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Michigan’s keys to victory vs. Michigan State

Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio have had memorable games against one another the past five seasons. What does Michigan have to do to come out with a victory on Saturday?

Notre Dame v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans are trending in different directions heading into their game on Saturday at The Big House. Although Sparty is reeling at the moment, the rivalry game is never a cakewalk and the Wolverines will have to be prepared.

Here are Michigan’s keys to victory versus Michigan State.

Pressure Lewerke

Pressure and contain. Brian Lewerke has the ability to gash a defense on a given play with his arm or by running the football, but not for an entire sixty minutes of football. If Michigan’s defense doesn’t give up big plays, the Spartans will have a difficult time keeping this game close.

Lewerke should be respected, but the fact of the matter is he’s an erratic passer with above average running prowess. Michigan’s defense has played well of late bottling up scrambling quarterbacks like Sean Clifford and Ian Book, and here’s yet another running QB they’ll have to defend.

Michigan State is 110th in passing efficiency while Michigan is No. 15 team defense passing efficiency. Combine that with Michigan ranking 14th in team sacks, it’ll be an uphill battle for Lewerke to be consistently productive.

As long as Michigan doesn’t allow Lewerke to extend drives on 3rd downs running the ball or have a break down in the secondary that leads to multiple scores, it feels like the unit will be just fine in this one. Expect Lewerke to have a rough go of it in this one.

Stopping MSU run game is paramount

To make things even more difficult for Lewerke coincides with stopping running back Elijah Collins, who is their bell-cow back. Collins has rushed for 715 yards this season and 5 touchdowns while averaging 5 yards per carry. The second leading rusher on the team is Lewerke with 265 yards.

If Michigan is able to tee off on Collins, there’s a good chance Lewerke will be asked to throw the ball too often, and that’s something the Michigan defense would welcome.

MSU’s goal will be to shorten the game to keep it close, and if that doesn’t happen, Michigan should be able to gain a healthy lead and never look back.

Don’t allow the Spartans to stack the box

Michigan State’s defense has been hit or miss this season, but still rank No. 24 in total defense. MSU’s strong-suit has been stopping the run, ranking No. 16. MSU’s pass defense isn’t the greatest, and they’re prone to giving up chunk plays, but they play their best when they stop the run. This allows them to start dialing up more blitzes, the Spartans rank No. 26 in sacks.

The likes of defensive end Kenny Willekes and lineacker Antjuan Simmons will have to be stopped. Willekes has 5.5. sacks and Simmons has 12 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks with 3 QB hurries.

Maybe Michigan’s offensive line will be able to have its way with the MSU front-seven despite a stacked box, but one way to back their defense up and keep them honest will be for quarterback Shea Patterson to throw strikes early when they present themselves. The game will be cold, the ball feels more like a rock in when the temperature dips under 32 degrees, but Patterson said he doesn’t mind cold weather, it even seems like he’s looking forward to less than warm temperatures.

Another way for Michigan to beat a stacked box will be to capitalize on the Spartans being overly aggressive. Expect Michigan to dial up counters, outside runs, and traps in hopes of catching the D out of position. Michigan State is usually a fundamentally sound team in this regard, they fill their gaps and don’t over-pursue, but they haven’t looked all that good of late and have lacked consistency in discipline.

Don’t let Sparty hang around ‘til the end

Since 1998, sixteen of the Michigan-Michigan State games have ended with a final score of fourteen points or fewer separating the two teams.

“Last year, it was a dogfight,” right guard Michael Onwenu said this week. “And it doesn’t have to be that way.” Onwenu went on to say if Michigan performs the way they have the last few weeks it won’t be a dogfight, meaning the game won’t be a close one ‘til the end.

Right now Michigan State isn’t necessarily believing in one another, Mark Dantonio is receiving heat from the Spartans on the field performance as well as pending off-field litigation. Players have transferred, recruits have flipped, it’s been a bad year all around for Sparty. At 4-5 coming off an embarrassing 37-34 defeat against Illinois where they led 28-3 isn’t how you want to come into a rivalry game on the road. Sure, Dantonio hasn’t lost at The Big House during the Harbaugh era, and yes, they usually play Michigan tough, but at what point will Michigan go on a long winning streak over the Spartans. If not now, then when?

The buildup to this game feels different than other tilts in the past, especially those during the Harbaugh era. Nobody is giving Michigan State much of a chance, even I don’t give them much of one when I try my best to be fair, balanced, and cautious when it comes to predictions. Michigan State has the ability to prove people wrong once more, Dantonio clearly has a track record of getting his players prepared. But maybe this is the end of the line for the Dantonio era and everything is downhill from here. That’s how it feels, no matter how many more years he winds up coaching in East Lansing.

It’s always important to start fast and score quickly, but even more-so when you’re partaking in a rivalry game where weird things seem to happen frequently. It boils down to Michigan stepping onto the field with the same attitude and level of execution they had against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are a good football team, and the Wolverines made them look like Rutgers. The Spartans are not a disciplined football team (surprisingly), and Michigan is starting to look like they indeed are in all phases.

While Michigan may not be heading to the Big Ten Championship Game, thrashing Michigan State will at least give them necessary momentum heading into tough matchups against Indiana and Ohio State while leaving the fans excited and proud of what their team is accomplishing in the final stage of the season.

“You can’t let them get a heads up,” Ambry Thomas said. “You’ve gotta step on their throat and stay there all game. We know they’re going to treat this game like their Super Bowl. We’ve gotta be prepared and just attack them, like they’re gonna try to attack us.”

By all accounts it seems like the morale of the Michigan locker room is high and they’re believing in one another, let’s see if that turns into great results against Michigan State.

Finish them.