Michigan State hosts Michigan this Saturday in the 111th meeting between these two bitter Big Ten rivals. The Spartans and Wolverines will be playing for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, but there’s more at stake than hardware for the trophy case. Both teams are still alive to win the Big Ten East Division, and Michigan has seen its CFB Playoff hopes rise over the last few weeks.
After losing the opener to Notre Dame, Michigan has reeled off six consecutive victories, capped by last week’s 38-13 blowout win over Wisconsin on Saturday night. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s offense seems to gain more confidence with every snap and has scored over 35 points in three of its four Big Ten contests this season. The Wolverines are loaded with talent on defense, and this unit ranks among the nation’s best by limiting opponents to 15.4 points a game. While Michigan is clearly trending up over the last few weeks, Harbaugh’s program probably can’t afford another loss and make the CFB Playoff. Essentially, every week is a must-win game for the Wolverines to reach the top four in early December.
With 19 starters returning from last year’s 10-win team, Michigan State entered 2018 with an opportunity to contend for the Big Ten title. However, the Spartans have struggled to get their offense on track and are 4-2 through six games. Coach Mark Dantonio’s team fell 16-13 at Arizona State in Week 2 and dropped a 29-19 matchup against Northwestern in Big Ten play. Despite the early setbacks, Michigan State is still in the mix to win the conference title. The Spartans won 21-17 at Penn State last week and host both Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing.
Michigan holds a 69-36-5 series edge over Michigan State. However, the Spartans have won four out of the last five meetings against the Wolverines. Michigan won the last matchup 32-23 (2016) in East Lansing.
Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at Noon ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Michigan - 7
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan’s Offensive Line
It’s no secret Michigan’s offensive line struggled in the opener against Notre Dame. The Wolverines allowed three sacks and averaged a paltry 1.8 yards per carry versus the Fighting Irish. However, six games later, this unit has showed signs of major progress. Michigan’s ground game gashed Wisconsin for 320 yards last week and has eclipsed at least 170 rushing yards in each of the last six contests. Additionally, Jim Harbaugh’s quarterbacks have only been sacked eight times in that span.
All of those numbers above indicate one thing: Michigan’s offensive line seems to be trending in the right direction. Of course, it’s worth pointing out the Wolverines haven’t faced the toughest run of defenses. Additionally, Wisconsin’s defense is not as strong as the 2017 unit.
Just how far has Michigan’s offensive line progressed since the opener? Saturday should provide a good window into its development. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 62.3 yards a game and 2.3 per carry. The Spartans did allow 205 yards in last week’s win over Penn State but held their five previous opponents under 100 yards on the ground. End Kenny Willekes and tackle Raequan Williams anchor the trenches for Dantonio, with Joe Bachie leading the way at linebacker.
Michigan running back Karan Higdon enters Saturday’s game with five straight 100-yard efforts. Higdon posted 105 yards in last week’s win over Wisconsin and has 687 yards and six touchdowns through six appearances in 2018. Will Higdon extend his streak to six 100-yard games on Saturday? Or will Michigan State’s defensive front dominate the running game and generate pressure on quarterback Shea Patterson? The battle up front between the Spartans’ defense and Michigan’s offensive line is likely to decide how this game plays out on Saturday.
2. The Quarterbacks
Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Penn State’s Trace McSorley are the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks halfway through the 2018 season, but Saturday’s matchup features two signal-callers who aren’t far behind the league’s best under center.
Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke has passed for 1,587 yards and eight touchdowns and completed 60 percent of his passes through six contests this year. Lewerke hasn’t had a ton of help from his rushing attack and has been dealing with a lengthy list of injuries at receiver. While Cody White is sidelined indefinitely due to a hand injury, Felton Davis (31 catches) is the team’s No. 1 receiver and came up big with a game-winning touchdown in last week’s win over Penn State.
On the other sideline, Michigan’s Shea Patterson continues to progress in his first year in Ann Arbor. The Ole Miss transfer has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,311 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three picks this season. Additionally, Patterson has chipped in 121 yards and a score on the ground. Just like Lewerke, Patterson is also down a key player at receiver. Tarik Black suffered a foot injury in the preseason and has yet to play in 2018. With Black sidelined, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and tight end Zach Gentry have emerged as the top weapons for Patterson.
In a rivalry game with two standout defenses, points are going to be at a premium. Which quarterback can make the most plays and limit the mistakes and turnovers? Michigan’s defense ranks first in the Big Ten by holding opponents to 15.4 points a contest, while Michigan State is only giving up 22.3 per game. The Wolverines also lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense, with the Spartans ranking seventh.
Huge yardage totals shouldn’t be expected out of either quarterback, but it’s crucial both minimize mistakes and utilize their legs to make plays on the ground to avoid the pass rush.
3. Michigan State’s Ground Game Versus Michigan’s Defense
As mentioned earlier, Michigan’s offensive line has showed marked improvement since the opener against Notre Dame. However, it’s a different storyline for Michigan State’s offensive line, which heads into Saturday’s matchup as a question mark for Dantonio.
Michigan State is averaging only 3.4 yards a carry, while its quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times. Injuries have hindered this group, as David Beedle and Kevin Jarvis have missed time, forcing the Spartans to start six different combinations this year. An ankle ailment has sidelined running back LJ Scott for the last six contests, prompting Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson to emerge as the go-to options at running back for the Spartans.
Just like Michigan, Michigan State’s offensive line is going to be in for a tough assignment this Saturday. While the Spartans showed some signs of life (123 yards) against Penn State, the Wolverines have one of the nation’s top defensive fronts. End Rashan Gary is questionable due to injury, but Chase Winovich leads a unit that is limiting rushers to just 3.1 yards per carry. Linebacker Devin Bush is another difference maker up front, as he ranks second to Winovich (10.5) with six tackles for a loss this year. The Wolverines also excel in getting to the quarterback, recording 20 sacks through seven contests so far.
Can Michigan State establish the run to keep Lewerke out of third-and-long situations? And on passing downs, will Lewerke have time to throw against an active Michigan front? In order for the Spartans to win, the offensive line has to play better than it has through the first six contests.
On paper, Michigan has several advantages over its in-state rival. However, this game won’t be easy for the Wolverines. Michigan State’s defense should keep this game close well into the fourth quarter. But in a game where points are likely to be at a premium, the edge on offense should go to Michigan. Patterson is taking care of the ball (three interceptions), has been efficient (69% in completion percentage), and is getting more comfortable with Harbaugh’s scheme as the year progresses. An x-factor to watch is just how Michigan handles the first quarter. In games against Notre Dame and Northwestern, the Wolverines fell behind early. Getting an early deficit against a tough defense like Michigan State won’t be easy to come back from. The Spartans play inspired, and Dantonio empties the bag of trick plays to turn this into a 60-minute battle. However, the Wolverines find a way to win – setting up a huge showdown against Penn State on Nov. 3.