Rivalry week is here with the Michigan Wolverines looking to maintain their unbeaten record and top-five standing in the country as they host their in-state rivals, the Michigan State Spartans.
National picture aside, this is a big one for the Wolverines, as they've lost 10 of the last 14 meetings with the Spartans. MSU head coach Mel Tucker is 2-0 against Michigan since being hired, including last year's memorable five-touchdown performance in East Lansing from former running back Kenneth Walker III.
Both teams are coming off a bye but have some positive momentum coming into Saturday. Week 7 was easily Michigan"s best performance of the year in the 41-17 thrashing of Penn State where the Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) racked up more than 400 yards on the ground. The Spartans (3-4, 1-3) got back in the win column with a double-overtime victory over Wisconsin that snapped a four-game losing streak.
Michigan State at No. 4 Michigan
When Michigan State Has the Ball
There was a multitude of reasons for the Spartans' four-game losing streak, but the inability to find balance on offense was a major contributor. MSU ranks No. 9 in the Big Ten in scoring (27 ppg) but is 12th in rushing, averaging just over 100 yards per game on the ground. Not having a Walker-type talent in the backfield hurts, but the offensive line has struggled to generate any sort of push for much of the year. The Spartans rank 91st in line yards, 93rd in stuff rate, 85th in second-level yards, and 74th in rush play success rate in 2022 — all are bottom third in the Big Ten. In pass pro, Michigan State has kept quarterback Payton Thorne relatively clean, allowing just 1.7 sacks per game. The Wolverines' front will put that group to the test as they rank first in the conference with 24 sacks.
MSU's passing game has been marginally better, but still just eighth in the conference in yards per game. Thorne is completing 65.4 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns, but his yards per attempt (7.2) and passer rating (136.65) are both down considerably from 2021. The strength on offense resides at receiver with senior Jayden Reed and 6-foot-4 sophomore Keon Coleman, who've combined for 63 receptions and eight of the team's 15 receiving touchdowns. The talented duo will test this Michigan secondary that is fifth in the nation, allowing just 164.1 yards per game through the air, and eighth in pass play success rate, per CollegeFootballData.
When Michigan Has the Ball
There are no surprises when it comes to Michigan's offense and what the goal is each and every Saturday — impose their will with the running game. The Wolverines bludgeoned Penn State with 418 rushing yards on the ground with both Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards delivering multiple 60-yard runs in the win. The Wolverines boast the nation's No. 7 rush offense behind one of the best offensive lines in the country that is continuing to gel with every passing week.
Sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy continues to play proficient football, now having completed 70 percent of his passes in each of the last three games, though he's not being tasked to do much with how the running game is performing. Saturday's matchup will present opportunities for McCarthy in the passing game, facing an MSU secondary that is struggling for the second straight year. Far from the 324.8 yards per game allowed in 2021, but the Spartans still rank 13th in the Big Ten in yards given up through the air.
While the defense has struggled, help is on the way with as many as six contributors on the MSU defensive two-deep returning from injury. Senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon has been one of the best players in the conference with 10.5 tackles for a loss — tops in the Big Ten — to go along with 5.5 sacks.
Every data point and statistic indicate this should be an easy victory for the Wolverines. The recent matchups between the two teams suggest Saturday would be anything but. MSU getting reinforcements back on defense following the bye should help, but it's tough to see a scenario where Michigan won't be able to move the ball against the Spartans. The Wolverines have a big advantage in the trenches on both sides of the football, while McCarthy and the Michigan receivers should find enough success in the passing game to cruise to an easy win against their in-state rival.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Michigan State 17
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
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