Ever since Mark Dantonio took over the Michigan State football program in 2007, one of his biggest goals every season is to defeat the Michigan Wolverines. The Spartans have been able to do that more often than not, as they have beaten the Wolverines eight out of 12 times under Dantonio, and have not lost in Ann Arbor since 2012.
MSU always plays Michigan tough, including in 2016 when Michigan was a 24.5-point favorite on the road. The Spartans, who went 3-9 that year, only lost by nine points.
This has been another down year for the Spartans (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten), but one would imagine they would play Michigan as tough as they can.
Leading the offense is senior quarterback Brian Lewerke. Before the season began, most MSU fans thought Lewerke would be back to his former self, but that just hasn’t been the case. He has thrown for 2,012 yards, 12 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and completed just 55.7 percent of his passes. Backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi hasn’t fared much better — 74 yards, 2 interceptions and no touchdowns in six games.
The ground game has been the Spartans forte on offense in 2019, specifically with redshirt freshman Elijah Collins, running for 715 yards and 5 touchdowns. He also has 10 catches for 54 yards. But after Collins is where it gets dicey. The Spartans’ second-leading rusher is Lewerke (265 yards, 1 touchdown). Their third-leading rusher? Connor Heyward, who entered the transfer portal more than a month ago.
If Collins goes down for the Spartans, they would be in big trouble on offense, especially considering they may be without their top wide receiver this weekend — Darrell Stewart Jr. He suffered a leg injury against Penn State on Oct. 26 and has not played since. If he isn’t able to suit up, the Wolverines will have to key in on junior receiver Cody White (527 yards, 2 touchdowns) and tight end Matt Seybert (222 yards, 3 touchdowns).
True freshmen offense play-makers Tre Mosley and Julian Barnett may also get more playing time as the season goes on, especially due to Stewart Jr.’s injury. Last week against Illinois, Mosley had 3 catches for 32 yards and his first collegiate touchdown, and Barnett had 1 catch for 19 yards.
The offense has been bad all season, and the defense hasn’t been much better. The Spartans have given up 28 points or more five times in 2019, including to Illinois last weekend. They gave up more than 28 points just twice all of last year. For a unit expected to be near the top of not only the Big Ten, but also college football, the defense has been a major disappointment.
Senior linebacker Joe Bachie, the Spartans’ leading tackler in 2019, did them no favors by failing a drug test and being suspended the rest of the season. He is now a “student coach” for MSU. Meanwhile, junior cornerback Josiah Scott was injured in the Illinois game. He has been their best player in the secondary all season, with 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups and 46 total tackles. He is expected to play against Michigan, as Dantonio said in his press conference earlier this week.
Despite all that, the Spartans still have talent on defense. Defensive end Kenny Willekes — 9 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 14 (!) quarterback hurries and 2 fumble recoveries — is still a problem. So is linebacker Antjuan Simmons (2.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hurries, 3 pass breakups, 1 interception).
With the Spartans shorthanded, not having won a game since late September and the game being a noon home game, the Wolverines, in theory, should be able to blow them out. But I could still see this being a close game. This is a rivalry game after all, and this could very well be Dantonio’s final rivalry game for MSU. I expect the Spartans to bring everything they got on Saturday, even if it may not be much at this point.