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Inside the Numbers of Michigan’s rivalry game with Michigan State

Michigan has a clear advantage.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Michigan State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s rivalry week as the Michigan Wolverines are set for their annual bout with their in-state foe, the Michigan State Spartans. The Wolverines opened up the season with an impressive win on the road against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a Top-25 opponent. Meanwhile, Michigan State fell to Rutgers giving the Scarlett Knights their first win in the Big Ten in over 20 contests.

Let’s take a nose dive inside the numbers of this always intriguing matchup between two bitter rivals.

Michigan Offense vs. Michigan State Defense

The Passing Game:

Joe Milton had a relatively strong performance through the air in his first college start, but the playcalling was rather conservative through the air as the got him acclimated. Milton has a talented arm, and he showed flashes of that in the win against Minnesota. However, Milton attempted only four passes of 20-plus yards, and 10 of his 15 completions came from within 10 yards of the scrimmage according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).

Milton spread the wealth to several different targets as nine different receivers had receptions in the ball game. Two true freshmen, Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning, played significant roles and thrived in them. Sophomore tight end Erick All also made an impact after Nick Eubanks was absent from the game.

Speaking of newcomers, for having four new starters on the offensive line, they performed admirably while allowing just one sack, two hurries, and three pressures to the Gophers’ pass rush in Milton’s first start. Keeping a clean pocket for Milton as he continues to blossom into the Wolverines’ starting quarterback.

  • Milton was given an offensive grade of 76.0 by PFF, seventh-best among quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
  • Milton’s 225 passing yards on 68.2 percent completions on Saturday was also the seventh-most in the conference in both categories.
  • All 225 passing yards for Michigan came in a clean pocket for Joe Milton according to PFF.
  • Ronnie Bell was targeted five times with four receptions against Minnesota averaging 18.5 yards per reception, fifth in the Big Ten from over the weekend.

Many believe the Spartans’ defense is much better than the 38 points they allowed to Rutgers on Saturday. In fact, the Spartans held Rutgers to only 276 yards of offense in the game. Only Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern allowed fewer yards in Week 1 in the Big Ten.

As usual, the Spartans have a relatively strong front seven, which we will get to later, but they are weak in their secondary. Slot-corner Shakur Brown and safeties Michael Dowell and Xavier Henderson are the only three players on the defense to record an average coverage grade or above by PFF. Brown’s grade was also lifted after a pick, he allowed three receptions on four targets. Starting corners Tre Person (65.1) and Kalon Gervin (61.1) were targeted 9 times and allowed 6 receptions earning them below-average grades by PFF.

Senior edge rusher Drew Beesley (89.4) is one of only four players in the conference to receive a better pass rush grade from PFF than Kwity Paye (88.4). He and Jacub Panasiuk are going to be the biggest tests for the Wolverines offensive line come Saturday.

  • Allowed just 170 passing yards on Saturday (4th fewest in the Big Ten)
  • Rutgers scored 5 touchdowns in the win, but only one came through the air.

The Running Game

Michigan dominated the Golden Gophers on the ground racking up 256 yards on 31 attempts for an average of 8.3 yards per carry. Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, and Joe Milton each rushed for more than 50 yards on the day. The Wolverines scored five of their seven touchdowns on the ground.

As impressive as the Wolverines offensive line was in pass protection, they may have been even better in the run game. Ben Mason also proved to be an important factor lining up all over the field to set key blocks for the guys behind him.

  • Michigan was 2nd in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 225. Only Northwestern had more with a 325 yard performance against Maryland.
  • The Wolverines broke off the two longest runs of the week in the Big Ten with Charbonnet’s 70-yard touchdown run and a Hassan Haskins 66-yard rush.

The Spartans run defense is what they lean upon. They had seven players finish average or better in PFF’s run defense grading, headlined by two interior defensive linemen: Naquan Jones (79.5 grade) and Jalen Hunt (76.6 grade). Linebackers Noah Harvey and Antjuan Simmons have appeared in a combined 65 games in their careers and are a solid duo on the second level for the Spartans’ defense.

  • Allowed 106 yards on 41 carries to the Scarlet Knights on Saturday, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.
  • Only four Big Ten teams allowed fewer yards on the ground in the first week of action in the conference.
  • The Spartans allowed just 108.6 yards a game last season.

Michigan State Offense vs Michigan Defense

The Passing Game

There are some good things and some bad things when it comes to the Michigan State passing game from their first game. PFF gave Rocky Lombardi an offensive grade of 67.1, finishing 13th among quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He tossed two interceptions including this one where he and his receiver were far from being on the same page:

The good news is that it seems the Spartans have a rather talented duo of sophomore receivers. Jayden Reed is second in the conference in both receptions (11) and receiving yards (128) and leads the Big Ten in yards after catch (72) while racking up two touchdowns. Jailen Nailor also had 6 receptions for 84 yards averaging 14 yards per carry.

  • Even with a rough game, Lombardi led the Big Ten in passing yards in Week 1 with 319 yards through the air on 72.1 completion percentage.
  • The Spartans turned the ball over five times via their passing game, two on the interceptions thrown by Lombardi, two on fumbles from Jayden Reed after the catch, and one on a strip-sack force by the Scarlett Knights defense.

PFF’s Mike Renner said that Kwity Paye had the most impressive performance for a top-NFL prospect from Week 8 in all of college football. Paye wreaked havoc on the Golden Gophers’ offensive line tallying two sacks and three tackles for loss. He provided constant pressure along with Michael Barrett who had quite an impressive performance himself.

All-in-all, the Wolverines had five sacks against Minnesota and blitzed on 20 of Morgan’s 36 drop backs according to PFF. They will likely have similar pressure on a Michigan State offensive line that allowed three sacks to Rutgers last week.

The pressure provided by the front seven surely helped the Michigan secondary in the win against Minnesota, but Gemon Green also proved himself as a starter. The Gophers’ game plan was to attack the junior in his first game and he fended off nearly every pass thrown his way. He was targeted seven times and allowed only two receptions, making him the third most targeted corner in the Big Ten last week. Green held one of the best receivers in the conference, Rashod Bateman, to zero receptions on two targets. Vincent Gray, who was slated to be at the top of the depth chart, was not as impressive allowing two receptions (both to Bateman) for 50 yards. Gray and Green will be tasked again in covering the two Spartan receivers mentioned above.

  • Michigan’s five sacks in their first game leave them tied for the No. 1 spot in the country for the most sacks per game. San Diego State, who played also opened up their season last week, is tied with them at the top.
  • The Michigan passing defense forced two turnovers against Minnesota. Josh Ross intercepted Tanner Morgan for the first pick of his career while Barrett crushed Morgan on a drop back as the ball fell right into the hands of Donovan Jeter for a scoop and score.
  • The Wolverines’ pass rush was ranked the best in the country in college football’s Week 8 by PFF:

The Running Game

Sophomore Elijah Collins was one of the most feared running backs coming into the Big Ten in 2020 after a near 1,000-yard season a year ago. This season, he got off on the wrong foot. He had only nine carries for three yards on the day, and it seems like new head coach Mel Tucker may not be the biggest fan of the former freshman phenom. Freshman Jordon Simmons led the way with 14 carries for 42 yards, a 3.1 yards per carry average and junior Connor Heyward started on Saturday.

When asked why Collins hardly saw the field, the Spartans’ head coach said, “They all competed very hard during our camp and gave great effort,” Tucker said. “The guys that earned the right to play, they played in the game. So, you saw all those guys that were out there, they deserved to play because of the work they put in.”

What didn’t help the matter was State’s poor offensive line play. They allowed 12 tackles for loss to Rutgers coming from players at every level of the defense. That must change if they hope to move the ball at all against the Wolverines this weekend.

  • Altogether, the Spartans averaged just 1.3 yards per carry on 39 attempts for a grand total of 50 yards, the second-least rushing yards in the Big Ten.
  • Michigan State turned the ball over one time in the run game: a fumble by their leading rusher Jordon Simmons. Here are all seven turnovers from Michigan State’s loss to Rutgers a week ago:

The Michigan rushing defense was probably the biggest flaw of their blow out win. Mohamid Ibrahim carried the ball 26 times for 140 yards on the ground, punching the ball into the endzone twice. There were times where the Wolverine defense looked sluggish in the middle, especially the interior lineman, when trying to slow the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back.

It appears that the offseason battle between Chris Hinton and Donovan Jeter for a starting spot continues into the season. Hinton saw 31 snaps as Donovan Jeter was just behind him with 28. Julius Welschof was a surprise as he added a bit of depth himself with 13. There are options there, but someone needs to step up to plug the gaps on run plays.

  • After Week 1, Ibrahim leads the Big Ten in rushing yards, rushing attempts, and rushing touchdowns.
  • Michigan forced -37 rushing yards upon the Golden Gophers from 6 carries by Tanner Morgan, including sacks.
  • Because of that, Minnesota totaled 129 yards on the ground, the sixth-best in the Big Ten.

Michigan will have an advantage in all of the above categories. The talent level on the Wolverines roster is far superior to that of Michigan State’s, and by all sense of the means, Michigan should roll through the Spartans on Saturday. They have the superior offense, more talent on defense, and appear to be much better in the trenches. This should lead the maize and blue to a rather swift and overwhelming victory over their bitter rival this weekend, especially if Michigan State comes out as sloppy as they did against Rutgers.