Michigan State will take on Michigan this weekend, in a battle of unbeatens, and for state supremacy. This will be the first time since 2003 that both teams will be ranked in the Top 25 when they meet: MSU is #17 and U of M #18. As if MSU needs any fuel to get up for this game, in which it just presents another opportunity for the Spartans to again show exactly what they are made of this year. They passed their first test last week and I believe they will be up for it again, considering the rivalry and how much hatred there is between these two schools. (My uncle, an MSU grad, won’t even call Michigan by name, but refers to them as names I cannot discuss in public!).
There are three keys to the game this week, that will determine who will walk away with a victory in Ann Arbor. First, the team that runs the ball the best will win. This is just the plain and simple truth of the series the last few years, in which the team that outrushes the other wins. Both teams have potent and powerful run games, so I look for each to try to establish the ground game early and often. U of M comes into the game ranked #3 in rush offense, averaging 324 yards a game and MSU is ranked 20th, averaging 220 yards a game. Consequently, this matchup could turn into a ground and pound game, with each team lining it up to see who is tougher.
Second, special teams play could be the difference for the Spartans. We saw last week how much a big play on special teams can change the game, when Keshawn Martin took a 74 yard punt return back for a touchdown. This was a turning point in the game, as it gave the Spartans a 10 point lead and momentum for the rest of the game. Martin, named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, has been brilliant all year for MSU, averaging 147 all purpose yards a game, good for 25th in the nation. He must continue to scare punters into not kicking to him, for fear of the same thing happening to them, which happened to Wisconsin. Also, placekicker Dan Conroy has been a pleasant surprise after replacing the all-time leading point’s scorer for the Spartans, Brett Swenson. He is 7-7 in field goal attempts this year, with a long of 43 yards. If the game were to come down to a last second field goal, I have no doubt that Dantonio would have the confidence to go with Conroy. I can’t say the same for Michigan, where their starting placekicker is 1-4 on field goal attempts this year, in which he has also missed one extra point.
Finally, Michigan State must continue to build upon and maintain the momentum they built after their upset victory over Wisconsin. They looked like a totally different ballclub against the Badgers: a hungry team out to prove something that day. They acted as if they had a chip on their shoulder and that they were going to take it out on any opponent they faced that week. This mentally and approach to the game should not be difficult for the Spartans this week, considering who they will be playing. MSU can make it three in a row for the first time since 1965-1967 and they must play the same way they did last weekend, in order to keep the streak alive.
When Michigan State has the ball: U of M has not seen a rushing attack like MSU’s 2 headed monster all year. Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker only continue to impress and get better week in and week out. The MSU rushing attack is averaging 220 yards a game and I look for the Spartans to establish this ground game against the 102nd ranked defense in the country. If they are unable to do so, Kirk Cousins should have a field day against a young and inexperienced secondary for the Wolverines. They rank dead last in college football against the pass, giving up over 307 yards a game. U of M will be facing the most efficient passer in the Big Ten, who is also coming off a spectacular performance against one of the better defenses in the country. This seems like a recipe for success, in which Spartan wide receiver’s Mark Dell, B. J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin must also be able to take advantage of this glaring Wolverine weakness.
When Michigan has the ball: Denard Robinson has been very impressive all year, but this will be his first taste of Big Ten football (Sorry Indiana), when he faces a defense ranked 20th against the run. I am not really sure if you can completely shut him down, but you can definitely contain him, especially with the linebacking core that the Spartans have this year. It is one of the best in the nation and they will be all over the field trying to stop Robinson. I look for Greg Jones to spy the Wolverine quarterback the whole game, going with him wherever he may be on the field. He is a man amongst boys, as he proved last week against the Badgers, averaging over 9 tackles a game. U of M has some big play threats on offense, with three separate receivers each having a catch over 65 yards. The Spartan’s defensive backs are bigger and must be physical at the line with the smaller and quicker wide receivers for U of M. If they cannot get off the line, then the timing of the routes will be off. If this is the case, the defensive line must keep contain and force Robinson to stay in the pocket, where the linebackers can clean him up. It will definitely take a team effort on the defensive side of the ball to stop the Wolverine offense and the Spartans will be up for the challenge.
The defense turned a corner last week and will play with a new found confidence and swagger, that comes along with shutting down one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. The offense also seems to be clicking on all cylinders, in which they have a more balanced attack than in previous years. MSU must take better care of the ball this week and keep the penalties to a minimum. The Spartans win the battle up front on both sides of the ball…
Prediction: Michigan State 42 Michigan 35
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Written by David Lesmeister