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October 19, 2012

Game preview: Michigan vs. Michigan State

It's Michigan-Michigan State, and now that the Detroit Tigers have clinched the pennant all eyes in the state will turn to the bitter rivalry between neighbors, friends and family. Both teams want this one, and both teams need this victory.

Top Storyline

For an entire offseason, and through September, this was Michigan's game. Having lost four in a row to the Spartans, the Maize and Blue wanted it more, needed it more, had to have it. But after MSU dropped a double-overtime defeat to Iowa last weekend, falling to 4-3 (and 1-2 in the Big Ten), the refrain changed some.

Now, Michigan State needs this win just as much, and has to have it or the Green and White's 2012 campaign could implode.

"I think this game can be a defining moment for us," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think it could be a rallying point or a moment where we can start going in the other direction. We have a very, very small margin of error right now and we need help as we move through this [league]."

Michigan will be able to easily match that intensity, though, and maybe even surpass it thanks to four years and more than 1,300 days of torment as the Wolverines have had to watch as green and white - fans, merchandise, sports talk, advertising and boasting - has repopulated the state, even threatening U-M's long hold as the Great Lakes State's big brother.

"I just remember when I was little, Michigan always winning this game," fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens said. "Coming here, things haven't gone our way. I haven't gotten the chance to beat Michigan State yet. It's not what I was used to growing up, so hopefully Saturday we can change that.

"It would mean a lot, to win. Going out as a senior, ending that streak. It would mean a lot. I want this game more than anything. We need it."

Michigan is a team seemingly firing on all cylinders right now. The Wolverines have outgained their past two opponents 936-347 and outscored Purdue and Illinois 89-13. The Spartans, on the other hand, are reeling, with the defense playing well (but not well enough in Dantonio's estimation) and the offense sinking further and further into despair.

"The most important thing is we don't split this football team into offense and defense," Dantonio said. "That's always a challenge when you lose a football game. But we've got good chemistry, good leadership on our football team, and we'll be ready to play."

The Spartans rank 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (21.0 points per game), eighth in total offense (380.3 yards per game) and 10th in rushing (144.0 yards per game). The offensive line is springing leaks with two starters lost for the season, the receivers are dropping balls and the running backs, even standout junior Le'Veon Bell, share the blame.

"It wasn't more than a few weeks ago that this team couldn't score against a very bad Eastern Michigan defense, so even though they put some points up against Indiana, skepticism abounds," Detroit Free Press beat writer Joe Rexrode said. "I can't tell you I disagree with that either. This offense can't string together enough plays, enough drives, enough points."

Which has left a defense that has been pretty good this season fuming. We said in Inside The Fort Thursday that there is finger-pointing going on inside the Spartan locker room, with players defensively griping to coaches that they're doing their job but aren't receiving any help. But the truth is, the defense has struggled some too, surrendering 319.0 yards and 21.0 points per game the past three weeks. That may not seem like much, but it has been the difference between a narrow victory and a narrow loss twice.

Michigan State, though, has Michigan's and Denard Robinson's number, and if State is going to salvage its season, Saturday is a good place to start.

"Pressure is good. It helps prepare you, keeps you on edge, keeps you mentally sharp," Dantonio said. "I do think if we take care of business, we've got opportunities ahead of us. But we need to take care of business first."

Game Particulars
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
Radio-TV: Big Ten Network will broadcast the game live. The contest can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM and Armed Services Radio channel 85).
Coaches: Michigan: Brady Hoke (15-4, second season). Mark Dantonio: (66-42, six season).

By The Numbers

3 - Times Denard Robinson has gone back-to-back starts during the past three years without throwing a pick after he proved mistake-free in wins over Purdue and Illinois; he has never had three interception-free games in a row as a starter.

10 - Robinson runs of 20 yards or more this year after gains of 33 and 49 yards against Illinois, putting him on pace for 20 during the regular season; the senior had a career-high 14 big-play runs in 2010.

24-0 - Michigan's record since 2001 in games it has rushed for 250 yards or more after eclipsing 300 yards in wins over Purdue and Illinois the past two weeks.

42 - Length in yards of Dennis Norfleet's punt return last week against Illinois, marking the longest by a Wolverine since Martavious Odoms' 73-yarder at Purdue in 2008.

90 - Touchdowns Robinson has accounted for in a winged helmet, including 49 passing, tying him with Chad Henne (2004-07) for the all-time mark; Henne had 87 passing TDs and three rushing.

899 - All-time victories for Michigan, which seeks to become the first school in NCAA history to earn 900 program wins when it hosts Michigan State.

TheWolverine.com Game Week Poll Results

After watching three weeks of conference play, who do expect to win the Legends Division?

Michigan - 91 percent
Michigan State - 1 percent
Iowa - 1 percent
Nebraska - 6 percent
Northwestern - 1 percent
Minnesota - 0 percent

340 votes

When Michigan State has the Ball

While junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and an equally green corps of wide receivers found their stride early in the season, the game plan was straightforward for MSU - run the football, bludgeoning opponents to death.

That strategy began to come apart in week three, when Notre Dame held the Spartans, and standout junior tailback Le'Veon Bell, to only 50 yards on 25 carries (2.0 yards per rush), forcing Maxwell to attempt a career-high 45 pass attempts (of which he completed 23 for 187 yards). Maxwell had thrown the ball 38 and 37 times in State's first two games but because the Green and White wanted to, not because they had to.

It was week three where Michigan State's offensive line took on a new look, with right tackle Fou Fonoti suffering a foot injury against Central Michigan Sept. 8 that has forced him out of the lineup ever since. The Spartans enjoyed a reprieve a week later against Eastern Michigan, rushing for 269 yards, but have averaged only 101.0 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry over the past three games, going 1-2 in that span.

The news on the O-Line grew even worse when center Travis Jackson suffered a broken leg and MCL injury against Ohio State in week five. He's lost for the season, with MSU trying redshirt freshman Jack Allen two weeks ago and senior Ethan Ruhland at the post last week.

With the line ailing, defenses have actually had success the past few games against State's ground game without stacking the box with an extra defender, employing just the typical front seven. The 6-2, 237-pound Bell is still a formidable force, rushing for 916 yards and eight touchdowns on 200 carries (4.6-yard average) while also catching 23 balls, but he's pressing a little too without gaping holes to run through.

Michigan will start with stopping the run regardless of MSU's recent struggles, and has been effective at doing so the past two weeks, limiting Purdue to just 56 yards on 26 carries and Illinois to 105 yards on 37 carries. Each offense, thus, became one-dimensional, allowing U-M's secondary to key in on their respective targets.

The Wolverines' defensive backfield, led by senior safety Jordan Kovacs, has put up incredible numbers this year, ranking third nationally in allowing just 134.8 yards per game, and ranking 14th in pass efficiency defense with a 103.47 rating against, but the Maize and Blue haven't faced a single pass offense among the top 50 in the NCAA with the Spartans the highest-rated of the U-M's foes coming in at No. 59.

Still, this is a unit with chemistry, experience and talent. Kovacs and fellow safety Thomas Gordon are keeping the ball in front of them, yielding just four pass completions of 30 yards or more all season, and none the past two weeks, while senior J.T. Floyd, sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior Courtney Avery are playing aggressive, disciplined coverage at cornerback (and nickel back for Avery).

The front seven has drastically improved in recent weeks too, with the defensive line now a plus for the Maize and Blue, and a veteran linebacker corps making the plays expected of this trio before the season began - senior Kenny Demens, and sophomores Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan have combined for 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks the past two games.

State's passing attack is showing signs of coming to life with the emergence of freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge, but Maxwell had a rough outing against Iowa a week ago and junior tight end Dion Sims is not expected to play much while recovering from a sprained ankle.

When Michigan has the Ball

Michigan State's offense isn't the story Saturday and neither is Michigan's defense - most analysts expect the Wolverines to win this matchup and keep MSU to 10-17 points. The question centers on the other offense vs. defense matchup, and whether MSU's vaunted unit can continue to stifle U-M's Denard Robinson, keeping the senior QB in-check and giving the Spartans a chance to win.

Every defense Michigan faces gangs up to stop the run, specifically Robinson, but few teams have the personnel in their front seven to make that happen. MSU is the exception.

The Green and White play a physical brand of football up front, overpowering offensive lines, including Michigan's the past two years. Defensive ends Marcus Rush and William Gholston have done an outstanding job staying in their gaps and occupying the blockers that help Robinson reach the second level.

With the line protecting them, State's linebackers, led by junior MIKE Max Bullough, can roam freely to the football, and because of their speed and athleticism, the 'backers have been able to get to Robinson before he can get going, limiting him to short gains instead of the big pops he creates against everyone else.

However, that front seven hasn't been as dominat this year with the departure of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who used to create one-on-ones for MSU's ends and who made sure Bullough had an unmolested run to the ball.

Still, this is an experienced group of linemen and linebackers that have swagger and are confident they can build on 2010 and 2011 performances in which the Spartans held Robinson to 86 and 42 yards (a combined 128 on 39 carries, or 3.3-yard average).

The MSU secondary, though, isn't the same shutdown unit, surrendering 22 plays of 20 yards or more and 10 plays of 30 yards or more, the latter ranking the Green and White 45th nationally, so don't be surprised if Michigan takes a few shots.

However, the bread and butter for U-M the past few weeks has been using the run to set up the pass, and even with State's past success against Robinson, look for the Wolverines to employ a similar strategy.

Three Spartan Players to Watch

Freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge: The four-star freshman out of Farmington Hills Harrison, teammates with current U-M rookies Devin Funchess and Mario Ojemudia, has been a critical revelation the past two weeks for the Spartans, catching 13 balls for 223 yards in matchups with Indiana and Iowa. The 6-1, 190-pounder was ranked Rivals.com's No. 103rd player in the Class of 2012 and considered Michigan but was a better fit with MSU.

Junior linebacker Denicos Allen: A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, Allen ranked second in the conference in sacks (11) and led the Spartans with 18.5 tackles for loss. The aggressive, hard-hitting 5-11, 225-pounder had a big day against Michigan a year ago with 1.5 sacks and two total tackles for loss among seven stops. He's up to his same old tricks this fall, notching four TFL among 42 tackles, with two pass breakups and a pick.

Junior defensive end William Gholston: Widely acclaimed the top defensive player in the Big Ten this preseason and regarded a likely first-round NFL Draft pick next April, the 6-7, 278-pound Gholston has not lived up to his hype this fall, recording only a single sack and five tackles for loss among 28 total stops. He ranks 23rd in the conference in stops behind the line of scrimmage and doesn't even rank among the top 30 sack leaders, yet he's had big individual efforts before, and will look to break out against U-M.

Prediction

This is a desperate Spartan team, and they need a good first quarter to stay in this game against a ferocious Michigan team that is starving for a win to end its four-game losing streak. All signs point to the Wolverines accomplishing their mission on Saturday, and while it could turn out to be a bigger victory than is the norm in this series, expect MSU's defense to keep U-M's margin from getting out of hand.

Score: Michigan 27, Michigan State 14.
Against the Spread (-9.5): U-M will cover.
Over/Under (43): Under.

Michael Spath's record this year: Result: 5-1; Against the Spread 3-3; Over/Under 4-2.


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