A season ago, Michigan State and Michigan had won a combined 11 of 12 games and were each ranked among the top-12 teams in the nation heading into their annual intrastate clash.
Much has changed in the last 54 weeks.
The Spartans (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) are reeling from five straight losses, four of which have been by double digits and three of them at home. On the flip side, Michigan (7-0, 4-0) has won all but one of its games by double digits and is ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Wolverines have revenge on the mind after losing seven of the last eight games against the Spartans, including last year’s thriller in Ann Arbor.
Michigan hasn’t been 5-0 in the conference since 2007, but it realizes this can be a special season, especially if it avoids slip-ups against teams with losing records. Michigan State knows very well its season can be salvaged by knocking off the team from down the road and continuing its recent series dominance.
Here’s a closer look at the matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
The Spartans rediscovered their running game last week at Maryland with a season-high 270 yards on the ground, including 128 yards by sophomore LJ Scott. Michigan isn’t as accommodating as Maryland, ranking first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally in run defense by allowing just 96 yards per game. In fact, Michigan’s defense isn’t accommodating in any aspect. It ranks No. 1 in the nation in scoring (10.0 points per game), total defense (207.0 yards per game), passing defense (111.0 yards per game and third-down conversions allowed (13 percent).
While no official announcement has been made by Michigan State, it appears redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke will get his third straight start because fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is still nursing an ankle injury. Regardless of who is taking the snaps, the offensive line, tight ends and backs will have a tough time holding off a defense that is averaging 3.6 sacks a game, led by defensive ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley (four sacks each).
When Michigan has the ball
Quarterback Wilton Speight is efficient with the ball, completing 62.6 percent of his passes, and doesn’t make mistakes. He’s got 13 touchdown passes and thrown just two interceptions in 182 attempts. He leads an offense that is averaging 48.7 points a game, which is No. 3 in the nation, and is No. 2 in the Big Ten averaging 483 yards per game.
The Wolverines have four different running backs – Chris Evans, De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac – who have rushed for at least 332 yards. Michigan State has allowed 100-yard backs in each of the last four games, including two last week at Maryland. The Spartans had six freshmen play on defense last week, and all six are likely to see action to one degree or another against Michigan.
Michigan State got its best all-around game from the special teams last week at Maryland. Punter Jake Hartbarger helped the Spartans win the field-position battle with four kicks inside the 20-yard line, and even the return game with R.J. Shelton showed some life.
Michigan has scored twice on returns, and Heisman Trophy candidate Jabrill Peppers is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. He’s got one of the punt return touchdowns and is averaging 17.8 yards per return. Peppers’ normal position is linebacker, but he’s used as a defensive back, has played as a wildcat quarterback and in the return game, as Michigan utilizes him at every possible point in a game.
Mark Dantonio has made the decision to go with his younger players. That will help Michigan State in the long run. In the short term, it will produce a lot of long Saturdays. Dantonio’s record doesn’t need to be justified, but this season he’s had a difficult time getting the team to play consistently for 60 minutes. Too many penalties, too many turnovers and self-inflicted troubles have cost the Spartans.
Jim Harbaugh has won every place he has coached. He’s also worn out his welcome in quick fashion at many of those places. There doesn’t seem to be any wear-and-tear showing at Michigan in Year 2 of Captain Khaki. A lot of the players on this team were recruited by Harbaugh’s predecessor, Brady Hoke, but Harbaugh has gotten those talented players to live up to expectations and do more.
Las Vegas has made Michigan a 24.5-point favorite, the largest spread in this series since Michigan was a 26.5-point favorite in 1991. It’s for obvious reasons. This is all about matchups, and the Wolverines have the edge across the board. Yes, anything is possible. Michigan State went into Nebraska last season on the opposite side of this equation; the Spartans were 7-0 playing against the 2-5 Cornhuskers and lost 39-38 on a 30-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds left to play. It can happen. Michigan knows the opportunities ahead of it if it takes care of business. Michigan State will have to play its best game of the season, and then some, to make this one close.
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Michigan 56, Michigan State 17.
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Michigan 42, Michigan State 13
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski