Breakdown: No. 7 Michigan vs. Michigan State
Three. That’s how many times football has been played under the lights at Michigan Stadium.
On Saturday night, that number will go up to four.
At 7:30 p.m., the No. 7 Michigan football team will take on Michigan State in the 110th edition of the in-state rivalry.
The Wolverines (1-0, Big Ten, 4-0 overall) will face the Spartans (1-0, 3-1) at Michigan Stadium for the first time since an infamous botched punt cost them a certain victory in 2015. While Michigan exacted revenge with a 32-23 win last year in East Lansing, Michigan State’s 2-5 record at the time somewhat marred its significance. Though the Spartans are still unranked, it won’t be hard to see the significance of the game Saturday.
Here’s how the two teams match up:
Michigan pass offense vs Michigan State pass defense
For the first time this season, fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn will be leading the Wolverines out of the tunnel and onto the field at Michigan Stadium.
O’Korn has been handed the keys to the offense after redshirt junior Wilton Speight’s injury against Purdue, and he has been lauded for his attitude both on and off the field. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown to topple the Boilermakers on the road, and he has had the bye week to prepare for Michigan State.
The Spartans will provide a stiff challenge in his first start, though, as they rank fifth nationally in passing efficiency defense and ninth in passing yards allowed. While O’Korn’s chemistry with his receivers looked solid against Purdue, Michigan State could throw the unit for a loop.
Edge: Michigan State
Michigan run offense vs Michigan State run defense
After falling behind fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon, sophomore running back Chris Evans had his breakout game against the Boilermakers, gaining 99 yards on 14 carries and scoring two touchdowns.
While Isaac is still expected to be the starting back — he leads the trio with an average of 89 yards per game — Evans will likely receive more carries than he has in recent weeks. The rotation has worked well for Michigan a third of the way through its season, so all three backs should play a role against Michigan State.
Though impressive, the Spartans’ rush defense, which ranks 16th nationally, isn’t quite as strong as its pass defense. Linebackers Chris Frey and Joe Bachie will head Michigan State’s efforts to stop the Wolverines’ staunch trio. But with three reliable backs, Michigan should be able to gain the advantage.
Michigan State pass offense vs Michigan pass defense
When it comes to the offense, quarterback Brian Lewerke belongs in both of the next two sections. On the passing side, he has thrown for 963 yards with a 63.2 completion percentage and eight touchdowns.
His main target, receiver Felton Davis, has caught 21 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns. No other wideout has more than one score. Davis will be expected to maintain that trend, as Michigan State’s passing game has the edge over its run game.
For Michigan, the rush defense is the star of the show, but the pass defense still performs admirably. While the secondary will face a unique challenge against Lewerke’s dual-threat nature, it seems prepared to handle it.
Michigan State run offense vs Michigan run defense
Lewerke is the single player most important to Michigan State’s success, and not just because of his arm. He is also the leading rusher for the Spartans.
Lewerke has rushed for 278 yards on 38 attempts and scored two touchdowns. By comparison, Michigan State’s lead running back, LJ Scott, has gained 227 yards on 58 attempts and has only scored once.
He hasn’t gone up against the Wolverines’ front four, though. The defensive line is the heart and soul of Michigan’s No. 1 overall defense, leading the nation in sacks and not trailing by much in tackles-for-loss. Lewerke might run straight into a brick wall against the Wolverines.
The story seems pretty set for Michigan in this phase of the game.
Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin has become a reliable source of points for a struggling offense this season. If called upon against Michigan State, Nordin can be expected to put the ball through the uprights.
Sophomore punter Will Hart has faced numerous problems in his first season as the starter. Though he has averaged 37 yards per punt with a long of 61, he has been responsible for multiple obvious errors. Freshman Brad Robbins took over against Purdue, punting seven times with an average of 40 yards. Robbins will likely retain that starting spot against the Spartans.
Michigan State hasn’t done much in the kicking game, but punter Jake Hartbarger averages 43 yards on his attempts, slightly bypassing Hart.
With the Paul Bunyan trophy on the line in a historic edition of the in-state rivalry, there is a lot at stake for both teams.
But in three previous night games at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines have come away with a victory. They are favored to do the same in their fourth this Saturday.
Not many in Ann Arbor have forgotten the events of that dreary October night two seasons ago. Michigan surely hasn’t. That’s as big a motivational tool as it gets.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Michigan State 14