Both Michigan State and Central Michigan enter this non-conference matchup coming off wins. Central Michigan earned its first win last weekend after dropping three straight. The Chippewas defeated FCS opponent Maine at home, 17-5, after losing two games against members of Power 5 conferences. Meanwhile, the Spartans picked up a Big Ten victory at Indiana. Michigan State scored on its second possession, and Shakur Brown then picked off a pass and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown to give MSU a 14-0 first-quarter lead on its way to a 35-21 win.
Michigan State leads the all-time series, 7-3. Despite their campuses being located only 68 miles apart, the first game between the Spartans and Chippewas did not occur until 1991. They have faced each other at least once every five seasons since then. All but one of the matchups have occurred in East Lansing. The Spartans have won the three most recent meetings.
Central Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Spartans -28.5
Three Things to Watch
- 1. Can Tommy Lazzaro succeed against a Power 5 defense?
- Lazzaro came off the bench in the third quarter against Northern Illinois two weeks ago and completed 13-of-22 passes for 128 yards with one touchdown, adding 12 rushing attempts for 55 yards and a touchdown. However, he could not complete the comeback, as his final pass was picked off.
- Lazzaro started last week, completing 7-of-16 passes for 82 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He also contributed 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground on 14 rushing attempts.
- Can Lazzaro can be productive against Michigan State? He has little college playing experience, since this is first season. He did not record any statistics in the first two games versus Power 5 opponents.
- 2. Will the Spartans shut down the Chippewas’ running game?
- The greatest gift a new starting quarterback can receive is a potent rushing attack. Unfortunately for Lazzaro, Central Michigan has not had one this season. He is the only Chippewa to have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. Jonathan Ward has the highest totals among all of the running backs in multiple categories in a game: 16 carries, 74 total yards and an average per carry of 4.6 yards. Kumehnnu Gwilly has the sole touchdown among CMU’s running backs.
- Michigan State has stifled opponents’ running attacks. No one has gained more than 50 total yards on the ground despite every opponent having run the ball at least 25 times. Arizona State gained the highest average yards per attempt (1.5). Only one opponent, Utah State, has scored a rushing touchdown.
- 3. Can the Spartans improve their rushing attack?
There is a glaring difference between Michigan State’s rushing statistics in their two victories and those in their sole loss. Against Utah State, the Spartans had 42 rushing attempts for 165 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per run. They ran the ball 40 times for 131 yards, a 3.3 yards-per-carry average, versus Indiana. MSU scored two touchdowns on the ground in both wins. In the defeat at Arizona State, MSU ran the ball 27 times for an average of 2.3 yards per attempt, totaling just 63 yards with no touchdowns.
Even the rushing statistics from last week are a bit deceptive. More than half of the rushing yards came on wide receiver Jalen Nailor’s 75 yard end-around scamper. One of the two rushing touchdowns occurred on a fake field goal, when placekicker Matt Coghlin caught a pitchout from the holder and crossed the goal line. The Spartans cannot count on such spectacular plays every game.
Other Spartans must increase their productivity on the ground. LJ Scott, the usual starting running back, did not take the field in Bloomington and is questionable this week. Freshman La’Darius Jefferson had ten of his 13 carries and 34 of his 54 rushing yards of this season at Indiana. Sophomore Connor Heyward managed only 23 yards on 12 rushing attempts on Saturday but gained 64 yards on 10 carries in the two previous games. Nailor, a wide receiver, has outgained both of those (95 yards) with only five carries. A running back needs to pick up the slack.
Central Michigan tried to re-set its season by inserting a new quarterback. Though he may be an improvement, it is a tall task to take over in this situation. With only one career start and experience in just two college games, expect Lazzaro to be rattled at some point in front of a much larger and more hostile crowd than at Northern Illinois.
At this point, Michigan State is unlikely to run over any opponent. However, Brian Lewerke has thrown for 814 yards and five touchdowns in three games this season, so the Spartans just need the threat of a running game to keep defenses from focusing exclusively on receivers running routes downfield.
Prediction: Michigan State 34, Central Michigan 12
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.