5 keys to victory: Surprise! Michigan must run the ball against MSU (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan is a run-based team that has accentuated the run in past weeks, and is preparing to play in a game that almost always is decided by which team runs better.
Needless to say, the 23rd-ranked Wolverines (4-2, 2-0) need to rush the ball well Saturday to end their four-game losing streak against Michigan State.
This is an in-state rivalry full of intangibles. The four-game losing streak. The punch. The helmet wrench. The interruption. A struggling (in this series) quarterback. A first-year quarterback.
And don't forget to look for the threat.
But come 3:30 p.m. Saturday, what will matter most is which team can run forward with the ball better than the other.
Looking for nuanced analysis? Sorry. Not needed.
See ball. Carry ball. Win shiny trophy.
You've probably heard, because everyone writes about it, but the winner of the rushing battle has captured this series in 39 of the past 42 meetings. That's a lot.
It's more that coincidence.
It speaks to the physical nature of this game. Coach Brady Hoke likes to pontificate about physicality every week, and it gets a little tired, but in this case he's spot on.
The rushing battle will be particularly poignant this year, considering Michigan's new offensive look includes running the heck out of the ball, and Michigan State's best player is tailback Le'Veon Bell.
Michigan also happens to have the Big Ten's all-time rushing leader at quarterback. Some guy named Denard Robinson. Maybe you've heard of him. He's a big deal.
Robinson has been spectacular the past two weeks, rolling up 343 rushing yards on a scant 25 carries. That's an impressive 13.7 yards per carry -- or a first down and some change every time he touches the ball, if you will.
But this Robinson guy, who has torched so many defenses in his days as a Wolverine, has been bottled up against Michigan State. He's rushed for just 128 yards in his two games as a starter, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. He averages 6.2 yards per carry for his career.
So, then, Michigan's key to victory distills into two subpoints: Get Robinson on track, and find rushing output from another source. Probably a tailback, since that's their job.
Starting tailback Fitz Toussaint has struggled all season, his best game an 85-yarder against UMass, which at last check has not been relegated. He is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, after averaging 5.6 last year.
Just seven of his 71 carries gained at least 10 yards, and four came against UMass.
Michigan finally mixed up its tailback spot last week, and net season-best results. Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes received early action, Dennis Norfleet was worked in and, with Toussaint, the backs gained a season-best 217 yards.
The Wolverines need that kind of production against MSU. And if they get it, the Spartans can say goodnight as Michigan eats at the clock and shortens up opportunities for an MSU offense that already is scoring-challenged (21.0 points per game, 11th in the Big Ten).
And of course, Michigan needs its improving defensive line and linebackers to bottle up Bell, who can be a load to bring down. He's great at picking up yardage after first contact.
Do that, and Michigan State will know exactly where the threat is.
Other keys to Saturday's game:
It's OK to get revved for this game. It's a rivalry game, and one that carries special significance for Michigan, losers of four straight in the series. There was plenty of trash talk in the offseason, not to mention the William Gholston punch of Taylor Lewan and helmet twist of Robinson in last year's meeting.
Michigan didn't say much about those deals this week, but c'mon, we're talking about competitive 18- to 22-year-olds. Of course this stuff fuels players heading into Saturday.
The key is to channel it, rather than let it be a distraction. This is expected to be a low-scoring game, and penalties and turnovers weigh heavily in games such as this. Michigan can't afford to lose its composure and give away free yards.
Offensive line offers protection
The run game is important -- and we've covered that -- but the ball carriers will have an awfully hard time doing anything if the offensive line repeats last year's performance against Michigan State.
The Spartans bushwhacked Michigan's offensive line last year, aided in part because they were jumping David Molk's snaps. That shouldn't be a problem this year, nor is MSU's defensive line as imposing after the loss of Jerel Worthy.
But Michigan was, to put it in coachspeak, "out-physicaled" all over the field last year, and that was particularly true up front. It stemmed the Wolverines' run game (82 yards) and led to seven sacks. That's a lot for any team, and especially one that features Robinson at quarterback.
Contain Aaron Burbridge
Bell is Michigan State's biggest offensive weapon, but young receiver Aaron Burbridge is developing into a second playmaking threat. The freshman, a former Michigan recruit, broke out with an eight-catch, 134-yard performance two weeks ago against Indiana, then followed that up with a five-catch, 89-yard game last week against Iowa.
He is a key component to a Michigan State passing game that ranks third in the Big Ten, and will present the most considerable challenge for Michigan's secondary since Alabama.
The Wolverines are third in the nation in pass defense, and have allowed 134 yards per game, but that is due in part to the offenses they have faced.
Is that secondary for real? We'll have a better idea after we see how it handles Burbridge and quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Hang onto that ball
This game is expected to be a defensive tussle, which magnifies mistakes. Time of possession and field position will be keys to this game, and Michigan can't afford to give up either -- or both -- via turnovers.
This has been a problem for Robinson, who has four picks in two starts against Michigan State. He needs to make better decisions when Michigan State brings its blitzes -- and it will, be assured, bring blitzes.
Michigan's defense is pretty stingy. So is Michigan State's.
Michigan's quarterback has struggled in this series. MSU's quarterback is in his first start in this series.
So what separates the two?
Michigan's offense has big-play ability. It can strike at any time. And although it doesn't seem like it sometimes, maybe, the Wolverines have more offensive playmakers than Michigan State, which relies heavily on Bell.
Expect to see a low-scoring affair, which favors Michigan, which has rushed profiently the past couple weeks and has demonstrated an aptitude for possessing the ball. It will have more chances than MSU to score, and convert enough of them to end four years of misery. Michigan 24, Michigan State 13