There’s always plenty at stake when Michigan and Michigan State renew their annual rivalry, but the stakes are even higher for 2015. The Spartans and Wolverines are both playoff contenders, and the winner of this game can push Ohio State for the top spot in the Big Ten.
Michigan has experienced a quick turnaround under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. While Harbaugh’s background is on offense, the Wolverines have developed one of the nation’s top defenses. Michigan has not allowed a point in three weeks and is limiting opponents to 6.3 points per game. Michigan State grabbed the early headlines with a win over Oregon (ranked No. 7 at the time), but the Spartans are flying a little under the radar. The Ducks are struggling just to get bowl eligible, and Michigan State wasn’t sharp against Purdue (24-21) and won by only seven at Rutgers.
Related: Predictions for Every Week 7 Game
Is Michigan State’s sluggish performances just a matter of stepping up to the level of competition? Or are the Spartans a flawed team? While Michigan has shut out its last three opponents, Michigan State is a significantly tougher opponent than UNLV and BYU. This matchup should provide a better gauge of how far the Wolverines have developed in Harbaugh’s first season, while also providing insight into the Spartans after some less-than-stellar performances.
Michigan leads the all-time series 68-34-5. However, the Spartans have claimed six out of the last seven meetings. Michigan State has also claimed two out of the last three in Ann Arbor.
Michigan State at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Michigan -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Connor Cook vs. Jake Rudock
Quarterback play is always under the microscope in any game, but it’s magnified in the bigger contests. Michigan State’s Connor Cook was regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks this preseason, while Michigan’s Jake Rudock was considered a question mark after transferring in from Iowa. After six weeks, it’s far to say those narratives held up from the preseason. Cook has largely played well this season, overcoming injuries to a few key players in his supporting cast, including left tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Josiah Price. Despite some uneven play at times, Cook has been among the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks, throwing for 1,344 yards and 12 scores. Rudock has not eclipsed more than 194 passing yards in each of his last five starts, but the senior has limited his mistakes (just one interception in the last three games) and is completing 62 percent of his passes. Can Michigan State’s defense force Rudock to make a few plays through the air to win this one? Or will Cook find the right connection with receiver Aaron Burbridge to crack a Michigan secondary that has allowed only two scores this year? Rudock hasn’t had to be a difference maker for the Wolverines so far. That may have to change on Saturday.
Related: 10 Coordinators on the Rise for 2015
2. Getting Defensive
Points could be at a premium on Saturday afternoon thanks to the strength of both defenses. Michigan ranks as the No. 1 defense in Football Outsiders’ S&P rankings after six weeks, as coordinator D.J. Durkin’s unit is limiting opponents to just 3.1 yards per play and 6.3 points per game. The Wolverines have not allowed a point over the last three contests and wreak plenty of havoc around the line of scrimmage with 48 tackles for a loss. Each level of the defense has been a strength for Durkin, but cornerback Jourdan Lewis has been a standout and is a big reason why Michigan’s pass defense is holding opposing quarterbacks to just 45.5 percent on completion percentage. Without Pat Narduzzi calling the plays and a standout secondary, Michigan State’s defense hasn’t been as dominant as this group was in 2014. However, the Spartans are giving up 5.6 yards per play and 21.3 points per game – both respectable totals.
Can either unit dominate the line of scrimmage from the opening snap and control the flow of the game? Michigan State’s defensive line has registered 21 sacks this year and will be a handful for Michigan’s improving offensive line. It wouldn’t be a surprise if either defense ends up forcing a key turnover or returns an interception or fumble for a touchdown. Also, red stops are critical. This game isn’t expected to be an offensive shootout, and when offenses get into scoring position, it’s a win if the defenses hold the points allowed to just three – and not seven. Trading seven for three is a win for both defenses in a tight game.
3. Michigan State’s Offensive Line
The play of Michigan State’s offensive line could be the biggest x-factor in the outcome of this game. The Spartans were projected to have one of the nation’s best groups in the nation this preseason, but injuries have hit this unit through the first six weeks. Left tackle Jack Conklin suffered a knee injury against Central Michigan and missed the last two games. Center Jack Allen is one of the best in the nation, but he’s questionable due to an ankle injury suffered last week against Rutgers. On a positive note for the Spartans, Kodi Kieler returned from a knee injury last week and should flip back to the right side if Conklin returns at left tackle. If the Spartans are back at full strength up front, it’s a huge boost against a Michigan defense allowing only 65.8 rushing yards per game. Michigan State is not expected to have Madre London, but there’s depth at running back with LJ Scott (5.9 yards per carry), Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. Getting protection up front is critical for Cook to stretch the defense. However, the Spartans cannot afford to consistently have third-and-long situations without the threat of a rushing attack.
Michigan State has dominated this series in recent years, but this is Michigan’s chance to reverse the momentum and claim a huge conference win. While the Spartans are undefeated, this team has been underwhelming at times through the first six weeks. Is this the week Michigan State flips the switch and plays at a high level? Or is there too much hype on Michigan after three shutout victories? The Spartans have a clear edge at quarterback and should have an advantage on the offensive line. But the Wolverines have the momentum, and the defense is arguably the best in the nation. This one is a coin flip, but the edge here goes to the home team after a late defensive stop.