Battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy heads to East Lansing.
Brady Hoke and the Michigan Wolverines travel to East Lansing to take on Mark Dantonio and their bitter in-state rivals the Michigan State Spartans at 3:30 pm ET on ABC. Though they may hail from the same state, these teams are very different. Michigan relies on a high-powered, big-play offense. The Spartans wear teams down with a suffocating defense and a consistent rushing attack. This looks to be the biggest game of the Brady Hoke era, as a loss will surely drop Michigan out of a spot in the Big Ten Championship game and a possible BCS bowl appearance. These two programs have met 105 times. The teams first played in 1898 and have met almost every year since 1910; the competition became a conference rivalry with Michigan State's entrance into the Big Ten in 1950. The Spartans will look to take the trophy back from the Wolverines with their second consecutive home win against their in-state rivals.
Three Things to Watch
Michigan Scoring Offense vs. Michigan State Scoring Defense
Michigan has the nation's eighth-best scoring offense, averaging an impressive 42.4 points per contest.
The Wolverines put up a season-high 751 yards of total offense on Indiana last week. Devin Gardner has led a quick-strike attack that is capable of scoring at a moment's notice. They will likely meet their match with Mark Dantonio's stingy defensive unit. The Spartans' defense leads the country in touchdowns scored with five. They will look to add to the 17 overall turnovers the Wolverines have committed this year.
A large part of Michigan's turnover problems can be attributed to QB Devin Gardner. The senior has thrown 10 interceptions on the season. The good news is that since conference play started three weeks ago, he's only thrown two interceptions. When Michigan's ground game stalls, it's Gardner that picks up the slack. This season he's already rushed for 520 yards and nine touchdowns. He's averaging 5.5 yards per rush and has two 100-yard games. For the Spartans, they were shuffling at the quarterback position early in the year, but appear to have found their man in Connor Cook. Cook has stabilized the position, avoided turnovers and allowed the defense to be turned loose. Cook has been extremely efficient, completing 60 percent of his passes, while throwing for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He played very well against Illinois and Indiana, but struggled to put points on the board against Purdue.
UM WR Jeremy Gallon vs. MSU CB Darqueze Dennard
This is the matchup to watch. Gallon is coming off of a monster, career game against Indiana. Gallon caught 14 balls for 369 yards a two touchdowns, making Calvin Johnson's effort against the Cowboys look rather pedestrian. He will face a tough corner in Dennard. Dennard is likely to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft in April. The 5'11" corner is a good tackler and has two interceptions on the year. The smaller Gallon could struggle to get off the line against the stronger Dennard.
Player to Watch: Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
The Wolverines really need production in their running game outside of Gardner. While Toussaint is Michigan's leading rusher with 575 yards and 11 touchdowns, he's only averaging 3.7 yards per rush. In Michigan's loss to Penn State, he rushed for 27 yards on 27 attempts. He rushed for 151 yards on 32 carries against Indiana and Michigan won handily. Clearly, if Toussaint is able to be effective in establishing the run, it makes everything easier for the Michigan offense. It may also serve to buy Gardner a few extra seconds, as his pass protection has been spotty this year. Good luck to Fitz because he will try to do all of this against the nation's best rush defense. The Spartans have been incredible in allowing an average of 55 yards per game and just 2.1 yards per rush. The next closest team, Louisville, allows 80.5 rushing yards per game. This is far and away the nation's most productive rush defense, so Michigan will have its hands full.
I love Michigan State's defense, but this is far and away the best quarterback they've faced. And that's both in the air and on the ground. Devin Gardner, after struggling early in the season with turnovers, appears to have tuned things up. He won't duplicate his performance against Indiana, but I do think he will surprise people with his ability to slice through the Spartans' defense. I don't see Toussaint getting going on the ground, but I do expect Gardner to provide enough of a run threat to keep the linebackers' eyes in the backfield. At the end of the day, this game will play more like a shootout and that favors the Wolverines. An important factor to note is that weather will likely be a factor during this one as there will be a high chance for showers. This clearly favors the ground-and-pound ways of the home Spartans.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Michigan State 17