The in-state rivalry between the Wolverines and Spartans heats up this year as both vie for the chance to play in Pasadena on January 1.
Michigan, 6-1, is on a roll and has rattled off six straight victories, including a dominating win over Wisconsin last week. The Wolverines have moved all the way up to No. 6 in the polls and boast the top defense in the country.
Michigan State, 4-2, has had a Jeckyll and Hyde type season with surprising losses to Arizona State and Northwestern, but rallied for a solid victory over No. 8 Penn State last week.
There are two key matchups in this game:
- The Michigan State passing attack against the Michigan defense
- The Michigan run-game against Michigan State’s defense
Michigan State, under Mark Dantonio, been a hard-nosed, run the football, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type football team. But this year’s squad, led by junior quarterback Brian Lewerke and the receiving core of senior Felton Davis III, junior Darrell Stewart Jr., and sophomore Cody White, have turned the Spartans into a pass-first team. Michigan, however, has the top-ranked pass defense in the country in terms of passing yards allowed and ranks fifth nationally in passing defense efficiency. Last week, the Wolverines held Wisconsin to 7-of-20 passing for 100 yards and picked off two passes. The Spartans have the fourth best passing offense in the Big Ten, but Lewerke has proven careless at time with the football, throwing seven interceptions already this season. If the Spartans plan to attack through the air, as they have for the majority of this season, Lewerke will need to make sure he finds the guys in green, not the maize and blue.
Michigan has been at their best in 2018 when they have been able to run the ball effectively. The Wolverines have a balanced offense, 207 passing yards per game compared to 217 on the ground. In Michigan’s lone loss in 2018, the Wolverines were held to 58 rushing yards against Notre Dame. Since then, Michigan has run for at least 171 yards in each game and surpassed the 300-yard mark twice. Senior Karan Higdon has been the top running back for the Wolverines this year, but now healthy junior Chris Evans can spell him at times and is particularly effective in the passing game. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has the ability to run the ball but hadn’t been used much this season until last week against Wisconsin, when he accounted for 90 yards on the ground. Michigan State, on the other hand, has held opponents under 63 yards rushing in five of six games this season and leads the country in rushing defense. Junior linebacker Joe Bachie leads the charge on defense with 43 total tackles, but two of the next three top tacklers for Michigan State come from their secondary, proving that the Spartans rally to stop the run from all levels of their defense.
When rivals meet, especially in-state rivals, it doesn’t matter who the “better” team is because both teams circled this game on their schedule and will come ready to play. Michigan State has won four of the last five games against Michigan, but the last three games have been decided by an average of six points.