Michigan State will travel to Ann Arbor Saturday night to face archrival Michigan. Lately, it seems like the battle for Paul Bunyan is one of those games that doesn’t look very close on paper, but is. Last year, Michigan was a 21-point favorite over the Spartans but only won by nine. In 2015, Michigan was a 6.5-point favorite but lost by four.
This rivalry always has the potential to be more entertaining than your typical No. 7 vs. unranked matchup. The line is 10 points in favor of the Wolverines, but even that should be taken with a grain of salt. The Mark Dantonio led Spartans have beaten the spread in their last nine contests, which in itself insinuates that this game may be close.
So what exactly about this matchup indicates a close margin? Defense. It’s tough to pull away when you can’t move the ball, and this is exactly what we could see Saturday night.
Michigan State’s offense relies on the running game. They have run the ball on about 55 percent of their offensive plays so far in 2017. With sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke starting his first full season, combined with the loss of top wideouts RJ Shelton,Donnie Corley and tight end Josiah Price, it’s hard to imagine the Spartans throwing the ball effectively against a defense that’s allowed the third-least passing yards in the FBS.
But running the ball has been more of a chore than anything else for the Spartans. With three running backs that are listed as “co-starters”, it should bring up the question which one will break out and lead the team in rushing yards.
That question so far has not been answered. Lewerke leads the Spartans in rushing with 248 yards, thanks mainly to two runs: 61 yards on an option play against Western Michigan and 51 yards on a broken play off a QB sneak against Notre Dame. LJ Scott, who has struggled with fumbling issues, tails him at 214 rushing yards.
As a team, the Spartans only rushed for 88 yards last week against Iowa. That’s less than David Montgomery of Iowa State and Jeffery Wilson of North Texas by themselves, who rushed for 112 and 95 yards respectively against the Hawkeyes in previous weeks . It won’t get any easier against linebacker Devin Bush and the Michigan front seven. Bush has the eighth-most tackles in the Big Ten and leads a defense that’s allowed the third-fewest rushing yards in 2017.
On the flip-side, Michigan’s offense hasn’t been productive either. They rank No. 91 in the FBS in total offense. Michigan running backs Ty Isaac and Chris Evans are both capable of handling the workload. In fact, Isaac had at least 100 rushing yards in three of Michigan’s four games. Isaac leads the team with 57 touches, followed by Evans who has 47 and Karan Higdon with 33.
In the same breath, U-M has not yet faced a front seven like MSU’s. The Joe Bachie led unit held Akrum Wadley, behind a veteran Iowa offensive line, to just 30 rushing yards.
Much like MSU, Michigan has a struggling offensive line, so running the ball may be a tall task for the Wolverines. Michigan will likely need to rely on air strikes to take over the Spartan defense.
It’s hard to assess U-M’s passing game under O’Korn, seeing that he’s yet to play a full game in 2017. He had a big introduction against Purdue, posting 270 yards along with a touchdown and an interception after replacing Wilton Speight, who was injured upon getting hit in the back/neck area. But the senior is still inexperienced under in-game situations.
O’Korn will look to Grant Perry as his primary target on Saturday without Tarik Black, who will need surgery after suffering a foot injury against Air Force. It’ll be interesting to see how the junior matches up against true freshman corner Josiah Scott. Entering the Iowa game, opponent QB’s had a passer rating of just 2.8 percent when throwing in Scott’s direction. To put that in perspective, the next lowest percentage for any Big Ten cornerback was 17.3. But covering Perry will be Scott’s toughest test so far in his young career.
Lastly, there are special teams. U-M punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones is among the elite returners in the nation. He came in as the No. 1 wideout of the 2017 class according to 247 Sports with sharp athleticism and explosiveness. MSU’s return coverage, meanwhile, is inconsistent at best. The Spartans’ punt defense ranks 48th in the FBS.
The Wolverines have found their star place-kicker in Quinn Nordin. Even with an early bye, Nordin leads the Big Ten with 11 made field goals. His long is from 55 yards, which also leads the conference.
The Spartans have a special teams phenom of their own in punter Jake Hartbarger. Against Iowa, he punted the ball five times, and pinned each within the 20-yard line.
In a rivalry that has a history of close games, and features two defenses that have proven stout thus far, Nordin and Hartbarger could play a large role in this year’s outcome. Nordin allows Michigan to be able to score from 50-plus yards out. Hartbarger brings the ability to pin the unpredictable U-M offense deep in their own territory.
The 2017 battle for Paul Bunyan is expected to be filled with emotions, as is tradition. That is the final aspect that could affect the game: mental toughness. MSU has given up eight turnovers (six fumbles, two interceptions) through its four games and has had back-to-back games with nine penalties. U-M, on the other hand, has racked up seven of their own turnovers (four fumbles, three interceptions) and averaged seven penalties per game.
With all of that being said, one can never forget that it’s rivalry week. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that anything can happen when these two teams take the field.
Michigan State-Michigan is set to kick off at 7:30 p.m. on ABC under the lights at Michigan Stadium. You can follow @WDBM_Sports on twitter for up-to-date stats, info, weather updates, and anything else you may need for this weekend of college football.