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Three key matchups: Michigan State at Michigan

Three matchups to watch ahead of the big rivalry game on Saturday.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

With both teams coming off their bye weeks, the Michigan Wolverines (7-0) and the Michigan State Spartans (3-4) will clash under the lights at the Big House this Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. EST kickoff on ABC.

Here are three matchups to keep an eye on ahead of the big game.

Michigan’s pass offense vs. MSU’s pass defense

It’s been well documented the Achilles heel of the MSU defense, and one of the weaker points of this year’s team as a whole, has been its inability to stop teams through the air. MSU ranks 122nd in the nation in pass efficiency defense and has given up the 110th-most passing yards entering this weekend, allowing nearly 270 yards per game through the air on 11.99 yards per reception.

The good news for the Spartans is they played much better in the back end in their double overtime win over Wisconsin nearly two weeks ago, holding quarterback Graham Mertz to 14-of-25 passing for 131 yards. MSU also saw senior safety Xavier Henderson return from injury after he was injured in Week 1, giving them a boost in the secondary.

The key for Michigan is for the offensive line to be able to protect J.J. McCarthy. MSU linebacker Jacoby Windmon has been a force for MSU’s pass rush, as he has forced six fumbles already this season.

In the back end, while MSU is vulnerable to giving up explosive plays, they have been opportunistic in forcing turnovers and getting to the ball. Cornerback Kendell Brooks has forced three fumbles himself this season.

It will be vital for Michigan’s receivers to protect the ball after making catches so the Spartans can’t find opportunities for turnovers.

MSU’s wide receivers vs. Michigan’s defensive backs

The Spartans have a plethora of wide receivers who can hurt opposing defenses down the field with explosive plays. The Wolverines got a taste of that last season when Jayden Reed made six grabs for 80 yards, with several of them coming in critical situations. Reed has picked up right where he left off last season, as he’s made 32 catches for 373 yards and three touchdowns in seven games so far.

Keon Coleman has been MSU’s top receiver in terms of yards, as he has 393 yards on 31 receptions and five touchdowns. Tre Mosley completes the trio for the Spartans; he has compiled 23 catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

Overall, the MSU pass offense has been decent this season, ranking 65th in the nation while averaging nearly 243 yards per game through the air.

It will be critically important for DJ Turner, Gemon Green and the Michigan secondary to stay on top of routes and not let the Spartans’ receivers get behind them. Payton Thorne is a quarterback who loves to give his receivers a chance at the 50/50 ball downfield — especially Reed, who has a connection with Thorne going all the way back to grade school.

Michigan’s pass efficiency defense ranks third in the nation, only behind UAB and Illinois, so the secondary should be able to hold the fort down.

If the Wolverines can generate pressure up front with the pass rush — which averages 3.43 sacks per game — that will help take some pressure off the back end.

Michigan’s rushing attack vs. MSU’s run defense

While Michigan State has struggled in its pass defense, its rushing defense hasn’t been lighting the world on fire either, although it’s much better than their efforts against the pass. The Spartans rank 79th in total rush defense this season, allowing 153.3 yards per game on four yards per carry.

As we know by now, Michigan’s bread and butter in the offense is its running game with the abilities of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards to break off big plays behind a physical offensive line. The Wolverines are able to run the ball against anybody and usually do so successfully, as everyone saw nearly two weeks ago with the 400+ yard performance against Penn State.

It will be interesting to see how Michigan State’s defense plays the Wolverines and whether they want to commit more to the box to stop Michigan’s potent rushing attack, or make sure they guard against the big play in the passing game. The good news for the Wolverines is they have shown the ability to run the ball successfully, even when opposing teams know it’s coming thanks to the offensive line.

Trying to shut down the Michigan rushing attack seems like the best way to slow the Wolverines’ offense, as that came to light a bit in the first half of the Indiana game. But it will be interesting to see if the Spartans utilize that same strategy, because committing more numbers to the box means leaving your back end players on an island against Michigan’s quality receivers.