There are plenty of good rivalries in the Big Ten and all over the country but when it comes to in-state rivalries, few compare to the Michigan vs Michigan State rivalry. Going into this game, Michigan and Michigan State are fighting for bragging rights and that Paul Bunyan trophy but more importantly they are fighting for the lead in the Big Ten Legends Division.
In the past, most people have been able to predict who the clear winner will be in this rivalry game but in this case, it’s anyone guess as to who will win. While both teams have a chance to win this game, they will both need to follow certain steps if they plan to come out victorious.
Spartans Steps to Victory
It all starts with the offense in this game for the Spartans and if they plan to win this game, the offense must be ready to step up. The first thing this Spartan offense must do is run the ball because that is where their main success comes from and they need to stick with it. Running back Jeremy Langford has shown he can carry the load and the Wolverines haven’t done a consistent job of slowing down the run this season. Plus running the ball does two things for the Spartans, first it opens up passing opportunities for quarterback Connor Cook and the passing game. More importantly, it will help to run the clock, if you’re the Spartans, clock management is a key and running the ball helps with keeping the Wolverine’s offense off the field.
While the running game is important, the passing game is just as important. Quarterback Connor Cook has performed pretty well in the last four games and he needs to continue playing at a solid level. For Cook it all starts with limiting turnovers, while Michigan’s defense is not great, Cook still can’t afford to turn the ball over. Cook also must get off to an early start and he needs to take what the defense gives him when passing the ball. Michigan defense allows the average quarterback to look like Tom Brady, so for Cook there is no need to force anything, just take what the defense gives you and let your receivers do the rest.
Defensively, it all starts with pressuring quarterback Devin Gardner. Michigan’s offensive line has shown that they can’t consistently protect Gardner so the Spartans should challenge them. Plus Gardner has a tendency to force throws and make bad decisions with the ball when pressured. While the Wolverines running game has been inconsistent, Spartans would still be smart to not underestimate them. I look for linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough to exposed the offensive line both in the passing and running game.
Spartans secondary must also be prepared to step up in this game. Wolverines passing game revolves around wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and for good reason, he has been phenomenal so far this season. However, the Spartans should be prepared to force Gardner to beat them without Gallon, besides tight end Devin Funchess, no one else has really emerged to help Gardner out with the passing game. The secondary also needs to be prepared to make plays on the ball, as I said earlier, Gardner has a tendency to make bad decisions at times when passing the ball and the Spartans defense must take advantage of it. Spartans secondary must also limit the big play and they must do so without committing penalties, don’t forget the secondary was called for five pass interference calls in their loss to the Notre Dame Irish.
Overall, the Spartans offense should look to stay balance on offense, limit turnovers and drain the clock with good clock management. Defensively, they need to create turnovers and get pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner and contain the run game. More importantly, the Spartans must finish, Michigan has shown the ability to finish in clutch situations, so while it’s important for the Spartans to get off to a good start, it’s more important to finish strong.
Wolverines Steps to Victory
When it comes to Michigan, I can start with either side of the ball, since both have had their inconsistent moments this season but I will start with the offense. Offensively, believe it or not, it all starts with the offensive line, because they have a lot to do with the success or distress of this offense. The offensive line must do a better job of protecting quarterback Devin Gardner and opening holes for running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green. However, if the offensive line does their part, everyone must do theirs starting with Gardner. Gardner must take care of the ball, mainly because the Spartans defense is capable of turning turnovers into points and the Wolverines can’t afford that. The receiving core must also play their part, it can’t just be Gardner and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against the Spartan secondary, other must steps up. Tight end Devin Funchess is growing into another target and he will need to come up big in this game for Gardner along with Gallon. However, the Wolverines still need someone else to step up as a third option in this game, such as wide receiver Drew Dileo.
Which leads me to the running game, Wolverines running game must step up. Now of course that can’t happen without the offensive line doing their part but if they do their part, Toussaint and Green must do theirs. They don’t have to necessarily have a breakout game but they need to keep the Spartans defense on edge. Running the ball will make the Spartan defense more cautious and aware of pressuring Gardner and hopefully open up some big play passing opportunities. When it comes to the running game I don’t mind seeing Gardner run the ball at times but he needs to be limited, there is no reason he should be running the ball more than 10-15 times a game. Plus the Wolverines can’t afford to constantly put Gardner in the line of fire by taking big hits in the open field.
Defensively, the Wolverines really need to step up and although the Spartans offense isn’t great, Wolverines defense has been known to allow the average offense to look like Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. They can’t afford to do that in this game. The main key for the defense is to make the Spartans one-dimensional, mainly they need to stop the Spartans run game. If the Wolverines can contain the run game, they will have a chance, because they will be stopping the Spartans from controlling the clock and forcing quarterback Connor Cook to beat them. Cook is not used to the big stage yet while Gardner has been through it already, so Michigan defense must force Connor Cook to beat them. The Wolverines defensive line must also do their best to create some form of pressure on Cook, because he doesn’t do well against pressure either.
Which leads me to the Wolverine secondary, while the front seven has to do their part in containing the run, the secondary must do their part in containing Cook. While the Spartans don’t have the best receiving core in the nation, they are still a solid and talented bunch. The secondary must be prepared to limit the big play and they also need to do a better job of tackling because Spartans receivers do a good job of creating yards after the catch and the Wolverines can’t afford that. If possible the main goal of this defense should be to bend but not break and do their best to limit the Spartans red-zone execution.
It’s unfortunate that I have to mention it but the Wolverines special teams must also step up in this game, mainly kicker Brendan Gibbons. I expect this to be a close game, so this game could ultimately come down to a field goal or an extra point. Gibbons had some key misses in the Wolverines loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions, he can’t afford do that in this game and he can’t afford to have any kicks blocked either.
Overall, Michigan’s offense, needs to stay balance. I wouldn’t mind them playing more shotgun in this game instead of doing so much I-formation. The offensive line needs to do their part and Gardner needs to take care of the ball and the receiving core must step up. Defensively, the Wolverines must contain the run game and force Cook to beat them. Finally special teams must execute because they can’t afford any missed field goals or extra points.
I may surprise a lot of people here but I am going with the Michigan State Spartans to win this game. I honestly don’t trust Michigan’s offense and defense to both step up in this game and while I seriously hope I am wrong about the Wolverines but at this point they have to show me that they can win this game. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think Michigan has a chance to win this game but the only way I could see Michigan winning is if they score 30+ points in this game, because if the score is under 27 points I believe the Spartans will win. I have no doubt it will be a good intense game filled with plenty of big plays but I am going with the Spartans to win. Tune into the Wolverines and Spartans as they face-off on Saturday at 3:30pm (ET) on ABC.
Written by LBeasley, Sports Contributor for Radio One Detroit
Listen to LBeasley’s Radio Show, “Sports Talk with L-Beasley” every Mon, Wed & Fri from 6-8pm (ET) on LBeasley.com