No love lost, no love found. Michigan versus Michigan State has become one of the best rivalries in college football and certainly under-ranked nationally. The teams don’t like each other much, the head coaches don’t seem to be too fond of one another, and the fans exchange verbal assaults more often than not.
Those ingredients make for a competitive game year in and year out.
Spartan coach Mark Dantonio has 19 of his 22 starters returning in 2018 and the squad should be a formidable one yet again in October.
MSU Defense vs Michigan offense
The Spartans ranked 7th in total defense in 2017, while the Wolverines ranked 105th in total offense. Michigan State had the 2nd best rush defense in the nation and put a halt to the Wolverines running production in their 14-10 win at the Big House. U-M ran the ball 39 times for just 2.6 yards per carry. The 49th ranked rush offense of the Wolverines never really got it clicking on all cylinders, and wasn’t aided by bad offensive line and quarterback play.
The 110th ranked pass offense of Michigan didn’t fare any better, with John O’Korn tossing three interceptions in monsoon rain conditions (the throws were still really bad).
But here’s the thing. Throw 2017 out the window, throw it in the trash can, burn the evidence on the offensive side of the ball for Michigan, it’s a different unit in 2018. Offensive line play and quarterback play were major detriments to their success against MSU, and every other opponent. Michigan State is middle of the pack in getting to the quarterback, and Shea Patterson will be able to evade the Spartan pass rush more often than not.
Now, the MSU rush defense should still be stout, and that’s where offensive line coach Ed Warinner will have to come as advertised and find a way to get his unit to create gaping holes against the finest run defenses in the country.
Schematically the Spartan defense will look a bit different in 2018, as Mike Tressel is now the solo defensive coordinator. There could be an uptick in blitzes and other schematic changes. But all in all, the Spartans love to play man-press coverage and play physical.
Will Michigan be up for the challenge?
MSU Offense versus Michigan Defense
Let’s get this out of the way first, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke is a good quarterback, he gashed the Wolverines last year with his legs and arm. Lewerke rushed for 61 yards and rushed for a score. On the surface Michigan’s defense is far superior to MSU’s offense, ranking 7th in sacks in 2017, 18th in rush defense, and 3rd in total defense.
Lewerke passed for 2,793 yards in 2017 while recording 20 touchdown passes and only 7 interceptions. Lewerke is a good quarterback that should be respected and taken note of.
While Michigan did lose Maurice Hurst, almost everyone else is locked and loaded for 2018 and the unit should be even better this season than last.
MSU running back L.J. Scott didn’t play against Michigan in 2017, but he made the most of his reps and had a productive campaign, posting 898 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Receivers Felton Davis, Cody White, and Darrell Stewart Jr. all were reliable targets in the passing game and will all be returning. Continuity can be key in football, and MSU has many of the same familiar faces.
But the same can be said for Michigan’s defense, who only lost Mike McCray and Maurice Hurst.
The MSU offense vs. Michigan defense battle is shaping up to be a decent one.
Michigan St. had the 76th ranked passing offense in 2018, but that ranking is deceiving, Lewerke came through when he needed to, the passing game was efficient.
The Spartans aren’t going to do a ton that will surprise anybody, they are over-achievers by nature, and execution is always key. There’s never much flash, never much sizzle, but that doesn’t matter if they win more than they lose.
Michigan should have beat Michigan State every year of Harbaugh’s tenure, but coulda shoulda woulda right? The fact remains that Michigan is 1-2 against MSU under Harbaugh.
The teams play a similar brand of physical football, that is often won in the trenches. Both teams have tons of returning players.
The talent advantage appears to favor Michigan, but that is what continues to fuel the Spartans efforts, always being perceived as the underdog. It fuels their existence.
I expect Michigan to win in 2018, the game will be in East Lansing, but this feels like a different Harbaugh team, it feels like one that accomplish more than any team he’s had at Michigan so far. And a nice start to those new accomplishments would be to beat all his rivals this season.