Team 136’s Week 7 Preview: The Battle for the Bunyan

Michigan has lost six of the last seven meetings with Michigan State. In those games, Michigan was embarrassed in every facet. Enter Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan player and arguably the most intense coach in the country. He knows the rivalry, knows what it takes to win, and won’t take anything less that 110% effort when facing this in-state foe.

Michigan State started the season as the number two team in the country. Their ranking has dropped almost every week since, without losing a game. Coming into the week, the seventh ranked MSU Spartans are six and half point underdogs. That may be a shock to some, but with the way the Wolverines have been playing, it’s no surprise at all.  

Rushing Offense against MSU

As crazy as this may sound, Michigan’s backfield is still unsettled. They have a plethora of capable backs that continue to compete for playing time. Harbaugh’s teams thrive off of competition, which shows with the number of backs getting carries.

Last week’s bombshell in the backfield was freshman running back Karan Higdon – not because he entered the game burning his redshirt, but because of how early he entered it. Higdon finished second in carries with eight for 16 yards. De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson are both nursing injuries, but should be able to give it a go ahead of Higdon. Higdon gives Michigan a different style of back, as he looks to be a little shiftier than Smith or Johnson.  

Since Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, Michigan State has been known for its stingy defense. Only allowing 130 yards rushing per game to its opponents this year, things are no different. They did lose defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (now the head coach at Pitt), but they continue to use the same aggressive style of play.

New starting linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke have joined returning starter Darien Harris to form your typical productive MSU line backing core. Bullough heads the group with 55 tackles, 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage.  

Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas help shape one of the most physically impressive defensive lines in the Big 10. They combine for 13.5 tackles for loss through six games.  

Put these two core groups together and it’s hard to find running room. Air Force has been the only team to crack the 200 yard mark against the Spartans in 2015.  

Advantage: Push

The game will be won in the trenches, but this one is too close to choose either side.  A much improved Michigan offensive line will be tested all day by a strong and experienced MSU front seven.

Passing Offense against MSU

Jake Rudock is becoming more comfortable with his surroundings. With another turnover-free game under his belt, his confidence should be on the rise. He’s good at the play action and screen passes and solid with the check downs, but has yet to hit the deep ball.  

This may be the game Michigan opens up the passing attack. Throughout their 5-1 start, the Wolverines have been somewhat conservative.  Could they be keeping some stuff in the closet for big games like this? Maybe.  Rudock needs to be sure when making a pass though, as Michigan can’t afford to make mistakes against a veteran team like MSU. The Spartans know by now that the tight ends will be a significant part of the offense, so expect a heavier workload for Jehu Chesson and the receivers.  

Michigan State will be without fifth year senior safety RJ Williamson, who has a torn biceps muscle and may be out a significant amount of time. They will also be without cornerbacks Vayante Copeland and potentially Darian Hicks.  Hicks suffered concussion-like symptoms after a hit to the head last week against Rutgers. Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colqhoun may be the starting cornerbacks come Saturday.  

They still possess some talent in the secondary. Safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson are all highly athletic playmakers. Cox leads the secondary with four pass breakups and 32 tackles.  

Advantage: Push

Michigan could have been holding some things back but they haven’t proven anything just yet. They should be able to take advantage of the inexperienced MSU corners. MSU is capable of making big stops, especially in a rivalry game. Too close to call it either way.

Rushing Defense against MSU

This Michigan defensive line continues to impress. Holding Northwestern, a team that was averaging over 200 yards rushing, to 38 yards is quite the feat. Every man that is playing on this line is making plays in the backfield. This team is relying on its defensive line to stop the run and force mistakes. Each week it seems like a different lineman is stepping up.

Linebacker James Ross will miss the first half of the game due to a targeting penalty he received last game. Ross will be missed on the defense and in special teams.  

MSU will trot out a couple of freshmen to carry the load. Madre London is the starter at running back, with LJ Scott spelling him. London hurt his ankle last game and there is no word on if he will be available. These two freshmen have combined for over 800 yards and nine touchdowns. Both big powerful backs, they run with a bruising style and will need more than arm tackles to be taken down. If London is unable to go, Delton Williams and Gerald Holmes will be ready to back up Scott.

The Michigan State offensive line is a work in progress. Starting left tackle Jack Conklin is scheduled to return from injury, but now center Jack Allen may be unavailable due to a leg injury sustained late in the last contest against Maryland.  

Advantage: Michigan

With MSU coming in with a questionable offensive line, it will be hard to handle this dominant Michigan front.  

Passing Defense against MSU

MSU quarterback Connor Cook is considered a potential first round draft pick on some NFL boards. He has been considerably efficient, throwing for 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Cook can make any throw on the field but has yet to face a defense like Michigan.

Cook’s top target is wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has 35 catches for 570 yards- that’s 16.3 yards per reception. He is averaging 95 yards a game, 60 more yards per game than anyone else on the roster. Could we see Jourdan Lewis draw this assignment?

Lewis continues to lock down the opposing team’s best wide receivers. Continuing his tear across college football, he will more than likely spend a majority of his afternoon tailing Burbridge and forcing Cook to look elsewhere.

The rest of the secondary has been no slouch, but cannot afford to drop easy interceptions like they did during the Northwestern game.  

The Michigan defensive line will not allow Cook time to sit in the pocket and make easy throws. The Wolverine defense has 15 sacks on the season and, against a banged up MSU offensive line, they smell blood in the water. MSU struggled with Maryland’s defensive line last week.  

Advantage: Michigan

Michigan’s defensive backs are ready to prove that they are one of the top units in the country.  The Michigan defensive line will once again prove to be too much for its counterpart.  Bottling up Cook will be key to a victory.

Special Teams against MSU

Michigan’s special teams unit is slowly becoming one of the more impressive parts of the team. Using several starters on all units, it shows just how much the coaches value field position.

Michigan punter Blake O’Neill continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the most valuable pieces of the team. O’Neill remains consistent, pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line 14 times this season.  

MSU is usually strong on special teams, especially in the kicking game, but this season has been a struggle. Usually reliable kicker Michael Geiger has only made 55% of his field goal tries on the year. They are also struggling to protect, having allowed three blocked kicks.

Advantage: Michigan

Jehu Chesson and Jabrill Peppers are dangerous in the return game, and MSU is allowing over 20 yards a return on kick returns. Field position will play a key role in this rivalry game.  

Prediction: Michigan 24 – Michigan State 13

At the beginning of the season, we all expected MSU to continue their dominance over a rebuilding Michigan team. Now, it’s looking like Michigan is back- faster than anyone expected. It’s hard to predict anyone scoring points against the Wolverines with Michigan’s defense playing the way it is, but this is a rivalry. Crazy things happen in rivalry games, but that’s just part of what makes them so great (or something like that).

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tony Ding