Michigan vs. Michigan State: Wolverines Can't Afford to Look Past Spartans

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2012

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 09: Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans scores on a 41 yard touchdown in the second quarter during the game aginst the Michigan Wolverines during the game on October 9, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have fit the bill as a legitimate Big Ten title challenger, but that could come crashing down if they don't take in-state rival Michigan State seriously.

The 4-3 Spartans haven't lived up to the expectations this season. After beginning the season at No. 13 in both the AP and USA Today polls, the Spartans are nowhere to be found on any Top 25 rankings.

The ultimate low point of the season came last week when the Spartans were defeated by the Iowa Hawkeyes in double overtime—a team that lost to Central Michigan at home.

The Spartans have struggled, there's no doubt about that. Not many could have predicted that Michigan State would have three losses at this point in October. Given its recent failures, it would be easy for Michigan to take this Spartans team lightly.

That would be a grave miscalculation.

Michigan State actually poses a serious stylistic threat to the Wolverines. Despite the poor record, the Spartans are among the most physical teams in the Big Ten.

The Spartans' struggles have come from an inability to score points. The greatest difference between this year's team and last year's team is at the quarterback position.

Kirk Cousins made Michigan State a viable threat on offense. The Spartans have traditionally had a punishing ground game, but it was Cousins' ability to make plays off of the play-action game that really made the Spartans offense soar.

Without Cousins, the Spartans have been highly one-dimensional. The Spartans are far more run-heavy with Andrew Maxwell at the helm and the offense has suffered because of it.

However, the Spartans are still very adept at running the ball and the defense is probably the most physical they've seen since their September loss to Notre Dame.

The Michigan State defense has held teams to 15.7 points per game (13th in the nation) and a mere 3.2 yards per carry. That's even better than Notre Dame's 3.5 yards per carry.

In many ways, Michigan's offense mirrors Michigan State's. Although both teams have very different running games schematically, they both rely heavily on the run game to supplement a less-than-impressive passing game.

While the Spartans don't sport the most impressive record, they are a dangerous matchup for the Wolverines. Anyone that can stop the run as well as Michigan State has can pose problems for the Michigan offense.

The biggest question for Michigan in this game will be the defense. The Wolverines have developed quite the run defense of their own since being run over by Alabama in the season opener and are currently holding opponents to 3.7 yards per carry.

If Michigan can come out and be more physical than the Spartans, it will cement its role as the team to beat in the Big Ten. However, they must bring their A-game because anything less and the Wolverines could be on upset alert.