Michigan vs Michigan State: Players to Watch in Clash of Top 25 Rivals

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Michigan vs Michigan State: Players to Watch in Clash of Top 25 Rivals
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Nov. 2, one of the Big Ten's greatest rivalries will resume. The No. 21 Michigan Wolverines will travel to play the No. 22 Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

The question is, which players do you need to keep your eye on during this clash between Top 25 rivals?

Michigan enters this game at 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten, rebounding from an Oct. 12 loss with a 63-47 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Oct. 19. That putrid defense has been damaging, but the Wolverines offense has been explosive.

As for Michigan State, it's responded to a 17-13 road loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Sept. 21 with four consecutive wins. Despite playing with inconsistency at quarterback, the Spartans have outscored opponents by a margin of 124-45 during that four-game stretch.

For one of these teams to continue winning, the following players will need to shine.

 

Connor Cook, Michigan State Spartans

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Position: Quarterback

Class: RS Sophomore

2013 Season Statistics

8 GP; 59.9 CMP%, 1238 YDS, 12 TD, 2 INT

If there's one reason that Michigan State is so underrated at 7-1, it's the inconsistency it possesses at quarterback. There have been flashes of strength, but on a week-by-week basis, the Spartans just haven't been able to piece together quality work through the air.

That places Connor Cook under an extraordinary amount of pressure.

Cook hasn't been turning the ball over, registering 12 touchdowns to two interceptions, but that's not the whole story. He's completing 59.9 percent of his passes and has topped 250 yards just once this season.

Fortunately, Cook is fresh off of a monster performance.

Cook was methodical in Michigan State's most recent outing, going 15-of-16 for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The yardage may not be of a mind-blowing nature, but it was the fourth time in six games that Cook found the end zone at least twice.

Against Michigan, Cook will need to prove that he can become a star as he goes toe-to-toe with one of the nation's most dynamic quarterbacks.

 

Devin Gardner, Michigan Wolverines

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Position: Quarterback

Class: RS Junior

2013 Season Statistics

7 GP; 61.1 CMP%, 1779 YDS, 13 TD, 10 INT; 95 ATT, 520 YDS, 9 TD

The Michigan Wolverines have learned to take the good with the bad when it comes to quarterback Devin Gardner. He's tallied 10 interceptions through seven games, but he's also thrown for 13 touchdowns and rushed for nine more.

In Michigan's most recent outing, Gardner put forth a Game of the Year nominee.

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Gardner was 21-of-29 for 503 yards, two passing touchdowns, no interceptions, 81 rushing yards and three running scores. On a day in which the defense allowed 47 points to the Indiana Hoosiers, Gardner stepped up with the performance of a lifetime.

It won't get any easier against Michigan State, even if it is a different type of struggle.

Michigan State is No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense, which suggests Gardner will have a tough time moving the chains. Gardner has one or fewer passing touchdowns in three separate games, and turnovers have been an issue, which makes his play on the road a story worth monitoring.

With Michigan's defense failing to do much of anything, the burden is heavy on the rising star to shine.

 

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State Spartans

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Position: Running Back

Class: RS Junior

2013 Season Statistics

8 GP; 141 ATT, 655 YDS, 9 TD; 11 REC, 52 YDS, 1 TD

During his first five games, Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford picked up an average of 62.2 rushing yards per game. Over the course of his past three appearances, Langford has erupted for an average of 114.7 yards per contest on the ground.

It's no coincidence that the Spartans are averaging 32.7 points during that three-game stretch after tallying 28.2 during the first five.

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Langford is a force at 6'0" and 206 pounds, taking contact and moving the chains for Michigan State's ground-and-pound offense. He has nine rushing touchdowns through eight appearances, with five and a receiving score coming over the past three games.

With a passing offense that ranks No. 106 in the nation, Langford's production will be critical against the Wolverines.

If Langford is able to pick up first downs and find the end zone during red-zone situations, Michigan State will have a chance to win at home. His production helps to collapse an opposing defense and open up the field for the deep ball.

If Langford is unable to perform at a high level, however, it won't be pretty for Michigan State's offense.

 

Michigan's Entire Defense

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Where in the world has the Wolverines defense gone? There isn't an individual player to target, as Michigan has allowed 43 and 47 points during its past two games.

Going up against a Michigan State offense that seems to be finding its rhythm, the Wolverines need to step up before it's too late.

Michigan's offense has been explosive, but the likelihood of the offense matching its 63-point performance from Oct. 19 is slim. The Spartans currently rank No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense, which leads to the potential for Michigan's offense to struggle to put up points.

Unfortunately, the defense doesn't have the look of a unit that can keep up with the Spartans' defensive pace.

The players under the most pressure are in the defensive backfield. Michigan has allowed two consecutive performances of 300-plus yards through the air, and even against a Michigan State passing game that hasn't yet erupted, Michigan is in danger.

The Spartans need offense, and the Wolverines need defense. Whichever side steps up will win.

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