It’s rivalry week. The one week a year in the state of Michigan where depending on one’s particular allegiance, not speaking with coworkers, family members and friends is perfectly acceptable. The Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines kick things off again from East Lansing, and this year’s affair might end up being the hardest hitting yet, meaning there’s probably already been plenty of feelings hurt this week.
Fortunately for our readers, Chris Burke and yours truly don’t abide by the traditional rivalry rules of many others stated above, or this column wouldn’t take place every year. Even though our loyalties are split right down the middle, once again, we collaborate to preview the big game. How will the Spartans avenge last year’s loss? What might the Wolverines do to secure what many believe would be an upset? Spartan Sideline gets its yearly Wolverine Walkthrough to preview the action.
Michigan State’s Key To Victory: Limit Devin Gardner’s effectiveness on broken plays.
This Spartan defense is far too good up front to be gashed with a straight ahead running game, and they have enough quality in the back end to snuff out the best passing attacks, as well. Where Michigan may have a major advantage, though, is with Gardner extending plays with his legs and throwing on the run. That would allow the Wolverines to pick up yardage in chunks against a stout defense even if the defense plays everything else perfectly. Typically, Michigan State has done well limiting this against Michigan, frustrating Denard Robinson for much of his career. Last year, though, Robinson did a nice job keeping plays alive and finding extra yardage which led to Michigan pulling out a late win. For the Spartans to win convincingly this time, they will have to keep contain and force Gardner toward the sidelines when he gets running.
And by that, I mean that they stop pretending that they have an all-world offensive line or that Fitz Toussaint is Tyrone Wheatley or that Devin Gardner is Tom Brady. If Al Borges comes out with the same game plan that he had at Penn State or against UConn, Michigan is going to lose.
Things looked better offensively against Indiana because the Hoosiers are terrible against the run and did not defend Jeremy Gallon. The former does not hold true for Michigan State, and it’s a guarantee the Spartans find some way to pay extra attention to Gallon. Michigan’s best bet, as people have been saying pretty much all year, is to open up the playbook and let Devin Gardner take advantage of his athleticism.
Staying the course won’t work against this MSU defense.
CC: Though many quarterbacks have carved up the Wolverines’ secondary this year, Cook still has his work cut out for him after playing a very efficient 15/16 road game against Illinois. He’ll have to be that controlled and accurate against Michigan, avoiding bad throws and costly turnovers. If something isn’t open, Cook should look to gain yardage with his legs or simply live to play another down. Michigan can certainly win if Cook plays as erraticly as he did against Purdue, and he’ll have passes intercepted with that approach. If he manages the game as well as last week, though, Michigan State’s offense will be in good shape.
JR: Brady Hoke declared Ryan 100 percent heading into this one, and that’s great news for a Michigan defense that continues to give up huge chunks of offense. With Michigan State discovering its run game in recent weeks, Michigan has to be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage. That means holding its own between the tackles on run downs and getting in Connor Cook’s grill when Michigan State goes to pass.
The Wolverines mostly failed to pressure Christian Hackenburg in that Penn State loss (mostly due to a passive approach by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison). Cook can be forced into mistakes — a fact that people are overlooking in talking about Gardner’s error-prone ways. But he also can pick apart Michigan, if he has all afternoon to sit in the pocket.
Most Important “State” Stat Of The Game: 55, which is the number of rushing yards difference between Fitzgerald Toussaint and Devin Gardner’s totals this season. Toussaint has rushed for 575 yards, while Gardner has gone for 520. Toussaint also leads Gardner 11 touchdowns to nine on the ground. Those aren’t wide margins. This statistic showcases how important it will be for the Michigan State defense to spy Gardner and limit his abilities to create big plays on the ground. Keep Gardner under 80 yards rushing and the Spartans might win easily, considering Toussaint’s inconsistency.
Michigan’s Stat To Know: 21.4. That’s Devin Funchess’ yards-per-catch average this season, on 23 receptions. Gallon clearly remains Michigan’s No. 1 target in the passing attack, but the versatile Funchess is a matchup nightmare for most defenses — he can play from the TE spot, line up in the slot or even flank out wide. Michigan State has to account for him on every play, because he will have the physical edge on just about anyone the Spartans throw at him. Gardner may not be the greatest pocket passer, but he can ad-lib … and he’ll find Funchess for big plays if Michigan State lets him.
Michigan State’s Intangible: Talk perhaps proving cheap.
All week, strangely it was the Wolverines and not the Spartans doing all the talking. Taylor Lewan went into great detail about how Michigan State bullied the Wolverines during their last trip to East Lansing in 2011, Al Borges talked about preparing for a street fight and Toussaint even broke out the little brother insult for good measure. Those were certainly some fighting words, no pun intended. How might it have inspired the quiet Spartans further, who seem to have spent the week preparing for a football game? If the Spartans catch a talkative Wolverine team that starts out a bit rusty off the bye week, it could become a long day for Michigan.
Michigan’s Intangible: ”Toughness.”
The word of the week for the Wolverines. Last season, Michigan matched Michigan State in a hard-fought scrap in Ann Arbor. But two years ago, with the Spartans racking up personal fouls, the Wolverines caved in the second half (aided by a classic Denard Robinson turnover-fest). Hoke and his captains have preached in the run-up to this year’s game that Michigan needs to be tougher in the trenches, to stand its ground when the Spartans inevitably talk some trash or sneak in an extra shot after the whistle.
If Michigan doesn’t respond to those tactics, it will be very tough to win.
Spartan Sideline Prediction: When Michigan and Michigan State square off, the game is hardly ever a blowout. This year will prove no different. Despite the quality Spartan defense, the Wolverines will have their chances to move the ball. Despite the jokes about Michigan State’s offense, they’ll move the ball, as well. This Spartan defense is a bit too nasty though, especially at home. In addition to a touchdown from that group, Michigan State gets a big game from Jeremy Langford, Delton Williams and Bennie Fowler helping to put the Wolverines away mid-fourth quarter. Michigan State 23, Michigan 13
Wolverine Walkthrough Prediction: Talent-wise, Michigan is at a point where it should be contending for Big Ten championships. The results simply have not been there, though, especially away from home. Pin in on coaching or on a roster that’s still in-flux from the Rich Rod era to this current Hoke one. Whatever the explanation, Michigan has been much different outside the comfy confines of Ann Arbor.
That Michigan State is a six-point favorite speaks to those difficulties, as well as to Michigan’s issues on both sides of the ball. I’d be stunned if this is a laugher, either direction. I’d also be pretty surprised if Michigan suddenly turns into a force. Michigan State 24, Michigan 20
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax