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What to watch for: Michigan vs. Michigan State

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The revenge tour continues.

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan did exactly what it needed to do last weekend, pounding Wisconsin into the ground. The Wolverines picked up some national respect and set the stage for a showdown in East Lansing on Saturday.

Here’s what you should be watching for in the game:

Can Harbaugh Beat A Rival?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has struggled mightily through three and a half seasons against rivals, going 1-6 against Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. The lone win came against MSU in 2016 when the Spartans finished the season 3-9.

Michigan is more talented than Michigan State at almost every position, has a better offense, defense and special teams and really has no business losing this game, yet fans are nervous about Saturday’s contest. That’s because MSU is 8-2 the last 10 meetings between these teams and MSU coach Mark Dantonio always has his players motivated for the big game (not to mention the fact that MSU seems to win games it shouldn’t every year, like last week’s victory over Penn State). Couple that with Harbaugh’s lack of results in rivalry games and it’s understandable U-M fans are hesitant to bring the smack talk this week.

To some, this will be a bold take, but this is the biggest game of Harbaugh’s Michigan coaching career. If Michigan wins the next two games, then of course the Ohio State game in November will take that title, but U-M needs to beat MSU first.

Win, and talk of not beating rivals dies down, at least for now. The path to the Big Ten title game would be crystal clear and a spot in the playoff becomes a very real possibility. Lose, and Harbaugh will never hear the end of it. The loss would spoil any potential playoff hopes Michigan has, severely dent the team’s Big Ten championship dreams and bring a cloud of misery over a fan base craving success.

Michigan needs this win more than Michigan State does, and it’s not even close. The coaching battle will be intense, trick plays will be used, especially by the Spartans, and the physicality of this game will be matched by no other game on the schedule. The pressure is squarely on Harbaugh’s shoulders; how will he handle it?

Punters Matter

Punters are people, too, and as every Michigan fan painfully remembers, they can have a huge impact. The Wolverines have an enormous advantage in this game on special teams, especially at punter.

U-M’s Will Hart has been outstanding this fall, averaging 51.1 yards per punt on 20 kicks. That’s No. 4 nationally and second among punters with more than four punts. MSU will be without its starter, Jake Hartbarger, due to injury and will be forced to again go with Tyler Hunt, who is ranked No. 125 nationally in punt average at 39.5 yards per kick. He’s punted 25 times this season since taking over. For comparison, Hartbarger was averaging 48.8 yards per punt until he got hurt against Arizona State.

In a game where the weather is likely to be poor and defenses will dominant, pinning the opponent deep could prove to be a huge factor. Donovan Peoples-Jones should get the chance to make a play in this one, so watch out.

Michigan’s O-Line vs. MSU’s D-Line

Michigan’s offensive line has shown dramatic improvement since Week 1 against Notre Dame, and perhaps had its best game this season against Wisconsin. MSU’s defensive front, however, is the best U-M has seen since Notre Dame and will provide a significant challenge.

Rivalry games are often won in the trenches, and how Michigan’s big men hold up against the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense will be key. This is where we find out how good that offensive line really is.

Shea Patterson vs. Brian Lewerke

MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke was one of the best signal callers in the Big Ten last year. This year, he’s had more than his fair share of struggles and will have to play his best game of the year if the Spartans are going to take down the Wolverines.

Lewerke, along with top wide receiver Felton Davis III, will be facing the nation’s No. 1 ranked passing defense. Tall task to ask them to play their best games against that level of competition, but that’s what rivalry games are all about.

To make matters worse, Lewerke has thrown an interception in every single game this season. Winning the turnover battle will be important for both teams, but if Lewerke can’t protect the ball he’ll be in trouble. Michigan’s defense terrorized Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook last week, and would love to do it again to Lewerke.

On the Michigan side, Shea Patterson has improved each week. He appears comfortable in the offense and even showed off his running ability on an 81-yard dash last week. Given that MSU’s run defense is so strong, he will likely need to make some plays through the air.

Michigan State has one of the worst pass defenses in the country, allowing an average of 286.3 yards per game via the pass. Patterson, who has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 1,311 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, can be the hero the Wolverines need.

Don’t Let Lewerke Run

Against Notre Dame, quarterback Brandon Wimbush really hurt the U-M defense, carrying the ball 19 times for 59 yards, finishing as the team’s leading rusher.

This week, Michigan faces another quarterback who can run when needed in Lewerke. Making sure he is contained and not letting him break tackles needs to be another focus for the U-M defense. There’s a possibility Lewerke finishes the game as MSU’s leading rusher. He hasn’t lit the world on fire yet, totaling 83 yards and two touchdowns on 55 rushing attempts, but he is certainly dangerous.

Prediction

Normally I don’t make predictions in these articles, but what the heck, it’s rivalry week.

Michigan 27, Michigan State 17.