The No. 2 ranked Michigan Wolverines (7-0, 4-0) will take on the Michigan State Spartans (2-5, 0-4) on Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for noon and the game will be televised on ESPN. On paper, the game is a statistical mismatch, but the games aren’t played on paper. Here are the keys to victory for Michigan.
The running game
The team who wins the ground game in this series more often than not wins the game. That’s good news for Michigan as they rank second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 257.1 yards per game on the ground. Michigan also leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense.
Michigan has a multitude of weapons when it comes to their rushing attack. They routinely feature four different running backs; Chris Evans, De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac. They also have a very productive fullback in Khalid Hill, who has a team-high nine touchdowns this season. Evans suffered a concussion in the Illinois game and his status for this week is unknown. It was expected that Drake Johnson would make his season debut last week. He didn’t, but could play this week.
Michigan State has typically had a strong rushing attack under Mark Dantonio, but they have struggled so far this season. The Spartans rank 10th in the Big Ten and 86th nationally in rushing offense. Again, typically, under Dantonio the Spartans have also featured a stout run defense. So far this season they rank ninth in the Big Ten and 66th nationally against the run.
Look for Michigan to unveil some new wrinkles this week and perhaps dig deeper into the Jabrill Peppers package on offense.
Michigan has to be sharp on special teams this week. They can’t give anything away in this facet of the game. So far this season they have been outstanding on special teams. Kenny Allen did hit a bump in the road with his field goal kicking a few weeks ago, but he connected on both of his field goal attempts last week.
It’s not going to be about just avoiding a mistake on special teams. Michigan’s special teams unit has bad some big plays this year and will look to do more of that this week. Every time the Spartans decide to kick the ball to Jabrill Peppers there is a chance he could do something special. He ranks third nationally in punt return yards (17.8) and has already returned one for touchdown. He also had a dazzling punt return for touchdown called back in the Rutgers game.
The Wolverines rank third nationally with three blocked kicks, (two punts and one field goal). They have also deflected three punts. They have been very aggressive going after kicks, but it has been a controlled aggression as they have avoided getting flagged for roughing the kicker.
Michigan’s defense leads the country in five defensive categories and ranks in the top four of 10 overall statistics. They have thrived under Don Brown’s tutelage and have embraced his attacking style of defense. Michigan ranks third nationally and leads the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss. They lead the nation in three-and-outs.
Michigan’s defense matches up very well against the style of offense that Michigan State likes to run. Combine that with the fact that the Spartans are struggling and it’s easy to see why the Wolverines are such a heavy favorite to win the game. Regardless, the defense still has to go out there and make the plays.
Michigan State has not announced their starting quarterback for the game yet. Whoever it is, they will face a relentless pass rush and then have to throw into coverage against a standout secondary. Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling have been locking receivers down. The duo has combined to allow just 11 completions this season for 131 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
There is no reason to think that Michigan’s defense will not rule the day this week. They are just that good.
Wilton Speight has to play well. He has been solid so far this season and is coming off the best performance of his career. Pro Football Focus graded Speight’s performance against Illinois a 79.7, which was the fourth best among offensive players for the Wolverines. They noted that “his 99.3 QB rating on eight dropbacks he faced pressure was impressive, his 148.2 rating on 18 non-pressured dropbacks was close to perfection”.
So far this season Speight has completed 62.6% of his passes for 1,447 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. He has shown excellent touch on his deep and intermediate passes and his pocket awareness is steadily improving. His first pass of the season was intercepted. Since then his only other pick came on a deflected pass.
Backed by a superb ground game, Speight doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards for Michigan to win. He just needs to make good decisions and protect the football.
This will be Speight’s first start in a rivalry game.
Jabrill Peppers has played 13 different positions this season. He is second on the team with 40 tackles and has also notched 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. As mentioned above, he is one of the premier punt returners in the country and he is equally dangerous on kick returns.
Peppers is usually the most explosive player on the field and this week will be no exception. Look for Michigan to expand his role on offense this week. If the offense becomes stagnant at any point, he can be used to kickstart things.
He continues to be mentioned in the Heisman Trophy discussion. A big game, in a victory against the Spartans, would certainly give his candidacy a boost.
For the most part, both teams are playing it nice leading up to the game. Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio took turns complimenting each other this week. Harbaugh said that Dantonio has, “Done a great job. One of the best college football coaching jobs in the history of the game. It’s been at the highest level.”
“I think coach Harbaugh has done a tremendous job there, obviously,” Dantonio said. “Probably truly one of the best coaches maybe that have come through – whether it’s college coaching or in the NFL – in past years. Obviously, very well-established, and he’s got things going down there.”
Don’t mistake playing nice in the media for a lack of intensity from either side. The Spartans have dominated this series under Dantonio and the Harbaugh-led Wolverines want to flip the script in a bad way this week.
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