lost Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt. In fact, the only returning Michigan player who caught a pass against Michigan State last year is Khalid Hill. The other five are all gone. But they reloaded with some talented freshmen and have experience returning on the line, in the backfield and at quarterback.

Then there’s Michigan State. While Pat Narduzzi was around, the Spartan defense was regularly one of the best in the country. Last season? Not so much. They struggled, allowing teams like Maryland, Northwestern and Illinois to score at least four touchdowns. Riley Bullough and Malik McDowell are gone, and the leadership will now fall on the shoulders of guys like Chris Frey and Raequan Williams.

Frey has good speed on the outside and should anchor a fairly strong linebacking corps. Williams is a wide-bodied tackle with some mobility and quick hands, but overall the defensive line will be lacking depth.

The secondary has Vayante Copeland and Josiah Scott (an early enrollee) at corner, and David Dowell and Matt Morrissey at safety. They have decent quickness, but these guys underwhelm compared to past Spartan defensive backfields. The days of the “no fly zone” seem to have passed.

Between the talent Michigan returns, along with its experience up front, I see this being a ground attack first, and then letting Wilton Speight start to pick on the MSU secondary. This could be a long night for the Spartans.

"Who wins the rubber match between Harbaugh and Dantonio?"

What’s the key to winning this rivalry game? For years, coaches, sportswriters and fans alike would answer, “Out-rush your opponent.” Someone dug up a crazy stat that nearly every Michigan-MSU game for decades went to the team that had the most yards on the ground.

Then Michigan out-rushed MSU in 2015 and lost. Then Michigan State out-rushed Michigan in 2016 and lost. And now it almost seems like there’s a new key to winning the game: scoring more points.

Only someone who’s truly “in the know” would be able to take a stab at this prediction for 2017…but in the meantime, I’ll give it a shot.

The Wolverines are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons while the Spartans are Michael Scott after the fire alarm goes off.

Thing is, if there’s ever a coach who “has Michigan’s number,” it may be Dantonio. Just look at this: the Spartans have covered the spread in each game against Michigan since 2008. The folks in East Lansing are on another level when it’s Michigan week.

Michigan will clearly be the superior team entering this game. It may even be a night game—the first in the series history. And it’s in Ann Arbor this time around. Advantages: Michigan. However, this one will (likely) be closer than it should be.

The good news for Michigan is you can’t lose on the final play of the game if you’re up by two scores. I’ll take Michigan, 31-20.