Rivalry week is here. Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines 4-0 (1-0) take on Mark Dantonio and the Spartans 3-1 (1-0) in a showdown under the lights at Michigan Stadium, and this hasn’t been an easy game for Michigan in recent years.
These are the four main things to watch during the game:
MSU Rushing Attack
The determining factor nearly every year in this rivalry game is which team can run the ball most effectively for four quarters. Michigan State is going to have to establish the run if they want to come into the Big House and pull out the upset. Michigan’s defense doesn’t give up much, but I think the best way to get the running backs going is through aggressive play calling on first downs. Watch for MSU to come out firing early on first downs with an aerial attack on Michigan’s young DBs.
If MSU can find success with that early, it can open up the run game against the stout Michigan front, and that can be MSU’s key to success in this game. LJ Scott is one of the most talented running backs in the Big Ten, and Michigan’s defense should be heavily focused on stopping him and putting the Spartan offense in third and long situations. But look out for Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke, who is also a very shifty and athletic runner himself. In fact, he’s leading the team in rushing through four games. Michigan needs to make sure to contain him when scrambling on passing downs. If MSU fails to establish the run against Michigan, look for it to be a long game for the Spartans.
Michigan Rushing Attack
Can Michigan finally put together a solid, full game on offense? Through four games, we’ve yet to see this offense move the ball with any kind of regularity. New starting quarterback John O’Korn seemed to provide a spark for the Wolverines in their win over Purdue, but can he perform on a consistent basis?
The key to O’Korn having a solid game is to establish the rushing attack early. Ty Isaac has had a solid start to the season, and Chris Evans finally looked like himself in the last game against Purdue. If they can get going early, that’ll open up the play-action for O’Korn and possibly some easy completions to get his confidence boosted early on in the game. The way Michigan’s rushing attack performs early in the game will be a key factor in whether O’Korn performs well or not.
Lewerke has been hailed by many as the next great Spartan quarterback (they’ve put out a few good ones in recent years) but his first chance in the spotlight against Notre Dame didn’t quite go the way that he wanted it to. He had a couple of turnovers result in 14 Notre Dame points, and he’s going to have to limit those if he wants to beat Michigan. The potential is certainly there (he threw for 340 yards and 2 touchdowns, and added 56 yards on the ground vs. Notre Dame) but it remains to be seen whether or not Lewerke can live up to the hype. He took better care of the football last week in the win against Iowa, and he’s going to need to do that again if the Spartans are going to have a chance at knocking off Michigan.
Michigan should have a real advantage in the special teams department this year, – yes, Spartan fans, I know you’re lining up to make a joke about how they didn’t have that advantage last time they played against MSU in the Big House – and Quinn Nordin and Donovan Peoples-Jones are absolutely the reasons why. DPJ is turning into a real threat as a returner and a receiver, and may be the most athletic player on Michigan’s entire football team, which is definitely saying something. I’m willing to bet that if the Spartans choose to kick it to DPJ all game, he might just break one loose. Nordin, meanwhile, has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s gone 11/13 on field goals so far this season, with a long of 55 yards. If it’s a tight game late, and Michigan needs a field goal, Nordin can certainly be counted on to come through.
What will you be watching for in the 2017 Michigan vs. Michigan State match up under the lights? Let us know in the comment section below!
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