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Previewing MSU vs. Michigan

Looking at the keys to Saturday's rivalry game.

Leon Halip - Getty Images

Game time: 3:30p.m.
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Online streaming: BTN2Go
Radio: Spartan Sports Network
Preseason Q&A: Here, Game week Q&A: Here
Opponent Blog: Maize n Brew
Forecast: 54 degrees, partly cloudy
Line: U-M -10

A season on the brink. A reeling Spartan team looks to save its season when it heads to Ann Arbor. Less importantly, MSU looks to beat Michigan for the fifth straight time for the first time in history. Since an embarrassing loss to Alabama to start the season, Michigan's defense has turned things around, and Denard Robinson continues to do what he does as most of U-M's offense. The struggling Spartan offense looks to do enough to help its top-10 defense. Paul Bunyan has spend the past four-plus years in East Lansing. Will he return?

Michigan's season to date (4-2, 2-0): L 41-14 vs. Alabama (in Dallas), W 31-25 vs. Air Force, W 63-13 vs. UMass, L 13-6 at Notre Dame, W 44-16 at Purdue, W 45-0 vs. Illinois

By the numbers:

282.2: Yards per game allowed by Michigan, which is second in the Big Ten. MSU is first with 270.1 yards

134.0: Passing yards per game allowed by Michigan, which is third in the nation, behind Alabama and LSU. Illinois recorded 29 passing yards in Ann Arbor last week

71: The highest-ranked passing offense Michigan has played this year (Purdue, 221.5 yards per game)

1-4: MSU's record in the game week before Michigan (with a bye week in 2011)

4-1: MSU's record against Michigan under Mark Dantonio

75.8: Percent of Michigan's total offense that Denard Robinson has accounted for this season

3.25: Yards per carry for U-M running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (231 yards, 71 carries)

8: Sacks by Michigan, which is 11th in the Big Ten (in six games). MSU is 12th with six sacks (in seven games)… Eight is also the numbers of interceptions thrown by Denard Robinson, which leads the Big Ten

5: Sacks allowed by Michigan, which leads the Big Ten

49.2: Average punt yardage for U-M's Will Hagerup, which leads the Big Ten (on 12 punts). MSU's Mike Sadler is second with a 43.9 average on 39 punts.

1,812: Days since U-M's last football win over MSU (as of and including Thursday)

899: All-time victories for U-M football.

Three keys for MSU: (I'm going to paste the same keys and reasons I gave Maize n Brew)

Run the ball consistently: This is obvious given the state of the offense. Le'Veon Bell needs to pick up four to five yards a pop every time, and some end-arounds with Keith Mumphrey could be thrown in like they were against Iowa. It's been beaten into our brains that the team that runs the ball better wins this rivalry, but aside from that, it's the only way MSU can get into its offense. MSU has had success in the play-action game, even if they don't do it much.

Prevent big plays: MSU has been getting beat deep this season, and Robinson is going to have a few armpunt attempts in this one. Who will come down with the ball? I don't know. If the Wolverines come down with them, it might be enough on offense for the win. Despite the struggles against Braxton Miller, MSU still doesn't allow any huge pickups from running quarterbacks. Robinson has been known for his 70-yard runs against inferior defenses, and MSU will need to prevent this again.

Get off to a quick start: This teams needs some confidence. If MSU falls behind 14-0 early or something, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Spartans fold up their tent. This a fragile team right now, and they need a reason to believe. Getting an early score on offense would go a long way to keeping the confidence high for the rest of the game. Even picking up a few first downs on the first drive. There's going to be a lot of energy early in this one, and it needs to result in something positive, or at least not negative, for the Spartans.

Three keys for Michigan:

Run the ball successfully, any way possible: Toussaint hasn't done much this year, and the only person who has run the ball well for the Wolverines is Robinson. MSU wants Robinson to beat the Spartans with his arm, but the running game is obviously a big part of his game. U-M could use a few different running backs in this game. If any of them get going, it's going to help Robinson with the read option. Miller was able to run all over the Spartans a few weeks ago — the first run-first quarterback to do that to a recent MSU defense — and though they're different style runners, you have to worry about MSU's ability to contain.

Stop Le'Veon Bell: It's pretty obvious. MSU hasn't been able to do much in the passing game this year, and Le'Veon Bell is, by far, the most important player on the Spartan offense. You need to make MSU rely on its passing game. Stop Bell, and you stop the Spartan offense.

Turnovers: Since a four-interception (and one fumble) game against Notre Dame, Robinson hasn't thrown a pick in either of the last two games, and it's not a coincidence both were U-M blowouts. Robinson threw three picks against MSU in 2010, and a pick-six in 2011 iced the game for the Spartans. The Wolverines are No. 10 in the Big Ten in turnover margin (-3), while MSU is No. 6 (+2). In what could be a low-scoring game, a turnover in bad spot could be the difference in the game.

Prediction: 21-10 U-M

I have no idea how this is going to go. MSU could come out flat and fall apart, like I mentioned above. They also might find a rallying point and take this down to the end and win. If I have to pick one, I see the former happening, as MSU has been terrible in the start of games, typically. Would I be surprised by an MSU win? No, but I'd be much less surprised by a dud from MSU. The Spartan D won't let it be a rout, but I'll say U-M gets a couple scores early, and MSU's offense doesn't get anything going. Stopping MSU's offense isn't that hard, and Greg Mattison is a smart guy. I've picked MSU to come through in a big situation too many times this year. I'll believe it when I see it.