Eyes on the Enemy: Michigan State

Football

Littered with memorable moments like Devin Bush tarnishing the midfield Spartan logo last season and Blake O’Neill’s infamous mishandled punt snap in 2015, the annual state-dividing matchup between the Michigan football team and Michigan State hasn’t failed to live up to the hype in recent years.

While the rivalry is typically among the country’s most competitive, the teams have taken vastly different trajectories in 2019. The 15th-ranked Wolverines (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) appear to own a significant talent advantage this season, but the idea of Michigan State (4-5, 2-4) playing its best football in its last meaningful game of the season is far from out of the question.

It’s been an unforgettable season for the Spartans, who haven’t won a game since September, in all the wrong ways. Head coach Mark Dantonio has lost six players to the transfer portal this fall and, while the Wolverines spent last week enjoying a bye ahead of the regular season homestretch, Michigan State blew a 25-point lead against Illinois in East Lansing.

Now, Michigan has a chance to land the knockout blow. How, exactly, can the Wolverines do so?

Pressure the quarterback early and often

After allowing just 94 yards in last season’s matchup, Michigan once again must prioritize pressuring Spartans’ quarterback Connor Lewerke. Though Devin Bush, Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are all now in the NFL, the Wolverines are still one of four Big Ten teams averaging over three sacks per game, while Michigan State has allowed only 12 — the fewest in the conference.

The Spartans have struggled to move the ball in their last three outings, averaging 314.7 yards per game — good for 106th-best in the country. If Michigan’s pass-rushers can pressure Lewerke from the outset, Michigan State may struggle to reach the century mark for the second consecutive season.

This is a matchup where Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Mike Danna and Josh Uche can really swing the pendulum in the Wolverines’ favor with their ability to win one-on-one battles coming off the edge.

Pile on the points early

If you thought the Spartans’ offense was going through a rough patch, its once-vaunted defense has been brutalized just as badly. Michigan State has allowed an average of over 400 yards and 34 points per game since the beginning of October, while opponents have outscored the Spartans by 86 points during that stretch.

For a Michigan offense that out-gained Penn State and Notre Dame by a combined 391 yards, Saturday is a golden opportunity to blow the game open early. With the game at home, it shouldn’t take long for Josh Gattis’ offense to settle in. If the Wolverines can go up by double-digits early in the first half, there’s a chance the demoralized Spartans call it a day — and a season. But if Michigan State hangs around for a half or so, it won’t take long for things to get interesting.

The verdict

The rivalry aspect adds a unique flair of uncertainty to a battle between programs trending in opposite directions, but the talent discrepancy is too much to overlook. Neither team has won a home game against the other during the Harbaugh era, but all signs point to that changing on Saturday afternoon.

Final: Michigan 31, Michigan State 10

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