Michigan-Michigan State preview
Oct 19, 2012 at 7:04p ET
For the Wolverines, Saturday is almost a must win. Not only do they need the victory to end Michigan State's four-game winning streak in the series, it would be a crucial step toward the Legends Division title. It would also mark an important box off Brady Hoke's check list at Michigan.
For Michigan State, a win could help right a listing season, and would give them an unprecedented five-year run of bragging rights in the Great Lakes State. It would also give them a last chance at getting another trip to Indianapolis and the Big Ten championship game.
On paper, here's how the teams match up:
MICHIGAN OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE
This category, as it does every week, comes down to how well a given defense can stop Denard Robinson. Alabama and Notre Dame were able to do it by turning Robinson into a pocket passer and taking advantage of the inevitable mistakes. However, those were two of the best defenses in the country. Against everyone else, Robinson has been able to use his speed and slashing moves to open up teams like a fresh-caught lake trout.
It would help the Wolverines immensely if Robinson got any help from any running back, but at this point of the season, that looks unlikely. Fitzgerald Toussaint has lost the burst that made him a key part of Michigan's offense a year ago, and no one has stepped up to replace him. That's why Robinson is accounting for more than three-quarters of the Wolverines attack this season, and why the read option has struggled at times — no one needs to respect the tailback. Things won't get easier against Michigan State's star-studded linebacking corps.
Michigan State has a tough defense, certainly the best Michigan has faced since the losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, but they are last in the Big Ten in sacks. If they can't get pressure against an improving Michigan offensive line, they are going to be in trouble, because that will give Robinson room to move. The Spartans also have struggled against deep passes, and while that isn't a strength for Robinson, he does have big, athletic receivers like Devin Gardner, Devin Funchess and Roy Roundtree. All three are capable of making plays if Robinson puts the ball up for grabs.
The Spartans will need to have linebackers and defensive backs ready to punish every errant throw that Robinson makes. Notre Dame forced him into five turnovers and used that to pick up the victory.
MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE vs. MICHIGAN DEFENSE
This matchup is probably going to determine the game. Michigan's defense has gotten better and better as the season has gone on, while the Michigan State offense has become more and more one-dimensional. If Le'Veon Bell doesn't have a big game, this could turn into something like the Tigers pitching staff against the Yankees hitting.
Bell certainly has the ability to have that big game, which would keep Michigan from sending the wolves after Andrew Maxwell. Maxwell was given the nearly impossible task of replacing Kirk Cousins, and so far, he has has struggled to even come close. Maxwell hasn't gotten much help from an equally inexperienced receiving corps, but his accuracy has been poor all season and things got much worse in last week's embarrassing overtime loss to Iowa.
That leaves Bell. If he can consistently hammer the Spartans into short distances on second and third down, Maxwell will have more time to get set in the pocket. That won't help much if his receivers keep dropping passes, but it would give him time to give them the best possible chance to make a catch. Bell has the capability to do that, but it won't be easy against a Michigan defense that has built chemistry as the season has progressed.
This isn't going to be a shootout, with two flawed offenses facing two robust defenses. This will be more of an old-school Big Ten game where things are going to likely to be decided by a few big plays. Some of those might be mistakes by Robinson — Michigan State's best chance is to force him into bad passes and interceptions — but in the past few weeks, he's made a lot more good big plays than bad ones. In front of the Big House crowd and with a team fired up to end a humiliating streak, Michigan wins the game 17-13.