Frustrating runs by a talented rusher, untimely miscues by freshmen, and very questionable refereeing decisions all played a part in last season’s disappointment in East Lansing, but when the Michigan Wolverines host their rivals this Saturday the story is likely to be much different.
It is hard to make too many definitive statements in games against Michigan State, but the numbers are undeniably one-sided coming into this edition of the bitter rivalry. Michigan’s playoff aspirations are still very much alive, while year two under Mel Tucker has gone even worse than expected. This weekend is more or less the only thing left for the Spartans to play for.
The Wolverines are massive favorites, but no one would be surprised if the game was uncomfortable at points. The test for Michigan will be to escape that period as quickly as possible and apply some heavy-handed revenge for how last year’s contest went down. Maybe this is not a statement game on the national scale, but this game will definitely be personal for everyone on the field.
Michigan State Spartans (3-4, 1-3) at No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (7-0, 4-0)
Date & Time: Saturday, Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
By land and by air
SP+ ranks the Michigan State defense 58th, which is close to the Maryland unit the Wolverines defeated last month. While the Spartans have recently been much stronger against the run, this is not the case this season, as they rank 113th in rush yards allowed in conference play and 93rd against the pass. There is nothing notable to call out in the sack/TFLs or turnover department either.
What this means is that Jim Harbaugh is going to lean on the run game once again, which is hard to argue against after the absolute clinic against Penn State last time out. The offensive line is looking just as strong as last year, and both Blake Corum (who is a legitimate Heisman candidate) and Donovan Edwards should find plenty of success against State, particularly with their ability to bounce around and avoid the likes of Jacoby Windmon and Jacob Slade, the two players that could be a nuance.
Meanwhile, J.J. McCarthy has been basically fine all season. He does not have the most eye-popping numbers, but he generally completes a high percentage of his passes and keeps the offense moving. The misses downfield and pair of slightly unlucky interceptions have been lightning rods for criticism, but this feels generally overblown and not representative of the value he provides the other 95 percent of the time. Regardless, Michigan only needs him to play another typical game in order to have success.
I do wonder if the five-star sophomore gets unleashed a bit in this one though. The Wolverines can afford to take some risks against an overmatched opponent, and the secondary still leaves much to be desired. Everyone remembers the domination of Andrel Anthony last season, and there are some big plays waiting to be made if McCarthy can finally lock down the deep ball. It may not be required to win, but a prolific passing day would be a great way to head into the final stretch of the season.
Changing the odds
The general narrative coming into this game is that the Spartans have one avenue for scoring: throwing 50/50 balls to Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman. Both receivers are capable of winning jump balls in the air and bailing out potential subpar throws from Payton Thorne, and this is likely going to be more of a need than a nice-to-have given the projected game script.
Michigan has been solid against the pass, but there have been some surprising regressions from D.J. Turner, Rod Moore, and R.J. Moten. None of these defensive backs have been bad, but all were expected to take a step forward from last season, which has not quite been the case. However, the development of Gemon Green and the incredible transition of Mike Sainristil still makes this an advantage for the Wolverines.
Thorne has thrown seven interceptions and has been sacked 12 times on the year, so this side of the ball could be determined by the defensive line’s ability to get some pressure. If Thorne has little time to throw, or is hit before he can even get rid of the ball, the game could get lopsided quickly. Michigan has seen contributions from nearly everyone across the two-deep in the front seven, and there is no reason to think that does not continue on Saturday.
Jalen Berger is a fine option out of the backfield, but is not someone who inspires a lot of fear on his own and not someone who can singlehandedly win the game for the visitors. He will get some touches, but the Wolverines are not going to get overtaken by the running game this year. The Spartans sit just under Penn State in SP+ offense (No. 41) and will likely be playing from behind for most of the evening. The run game might not be abandoned, but it does not project to be the focus area of this offense.
Go for the kill
Last year’s Michigan State team was overall solid — though not as good as its ranking suggested — and for a variety of reasons the Wolverines fell short in a game that should have been won. While memories of that defeat and other struggles in this rivalry from previous Jim Harbaugh squads always loom, the situation this year is quite different.
Michigan will win if its playmakers show up. McCarthy, Corum, Edwards, and the wide receivers are all better than their counterparts and should be able to do enough to win without having to have the game of their lives. That being said, no one would complain if these skill players went out and stuffed the box score to really emphasize the point.
Most likely, this game plays out like many of the Wolverines’ prior Big Ten contests, with the visitors unable to consistently move the ball. As long as Michigan avoids breakdowns in the secondary and unnecessary pass interferences, the defense should record many more positive outcomes than allow detrimental downs. Rivalry games are always scary, but thinking rationally, this should be a thorough win for the maize and blue.