7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Michigan -10, Over/Under: 40.5
We hope that you’re in the mood for a good ol’ fashioned defensive slugfest, for that’s precisely what you can expect tonight as the Seventh-Ranked Michigan Wolverines host their instate rival Michigan State Spartans in a key early Big Ten matchup for both sides, from Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. For Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 in Big Ten), it’s all about picking themselves back up off the mat after last year’s dreadful 3-9 campaign, the first losing season since Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing back in 2007. The general sense is that last year’s injury-plagued disaster was very much an aberration for a program that had quietly become one of the most consistently successful in the country. Since being appointed Head Coach from Cincinnati eleven years ago, Dantonio has won at least seven games on nine occasions, including five double-digit win seasons, a Big Ten Title in 2013, and a 4-4 record in Bowls, not to mention a trip to the College Football Playoff two years ago. Needless to say, 2016 was a small detour in the Spartans’ greater campaign. And that’s why it’s so important to see them off to an inspiring start, for at 3-1 they have already matched their previous win total and we’ve just entered October. Michigan State rebounded from a disappointing 38-18 loss at home to Notre Dame two weeks ago, in which they self-destructed with three turnovers despite a season-high 496 Total Yards of Offense, to emerge victorious from a battle of attrition with Iowa. It was far from a stellar offensive display in the 17-10 victory, as the hosts managed just 300 Total Yards and nineteen First Downs, but nonetheless jumped on the Hawkeyes early, running off fourteen unanswered points in the First Quarter, with Dantonio content to sit back and fortify the barracks the rest of the way. Granted, the Spartans’ Defense responded in kind, snuffing out the visitors’ attack for large stretches of the contest, relegating them to a scant 226 Total Yards, eleven First Downs, and a mere nineteen Rushing Yards on twenty-five Carries. Furthermore, they were able to turn the table on the Turnover Differential, securing a pair of Fumbles, with Sophomore Linebacker Joe Bachie (34 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FR) appearing to be around the ball constantly with nine Tackles, 3.5 for a Loss, a Sack and one of those aforementioned Recovered Fumbles. Then again, we really shouldn’t be surprised at such a performance from a collective unit that has typically been among the nation’s finest over the last five years, with 2017 proving to be no exception; Michigan State has held opponents to an average of 18.0 Points per Game (12th Overall) on 247.0 Total Yards, including 151.0 Yards against the Pass and another 96.0 versus the Run. With that said, Dantonio would undoubtedly like to see some more splash plays from these guys, for thus far they’ve only managed nine Sacks and four Takeaways, including one Interception. Then again, that is something that should come with more experience which isn’t something that this team as a whole is really overflowing with at the moment, though that isn’t to say that they aren’t flush with intriguing potential. That is no more apparent than at Quarterback, where Brian Lewerke has quickly established himself as the clear-cut starter. The Redshirt Sophomore served as a proverbial pinching bag during a four-game stretch last season, in which he led the Spartans to an 0-4 mark, capped by a 6-of-10 performance in the 32-23 loss at home to the Wolverines that featured two other Quarterbacks. That would be the last time we would see the versatile dual-threat until this term, where he has looked far more comfortable and in control of the Offense; Lewerke has completed 63.2% of his Attempts for an average of 240.8 Yards per Game, with eight Touchdowns to a pair of Interceptions, while actually leading the team in rushing with 248 Yards and another two scores. After four games played at the confines of Spartan Stadium, it should be interesting to see just how he and his young teammates react to their first true challenge on the road, let alone one contested in Ann Arbor. Since arriving in East Lansing in 2007, Dantonio has generally been very successful against his side’s bitter rivals, owning a commanding 7-3 record against Michigan, including a 4-1 record at Michigan Stadium, while having bested the Wolverines five times when they have been ranked in the AP Poll. Furthermore, his charges have never lost back-to-back meetings against the Maize & Blue.
Meanwhile, Michigan (4-0, 1-0 in Big Ten) looks to be in the early stages of a renaissance under Jim Harbaugh, which at this point should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. It was indeed hard times for one of the most successful programs in the history of the sport, who in the seven years prior to Harbaugh’s arrival in 2015 were simply a mess under the likes of Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez, amassing a disappointing 46-42 record (.523), that included just one double-digit win season, zero Big Ten Titles, and a 1-3 record in Bowls. Needless to say, taking a loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is not a good look for a program expecting to compete for National Championships. Furthermore, and perhaps most egregious to the faithful in Ann Arbor, it was during this period in which their crosstown rivals, the Spartans, made their ascent up the College Football Mountain and surpassing the Maize & Blue in the Big Ten pecking order. Predictably, Harbaugh has made an immediate impact, stringing together back-to-back 10-3 campaigns that has not only seen the Wolverines reassert themselves as a fixture towards the top of the Polls, but back into the national conscience as well. This season, they’re off to an impressive 4-0 start despite having to replace a wealth of talented contributors, but Harbaugh has taken care of that with three years worth of loaded Recruiting Classes. This is no more apparent than on Defense, where for lack of a better word, the Wolverines are downright scary; upon watching this group through the first four outings, it’s difficult to believe that they have replaced eight Starters from last year’s veteran-laden unit, relegating opponents to 13.5 Points per Game (8th Overall) on just 203.3 Total Yards of Offense, including 134.0 Yards versus the Pass, and another 69.3 Yards against the Run. Furthermore, they’ve continued to be relentless in their pressure of the Quarterback, racking up eighteen Sacks along with 31.5 Tackles for Loss, proving that few teams attack the backfield like the Wolverines. Whether it’s limiting Florida’s stable of athletes to 192 Total Yards in the Opener, or going on the road and snuffing Purdue out to the tune of 189 Total Yards, this particular unit will keep Michigan in the College Football Playoff conversation moving forward. However, there are questions under Center, where Starting Quarterback Wilton Speight (54.2%, 145.3 Y/G, 7.2 Y/A, 3 TD, 2 INT) will be replaced by John O’Korn (70.4%, 153.5 Y/G, 11.4 Y/A, 1 TD, 1 INT) after suffering an undisclosed injury at some point in the 28-10 victory over the Boilermakers last weekend. What has been described by Harbaugh as a Back Injury that will keep the Junior sidelined for an undetermined amount of weeks, opens the door for O’Korn, the former Houston Transfer who has played sparingly over the past two seasons, featuring in ten games for the Wolverines. The Fifth-Year Senior certainly brings a sense of experience to the position which must appeal to Harbaugh, a former Michigan Quarterback himself, as O’Korn displayed his knowledge and command of the Offense last week in place of Speight, completing 18-of-26 Passes for 270 Yards, with a Touchdown and an Interception. With that said, he’ll be making his first start since 2014, against a much better Defense no less in the form of the Spartans.