The Michigan Wolverines are revving up to face Michigan State for the 107th time today. The Wolverines hold the series lead with a record of 68-33-5. That record doesn’t seem to bother Spartans fans though. Their team has won five out of the last six meetings. Last year, on their way to a Rose Bowl championship, the Spartans handed the Wolverines a 29-6 loss. To add insult to injury, the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record after starting the 2013 season 5-0. They were invited to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and lost to Kansas State.
Fast forward to this year and the Wolverines are not doing any better. They’re currently 3-4, while their formally inferior in-state rival is 6-1. Both programs are on complete different ends of the spectrum. The Spartans have a stable foundation and have a system in place for sustained success. The Wolverines, meanwhile, are still searching for their identity and they’re racking up losses while doing so.
Michigan State has become the powerhouse football program in-state, at least for the moment. Michigan is stuck looking up to the once “little brothers.” This game always means a lot to both teams. The Wolverines can gain a lot of confidence and shock a lot of people by beating the Spartans this afternoon. Regardless of what certain local radio hosts or Spartans fans may say, Michigan does have a chance to win. The Wolverines can march into Spartan Stadium and beat the Michigan State. To accomplish that, Michigan must do these five things:
1. Avoid Turnovers
Nothing has plagued Michigan as badly as turnovers have this season. They commit too many turnovers and have problems forcing turnovers. The numbers are ugly for the Wolverines. Michigan currently has a combined turnover margin of -13. They are averaging -1.9 turnovers per game and are second to last in the nation in turnover margin. Michigan also ranks 122nd in FBS for interceptions thrown with 1.6 per game. On the flip side, the Spartans are tenth in the nation in turnover margin per game with +1.3. Also, the Spartans are fifth in the nation in takeaways per game. Their defense is opportunistic and they feast on their opponent’s mistakes. Nothing will end this game quicker for Michigan than committing turnovers. Along with that, the Wolverines’ defense must also force turnovers. The defense is playing pretty well this year. They currently rank 10th in the nation. One thing the defense hasn’t been able to do this year is cause turnovers. The Wolverines are dead last in the nation in takeaways per game. They are averaging only 0.4 takeaways per game. For the Wolverines to beat the Spartans they have to take care of the football and the defense has to force at least a single turnover.
2. Solid Offensive Line
The offensive line’s struggles have been well documented over the past few years. In last year’s game against Michigan State, the offensive line struggled mightily with its young core. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked seven times. The images of Gardner on the ground still have Spartans fans salivating. The Wolverines also finished that game with -48 yards rushing. Obviously, that’s not the kind of ground game Michigan wanted and it can’t afford to play that way this year as well. The offensive line will have a tough task of holding off the Spartans’ defensive line all game. The offensive line doesn’t have to play lights out, but they have to do better than last year in protecting the pocket. They have to be solid at the very least. If they just protect Gardner and give their running backs pockets to run through, the Wolverines will be fine.
3. Pressure Connor Cook
The Spartans’ offense is having a monster year and it’s been led by quarterback Conner Cook. Cook has thrown for 1,641 yards so far this year. The Spartans’ offense is averaging 47 points per game. Last year, they had a great defense that was carrying the team for much of the year. This year, both units are contributing. The Spartans look balanced and high octane. Unlike Michigan, Michigan State has an offensive line full of juniors and seniors. Their offense ranks 12th overall in the nation. For Michigan to succeed against this offense, they must be sound and bring a lot of pressure. The Wolverines’ defense can’t afford to give Cook a lot of time in the pocket. Michigan’s defensive line has played well this year. They have to play better than that against the Spartans though. Like most quarterbacks, Cook struggles with pressure. He has only been sacked four times this year, so getting to the quarterback will be tough. The line does an excellent job of protecting him. However, Cook does have five interceptions this year and all have come while he was pressured. He has thrown a pick in his last three games. If Michigan can put some pressure on Cook and slow down the offense, they will have a great chance at winning a defensive battle.
4. Distribute The Ball
Michigan has had troubles on the offensive side of the ball these past few years. This year that trend has continued. The Wolverines currently rank 66th overall in rushing offense and 105th in passing offense, giving them a No. 111 ranking overall in the nation. First year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was supposed to cure a lot of the offensive ills. That’s hasn’t happened yet. This year, the ground game has averaged 4.6 yards per carry. The passing rating is 111.46. The Wolverines are also averaging 21.7 points per game. If the Wolverines want to stay in this game, they have to be balanced on offense. That means they must get a rushing attack going. The line has to hold up and give Gardner time. Nussmeier has to open up the playbook. Michigan State has a weak linebacker core and if Michigan can expose that, they will get points on the board. Receivers other than Devin Funchess have to get open. Michigan has to utilize more players on offense. They just have to play a solid game offensively, because that has been the Achilles heel of the Wolverines all year. The defense will do its part, but the offense has to contribute also.
Have The Right Mentality
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio understood what this rivalry meant when he arrived here. After suffering a loss to Michigan in his first season in East Lansing, he famously stated, “I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. But just remember, pride comes before the fall… This game is an important game. So they want to mock us all they want to mock us, I’m telling them: it’s not over. So they can print that crap all they want all over their locker room. It’s not over. It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting… I’m going to be head coach here for a long time. It’s not over. It’s just starting.” Ever since that statement by Dantonio, his team has beaten the Wolverines every year since 2007, except for one loss in 2012. The Spartans inherited their coach’s mentality. They have beaten the Wolverines both in Spartan Stadium and at the Big House. They have beaten Michigan convincingly. Spartans players play with an edge, with discipline and with a chip on their shoulders. The Wolverines haven’t had that kind of mentality since 2007. Also troubling for Michigan is that they have struggled on the road with Brady Hoke as their coach. They are 6-10 on the road and 1-2 against Michigan State during his tenure. For this Saturday’s matchup, Michigan is a 17-point underdog. This is the largest spread in the Spartans’ favor in the history of this great rivalry. If Michigan plays like their talent allows them to, they will succeed. It’s a mental game, and up until now, the Spartans have had the edge.
Michigan is playing for their coach and for their season. They are playing for their fans and for their school. Perhaps most importantly, they are playing for their pride. Contrary to popular belief, Michigan State is beatable. Michigan can pull off the upset if they do these things. If the Wolverines win, it will most likely be a shallow victory when you look at the big picture, but it’s still State week and it’s still important. The Wolverines love to play the role of spoiler and they will get a chance to do that today.