The No.2 Michigan Wolverines (7-0, 4-0) have shown dominance in every aspect of the game thus far. The maize and blue average the third most points per game on offense (48.7 PPG) and stand as the nation’s top scoring defense (10.0 PPG). They also allow only 207 total yards per game, the best in the FBS. Following Ohio State’s surprising loss on Saturday, the maize and blue now stand as the team to beat in the Big Ten.
However, no amount of success in 2016 can fully extinguish some of the haunting memories from 2015. This Saturday, they’ll have the chance to avenge last year’s worst moment when they travel to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans.
To say last year’s loss to Sparty was heartbreaking might be an understatement. Up 23-21 with merely ten seconds to play, Michigan lined up to punt in hopes of putting the game away and bringing the Paul Bunyan Trophy to Ann Arbor.
Suddenly, disaster struck for the Wolverines as punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap and the ball was picked up by Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson who ran it back 38 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The Spartans didn’t look back from there as they went on to win the Big Ten East Division title and the Big Ten Championship Game en route to the College Football Playoff.
This year, however, both teams have been going in opposite directions. While Michigan has ascended to the upper echelon of the college football world, Michigan State has descended to the cellar. The Spartans (2-5, 0-4) are currently on a five-game losing streak and in danger of becoming ineligible for a bowl game for the first time since 2006, the year before current head coach Mark D’Antonio was hired.
Part of Michigan State’s struggles have come from the quarterback position. Senior Tyler O’Connor leads the team with 1257 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was benched due to a foot injury in last week’s game against Maryland. If he can’t come back, or Mark D’Antonio wants a different starter, expect redshirt-freshman Brian Lewerke to lead the charge. It is also possible that the Spartans use a two-quarterback system with both Lewerke and O’Connor.
Sophomore L.J. Scott and junior Gerald Holmes lead the running attack for Sparty. Scott leads the team with 464 yards and 93 carries while Holmes leads the team with four touchdowns. Brian Lewerke is third on the team in rushing yards with 125 on 18 carries.
Whoever starts at quarterback for Michigan State will target senior R.J. Shelton early and often. Shelton leads the Spartans with 541 receiving yards, 31 receptions and four touchdowns. He’ll look to get open against the Wolverines secondary along with Donnie Corley, Monty Madaris, Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles, all of whom have at least 100 receiving yards.
Players to Watch
Wilton Speight-Speight has been a more than reliable quarterback for most of this year. However, he will have a big test ahead of him in Michigan State’s defense. In the past five meetings between the two teams, the Spartans have only let up an average of 157.8 passing yards a game while limiting Michigan quarterbacks to a 49.6 pass-completion percentage. In fact, the last passing touchdown that Michigan had against Sparty was back in 2011, when Denard Robinson was the starter. Now Speight certainly isn’t Robinson, nor is he Devin Gardner or Jake Ruddock, but he’ll have to stop a downward trend that has cost the Wolverines too often when facing Michigan State.
The Running Game-Maize-and-Blue Quarterbacks aren’t the only ones who have gotten stifled by Sparty’s defense the last five years. In those same meetings, Michigan has averaged just 64 yards on the ground. Granted, one of those games was a -48 yard disaster back in 2013. There always seems to be someone who steps up for the Wolverines on the ground. This week’ they’ll need a full house.
Michigan’s Defense–If, worst case scenario, Michigan can’t get anything going offensively against State, again, they’ll at least have to be able to fight fire with fire. Michigan’s defense has arguably been their greatest strength throughout the year, but it hasn’t faced a truly good offense in a while. Now Michigan State may not be an elite offense, but they’ll certainly give this Wolverines unit a challenge that they need to be ready for.
The game will be broadcast this Saturday at 12 p.m. on ESPN and on the WatchESPN App.