Flint's Thomas Rawls had a breakout game Saturday against Illinois
The Michigan Wolverines should feel pretty confident heading into this week's clash with their in-state rival Michigan State Spartans.
After dumping the Illinois Fighting Illini, 45-0, this past Saturday, the Wolverines look like they're finally hitting their stride.
Cliches like "clicking on all cylinders" and "playing Michigan football" are appropriate. While overused, the root meanings most definitely describe how the Wolverines have transformed the past two weeks, going from a underachieving 2-2 team to a stable Big Ten contender.
Now ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25, the Wolverines showed the rest of the Big Ten how to send a message prior to one of the most important showdowns of the season.
Quarterback Denard Robinson was again spectacular against Illinois, but wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and running back Thomas Rawls were also instrumental in the dismantling of the Illini.
Robinson, obviously, has come out a "winner" the past two weeks. But his performance Saturday wasn't as impressive as the one put forth by Rawls. Followers of the Maize and Blue are accustomed to offensive outbursts courtesy of "Shoelace," but they're looking for more contributors and less of a one-man show.
If Michigan is to be a successful running team without relying solely on Robinson, Rawls has to be the go-to back; he proved Saturday with 90 yards and a 63-yard touchdown that he's ready to answer the call.
Rawls was a "winner" Saturday. Robinson and Gallon were, too.
But who else stood out in Michigan's impressive victory?
The accompanying video provides evidence—as if any were needed—of just how dominant Jake Ryan can be when he's let loose and focused.
Ryan had a career-high 12 tackles Saturday against Illinois, but the way he pressured Illini quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole was far more impressive and important than the actual tackle count.
Setting a tone was important for Michigan if it was to gather itself prior to playing Michigan State. Ryan, one of the Big Ten's elite pass-rushers, anchored a defense that allowed just seven first downs, 1.8 yards per reception and 2.8 yards per rush.
While there are other great linebackers in the Big Ten, Ryan may be the best this season; his relentless pursuit of quarterbacks and increasingly growing confidence—evident by his play the past two weeks—should be enough to make Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell a bit nervous come Saturday.
Go ahead and pencil in Ryan as a winner from the weekend if you haven't already done that.
Michigan fans knew their team was getting an athletic and elusive running back when former Grand Blanc High star Justice Hayes decommitted from Notre Dame and opted for the Wolverines.
He's not a guy who can bulldoze defenders, either.
But he is a guy who can jump over them (see video).
Hayes averaged nearly seven yards per carry Saturday in Michigan's 45-0 blowout win over Illinois. As Fitz Toussaint continues to struggle each week, the Wolverines are going to need other backs to consistently contribute relief totes.
Hayes can do that.
His most impressive run Saturday may not have been his 24-yarder; it was an excellent run, but Hayes showed that he's tougher than what some initially gave him credit for with a couple short-yardage bursts through multiple defenders.
The Wolverines look to be forming an adequate three-back rotation. Hayes, along with Thomas Rawls, gets sporadic action, but it's almost certain that he'll see more than a handful of touches this week against Michigan State.
Michigan has to rule the ground Saturday against the Spartans, winners of four straight in the series. Hayes is quick enough to break off flashy runs, but he's also a viable option as a receiver out of the backfield.
A multidimensional offense would serve the Wolverines well. Denard Robinson is the offense, but it's logical to assume that's not necessarily the way Michigan wants to operate.
The Wolverines faithful should feel great about Saturday's win over Illinois.
The players likely feel great about their 45-0 win over Illinois.
The coaching staff should pat itself on its collective back, too.
Michigan once again executed a potent game plan on both sides of the ball. The only people happier than the Wolverines themselves are their fans.
Well, that's how it should be.
Go ahead, Michigan Man (or Michigan Woman), enjoy this week and be confident going into this Saturday's brawl with the Spartans. It's been four long years since Michigan has defeated Michigan State, but Team 133 won't falter this time around.
The only thing better than a conference win prior to facing Michigan State is a decisive and statement-like Big Ten victory—maybe something to the tune of 45-0.
Michigan is growing stronger, while the Spartans are falling off the map.
'It's gut-check time,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told AP writer Larry Lage (via Yahoo! Sports). ''We're in a tough stretch of the schedule, but we'll rise to it. Our guys will play hard next week. You can count on that.''
Fans are anticipating the game—and so is another important piece to the Wolverines' puzzle.
"'I don't know if you ever don't think about rivalry games,'' Michigan coach Brady Hoke told Lage. ''I think that's always part of what makes us special being Michigan.''
Patrick Omameh (left) throws a block against Air Force.
The Michigan offensive line didn't allow a sack Saturday, and Patrick Omameh was a steady contributor in holding the Illini away from quarterback Denard Robinson.
Omameh may have won on the field this week, but his off-the-field actions need to be addressed; the guy has a heart of gold and should be applauded for his work with Michigan's Mott Children's Hospital.
Omameh started visiting kids during his freshman year. He jokes with them, telling them he's just a pretty husky, 6'4", 305-pound tennis player who wants to have a good conversation.
The kids need to get a laugh, and Omameh doesn't mind providing that. Because of his good deeds, he was named to the AllState AFCA Good Works Team.
"It doesn't matter how tough of a day it was, how tough practice was, he makes it over here (to the hospital) and impacts these kids' lives," Wolverines co-captain Jordan Kovacs told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. "He's unreal. I go in a room and take notes. The way he connects with these kids, he makes it seem like he's their best friend. And they feel the same way."
Keep up the good work, Omameh.
It's been a bumpy ride for first-year Spartans starter Andrew Maxwell.
This is in no way a slam to Michigan State, but it did lose in Week 7, just not to Michigan—that will happen in Week 8.
The Spartans (4-3) imploded Saturday in their 19-16 overtime loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes, and their power has seemingly diminished since beating Boise State in their season opener.
A loss to Notre Dame showed that the Spartans have to make adjustments on offense if they wish to be a legitimate horse in the race for the Big Ten title.
And so did the loss to Ohio State, as did the near-loss to Indiana.
And the Eastern Michigan game.
Michigan State's defense is one of the best in the nation, but it can't score enough points to beat Michigan. And it's doubtful that Michigan State's offense can, either.
With a Michigan win this Saturday, the Spartans can kiss a shot at a league championship good-bye. The Spartans, of course, have designs on notching a fifth straight victory over the Wolverines, and the loss to Iowa will surely motivate them this week.
But Michigan looks too strong, too potent on offense and too "in the zone" after two huge Big Ten triumphs to fall to the Spartans this fall.
Here's my prediction: Michigan 35, Michigan State 10
Jeremy Gallon turns on the jets en route to scoring a 71-yard touchdown against Illinois.
It seems that Michigan's wide receivers are in and out, hit or miss this season.
That's what happens when Denard Robinson piles 300-yard games on the competition. So, of course, when Robinson does that, the rest of the Wolverines are mere bystanders as they watch him shred defenses.
Saturday was different for Jeremy Gallon, at least on one play. The 5'8", 175-pound junior's 71-yard touchdown reception was one of the top offensive plays Michigan has had this season.
Gallon is fast—maybe not Denard Robinson-fast—and lit up the field at Michigan Stadium as he put his team up 6-0. From that point, Michigan never looked back. He leads the Wolverines with 15 catches and 287 yards.
I've said this before, but it needs to be said again: Michigan's offense is one of the most thrilling in the Big Ten. But it's also frustratingly one-dimensional. Robinson has to be the centerpiece; he's the most dangerous playmaker in college football.
But there is a way to utilize Robinson to his potential while still spreading around the ball and letting others produce. Michigan is working on that, and it's clear that there are enough weapons to threaten the opposition when and if Robinson hits a wall.
Gallon, along with Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess, gives Michigan options. The Wolverines offense has taken long enough to develop. Now watch it unfurl its fury against the Big Ten.
Thomas Rawls was sensational during limited action Saturday.
Just wait for Thomas Rawls to get another shot at the No. 1 job and he'll go to work.
Rawls has the work ethic, build and talent to be a true "Michigan Back," he just needs more carries—a point I've hit on the past couple weeks.
A great burst out of the backfield led to an even better 63-yard touchdown run Saturday in Michigan's 45-0 win over Illinois. He sprinkled in other five- and six-yard carries en route to posting a career-high 90 yards.
Fitz Toussaint, a former 1,000-yard rusher, has 231 yards and four touchdowns from 71 carries. Rawls, a sophomore, has 174 yards and two scores from 25 touches.
Granted, Rawls' production typically comes when Michigan has the game in-hand, but it's hard to deny—and I say this every week—his statistics and potential.
It's time for a change at running back. There is no need to shut out Toussaint, but there is a need to use Rawls more often.
And if Justice Hayes remains productive, he should get snaps in certain packages, too. Rawls is a great short-yardage back with the ability to run vertically and make plays. The Michigan coaching staff is well aware of his abilities, and maybe it's remaining loyal to Toussaint at this point.
But there comes a time when the benefit of a team trumps personal loyalty—if that's the case—to a player.
Give. Rawls. The. Rock.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.