Michigan State vs. Michigan: Complete Game Preview
The seventh-ranked Michigan State Spartans and No. 12 Michigan Wolverines will meet on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
And it should be anything but pleasant.
Michigan State (6-0) has dominated the recent additions of the series, winning six of the last seven matchups overall. Five of the victories ended with a 14-plus-point margin.
However, under the direction of first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan (5-1) has emerged as the physical darling of the 2015 college football season. The Wolverines have posted three straight shutouts.
Per Odds Shark, Michigan is a 6.5-point favorite. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Michigan State Keys to Victory
Protect Connor Cook
Injuries have forced the Spartans to use a bevy of offensive linemen to protect Connor Cook.
Starting right tackle Kodi Kieler missed a couple of games. Left tackle Jack Conklin was unavailable for two outings. Fill-in starter Dennis Finley is done for the season. Veteran linchpin Jack Allen was carted off the field.
Michigan State is potentially a mess up front, and Michigan has a defense that causes disasters. The Wolverines have already tallied 48 tackles for loss, including 15 sacks.
However, if Kieler, Conklin and Allen are healthy enough to play on Saturday, that's a significant boost to a reeling offense. Cook needs time to throw, and he might not get it otherwise.
Force Jake Rudock into Mistakes
Everyone and his brother knows Michigan is planning to run the football, but the Wolverines don't completely shy from using Jake Rudock.
The senior quarterback has completed 62 percent of his passes, and he's evidently become more comfortable behind an improving offensive line despite throwing six interceptions.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, the 2015 defensive backfield isn't another year of the No-Fly Zone. The Spartans rank 89th nationally in pass defense and are without safety R.J. Williamson and cornerback Vayonte Copeland—and possible Darian Hicks.
Michigan State has tallied 21 sacks so far, so the defense's saving grace is consistent pressure. If Rudock launches an errant throw, as he normally does at least once or twice, the secondary had better be ready to pounce.
Michigan Keys to Victory
Start Fast, Finish Strong
The Wolverines' first three wins had a common theme: Take an early lead, run the clock out. Their fourth win needed a resurgent third-quarter performance, while the fifth victory was an all-out domination, literally, from the opening kickoff.
It doesn't matter how a team wins as long as it wins—and Michigan State is proving as much this season.
Nevertheless, a fast start for Michigan could doom the Spartans, who have earned a 117-45 advantage during the first half but trail 83-71 in the latter frames.
Though the Wolverines had only scored 17 first-quarter points heading into Northwestern, Harbaugh's crew ripped off 21 before the first 15 minutes ended. That fast start silenced the Wildcats, and it could bind the Spartans, too.
Be the Elite Defense—Or Bend, Don't Break
Under defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, the preseason expectation was that Michigan would be a bend-but-don't-break unit that stiffens in the red zone and allows limited damage to the scoreboard. That was the summary of Durkin as the DC at Florida.
But through six games in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have ceded the fewest points and second-fewest yards in the nation.
Michigan has limited opponents to 150.2 yards per game over the last five weeks. Michigan State hasn't encountered a defense of Michigan's caliber, yet MSU has struggled to keep pulling away.
On the other hand, the Wolverines haven't faced an offense of MSU's caliber, so don't expect a fourth consecutive shutout. Cook, L.J. Scott, Aaron Burbridge, Josiah Price and a collection of rotational receivers present a formidable challenge.
Even if Michigan doesn't completely stifle Michigan State, a bend-but-don't-break style should be enough.
Michigan State Players to Watch
Aaron Burbridge, Wide Receiver
Only one throw has truly bested Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis, but Burbridge has the talent and opportunity to change that fact.
The senior receiver exploded for three consecutive 100-yard performances to begin the season, then posted 146 yards and a career-high nine catches at Rutgers.
Whichever player wins this battle could be the difference between a first-down conversion and a punt. In a game where possessions may be at a premium, Burbridge and Lewis should heavily influence the outcome.
Shilique Calhoun, Defensive End
It's borderline impossible to miss Shilique Calhoun. Central Michigan coach John Bonamego called Calhoun "a freakish athlete," per Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News.
Listed at 6'5" and 250 pounds, the senior defensive end has already made his presence felt with 10 quarterback hurries and five sacks.
Calhoun will attempt to get the better of Michigan right tackle Erik Magnuson, who wasn't available for the rivalry clash last season. Keep an eye on this matchup throughout the day.
Michigan Players to Watch
Jake Butt, Tight End
Though no tight end has registered more than two catches against Michigan State this season, the Wolverines do call pass plays specifically intended for Jake Butt.
In three straight contests, the junior has notched a reception of 30-plus yards. He also racked up eight catches for 93 yards and one touchdown during the only game Michigan needed to throw for more than three quarters.
Butt is the wild card of a balanced offense, and the Spartans must be sure to keep Rudock from finding him in critical moments.
Jabrill Peppers, Cornerback and Returner
Jabrill Peppers has backed up the hype, though not to the All-American level both Wolverines and college football fans perhaps unreasonably hoped for in 2015.
Last week against Northwestern, the sophomore broke up three passes, recorded three solo tackles, added two combined stops and almost snatched an interception.
Additionally, he's returned 11 punts for 96 yards—a decent average of 8.7—but seems rather close to breaking a big one. Since Michigan State has already allowed one punt-return touchdown, Peppers could find that final seam on Saturday.
But even if that doesn't happen, Peppers can shut down the No. 2 receiver and frustrate Cook in the process.
What They're Saying
The Spartans have injury concerns all over the field, but head coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on using excuses, per Mike Wilson of 247Sports.
"We have guys hurt, but we're not going to, pardon my pun, use a crutch," Dantonio said. "Things happen. Football's a tough game. You're going to lose some guys, but you have to play through those things."
Harbaugh didn't spend much time thinking about the dominant victory over Northwestern. According to MLive's Justin Hicks, Harbaugh said:
... We've got a tremendous opponent. Coming off this impressive win, congratulations — next. It's a heck of a football team, no doubt. We look forward to a great week of preparation. That's really what has to happen.
Entering the season, the Wolverines seemed to possess a small glimmer of hope to develop into a reasonably competitive team by this weekend, while Michigan State was supposed to be among the nation's unquestioned elite.
Neither of those have happened, however. Michigan has put together arguably the most dominant stretch of any program this season, while injuries and inconsistency have plagued the Spartans.
Behind another stout defensive effort, the Wolverines jump out to an early lead and stave off MSU during the final quarter. Thanks to a two-interception day from Cook, Michigan seals its second victory in the last eight series meetings and officially turns the tide of the in-state rivalry.
The Wolverines solidify themselves as a College Football Playoff contender, and the Spartans will need to run the table to reclaim that status. Two months ago, how weird would that sentence have sounded?
Prediction: Michigan 24, Michigan State 16