No. 7 Michigan (4-0) hosts rival Michigan State (3-1) on Saturday at 7:30 PM ET. The Wolverines opened as 13-point favorites, but that number has dropped to 10.
Michigan has had difficulty establishing a rhythm and producing consistent drives. Against Florida in the season opener, for instance, 303 of Michigan's 433 yards derived from 11 plays. Michigan's big plays have masked its offensive struggles even against understaffed teams like Florida or otherwise inferior competition.
U-M cannot rely on backup quarterback John O'Korn to win for them (Wilton Speight is out), especially due to the absence of a go-to receiver, the reduced depth at WR due to Tarik Black's injury, and the lack of experience and chemistry at the position. Offensive line troubles are why Michigan is 113th in sacks allowed per game. The Wolverines like to grind out drives and Top 25 in time of possession. They rely on a highly talented duo at running back, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac.
The Spartans will devote extra attention to Michigan's run game. Their interior defensive line is led by Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, sophomores who started the last three games of last season and made an immediate, disruptive impact. Kenny Willekes has been a positive surprise at defensive end. The former walk-on brings explosion off the edge and excels at containing the screen and swing game.
Michigan State's high-ranked rush defense is supported by a stacked linebacking corps. Joe Bachie is a rising star. "Psycho" Chris Frey led the Spartans with 96 tackles last season. The Spartans' improvement in applying pressure also takes pressure off of their blossoming secondary, which is led by two experienced safeties.
Michigan's defense is proving itself, ranking first in both rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed. But Michigan State's offense has produced nothing against a team outside the MAC. A lot of their yards against Notre Dame came after the Irish had already essentially won.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke is the Spartans' leading rusher. LJ Scott is averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Michigan State's offensive line is failing to offer adequate run protection. Lewerke's mobility allows him to elude pressure. He has a go-to wide receiver in Felton Davis, whose size also makes him a viable red-zone threat. He leads the team with 4 receiving touchdowns. Overall, however, the Spartans possess one of the worst red-zone offenses, largely due to an anemic rush attack. The Spartans, due to their lack of big-play ability, but their conservative quality in Lewerke, are 9th in time of possession.
MSU will face its biggest challenge in producing any kind of forward rhythm against a vicious Michigan defense that ranks highest at getting to the quarterback and into the backfield. Michigan's defensive line is led by top recruit Rashan Gary. His elite pass-rushing skills are complemented by those of explosive defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. At linebacker, Mike McCray is a senior leader who makes the younger talent around him blossom. Michigan's talent at linebacker and defensive line helps a young secondary led by Lavert Hill, who makes up for his size with the agility to change direction and the ability to make a break on routes. David Long has the vertical ability and ball skills to help contain the Spartans' size at receiver.
Two largely unproven offenses who love to grind out possession create a recipe for few points. Both defenses matchup well to limit the opposing offense. Because both teams will start with their most intense physicality, they will need time to feel out the opposing defense -- and because Michigan State could find itself down double digits in the 4th quarter and loves to score garbage points, I am sticking with a first half play on our NCAAF Picks.Free NCAAF Pick: First Half Under (total TK)Best Line Offered: BetOnline