Michigan State has won seven of its last eight meetings against rival Michigan but will be the decided underdog this Saturday when the Wolverines come to Spartan Stadium for the 109th meeting between the two schools. Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) is ranked No. 2 in the nation, while Michigan State (2-5, 0-4) is trying to end a five-game losing streak, its longest in 25 years.
The Spartans rallied to win in Ann Arbor last season, 27-23, when Jalen Watts-Jackson picked up a loose ball on a botched punt attempt and returned it 38 yards for the game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. Michigan State had trailed by nine points, 23-14, with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter before rallying to stun a crowd of 111,740 at Michigan Stadium.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon EST on ESPN.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Is Brian Lewerke now the No. 1 quarterback for Michigan State?
The redshirt freshman has started the last two games but Michigan’s defense will be a whole different test for him. The Wolverines are ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and third-down conversions allowed. So whether it’s Lewerke or if fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is healthy enough to play it might not matter for a Michigan State offense that doesn’t rank better than No. 61 in any of those categories.
Lewerke showed improvement last week at Maryland from his first start against Northwestern in terms of his decision making and command of the offense. He has to face a defense like Michigan if he’s going to continue to grow as a quarterback. O’Connor was unavailable for the Maryland game because of what has been reported as an ankle injury, although Michigan State has not officially announced what the injury is.
2. How does the Spartans youth movement fare this week?
Lewerke isn’t the only underclassman who will play a significant role for the Spartans. He was one of 23 first- or second-year players to play against Maryland. There were six freshmen – not redshirt freshman – who played on the defense, including middle linebacker Joe Bachie, who took over when fifth-year senior Riley Bullough was ejected from the game in the first quarter for targeting.
The biggest problem with playing so many freshmen at once is that they rarely know all that they need to know in order to play fast. That has become evident, especially on defense, where Michigan State has looked a step or two slow the past five games. The underclassmen will have to play with more poise and confidence this week if the Spartans are to win.
3. Is the Michigan State run game back?
The Spartans sure hope so. After gaining just 136 yards in losses against Brigham Young and Northwestern, Michigan State rushed for a season-best 270 yards at Maryland. LJ Scott had his best game of the season, gaining 128 yards on 20 carries and scoring on a 48-yard touchdown run. The offensive line got its most consistent push of the season.
That was against a Maryland defense which had allowed 601 yards rushing in the previous two games. Michigan has allowed 672 yards on the ground all season.
The Spartans need to find a way to gain consistent positive yards running the ball and convert third downs to keep drives going if they are to have a chance in this game.
4. Can Michigan State win the turnover battle?
Staying in that line of thinking, Michigan State has to hold onto the ball and create turnovers to give itself a chance to win. It’s not something the Spartans have done very often this season. They are minus-4 in turnover margin while the Wolverines are plus-7. Michigan State has forced just nine takeaways this season after getting 28 turnovers last year. Michigan has turned the ball over just five times this season, including just two interceptions on 202 pass attempts.
5. How much does history mean?
That’s one aspect of this rivalry that favors Michigan State going into this game. Last year’s dramatic ending plus Spartans coach Mark Dantonio’s success against Michigan are pluses. Maybe that brings some confidence to Michigan State. Everyone says the Spartans will lose, and most think they’ll lose handily. History won’t make tackles, complete passes or force turnovers but those are things that can happen with a little confidence.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo