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Key Matchups: Michigan vs. Michigan State

MSU will look to stop the two-headed monster in Michigan’s backfield, while the Wolverines aim to stop a legitimate passing threat.

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

No. 6 Michigan is heading to East Lansing to face off with No. 8 Michigan State in a top 10 matchup, a matchup between these two programs that has only occurred four times in their rivalry, with the last being 1964.

Michigan State will be the first ranked team the Wolverines have faced so far this season. With a lot on the line, Michigan is going to have to execute a near-perfect game on both sides of the ball to get out of East Lansing with a win. The Spartans are coming off their bye and Michigan has a chip on their shoulder from last season. Will it go in Michigan’s favor this time around? Let’s go by the numbers.

Cade McNamara has continued to be consistent for the Wolverines, but the question is will it be enough to take down the No. 8 team in the country? McNamara has thrown for 744 passing yards on 68-of-109 throwing and two touchdowns against Big Ten opponents. So far it’s been enough to elevate the team to an undefeated record. This will be McNamara’s first crack at the Spartans and hopefully, with his leadership, the Wolverines will work effectively to right last year’s loss. On the season, McNamara has 1,115 passing yards, five touchdowns and just one interception.

The Spartan’s quarterback Payton Thorne has been cited similarly by being a consistent presence for Michigan State. Thorne has gone for 833 passing yards on 59-of-101 throwing and six touchdowns in Big Ten play. MSU has faced off with one opponent in the AP Top 25, Week 3 against Miami. Thorne went 18-for-31 for 261 passing yards and four touchdowns. His passing ability has been crucial for the Spartan offense as they average 251.3 passing yards per game. Thorne has thrown for 1,701 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season.

Michigan will be compensating for the Spartan’s passing threat by creating a plan of attack to contain their passing game. Their defense has allowed 182.4 passing yards per game so far this season. The Wolverines’ previous game against Northwestern was an excellent example of the secondary’s improved focus on containing the passing threat. The Wildcats threw for 133 yards on 16-of-32 throwing and one interception. However, there was the case against Nebraska’s dual threat Adrian Martinez, where the defense struggled in shutting down their passing game. They allowed the Cornhuskers to throw for 291 yards on 18-of-28 throwing and three touchdowns. Should the secondary continue to improve and execute a near perfect game, the Wolverines’ defense has a good chance of shutting down the Spartan’s passing game.

The Spartans should be sharing a similar mentality, should the Wolverines try to exploit their secondary. MSU has allowed their opponents to average 285.4 passing yards a game. While their two previous contests have worked to alter this statistic, there is still a lot of room for improvement for the Spartans. In their most recent game against Indiana, Michigan State worked hard to contain the Hoosier’s passing threat, only allowing them to throw for 188 passing yards on 28-of-52 throwing and two interceptions. This was promising for the Spartans after allowing Rutgers to throw for 266 passing yards on 22-of-41 throwing and one touchdown in Week 6. Michigan State is going to have to push McNamara out of his comfort zone and actively work to take away his consistency for the Wolverines if they want the win.

The passing effort for both teams might be the focal point for Michigan and MSU, as they both have backfields that are brag-worthy. Michigan has the dynamic duo of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, who have been the backbone for the Wolverines’ offense all season. Corum strikes as the lightning for the backfield, as he has rushed for 729 yards on 116 attempts and 10 touchdowns this season. Haskins hits with a thunderous boom as he plows his way through opponents, rushing for 602 yards on 124 attempts and 10 touchdowns.

The two will be called on again in this contest, but they might only make short yardage gains. The Spartan defense has only allowed an average of 121 rushing yards per game. However, Michigan’s offensive line could overwhelm the Spartan line, given their aid in Michigan’s season average of 253.3 rushing yards per game. The offensive line has been stellar in giving Michigan it’s rush-heavy offense, and with a rivalry game on the line, this game will be no different.

MSU has equal talent in its backfield with Kenneth Walker III. Walker III has been as critical to the Spartan’s offense as Thorne. The junior has rushed for 997 yards on 152 attempts and nine touchdowns on the season. His numbers reflect the heavy reliance the Spartans also have on their own ground game. However, in Walker III’s low yardage games, MSU was able to compensate with the passing threat. They’ll have a backup plan should the Wolverines be as effective in containing the run as they have been so far. The Maize and Blue have, on average, allowed 116.6 rushing yards per game. With three flashy runners in this contest, both teams are going to want to execute defensive strategies that effectively shut down the rush attack.

Both defenses have actively worked in eliminating their opponent’s ground game. Michigan, in their previous two contests, has only allowed two rushing touchdowns. The Spartans, in their last two games before bye, have allowed one rushing touchdowns. Taking away their opponents ground game has been crucial for these teams to remain undefeated. They are then able to exploit their opponents with their own ground attacks. Therefore, in typical Big Ten fashion, this game will be a defensive slug fest. And whoever executes a more effective passing game will control how this game will pan out.

The main focus of this game will stem from quarterback play and which backfield will have the most success. This will come from the effectiveness of the offensive line in creating opportunities for their running backs and the defense’s capabilities in shutting down their opponent’s ground attack. Michigan will need McNamara to play a near perfect game and have their receivers step up. Only one receiver for the Maize and Blue has more than 300 receiving yards this season, whereas the Spartans have three, and two are over 500 receiving yards. Eliminating the passing threat will be the main focus for the Wolverines defense, whereas the Spartans will look to contain Corum and Haskins from running all over Spartan Stadium.

The only thing not accounted for here is the nature of an in-state rivalry game. These types of games mean more, and in this scenario, both teams are ranked within the top 10 and undefeated. The Wolverines had an abysmal performance last year against MSU and will be looking to flip the script. MSU also won’t take this game lightly, given the events that occurred the last time the Wolverines were in Spartan Stadium. The major disparity between the two teams lies in the 285.4 average passing yards MSU allows it’s opponents. Therefore, McNamara and the passing game could be the make or break point for the Wolverines. This prompts the opportunity for redemption for Michigan, and hopefully that’s enough for the Maize and Blue to remain undefeated.