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Previewing MSU vs. Michigan

Leon Halip

Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
Radio: Spartan Sports Network
Online Streaming: (subject to blackout)

Game Week Q&A: Here
Forecast: 47 degrees, few showers, 30 percent chance of rain
Line: MSU -6

MSU returns home to host rival Michigan in a game that will go a long way in determining the Legends division.

MSU (7-1, 4-0) is the lone undefeated team in the Legends, while Michigan (6-1, 2-1) is 1.5 games back. MSU had won four straight in the rivalry before Michigan won 12-10 on a last-second kick in Ann Arbor a year ago.

The Wolverines stormed out of the gates this year, defeating Central Michigan and Notre Dame, moving up to No. 11 in the polls and, at the time, being a six-point favorite against MSU. But since then, there has been a lot of inconsistency. U-M made a goal-line stand to defeat Akron at home, and then needed a second-half rally to win at UConn. They took care of Minnesota at home, but lost in four overtimes at Penn State, a game the Wolverines blew at the end, though there was certainly some bad fortune. They then proceeded to defeat Indiana 63-47 in a game reminiscent of the Rich Rodriguez days. They set some records for yardage, but U-M's defensive performance also raised questions.

An MSU win would bring Paul Bunyan back to East Lansing, along with bragging rights, and all but knock the Wolverines out of the Legends race.

MSU may or may not have a uniform adjustment for this game.

-Note: Intramural fields will not be open for parking because of rain. Plan accordingly.

By the numbers

3-11 - Michigan's record against MSU teams that won at least eight games, since 1953, when MSU joined the Big Ten.

2-5 - Michigan's record against MSU when both teams finished with at least eight wins, since 1953.

1955 - The last time Michigan defeated an MSU team that won at least nine games (out of seven opportunities)

12-15-1 - MSU's record against Michigan in East Lansing since joining the Big Ten in 1953 (MSU 6-4 in last 10)

5.4 - Yards per carry for U-M quarterback Devin Gardner (7.4 when you take out sacks)

3.7 - Yards per carry for U-M running back Fitzgerald Toussaint

2.0 - Yards per rush allowed by MSU's defense, No. 1 nationally

10.1 - Yards per pass attempt for U-M, No. 5 nationally

4.7 - Yards per attempt allowed by MSU, No. 1 nationally

4.5 - Yards per rush for MSU's offense, No. 51 nationally

3.1 - Yards per rush allowed by U-M, No. 9 nationally

7.8 - Tackles for loss per game allowed by U-M, No. 116 nationally

17 - Giveaways by U-M, No. 101 nationally (turnover margin of -2)

Three keys for MSU

Run the ball effectively - This has been MSU's best running team under Mark Dantonio, led by Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams, both of whom seem to be getting better. U-M's rush defense has been stout, but Connor Cook was able to go 15-for-16 against Illinois partly because Illinois had to watch for the run. MSU will need a balanced attack on offense, and that comes with owning the line of scrimmage.

Wrap up Devin Gardner - Unlike Denard Robinson, who was more about straight speed, Gardner is stronger and shiftier. When an MSU defender gets to Gardner, whether it's in the backfield or upfield, they have to make sure they bring him down the first time, so he doesn't gut the defense with a big play.

Field position - MSU's offense just does not make big plays. Most scoring drives take time and a number of plays. Against Purdue, MSU moved the ball well on a yards-per-drive basis, but they had their worst starting field position of the year, and that killed the offense. Even if MSU doesn't score on a drive, picking up some first downs and allowing Mike Sadler to flip the field position will help MSU on both sides of the ball.

Three keys for Michigan

Turnovers - When Michigan has played its worst, Gardner has been a turnover machine. He has 10 interceptions and some fumbles. MSU's defense has 15 takeaways, including nine interceptions. On the other side, MSU has just nine giveaways, and Connor Cook generally takes care of the ball. Gardner will need to avoid turnovers and hope the U-M defense forces something from the MSU offense.

Big plays - To beat MSU's defense, you need to make some big plays, and U-M has some big-play threats. This means a wide receiver breaks free from a cornerback, Gardner slips out of a sack and picks up big yards or something like that. Turn a small play into a medium play and a medium play into a big play.

Force MSU into passing downs - Against Illinois, MSU went 14-for-15 in real third downs. Most of those were manageable situations because MSU was able to run the ball on first and second down. U-M needs to shut down MSU's run game and force Cook into a lot of deep passing situations, something MSU doesn't do well (17 passes of 20-plus yards, No. 106 nationally).

Prediction: MSU 27-21

I think MSU will be able to run the ball effective enough to control field position. A turnover or two from Gardner would likely doom U-M's chances. I didn't include stopping the run as a key for MSU, because I see MSU shutting down U-M's running backs, though Gardner could break free some some big runs on broken pass plays.

U-M is really young on the offensive line, especially in the middle, and Pat Narduzzi will make sure to exploit that with the blitzing. Darqueze Dennard vs. Jeremy Gallon is going to be a hell of a battle, and Devin Funchess will be a matchup problem. I see MSU covering him with safeties up top and linebackers underneath.

In the end, I think MSU's offense will play clean, avoid the big mistakes and the defense will bully the Wolverines again.