Devin Gardner and Michigan hope to gain an upper hand against defensively sound Michigan State. Photo: USA Today Sports
No. 21 Michigan at No. 22 Michigan State
Saturday, 3:30 PM, ABC
Line: Michigan State -3.5
It’s not very often that a game between two ranked opponents that is appearing on national television can fly under the radar. That seems to be the case in this game this year, however.
In addition to the basic bragging rights that come with this game, control of the Legends Division and the inside track to the Big Ten Championship game will go the victor of this matchup. Michigan has an explosive but sometimes inconsistent offense. Michigan State has one of the top defenses in the country, but not a lot of firepower on the offensive side, although they have started to pull it together as of late.
The division won’t be clinched this weekend, but plenty is at stake as difficult stretch runs face each team. Will a victory over a blood rival be enough of a springboard to Indianapolis?
For Michigan to win: Protect the football. Possession is crucial in a game like this, and the one thing that Michigan cannot afford to do is sacrifice possession of the ball or field position. The Wolverines have turned the ball over 17 times through seven games this season, and actually have a negative turnover margin so far this season. Michigan State has forced 15 turnovers this season through eight games. An already difficult defense becomes even harder to face if you give up opportunities, which is something Michigan simply cannot do.
For Michigan State to win: Throw the ball. The Wolverines are in the bottom half of the country in pass defense at number 99 in the country. Michigan State’s passing offense, though, is worse than that, ranking 108. Something has to give, and this defense offers the perfect opportunity for the Spartans to work on their passing game in advance of the stretch run in the Big Ten. Michigan State needs to take advantage of the breakdowns in coverage that sometime plague the Wolverines. Michigan will be geared to take away the Spartan’s ground game, and so going to the air will be mandatory for the Spartans to win at home.
Key Player, Michigan: Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back. The senior has been a bit up and down with his performances this year. Two weeks ago against Indiana, Toussaint had a great game, rushing for 151 yards on 32 carries. The week prior to that, in the ghastly overtime loss to Penn State, he had 27 yards on 27 carries. Michigan State’s run defense only allows 54 yards per game and about two yards per carry. If Michigan is going to win, it will need to lean on Toussaint to force his way through the line and keep the chains moving.
Key Player, Michigan State: Connor Cook, quarterback. After taking over in the third game of the season as the starting quarterback, the sophomore has been the solid, steady presence that the Spartans need. Cook is probably more of a game manager at this point, so it will be interesting to see what might happen if called upon to do more. Michigan State leans heavily on running the ball, so expect Michigan to force the Spartans to throw and see if Cook can deliver. If he can have a big game through the air, it could be a long day for the Wolverines.
Key Stat: 57.7 percent. Michigan State has the number one defense in total yards. They have also forced their opponents to punt on 57.7 percent of the drives against them this season, which is tops in the FBS.