ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some expect a rout by Michigan. Others anticipate a close game by Michigan State, which has stumbled through the season.
No. 2 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) travels Saturday to Michigan State (2-5, 0-4) for a noon ET kickoff in the annual in-state rivalry game, and enters Spartan Stadium with the nation’s top defense.
Michigan State hasn’t won a game since Sept. 17, a 36-28 win at Notre Dame, while Michigan has all but steamrolled through its schedule and hasn’t lost a game since Nov. 28, 2015, a 42-13 loss to Ohio State in last year’s regular-season finale.
Michigan leads the all-time series 68-35-5, but Michigan State’s 27-23 win in 2015 in Ann Arbor provided college football with one of its most memorable — and most jaw-dropping — endings.
When Michigan has the ball
Michigan has four productive options at running back — Chris Evans, De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac, who have 1,519 rushing yards — and a fifth in Khalid Hill at fullback. It has a consistent quarterback in Wilton Speight, who enters tied for second with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett in the Big Ten in pass efficiency (150.8). It faces a defense that is ninth in the Big Ten in stopping the run (162.6 yards) and 13th in the Big Ten in stopping the pass (225.4 yards).
Michigan State’s linebackers, however, are a cause for concern for the Wolverines, as is defensive tackle Malik McDowell. But the Spartans haven’t been able to produce, recording a conference-low seven sacks in seven games.
When Michigan State has the ball
The Spartans have to face the No. 1 defense in the country, which has allowed just 207 yards a game. Sure, Michigan has accrued those numbers against teams such as Hawaii, UCF, Rutgers and Illinois, but they also have a synchronicity between the front seven and the secondary — the cornerbacks and safeties point directly to the play of the defensive line and linebackers as to why their jobs have become that much more effective. Michigan also has the No. 1 pass defense in the country (111.0 yards per game), and faces a team that’s been doing the quarterback shuffle between Brian Lewerke and Tyler O’Connor, who didn’t play last week at Maryland because of an injury to his left foot. Michigan State hasn’t announced its starter for Saturday — and won’t until Saturday.
Running back LJ Scott has 93 carries for 464 yards and three touchdowns, but had his best game of the season last week at Maryland (20 carries, 128 yards, TD). Michigan State’s run game, however, is 10th in the Big Ten (155.3 yards), yet its pass is fifth in the Big Ten (235 yards).
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is the constant standout on special teams, averaging 36 yards a kickoff return and 17.8 yards a punt return, and after a hiccup nearly four weeks ago against Wisconsin, Kenny Allen is handling field-goal duties again, in addition to kickoffs and punts. Michigan State, meanwhile, has a middle-of-the pack return game (7.56 yards on punt returns and 20.76 yards on kickoff returns) and is last in the Big Ten in kickoff yard returns allowed (25.63), which could bode well for Peppers.
Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh are two of the Big Ten highest-profile coaches, Dantonio for his success in his first nine seasons at Michigan State and Harbaugh for his success in his first two seasons at Michigan, as well as his unconventional personality. But Michigan travels to East Lansing on a tear, wielding the nation’s top defense and one of the conference’s more consistent quarterbacks, while Michigan State stumbles back to East Lansing following its fifth consecutive loss.
Whoever wins this game takes home a trophy and in-state bragging rights, and Michigan is the heavy favorite. If Michigan State wins, it serves as a certain form of validation. The Spartans would end a five-game losing slide, and earn their first Big Ten Conference win this season — and would get a marquee victory. If Michigan wins, it will continue an undefeated season and only help itself in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, which will be released Tuesday evening.
Rachel Lenzi’s prediction: Michigan 37, Michigan State 10
Brandon Justice’s prediction: Michigan 35, Michigan State 10