In terms of predictions, at least those pertaining to a score, not much has changed on this end: No. 2-ranked Michigan should slap around unranked Michigan State this Saturday in East Lansing. Already favored by 24 points, the 7-0 Wolverines shouldn’t have much trouble scoring as many points as they want, when they want, and how they want.
We’re talking blowout status. We’re talking arguing spots on third… never mind, second down with a 30-point lead in the fourth. Seniors and starters playing until the very end. It’ll be a “fair, honest and healthy competition,” as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh described the in-state rivalry earlier this week. He should have added “ugly” to that mix. Maybe “unfair,” too.
Harbaugh has a loaded hand and plenty of reason to believe his team will knock out MSU. Dantonio, who believes his team can win, has to cross his fingers and hope for the best. He didn’t even release a depth chart this week. For the first time in 50 years, the Spartans didn’t make a depth chart available to the media.
“Spartan” was used for every position, every player name.
A lot of time has been dedicated to the Spartans versus Wolverines this week. This game, as usual, sparked a lot of great conversations, interviews and debates throughout the past few days. However, it’s more satisfying to discuss when it’s not so one-sided.
This year will be one-sided.
So, with that said, let’s take care of the score prediction right now: UM 56, MSU 13 (adjusted from 56-10).
Why so tilted? For the (obvious) reasons listed in the Monday preview column, actually. Pretty simple stuff, so there’s no reason to rehash. Today, for the final preview of UM vs. MSU, let’s focus on specific predictions — such as players of the game, who to watch (and why), and other interesting angles/questions.
Is this the beginning of the end of Mark Dantonio’s reign over Michigan?
This gets asked every day. The answer never changes. No. Michigan needs to go on a streak before even considering that idea.
What about the rivalry? It’s impossible to discount that emotion and go all-in on Michigan!
Usually, that rule applies. Michigan State has, indeed, won as an underdog. However, that rule does not apply this year. It is very easy to discount the emotional aspect and view this game as an incredible mismatch.
Will the Wolverines go 12-0?
Name one team on their schedule that can beat them. Other than the season finale at Ohio State, there isn’t much standing in the way of a perfect season for Harbaugh’s Wolverines.
Will the Spartans qualify for a bowl game?
No. A 4-8 finish seems all but set in stone — and that’s win or lose Saturday.
Players of the Game — Michigan
UM quarterback Wilton Speight has done everything to suggest that he’s ready for an important rivalry game. Ball security always matters in this game, and the 6-foot-6, 240-pound redshirt sophomore has only thrown two picks this season. Expecting him to throw for 250 yards and at least three touchdowns makes perfect sense.
Despite being one of Michigan’s best receivers, fifth-year senior Jehu Chesson has never had a huge rivalry game. In 2015, he had four catches for 58 yards during a 27-23 loss to Michigan State. He was injured in 2014, so he didn’t play. In 2013, a 29-6 loss, he had three catches for 82 yards against the Spartans.
Like many others on both sides, Chesson didn’t grow up in Michigan. However, the rivalry has become a part of his being. It takes some time for out-of-staters, but everyone eventually grasps the full meaning of the game at some point during their career.
“I really think being here for five years now, you’ve made so many emotional ties and relationships with people — whether they’re football players or not, or people who grew up in Michigan…” Chesson said. “Obviously when I came here my freshman year, (iconic equipment manager) Jon Falk made sure we knew the importance of the Paul Bunyan Trophy, The (Little Brown) Jug, the importance of the Notre Dame rivalry…
“But I just really think that being here for so long — you know, playing football here — and especially what happened to us in past years at State, I definitely have a big emotional investment in this game.”
Michigan’s passing game has made leaps and bounds since Chesson’s arrival. Expect the senior to capitalize on Michigan State’s No. 13-ranked passing defense (in the Big Ten) this weekend in East Lansing. Something in the range of six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown sounds reasonable.
Cases could be made for anyone at any position. Michigan is stocked from front-to-back, so “pick your poison,” as Jabrill Peppers said two weeks ago when asked to assess the strength of his team. Peppers could easily do major damage in the return game. Chris Wormley could end up with a couple of sacks, leading the D-line to signature shut-down performance.
One of the running backs could make light work of MSU’s No. 10-ranked (in the Big Ten) total defense. Karan Higdon, a sophomore, has thrown up back-to-back 100-yard games. Chris Evans, a true freshman, could rattle off 100 this Saturday — that’s if he’s healthy.
On Tuesday, Evans, who suffered a concussion versus Illinois, was spotted leaving practice at Schembechler Hall. With that said, it’s unknown if he practiced. The extent of his participation has not been disclosed. But he was there.
In 2015, De’Veon Smith — now a senior — rushed 19 times for 46 yards against MSU. In 2014, he rushed 11 times for 39 yards and a touchdown. He might be due for a rival romp.
Everything appears to be clicking on offense for the Wolverines. So again, pick a guy and see what happens.
Players of the Game — Michigan State
For the sake of being somewhat balanced, and to avoid being overly sarcastic, two Spartans will be picked for potential players of the game.
This one sounds lazy, but it’s not: Some backup guy. Dantonio has a bunch of them. Some of them, such as Jalen Watts-Jackson, have immortalized themselves at MSU with one play. Watts-Jackson, a second-string defensive back, scooped up the blocked punt and scored the game-winning touchdown versus UM in 2015.
If it’s a close game, some random Spartans redshirt junior could end up deciding the outcome with a fumble recovery, special teams play or interception.
Assuming he starts, quarterback Brian Lewerke really has to be careful Saturday. With two starts, the redshirt freshman will face the most aggressive defense to date. He’s already been rocked a few times. An early pick, or a sack and a fumble, or consistent inconsistencies could shut the door on any type of upset for the Spartans, who have won seven of the past nine versus UM — but they’ve also lost five in a row, for the first time, under Dantonio.
It’d be hard to imagine Lewerke doing much of anything. Drops have plagued receivers. He has little to no protection from the offensive line. The Wolverines could easily hold the Spartans to 200 or fewer total yards of offense. They allow barely two yards per carry and have the No. 2-ranked passing defense, in terms of efficiency, in the nation.
On Tuesday, UM safety Delano Hill said his team planned to immediately test the young quarterback.
“We focus on it a lot. Sometimes coach (defensive coordinator Don) Brown will tell us, ‘He’s a young quarterback… you know what to expect… put him on his back,'” said Hill, who has a 27-yard pick-6 and 10 tackles through seven games.
That pretty much says it all. Michigan knows that it’s time to really assert dominance.
Expect such on Saturday.
Other likely happenings…
UM doesn’t allow an MSU running back to rush for more than 60 yards.
MSU wide receivers combine for, at most, 150 yards on the day.
UM doesn’t give up a red-zone rushing touchdown.
MSU makes three red-zone trips, at most, on Saturday.
MSU breaks just one big play of 25 yards or more. UM has given up a few this year. However, UM defensive players cited that as a main focus heading into Saturday.
UM fullback Khalid Hill scores at least twice. With just 15 attempts for 25 yards, he leads the Big Ten with eight rushing touchdowns (tied with Rodney Smith of Minnesota, who has 133 carries).
MSU sacks Speight just once, if it all — Speight’s been sacked 11 times this year, and roughed-up by UCF and Colorado (to an extent), but he’s quite mobile… and he has an offensive line that continues to improve each week. Star Spartans defensive tackle Malik McDowell just snagged his first sack of the season during this past Saturday’s 28-17 road loss to Maryland. He won’t get one Saturday.
UM jumps out to two-touchdown lead within first half of first quarter. Basically, the Wolverines should score TDs on their first two possessions.
Harbaugh goes for 2 at some point, regardless of score. He’ll try a new formation and explain how the timing was right for a test run.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) October 27, 2016