The finish line of noon on Saturday is nearly here and it’s about that time for a 3-2-1 Preview.
Let’s get through these last couple of days and hours together. I just want it to be Saturday at 4 p.m. already. I cannot take this any longer.
3 THINGS WE WANT TO SEE
The offensive line having a decent game
I firmly believe this largest portion of whether Michigan State wins or loses this game comes down to offensive line play. The pass protection has been fine all season — 40th in the nation in sack rate. It’s the run blocking that was alarming two weeks ago against Indiana, and Michigan will surely be the best front the unit has seen all season.
Kenneth Walker III can usually cook and erase mistakes, but the outing against the Hoosiers was not necessarily what we wanted to see before going into the gauntlet of the schedule. Walker was held to 3.7 yards per carry — his second-lowest total of the season — and while Indiana’s game plan of not letting him bounce outside was smart, MSU didn’t do any favors with its lack of holes for Walker to hit.
Michigan’s defensive line has been stout all season with an opportunity rate (allowing runs that go for four or more yards) that ranks 12th best in the country. One nice sign for Spartans fans is that the Wolverines’ sack rate is only 81st in the country. But, again, the run game will have its toughest test yet and the offensive line needs to give Walker at least a second to breath and assess the situation when he gets handed the ball.
Another reason offensive line play will be key (and I’m getting ahead of myself here) is if MSU is in a position where it is up late and could shave off some minutes. Can the Spartans do enough to let Walker grind out runs that never stall at the line to bleed the clock out? Well, let’s hope we’re in a situation where that’s needed.
Getting the $@#& off the field on third down
Of course you always want to succeed on third down but, of all stats, this is specifically how Michigan eats away at their opponents. The Wolverines are one of the best teams at converting on third downs in the conference at a 46.5 percent clip (second-best in the Big Ten). Michigan State’s defense is 10th-best in the conference at getting third down stops, doing so at a 38.9 percent rate.
Here’s the impact of third down conversions for Michigan — that allows the Wolverines to stretch the game and have lopsided play totals by game’s end. The last three games combined the Wolverines have gotten off 241 offensive plays to their opponents’ 170. That happens by way of having a run game that just grinds opponents slowly into the ground and being solid on third downs.
The Payton Thorne we know
Last game against Indiana was a tad unusual in the sense that Thorne threw it in tighter windows and he was taking more risks than we’ve been accustomed to. And, of course, some of that was thanks to Indiana playing solid defense and also shutting down the run game. However, in the first six games Thorne (for the most part) was very smart with the ball and didn’t take any risks where the reward wouldn’t match it.
I have little doubt that Thorne will be poised and ready for this game. He’s a cerebral quarterback, and coming off of two weeks to get ready for this game I think he’ll be as ready for this pass rush as you hope he would be. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor have to cook on Saturday, and that’ll require quick-thinking quarterback play.
2 KEY STATS
You already know I was going to bring up special teams in one way or another, so here we go. Michigan kicker Jake Moody has been solid this season, kicking field goals at a 14-for-16 (87.5 percent) clip and being a perfect 10-10 from inside 40 yards. His two misses are both from 47 yards out with one coming last week against Northwestern and his other coming against Rutgers.
I point this out for two reasons. The first is obvious — this could very well be a close game where every kick means something. The second is because, well, we know Michigan State’s defense has taken on the “bend-don’t-break” mentality of halting any drives inside the 20-yard-line. So you can look at this two ways — either seeing that Moody is money from inside the red zone or taking it as he’s due to eventually miss one of these short ones. Your call.
That’s how many yards per carry our Spartans have let up this season, which is good for fifth-best in the Big Ten. HOWEVER, that’s also 16th-best in the whole country — there has been some really solid defensive line play from the conference this season.
This is me saving maybe the biggest key for last — how can MSU’s front six do against a Wolverine team that’s been getting a conference-best 5.5 yards per carry? It’s a classic Big Ten game in the sense that it will be decided on who can win the trenches battle on both sides.
1 BEST BET
MSU +4.5, O/U 50.5
Got close with Indiana +4 two weeks ago, but close doesn’t cut it in Vegas. So we look to claw back into .500 territory this week.
I think the Wolverines game plan will be to just make it a slow game where they “3.9 yards per carry” themselves to the finish line. Now whether that means they win, I don’t have enough confidence in that. However, that does lead me to believe this will be a lower scoring affair than the 50.5 total is suggesting.
So, take me to the world down under.
Pick: Under 50.5