ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The buzz surrounding Michigan this week is that this is the Wolverines’ best chance to finally dispose of that green albatross that’s been hanging around their necks for nearly eight years.
The Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten Conference) are ranked No. 2 in the country in the Associated Press Top 25, have five wins by a margin of at least 33 points and have the nation’s top defense, allowing 207 yards a game.
The Spartans? Well, it’s been a rough season for Michigan State, to say the least. The Spartans (2-5, 0-4) enter Saturday’s in-state rivalry game on a five-game losing streak, which could work to Michigan’s advantage — if it continues its momentum as November approaches.
Here’s what Michigan will need to focus on in preparation for Michigan State:
1. Spread the wealth among the running backs
Of the 14 players who got carries for Michigan in Saturday’s win against Illinois, six were running backs — if you count versatile Jabrill Peppers as a situational running back — and four Michigan running backs have more than 330 yards (Chris Evans, De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac).
Michigan will need that extra effort at running back if Evans is unavailable to play this weekend. The freshman, who leads Michigan with 416 yards on 49 carries, left during the first half of Saturday’s win after his helmet popped off following a hit by Illinois’ Carroll Phillips that forced a fumble.
Evans, Harbaugh said Monday, sustained a concussion but “I think he’s doing good.”
2. Let Wilton Speight to do his thing at quarterback
Coming off one of his best performances of the season, Speight can only aim for more consistency.
Speight was 16-for-23 passing, threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns against the Illini. He’s tied for second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency (150.8) with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Maryland’s Perry Hills leads the Big Ten at 151.8.
3. Don’t underestimate Michigan State
Even though everyone else seems to be doing that. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Spartans are a 23 1/2-point underdog and mired at the bottom of several Big Ten statistical categories: 13th in scoring offense (20.3 points a game), 12th in scoring defense (29.7 points), 13th in rush offense (135.9 yards a game) and 13th in pass defense (225.4).
The Spartans have also fielded two starting quarterbacks this season: Brian Lewerke and Tyler O’Connor, who is recovering from an ankle injury.
Michigan State appears to be in the same place Michigan was two years ago, when the Wolverines stumbled through a 5-7 season and went 2-3 in their final five games. But Michigan will face a highly motivated Michigan State.
4. Don’t focus on last year’s outcome
More than a year later, people continue to talk about that Michigan State win over Michigan, the one in which a bobbled snap by punter Blake O’Neill set up one of the most dramatic and unbelievable finishes in college football.
Michigan dutifully answered questions and gave their recollections Monday about that final play, a return by Jalen Watts-Jackson last October at Michigan Stadium. Yet while last year’s loss can be a motivator, it can’t be the sole reason why Michigan wants to win.
5. Don’t focus on the future either
It’s really easy to circle that final Saturday in November as a red-letter date this season, when Michigan plays at Ohio State. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of one of the nation’s top college football rivalries, especially after Ohio State’s loss last weekend at Penn State.
But four games remain between now and then, including Saturday’s rivalry matchup in East Lansing, against an undermanned yet motivated Michigan State.