When No. 21 Michigan travels to East Lansing Saturday to take on No. 22 Michigan State, the Wolverines will be shut down in a way fans have yet to see in 2013.
With a potential trip to the Big 10 Championship Game on the line, not to mention a leg up when it comes to in-state recruiting, something will have to give when one of college football's best offenses meets its counterpart.
Behind the arm (and legs) of quarterback Devin Gardner, the Wolverines have 40 or more points in five of seven games this year and average 42.4 per contest—only seven teams score more on average.
That's truly a great stat, but it's minuscule to what Mark Dantonio's defense has accomplished to date.
Only one team in eight attempts has surpassed the 20-point threshold against the Spartans. Overall, the defense allows just 12.3 points per game. Two teams do it better in that area.
The best part? Michigan State has allowed just 439 rushing yards in those eight games. That's good for a 2.1 yards-per-carry average. The Spartans rank No. 1 in total defense and run defense and are the only team to hold every opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Michigan will be its own worst enemy against the Spartans. Gardner habitually turns the ball over, especially when his protection breaks down. While he's thrown 13 touchdowns this year and leads the Big 10 with 328.4 total yards per game, Gardner has also tossed 10 interceptions, as the line has shuffled personnel consistently thanks to injury and poor performance.
It's not as if the Michigan offense has not been exposed before. Against Akron in a major scare, Michigan scored just 28 points while Gardner threw three picks. A week later, Gardner tossed two more interceptions and hardly threw for 100 yards as the Wolverines scored 24 to squeak past Connecticut.
The Zips rank No. 97 in scoring defense. Connecticut? No. 108. Again—Michigan State is No. 3.
So while the eye-popping offensive numbers are impressive, it's important to note the Wolverines have encountered nothing like the Spartans defense:
|Michigan's Defensive Opposition|
|Opponent||Scoring Defense Rank|
|No. 14 Notre Dame||28|
Actually, they have. Back in 2011, the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing and were abused in a 28-14 loss in which the Wolverines went 3-of-15 on third down en route to just 250 total yards. Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan put it best, as reported by Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News:
If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face, would you take that personally?...Nobody likes to get bullied, and that’s what they did two years ago — they bullied us. … We’re not going to get bullied this year.
It's not as if Michigan State is an offensive juggernaut (29.9 points per game), but it doesn't have to be. The fact Michigan players are even talking about a loss from two years ago says it all; mentally, the Spartans already have an edge.
As do the Spartans on the field. Michigan is still developing under Brady Hoke. Not much has changed for the Spartans, a team that has won four of the last five in the series.
Ultimately, this is a barometer for where the Wolverines are as a program, but the results of the test won't be pretty.
It will be the Spartans hoisting the Paul Bunyan Trophy once more, courtesy of an elite defense that can easily take advantage of a young, developing and mistake-prone Michigan offense.