Game of the Week: Michigan State vs. Michigan
We are nearly halfway through the college football regular season, and conference play has officially begun. While everyone may already have an idea of which teams are College Football Playoff contenders and which team will compete for their respective conference championships, there is still so much to be decided.
Week 6 in college football contains only two ranked matchups, but this in-state Big Ten East division clash between the Spartans and the Wolverines is one to keep an eye on.
Michigan won the last matchup a year ago in East Lansing and leads the all-time series at 36-26-2. However, Michigan State has won seven of the last nine matchups, including a notorious last second botched punt from Michigan that led to a walk-off win in Jim Harbaugh’s first year with the Wolverines in 2015.
Mark Dantonio’s team plummeted to a 3-9 record last season after a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff berth in 2015, but the Spartans are off to a 3-1 start in 2017.
Michigan, on the other hand, was primed for their first outright Big Ten title since 2003, but two late regular season losses wiped that out.
Michigan may have lost ten starters on defense from last year’s team, but the Wolverines still have every bit of a championship caliber unit this season.
Defensive coordinator Dom Brown runs an aggressive 3-4 scheme that will rotate as many as 20 players through the lineup.
Michigan’s young secondary still has questions, as they have forced only two turnovers through four games, but they do rank fourth in the FBS in passing yards allowed.
The strength of this unit, however, is once again in the front seven. Star defensive linemen Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary, along with a stellar group of linebackers led by Devin Bush and Mike McCray, lead a unit that ranks first in the FBS against the run.
Michigan State’s young offense will have their first major test against this defense. Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is one of the more under the radar players in the Big Ten. He is completing 63 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He also leads the team in rushing and averages 6.5 yards per carry.
They also have a dangerous duo of running backs in L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes. The biggest weakness for Michigan State is their young offensive line, as the Spartans average just 4.5 yards per carry. That may be an issue against a relentless Michigan defensive front.
The biggest Michigan storyline heading into this week though, was that starting quarterback Wilton Speight will be out multiple weeks with a neck/head injury. The Wolverines will turn to senior John O’Korn.
As good as they are defensively, inexperience at the skill positions and ineffectiveness at quarterback leave many people doubting Michigan’s ceiling.
In four games, Speight completed just 54 percent of his passes with only three touchdowns to two interceptions. When O’Korn entered in the second half for the injured Speight, the offense moved much more efficiently. He would finish 18 for 26 with 270 yards.
One has to think that if O’Korn continues to plays well while Speight is out, the Wolverines may stick with him.
The good news is that the Wolverines have a deep stable of running backs in Ty Isaac, Chris Evans, and Karan Higdon.
Michigan suffered a big blow when they lost a talented true freshman wide receiver in Tarik Black for the season with a foot injury. However, they still have a pair of inexperienced, but explosive receivers in Grant Perry and Donovan Peoples-Jones, who will look to carry the load from here on out. Sean McKeon has also been a reliable tight end thus far.
Michigan State’s defense is also very young, but they have played well outside of a blowout loss to Notre Dame in week three. The unit still ranks 16th against the run and ninth against the pass among FBS teams, so O’Korn will have a much tougher test than the one at Purdue last week.
Michigan is the much better team on paper to this point, but there is always a different feel to in-state rivalry games.
The Wolverines will win, especially since they are at home under the lights in the Big House, one of the toughest places to play in America.
Michigan is expected to win, so it will not be considered a statement victory. The thing to look out for is how their offense runs differently with O’Korn at the helm for a full game.
The defense is championship caliber, but Michigan will not be a national championship contender until they can resolve their quarterback issues.
Maybe O’Korn is the answer, but if he is not, Harbaugh and his team’s ceiling will have a hard cap.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Michigan State 13
Will Desautelle is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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Junior / Broadcast Journalism and Political Science