When high noon hits on Saturday in East Lansing, those in Spartan Stadium (and those of us waking up at 9:00 a.m. and watching on the West Coast) will expect to see the renewal of one of college football’s best rivalries.
Michigan and Michigan State have had their fair share of incredible moments and frantic finishes over the years—of this there is no question. There have been years where both schools came in highly ranked, years where one team attempted to play spoiler and even rare occurrences where nothing more than interstate pride was on the line.
But I cannot remember a game more intriguing than what the 2011 version promises to provide for us: two different games.
While it’s true the Spartans and Wolverines will only go toe-to-toe (or cleat-to-cleat) for 60 minutes Saturday, there will be two very different matchups to watch.
1. Michigan Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Let’s start with the good stuff. We are talking about the kind of football that forces you to jump out of your seat and punch your buddy in the arm while screaming, “Did he just do that?”
This is the type of football where Jerel Worthy busts through a double team to pancake a quarterback; the type where one of the best running backs you have ever seen blows through a hole and sprints for a touchdown is actually Denard Robinson, a quarterback. This is the type of football fans will get when the jet fuel-propelled Wolverine offense takes the field against the Green and White Curtain of the Spartans’ No. 1-ranked defense.
Each unit is the unquestioned strength of their respective team and can be largely credited with the bulk of the early-season success each squad has experienced. Michigan fans shutter at the thought of where their team would be without Robinson stacking up nearly 400 yards of offense a game by himself. Spartan fans know their trip to Columbus two weeks ago turns out a whole lot different without a defense that shut out the Buckeyes for the first 59:50 of the game.
While Robinson does have a propensity for throwing interceptions with nine already (and if we are being real here, every ball he throws beyond 10 yards is generally up for grabs), the Spartans are certainly concerned about “Shoelace’s” magical feet. He may be the most elusive running quarterback back of all time, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that point (Spartan fans aside). He leads the ground attack for Michigan, which averages an incredible 270 yards a game.
Meanwhile, Brady Hoke has certainly woken up in cold sweats this week after having nightmares of Robinson being pummeled by Worthy and needing a scraper to peel his quarterback off of the ground. Led by Worthy, William Gholston and Max Bullough, the Spartans are giving up just 64 yards a game on the ground.
When these two units are on the field, it’s strength on strength. I expect big scoring plays from the Wolverines (and yes, a lucky, wobbling 40-yard bomb from Robinson to junior Hemmingway in between two Spartan defenders will count as a big play). I also expect to see the Spartans make a few big short-yardage stops as well as force at least two Wolverine turnovers.
But here is what I don’t expect: for the Michigan offense/Michigan State defense matchup to determine the outcome of this game.
2. Michigan State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
While Michigan’s defense is improving, the unit is still the Achilles heel of the team. Despite giving up yards in bunches, the Wolverines continue to exemplify the overused but very appropriate “bend but don’t break” defensive mentality. The Michigan defense has been very opportunistic, forcing 14 turnovers in six games. However, this is merely a cover up that the team will have trouble sustaining as the season moves along.
Surprisingly, the Spartans' offense (not including the incredible B.J. Cunningham) has become somewhat of a liability for Michigan State. Those who want to come to the immediate defense of Kirk Cousins and remind me that the senior is battle tested and an NFL prospect have not taken a look at the numbers lately.
Michigan State ranks 43rd in the nation in passing efficiency. They average 398 yards per game in total offense, good enough for 61st in the NCAA. Possibly the most telling number, Michigan State ranks 95th in the country in third down conversion percentage at just 35 percent. Just in case you were wondering, the vaunted Michigan State rushing attack is averaging 129 yards per game, 79th best in the NCAA.
These two questionable units hold the key to the game. If the Michigan defense allows Cunningham to make a few long touchdown receptions or permit Edwin Baker to break off his first long scoring run of the season, Michigan stands to lose. If Cousins continues to turn the ball over and displays questionable decision making (especially in the red zone), the Spartans will taste defeat against their rivals for the first time since 2007.
While “Denard” vs. the “Spartan D” is certain to grab the spotlight on Saturday, it will be the undercard that determines who wins this pivotal Big Ten battle for both bragging rights and a spot atop the Legends Division.