After losing six of seven to Michigan State, Michigan made a huge splash when it hired Jim Harbaugh last December. That, coupled with MSU’s loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, has flipped the script as the two teams meet at 3:30pm tomorrow. It is Michigan that features the top defense in the nation and the better running game — the two biggest keys to the annual showdown for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Can Michigan turn that into a victory? Here are our picks:
If Michigan’s passing game featured Chad Henne, Braylon Edwards, and Jason Avant going up against this Michigan State secondary it would be easy to pick Michigan to win big. But Jake Rudock has yet to show he can throw deep, and it won’t matter if Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh get behind the safeties if Rudock can’t hit them. Yet history tells us that this rivalry is won on the ground. In the last 45 meetings, the team that rushed for more yards has won 42 of them and that’s another advantage Michigan has in this game.
De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson can take advantage of Michigan State’s aggressive defensive line, allowing Michigan to sustain drives and keeping the Spartans from loading the box. That should give Rudock time to hit the short and intermediate routes that he has done a pretty good job of so far.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is essentially a three-man team: Cook, Smith, and Burbridge. Fortunately, Michigan’s defense matches up really well. Jourdan Lewis has become one of the best corners in the nation and will lock down Burbridge. Michigan’s front seven hasn’t allowed anyone to run on it all season, ranking third nationally against the run. That means Shelton and Kings are going to have to come up big against Jabrill Peppers, Jeremy Clark, and Channing Stribling if he’s healthy enough to return from injury. That’s a big if to rely on.
Michigan’s defense will control the line of scrimmage against a banged up MSU offensive line, and although the shutout streak will end, Michigan State won’t be able to put up enough points to keep up. Michigan’s offense will be effective enough to grind out yards, move the chains, and test the shaky secondary. Michigan wins going away and puts Ohio State on notice.
Michigan 31 – Michigan State 13
This is the biggest matchup between Michigan and Michigan State since 1999, when both teams were ranked in the top 11. Saturday’s game holds implications for the state, the conference and maybe even the country. The winner will, in some form, enter the College Football Playoff conversation while the loser will probably play for second place in the East.
The biggest matchups will come in the trenches. Michigan’s offensive line has given Jake Rudock more than enough time on pass plays and opened holes for the entire running back unit in the rushing attack. But Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell lead a defensive that already has 21 sacks on the season and hope to disrupt that rhythm. Whoever wins that battle will likely come away with a win.
Michigan appears to have the more well-rounded team on the field, as Jim Harbaugh tighened up the special teams and offense after a tough loss to Utah. MSU has also surrendered two kick returns of over 70 yards this season, so Jehu Chesson could play a huge role in the return game, which establishes field position in this type of defensive battle. Field position will be everything.
Rudock also has to take care of the ball and put the defense in good position to succeed. If Connor Cook has a short field, he’ll find a way to put points on the board. This is the first real test for the defense and Rudock has to do his part in keeping the scoreless streak alive.
I find myself giving Michigan a strong edge in special teams and the secondary, but Michigan State has a stronger defensive line and passing game. The Spartans have played in so many big games under Cook, but does Michigan have the experience to win a close game on a stage of this magnitude.
My instincts tell me that Michigan State might find a way to win this game, but nothing we’ve seen in the field through six games supports that idea. I’ll go with Michigan, at home, in front of 111,000 fans.
Michigan 24 – Michigan State 21
When this season began, most Michigan fans had already penciled in losses in the Wolverines’ two biggest home games of the year. My, how things change. Michigan State has dominated this series of late, but their control over the series is in serious jeopardy with the way Jim Harbaugh has his team clicking on all cylinders. And with a severely banged up offensive line – perhaps their biggest strength heading into the season – the Spartans have to be shaking in their boots at the prospect of Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, Taco Charlton, and company living in their backfield all evening. Connor Cook is a great quarterback – but I don’t think he’s better than this collective Michigan defense. De’Veon Smith should be healthier and ready to roll while Jake Rudock’s safe but efficient throws will rip apart a porous Michigan State secondary; pair that with another dominant defensive performance, and I’ll take Michigan again.
Michigan 24 – Michigan State 7
Who would have thought this game would be a battle of top 15 teams and Michigan would not only have a chance to win but actually be favored? Not me, until last week’s performance. Complete domination by the defense, it really speaks to the staff we now have in place and their ability to teach and prepare these kids week in, week out. But this week offers a new test, something this defense has not seen yet; an NFL-caliber quarterback/receiver combo in Cook and Burbridge. As Harbaugh noted, Cook is 29-3 as a starter (let that sink in for a moment) so he will not be rattled by mere pressure and he won’t waver in the pocket like Tanner Mangum, Caleb Rowe, and Clayton Thorson did. He is a veteran quarterback on a veteran team and while they may not have lived up to the hype as of late they will be prepared and bring their A++ game to Ann Arbor (don’t look at this game and think ‘escapes against Purdue and Rutgers’, think along the lines of ‘Michigan vs OSU in 2013’). Make no mistake about it (injury riddled or not) this is the best team Michigan has faced thus far, and it’s not close.
On defense: I have full confidence that our defensive line will completely shut down the run on just about everyone in the Big Ten outside of maybe Ezekiel Elliot, so I expect this weekend to be no different than the past few; little to no big plays and a general stifling of the run game. However, what does worry me is Connor Cook and I think his play is the key to the game. Just hurrying him won’t get the job done, he needs to be hit and sacked, period. If Michigan can’t put him on his butt multiple times he has the ability to move the ball and put some points on the board.
Yes, Sparty’s offensive line is riddled with injury (and that is going to be their excuse if we beat them; but give them the RR/Hoke awful coaching excuse and its not valid but anyway) but this is still a team that has a mountain-sized chip on its shoulder, despite their past success against Big Brother. Dantonio will NEVER live down that Mike Hart quote, so disrespectful.
Cook and Burbridge will test this secondary, and they will put points on the board, but how many will be determined by how much pressure the defensive line gets. If they can get to Cook and hit him, not just hurry, then it makes the secondary’s job all the easier, but if they cannot then it will truly test how good these guys are. Opposite Lewis I’m not so sure Stribling/Clark can give enough to consistently get the job done. Speaking of Jourdan Lewis, while playing great so far, has not seen a receiver half as good as Aaron Burbridge and he will be tested. If he can keep Burbridge in check and not allow anything over his head or much YAC then we’ll be in good shape. This week will show us if this Michigan defense truly is elite. I’m close to buying in but not quite yet, if they win then I’m on board but until they beat a team with a better than average quarterback I just can’t say they’re elite.. elite is the 1997 defense and that will always be my measuring stick.
Takeaway: hit Cook frequently and we win, let Cook stand in ‘clean’ pockets and throw wherever he wants, we probably don’t win.
On offense: This is where I still have some concern, if you can call it that, about this team. Sparty will not let us run the ball down their throats (just based on their base defense they essentially ‘stack’ 9 in the box on all downs) so that makes Jake Rudock all the more important to this game than he has been all season. Can Rudock beat this defense with his arm? I am not so sure he can. Yes, he can hit the short/medium routes but you’re likely not going to dink and dunk this defense all afternoon and score enough points to win. Without the threat of the deep ball Michigan’s offense becomes much easier to stop. I’m not going to go so far as to say Sparty is gonna whoop on us but I am concerned that the offense is just not dynamic enough yet to beat a team of this caliber. Of course, each week we’ve seen new wrinkles in the offense and the genius that is Jim Harbaugh. If Rudock can get just enough help from the run game and plays a clean game without any turnovers then Michigan will be in good shape to win this one.
Takeaway: Don’t make Rudock win this game with his arm, if that’s the case it’s going to be very tough to beat Sparty.
Prediction: Wow, I’m not sure about this game. Sparty hasn’t looked good all year, but that doesn’t mean much to me because I know they’ll be prepared for this one. Michigan hasn’t seen a QB/WR this good all year, on the other hand Sparty hasn’t seen a defense like this all year AND their O-line is decimated with injuries… ugh, this is a tough call but in the end the difference is going to be coaching/preparation. The #HarbaughEffect is going to be in full, well, effect. Good guys win and let the (legitimate) talk of the playoff begin! Go Blue, Beat State!
Michigan 28 – Michigan State 24
This just keeps getting better and better. The best part about watching this team week after week is the overall improvement we are seeing. Not only are they gaining confidence every time they take the field, these wolverines are dominating solid opponents. The defense is swarming to the ball and beating teams up. Once we get to the 2nd half, the opposition is playing for “PRIDE”. This week will be much different as MSU is solid across the board. I don’t care that the last few games have ended closer than everyone thinks they should. Dantonio will have them geared up and will match Michigan in the toughness department. This will be a battle in the trenches and an old school “slobber-knocker”. This could come down to which QB makes the least number of mistakes. Connor Cook is extremely dangerous and Rudock is like a Rudock. Not flashy, but not explosive. Manage this thing and let the defense do their thing. Michigan pulls this one out in the trenches.
Michigan 24 – Michigan State 14