In what will be their 114th meeting all time, the offense of Michigan State and the defense of Michigan will be in the spotlight. Both groups are the most explosive for their respective teams and could very well determine the outcome of this episode in the storied rivalry. Defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo man a scary front seven for the Wolverines. Kenneth Walker lll, Jayden Reed, and Jalen Nailor are a three headed monster for the Spartans scoring attack. U of M is home to the Big Tens leaders in sacks while MSU is second in the conference in offensive efficiency. Fan bases on either side are aware of their opponent and what they have accomplished leading up to the big game, but which unit will be the difference maker?
The Offense That Keeps Choppin’
Michigan State entered their bye week with their offense in a little bit of a lull. They only put up 20 points in their latest victory at Indiana, which also featured the nations leading rusher being held to just 84 yards on 23 carries. Kenneth Walker lll did not help his Heisman campaign and quarterback Payton Thorne had his worst showing through seven weeks. However, it is a safe bet that offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and his staff will make adjustments in the week off.
The Hoosiers were able to compete by taking away the big play, which MSU has thrived on all year. How the Spartans counteract that revolves around Thorne. The sophomore QB was held to his lowest completion rate and sacked twice in Bloomington. If he is protected, has time to throw, and his receivers get open, he is one of the most efficient passers in the conference. Another thing that would really benefit this offense is of course, get the run game going. Michigan State not only reaches their full potential when Kenneth Walker lll is hot, but Payton Thorne and the passing game open up tremendously. The key to winning for this team all season long has been to not be one dimensional on offense. The same reigns true when the Wolverines visit East Lansing.
Wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are a big part of the equation as well. Although they stand at just six feet tall, their speed and route running separates them from opposing defenses for chunk plays. Nailor and Reed are averaging 19 and 20 yards per play respectively so far this season. They also impact the game in more ways than one. While Jalen Nailor can line up out wide or in the slot, his counterpart is also a threat to get the ball on a reverse or jet sweep. If Michigan State is able to get not just one, but both of their elite receivers going, they give themselves a good chance of running by the Wolverines.
The Defense Full Of Playmakers
Jim Harbaughs Wolverines offense has struggled to consistently get the run and the pass game working at the same time. On the other hand, his defense has been the catalyst to his teams undefeated start. The college football world knows this group because of their front seven. Led by the midseason AP All American defensive player of the year, Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan can eliminate the run while wrecking havoc on the oppositions quarterback. Hutchinson and fellow edge rusher, David Ojabo have combined for a total of ten sacks. Linebacker Josh Ross and his team leading 44 tackles, is also a name to watch in this game.
This season, U of M has gone away from traditional man coverage, blitz packages. Thanks to his talented defensive lineman and linebackers, defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald is able to show offenses a lot of different looks. As a result, opposing passers get flustered, which allows the secondary to thrive. Junior cornerback, Daxton Hill leads the group, that doesn’t produce many takeaways, but gets the job done.
Most recently, Northwestern was the latest victim of this scary defense. Michigan allowed their lowest completion rate (50%) and lowest total passing yards (133 yards) in their win over the Wildcats. That isn’t to takeaway from the run defense either. The Wolverines are stout, allowing just above 100 yards rushing per contest, which is fourth best in the Big Ten.
The victory was definitely a well used tune up game for this team. It is impressive enough this defense conceded their lowest totals in every major category, but it doesn’t stop there. Michigan only gave up ten first downs and forced seven punts. The penalty issue was even cleaned up. Jim Harbaughs defense was averaging nearly five penalties per game coming in to week eight. Only two were called when the Wildcats were in town.
Tucker vs. Harbaugh Round 2
Just because the spotlight has been placed on the Michigan defense, doesn’t mean Spartan faithful should take their offense lightly. Michigan States offense has been superior this season, but their defense has held their own as well. Many arguments can be made that these two teams are very evenly matched. Which means this game could very well be a coaching battle. Will Mel Tucker be able to work through his clock management struggles? Will Jim Harbaugh put his quarterback in the best position to succeed?
Both of these leaders know what is at stake. After a hectic weekend that featured Penn State and Purdue suffer embarrassing losses, a win this Saturday puts the respective team right alongside Ohio State. In the words of Lane Kiffin earlier this year, “Get your popcorn ready.” This is about to be a heavyweight matchup for the ages.
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