The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is being taken to the next level today as the No. 23 Spartans (4-1) play host to their intrastate foes, the No. 11 Wolverines (6-0).
With the Wolverines enjoying a renaissance under new head coach Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are the seventh-best rushing team in the nation, but they’ve also seen a huge improvement on the defensive side as well, allowing the eighth-fewest points of any team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
And with the Wolverines looking ahead to November matchups with Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State, earning a win at Spartan Stadium will be necessary to stay in the hunt for the Big 10 title.
After two quarters, here are five things Michigan must do to stay in the game against the super tough Spartans:
1. Continue to Grind It Out on the Ground
Yes, Denard Robinson was the seventh-leading rusher in the nation entering Saturday’s game, but Michigan needs to move the ball with its tailbacks as well. Vincent Smith already broke an early big-gainer and Fitz Toussaint has looked solid as well. But the Wolverines need to minimize the hits that Robinson takes, and the success of the running backs will go a long way toward making sure that Robinson stays healthy and on the field.
2. Keep Denard Robinson Comfortable Throwing the Ball
With nine interceptions coming into this game, it’s clear that Denard Robinson struggles when he has to throw the ball downfield into coverage on obvious passing downs.
The more the running game can set up 2nd-and-short and 3rd-and-short—whether it’s Denard or one of his backs—the quicker and easier Denard’s throws will have to be. Those short outs, screens and slants are where he’s most dangerous throwing the ball.
3. Continue to Mix It Up with Devin Gardner
Gardner, the sophomore backup quarterback from Detroit, has seen action on every series, pushing Robinson out to a receiver position or on the sidelines altogether.
No, Gardner hasn’t broken any big plays. But with the reverses, throwbacks and options at the disposal of the Wolverines offense with him in the game, it keeps the incredible State defense honest and, therefore, more susceptible to the Wolverines' running game and short passing game.
4. Put Pressure on Kirk Cousins
The Michigan State quarterback has yet to put up huge stats. But he’s arguably the best throwing QB in the Big Ten and he’s incredibly accurate when he has time to throw the ball.
To keep the Sparties' offense from blowing them off the field, then, the Michigan front seven must pressure Cousins to get rid of the ball quickly.
5. Win the Battle of the Lines
This is huge, obviously, on offense, as the Wolverines need to be able to move the ball on the ground to score points.
But it’s also huge on defense, because with Cousins’ accuracy, Michigan is going to need to stop the Spartans' running game and put pressure on Cousins if they have any hope of stopping the Sparty offense.