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What to Watch For: Week 2 vs. Michigan State

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The Wolverines should take care of business against the Spartans, but there are some still things to keep a close eye on while they do.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There will be no burying the lede here. Michigan State lost to Rutgers last week.

Michigan, meanwhile, is team coming off its most inspiring offensive performance in quite some time, done against a Minnesota team with designs set on a Big Ten West title. There might not be two programs set to play this weekend that are headed more sharply in opposite directions.

The best years of the Mark Dantonio era at Michigan State had been left well in the distance by the time the longtime coach stepped down back in February. While the Mel Tucker era is only one game old, that one game indicated that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

To make a long story short, the Spartans are not likely to beat the Wolverines tomorrow. You’ll tune in, though, because you’ve missed Michigan football, and you want to see Michigan beat its outmatched in-state rival for a third year in a row — preferably in style. Here’s how they can:

Will Michigan keep spreading the wealth?

Last Saturday, nine different Wolverines caught a pass, tying last season’s high in that category. That’s notable enough without even considering that Michigan completed just 15 passes. Ronnie Bell hauled in four catches, and none of the Wolverines’ eight other receivers caught more than two.

Rushing was much the same. Five Wolverines had between five and eight attempts, and four of them found the end zone. (No, you did not expect Joe Milton to have the most carries on the team).

This seems to be the way Josh Gattis wants his offense to work, and it makes sense. Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins have proven themselves capable of toting the rock 20 times a game if it comes to that, but the emergence of Milton and Blake Corum as threats and Chris Evans’ return means that they can stay fresh.

Bell is the most experienced target Milton has, and should lead the Wolverines receiving in at least a plurality of games this season as a result. But Giles Jackson, Roman Wilson, Erick All, Mike Sainristil, A.J. Henning and Cornelius Johnson (who didn’t catch a pass against the Golden Gophers) were all able to mix in and contribute. That depth enables Gattis to get the most out of all of them and put them in their best spots, instead of relying too heavily on one or two young players to make big plays (see Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2017).

If the Wolverines want to really blow out the Spartans Saturday, they’ll need everyone to stay involved just as they were in the opener.

How stiff is the Wolverines’ rush defense?

No one was exactly complaining about it Saturday, but Michigan allowed Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim to churn through its defense to the tune of 140 yards and two touchdowns. Ibrahim didn’t need big plays to rack up that total, either — just three of his 26 carries went for more than 10 yards, and his longest gain was a relatively short 26.

To restate: this wasn’t an issue of inconsistency or a few missed assignments in the run game. A workhorse back did his thing against the Wolverines, who struggled to respond most of the game.

Elijah Collins seems like he should be that workhorse back for Michigan State. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder ran for nearly 1,000 yards as a freshman, one of the lone bright spots on the Spartans’ offense. Puzzlingly, though, Collins didn’t start against Rutgers. Connor Heyward did instead, while Jordon Simmons led the Spartans in carries. They had 18 and 43 yards rushing, respectively. Collins, meanwhile, did nothing with his nine carries, gaining three yards.

All told, Michigan State ran it 39 times against the Scarlet Knights and averaged 1.3 yards per rush. It probably won’t change the outcome, but this seems like a rushing attack Michigan should lock up. Anything less would enter the realm of mildly concerning.

Has the tide of this rivalry shifted for good?

Even in Dantonio’s twilight years at Michigan State, he always seemed to get his team up for its biggest rivalry. No one would argue the Spartans had close to Michigan’s talent in 2016 and 2018 (and 2017 too, to be honest), but they always managed to keep games close and battle to a reasonable outcome.

Last year, that ran out. And the ensuing 44-10 defeat — maybe as much as a 27-24 record since 2016 — might have signaled that Michigan State under Dantonio was running on fumes.

Michigan was able to do what a team of its caliber should do against the Spartans: step on them again and again. Michigan State’s capacity to scrap and claw didn’t make a difference. That’s what it looks like when a rivalry’s tide has turned.

The most encouraging thing that Mel Tucker could do Saturday is find that mentality once more and restore it for future Spartan teams. That doesn’t even mean to push the Wolverines down to the wire. More or less, it comes down to just gearing up to play.

There’s reason to believe Michigan State isn’t quite as bad as Saturday’s score indicated. The Spartans held Rutgers to 276 yards of offense and out-gained them by 83. Rocky Lombardi completed 72 percent of his passes and effectively moved the ball down the field. That doesn’t hint at a team ready to keep pace with Michigan anytime soon. But it does mean that Michigan State can set its sights on not getting run off the field — and if it achieves that goal, it might at least stem the rivalry’s tide for now.