By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The annual Michigan-Michigan State matchup always has plenty of intrigue, but the stakes are even higher this season. Both teams are ranked inside of the top 25 and are in the mix to win the Legends Division.
Nebraska entered the season as the favorite to win the Legends Division, but the Cornhuskers have not looked like a dominant team and suffered a huge loss on the injury front this week, as defensive tackle Jared Crick is out for the rest of the year.
New Michigan coach Brady Hoke is enjoying a 6-0 start to the season, which includes a thrilling 35-31 victory over Notre Dame and a 2-0 start in Big Ten play. The defensive lapses of 2010 are gone, with the Wolverines ranking ninth nationally in scoring defense.
Michigan State’s only loss of 2011 came in Week 3 against Notre Dame. The Spartans opened Big Ten play with a 10-7 victory over Ohio State.
Considering Nebraska’s issues, this matchup has taken on added importance. The winner of Saturday’s game between the Wolverines and Spartans won’t be guaranteed a division title, but a victory would certainly help build their case with nearly half of the season to go.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins is the steady hand that guides the Michigan State offense. Cousins has thrown for 1,197 yards and six touchdowns through five games, but also has tossed four picks.
Stopping the pass was a major issue for Michigan’s defense last season, but has been solid through six games. The Wolverines rank 39th nationally against the pass and have not allowed a touchdown through the air in the last two games.
Although the Wolverines’ secondary has shown improvement, Michigan State will provide a tough test. Receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats, averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol will also factor into the mix at wide receiver, while athletic tight end Dion Sims has scored three touchdowns on 10 receptions this year.
Can the Spartans ignite their rushing attack against the Wolverines? The offensive line has struggled to jell this season, but has allowed only five sacks and rushers are averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
The Michigan defense has shown big improvement in nearly all areas, but is allowing 141.6 yards per game on the ground. Tackle Mike Martin is a key cog in the Wolverines' run defense and will be counted upon to create havoc in the Spartan backfield.
Michigan State needs running backs Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell to get on track on Saturday. Establishing some balance will help take the pressure off of Cousins. With the Spartans struggling to get the rushing game on track, the senior quarterback had a lot of pressure on his shoulders to win the game against Ohio State.
The Wolverines have played well in the trenches this year, and their defensive line needs to deliver once again this Saturday. Cousins is capable of winning this game without a ground attack, but Michigan State would like to establish balance.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges went into this season hoping to lessen the workload on quarterback Denard Robinson. Although the junior has avoided the injuries that bothered him throughout 2010, he still leads the team with 94 carries and 674 rushing attempts.
Helping Robinson in the backfield is a plethora of backs, led by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Vincent Smith. Senior Michael Shaw will also factor into the mix.
Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon have been Robinson’s favorite targets in the passing game. Big things were expected of Roy Roundtree this year, but he has been a disappointment, catching only six passes for 114 yards and one touchdown through six games.
The Michigan State defense has quietly been one of the best in college football this year. The Spartans enter Saturday’s game ranked No. 1 in total defense and tied for third in points allowed.
Much of the charge on defense has been led by underclassmen. The Spartans have only two seniors listed as starters for Saturday’s game. The success starts up front, with junior tackle Jerel Worthy anchoring the line. Worthy has only 10 tackles this year, but his presence goes beyond the box score. Sophomore linebacker Max Bullough has been another stellar performer, collecting 33 stops through five games.
It may seem simple, but Michigan State’s best chance at winning this game will rely on its ability to contain Robinson. Although he has continued to shoulder a heavy workload on the ground, Robinson has tossed nine picks and is still finding his rhythm in the passing game this season.
Robinson and the Wolverines have to be careful with the ball, as they are tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 lost turnovers. In a tight game like this, holding onto the ball is going to be especially important.
Stopping Robinson won’t be easy. However, if Michigan State can’t find the answer to stopping him, forcing a couple of turnovers isn’t a bad alternative.
This unit was a weakness for Michigan last season, but has improved under the direction of coach Dan Ferrigno. Kicker Brendan Gibbons has connected on four of six field goal attempts, while punts will be handled by Matt Wile (41.1 average) or Will Hagerup (37.7 average).
Michigan has not produced many big returns this season, with Vincent Smith and Jeremy Gallon serving as the team’s top two options.
Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy has connected on 6 of 9 attempts this year, including a season-long of 50 yards.
The Spartans have the edge on returns, as Keshawn Martin and Nick Hill are the team’s top options.
After three wins in a row over Michigan, has the balance of power in the state shifted to East Lansing? Perhaps it has for 2011, but Michigan coach Brady Hoke is bringing in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and it seems like only a matter of time before the Wolverines are back in the top 10.
Neither team is without flaws, but it’s hard to pick against Michigan State with this game at home. If the offensive line can give him ample time to throw, quarterback Kirk Cousins should be able to find open receivers against the Wolverines’ secondary. However, the Spartans need to get their struggling rushing game on track to create balance.
Michigan State’s defense hasn’t gotten enough credit, but is ranked as one of the best in college football. If the Spartans can find a way to keep Denard Robinson in check, and make the other Michigan offensive weapons win this game, Michigan State should extend its streak to four over the Wolverines.
Michigan State 26, Michigan 23