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Michigan opponent preview: Michigan State 2018

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Forget about the bulletin board material, the losing streak against ranked teams on the road or any side stories. This game is about two titles: the state and the conference.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

As far as rivalry weeks go, it’s all quiet on the Midwestern front.

In fact, coaches from both Michigan and Michigan State have expressed respect, and in Ed Warinner’s case, great affection for the other side.

Warinner and Dantonio roomed together as coaches at Akron in the early 1980s, before the former left to lead linebackers in East Lansing. His son even plays on the Spartan defensive line.

The latter shied away from his past confrontational language about little brothers and stakes and such.

That’s nice. Both teams will approach Saturday’s game in a gentlemanly...

There are two titles on the line Saturday in Spartan Stadium. One, the winner likely gets a date against Ohio State for a potential berth in the Big Ten Championship. Two, the winner owns the state and the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

With a lot on the line and hate in their hearts, Saturday at noon will be hellaciously physical.

MOTO (Master of the Obvious)

No. 6 Michigan (6-1, 4-0) at No. 24 Michigan State (4-2, 2-1), noon EST

TV: FOX

Radio: Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)

Line: Michigan by 7 (Bovada)

Series history: Michigan leads the series 69-36-5. Dantonio is 8-3 in the rivalry since he became head coach in 2007. Jim Harbaugh is 1-2, with both losses coming at home by four.

Last year, Michigan turned it over five times, including three John O’Korn interceptions in a second-half monsoon, to drop a 14-10 decision at night in the Big House.

With a victory, the Wolverines get program win No. 950, just like when Denard Robinson lead the 2012 team to No. 900 against...Michigan State.

MICHIGAN METEOROLOGY

Accuweather forecast. Looks like a blustery day with 14 mph winds and sporadically spitting rain. Last year, the Spartans took advantage during good weather, and sat on the ball once the rain storm hit.

The winner Saturday may have to follow a similar script: attack when it’s dry. Just don’t be like the Ringwraiths.

Michigan offense vs MSU defense

THE PASSING GAME

Before making Trace McSorley look average last week, MSU’s pass defense had problems against all comers.

  • Utah State’s Jordan Love threw for 319 yards (though also two interceptions).
  • Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins completed 30-of-48 passes for 380 yards and a score.
  • Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey reached 272 yards and two touchdowns (also two picks).
  • Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson amassed 373 yards and three touchdowns to offset two interceptions.

Those passing attacks respectively rank sixth, 63rd, 52nd and 61st in S&P efficiency. The Spartans allow a lot of completions and yards, but look to force turnovers and limit explosive plays. The latter is working, as they’re tied at No. 10 nationally with nine interceptions.

The latter? There have been occasional breakdowns.

Part of the problem is injuries in the secondary. Starting cornerback Josiah Scott tore a meniscus and is out for the year. Reserve corner Josh Butler sat for undisclosed reasons against Penn State, and Tyson Smith medically retired during fall camp.

That leaves converted receiver Justin Layne and two underclassmen in Tre Person and Shakur Brown. Layne and Brown have both chipped in a lone interception, with the latter returning one for a decisive touchdown against Indiana.

The safeties possess more experience. Redshirt junior David Dowell and senior Khari Willis keep most throws in front of them. The secondary ranks No. 13 nationally in preventing big plays.

Both have interceptions, and Dowell has one more tackle on the year with 29. Michigan fans may remember him from his two picks in last year’s game.

The defensive line hardly harasses quarterbacks, as the Spartans as a team rank No. 88 in adjusted sack rate (five percent). With that said, Kenny Willekes is dangerous on the edge with five sacks.

Dowell’s brother Andrew will blitz from his outside Star linebacker spot. He has two sacks.

Without a speed rusher like Shilique Calhoun to face, Jon Runyan and Juwann Bushell-Beatty should continue their ascending play against a physical, but not hyper-athletic front.

With time to throw, a passive secondary and the possible addition of deep-threat Tarik Black, Shea Patterson should return to form after an underwhelming outing through the air against Wisconsin.

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

There’s no getting around it, through it, over it and under it. Dantonio boasts the nation’s No. 1 rush defense — both per S&P and in raw stats.

It’s not a particular big line — only nose tackle Raequan Williams tips the scales over 300 pounds — but it’s an ox-strong one. There’s two Panasiuk brothers in Mike and Jacub.

Mike is a 3-tech without a ton of fancy stats, but he sticks with his assignment by bullying guards into the backfield. Jacub is nominally a weak side end, but he acts more like an edge-setter. He has only seven tackles with just 1.5 for loss.

Williams has evolved from gap-plugger to disrupter since 2017. He has 21 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. He’s an all-conference caliber player, despite not getting the same press as Ohio State’s Dre’mont Jones among others.

Cesar Ruiz will have a whale of a matchup on his hands, but he’s been apt at doubling planetoid tackles. Last week, he plowed 342-pound Olive Sagapolu with help several times.

If Karan Higdon breaks the first line of defense, he runs into junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie. After 100 tackles in 2017, Bachie leads the team again with 43 tackles. He also fills up the stat sheet with 3.5 TFL’s, a sack, an interception and two deflections.

Despite passive coverage, the secondary contributes to the cause on run defense. Layne is the second-leading tackler with 42. With Dowell and Willis flying upfield to stop backs, the Spartans ceded monster runs to Penn State’s Miles Sanders in last week’s upset win.

The Nittany Lions eclipsed 200 yards on the ground, though if you remove 78 and 48-yarders from Sanders, they only reached 79 yards on 30 totes.

Advice to Higdon: MSU is going to give you one or two chances to bust one loose. Take advantage.

In an inconsistent season for Dantonio’s squad, there’s been one constant — elite rush defense. Michigan’s goal should be to always fall forward and stay out of third-and-long.

Advantage: MSU

Michigan defense vs MSU offense

THE PASSING GAME

Brian Lewerke has not quite lived up to his All-Big Ten preseason billing.

After 2,793 yards and a 20-7 TD-to-INT ratio in 2017, he already has seven picks through just six games this year. He’s also added five fumbles, losing two of them.

Part of the problem is the dwindling options at receiver. Starters in Cody White (broken hand) and Darrell Stewart (ankle) have sat for multiple weeks. That equates to 85 catches and 991 yards of lost production from last season.

Cam Chambers stepped into their shoes, and promptly busted his thumb against Penn State. He returned to field with his hand heavily wrapped.

That leaves Lewerke one consistent target in Felton Davis, who beat Amani Oruwariye for a 25-yard game-winning touchdown last Saturday.

At 6-foot-4, he’s a jump-ball artist with four receiving scores and 15.3 yards a catch. Overall, he’s tallied 474 yards in six games.

If Stewart returns healthy, he’s a matchup problem with the safeties. From Notre Dame to Northwestern, Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus have allowed slot receivers to slant in front of them with impunity. Stewart is capable with his 6-foot-2, 214-pound frame of boxing them out.

Offensive coordinator Dave Warner loves to dial up crossing patterns, as press defenders typically run into traffic. This breaks receivers open, and has been a problem for years for the Wolverine secondary.

Brandon Watson may have finally figured out the counter, as he’s eliminated these routes the last two weeks.

He also executed one for a pick-six against Maryland.

Don Brown trots out the No. 1 pass defense in America in raw yardage — No. 8 per S&P. Lewerke leads the nation’s No. 62 aerial assault.

While Davis will get his yards, and someone unexpected may pop open at times, the consistent edge goes to the Maize and Blue.

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

A few issues have lead to MSU’s abysmal No. 118 S&P ground game.

One, there’s no L.J. Scott. That’s partly an ankle issue, as he missed four games after a sprain against Arizona State Sep. 8. It’s also a driving issue, as he committed three offenses on Oct. 10 that required payment of fines.

While the senior has never cleared 1,000 yards in any season of his career, he typically shows in big games. He bullied his way to 139 yards against the 2016 Michigan defense.

Without him, it’s a smattering of guys who average less than four yards a pop. Sophomore Connor Heyward — son of former NFL fullback Craig “Ironhead” Heyward — has Scott’s size at 6-foot, 229. He leads the team with just 191 yards on 50 attempts.

Another big back is 223-pound freshman La’Darius Jefferson. He managed 60 yards on 15 carries last week against the Nittany Lions.

They take the load on conventional runs, but due to a beat-up and small offensive line, Warner has relied on gadget plays to string together yards.

Also related to that play:

Reverses and speed options are the reality behind this offensive line — as well as Lewerke’s legs. Injuries to both guards in Kevin Jarvis and David Beedle, as well as ineffective play from left tackle Cole Chewins, have led to some ugly results.

  • No. 89 in stuff rate (aka the backs barely cross the line of scrimmage)
  • No. 87 in line yards per carry (aka they don’t get push)
  • 3.4 yards a carry overall

Michigan counters that with the No. 14 rush defense. While Wisconsin found plenty of room in Saturday’s victory, MSU doesn’t have anyone that would make the Badgers’ two-deep.

With the injuries to the guards, and nobody as strong as the departed Brian Allen at center, it’s hard to imagine the tackles getting plowed.

Advantage: Michigan

ISN’T THAT SPECIAL

The Spartans were special on special teams until punter Jake Hartbarger sustained a season-ending leg injury. In his place is Tyler Hunt, who averages less than 40 yards a boot.

Will Hart is still booming the air out of the ball at 51.1 yards a kick. The extra 10 to 15 yards in field position will be critical.

Kicker Matt Coghlin is perfect on the year at 8-for-8 with a long of 49. Nordin has the leg, but had two misses last week. The Groza candidate currently has connected on 11-of-14 attempts with a long of 50.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Dantonio objectively knows how to prepare for this rivalry.

He’s a perfect 11-0 against the spread when facing Michigan. If you think Jim Harbaugh comes out on top, it very likely would be by one score.

One thing that chart doesn’t account for is something that might stick in Wolverine partisans’ craws: Michigan State has won, because they’ve been better. Motivation has a role to play, but none of the eight losses look like upsets at season’s end.

  • 2008: 9-4 MSU beats 3-9 Michigan
  • 2009: 6-7 MSU beats 5-7 Michigan
  • 2010: 11-2 MSU beats 7-6 Michigan
  • 2011: 11-3 MSU beats 11-2 Michigan (Brady Hoke’s first year)
  • 2013: 13-1 MSU beats 7-6 Michigan
  • 2014: 11-2 MSU beats 5-7 Michigan
  • 2015: 12-2 MSU beats 10-3 Michigan (Trouble with the Snap)
  • 2017: 10-3 MSU beats 8-5 Michigan

Likewise, Michigan’s three wins have come against mediocre to bad Spartan teams. It’s almost as if the better team wins, as opposed to intangible nonsense.

Yes, the Green and White will outperform this season's norm at home against a bitter rival. However, if you watched them in a mostly ugly six-game stretch this year, there’s little objective measurement that states that the Spartans have been better than the Wolverines in 2018.

Close, as always, but Harbaugh has the better dudes.

Michigan 26, MSU 21