Michigan State isn’t the dog some predicted they’d be this year, though the Spartans did fail their only big test miserably in a 38-18 home loss to Notre Dame. Michigan is still a two-score favorite, but the Wolverines won’t be locks to beat anyone until the offense improves.
Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn is now the wild card. He was a big reason the offense moved the ball against Purdue, keeping long drives (84 and 86 yards) alive with his feet when he seemed all but sacked, and he played with confidence in escaping the pass rush and making plays.
Can he do it consistently?
Michigan will also have to run the ball against the Spartans at least a bit to win. The team that wins the rushing battle has won this game 95 percent of the time over the last 40 years, and Michigan State plays to take away the running game with an array of slants and run blitzes, etc.
Many expect a lower-scoring game, but there’s a reason Michigan is an 11-point favorite (as of Thursday). It’s home, it’s under the lights and the defense is smothering.
Here are the keys to beating the Spartans and improving to 5-0:
Protect the quarterback: The Spartans have a stout front seven and love to bring the ‘A’ gap blitzes (on either side of center) that have confused the Wolverines for many of the years head coach Mark Dantonio has been on the MSU sideline. Quarterback Devin Gardner was hit 25-plus times — literally — and Michigan “managed” negative-48 rushing yards in a 2013 loss, an embarrassing display.
Former Michigan and NFL lineman Doug Skene often relays what his quarterback in New England, Drew Bledsoe, used to say to his linemen — “one way to ensure this is going to be a long day for us is if you let me get hit early.”
In other words, keep his uniform clean and he’ll have confidence to make plays. O’Korn needs to be able to trust his guys up front so he’s not thinking about anything but going through his progressions and finding receivers.
U-M is tied for No. 118 in the country (out of 129 teams) in tackles for loss allowed (8.0 per game). Some of that’s on the line, part of it on the quarterbacks and some on the running backs, who have been weak in protection too often this year. There’s the obvious here, too — given that redshirt junior Wilton Speight is out, should O’Korn go down, his backup is redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, a kid with very little experience (his first game action was two weeks ago against Purdue).
Stop the run and contain Brian Lewerke: The Spartans had some success early in last year’s game by lining up heavy (multiple tight ends) and running right at linebacker Jabrill Peppers with bigger players. This year’s MSU line is young and average, at best — running back LJ Scott hasn’t had much room to room, and he managed only 28 yards on 14 carries against Iowa last week.
Lewerke, believe it or not, is the Spartans’ leading rusher this year, and a lot of his yardage comes on scrambles. It’s almost worth putting a spy on him (though defensive coordinator Don Brown doesn’t usually operate that way) given that the scramble might (theoretically) be one of MSU’s best offensive plays Saturday.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t bite Monday when asked if a four-man front might be a better way to go against a bigger offensive line, saying it wouldn’t be prudent to give the Spartans any idea what’s coming. Expect to see some of it, though, and a lot of what Brown’s defenses do best —coming from all angles to confuse a young quarterback in his first road start of the year and second of his career.
Don’t give it away: This will be a chippy game — personal fouls, some extracurriculars after the whistle, etc. often come into play, and they’re free yards for the team that’s more disciplined. MSU should have trouble moving the ball, so staying away from those scenarios is paramount in winning a field position game, which this should be.
Michigan still struggled with turnovers against Purdue, coughing it up twice. The second one led to three Boilermakers points. A turnover-free game would go a long way toward a solid win … and that, of course, includes freshman punter Brad Robbins catching the snap should he be called into duty with 11 seconds left and the Wolverines up two.
The Breakdown: If there weren’t green uniforms on the other sideline, most Michigan fans would feel very comfortable about this one. The Wolverines are better at just about every position, have more team speed, are playing at home under the lights … it all adds up to what should be a comfortable win, especially with MSU’s offensive woes and Michigan’s defensive prowess.
But this game brings out the Spartans’ best under Mark Dantonio, and it will be a hard-hitting game. If O’Korn protects the ball and the Wolverines play a decent, turnover-free (or limited) game, they should win comfortably.
TheWolverine.com Staff Picks
TheWolverine.com Senior Editor Chris Balas: Michigan 24, MSU 13
Michigan does enough offensively and relies on its stifling defense to pull away from the Spartans and improve to 5-0.
The Wolverine Senior Editor John Borton: Michigan 27, Michigan State 17
Michigan’s defense wears down the Spartans.
(Bonus pick: Michigan 24, Ohio State 20)
TheWolverine.com Recruiting Editor Brandon Brown: Michigan 31, Michigan State 13
Michigan is good, Michigan State is not.
In all seriousness I just think this is the year that U-M plays up to its potential instead of down to Michigan State’s.
TheWolverine.com Writer Austin Fox: Michigan 20, Michigan State 13
Michigan’s defense should completely shut down Michigan State’s offense on Saturday night — unfortunately, I think the Wolverine offense will have a hard time moving the ball as well.
It might not be pretty, but Michigan gets the job done.
TheWolverine.com Writer Andrew Vailliencourt: Michigan 24, Michigan State 10
Rivalry games are always closer than you’d expect, so I don’t envision some huge 40-point win for Michigan, but the Wolverines are just too talented for the Spartans. I’m expecting both teams to struggle running the ball, which will mean there will be a lot of pressure on the two quarterbacks.
The Michigan defensive line is going to spend a lot of time in the backfield — they just need to keep Brian Lewerke from escaping the pocket. If he does (he will at least a few times) he should get to meet star sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr.
TheWolverine.com Analyst Doug Skene: Michigan 24, Michigan State 10
The Michigan defense will simply not allow MSU to move the ball consistently, and the U-M offense should get good field position to work with.
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