It is Michigan State versus Michigan this week, with the Paul Bunyan Trophy on the line. We all know what that means, so let’s jump right into the 3-2-1 preview.
3 KEY STATS
That’s the Michigan defense’s sack rate — good for seventh-best in the nation. We all know Michigan’s offensive line is as good as they come, but the defensive front has been strong, too.
Now, yes, it is true that a stat like that could be helped by playing a schedule of Penn State, five high school teams and the local car dealership. However, it also speaks that the Wolverines’ defensive front is at least a unit to be respected against Michigan State’s offensive line that gives up a sack rate of 4.5 percent (43rd-best in the country).
The last time we saw the Spartans might’ve been the offensive line’s best outing against a Power Five team as Payton Thorne was comfortable most of the evening against Wisconsin. In order to feed his weapons, Thorne needs to have somewhat of a cushy life on Saturday.
76.2 and 66.6
That first number is Michigan State’s touchdown rate inside the red zone, scoring 16 touchdowns on 21 trips — that percentage is good for 12th-best in the nation. That second number is (you guessed it) Michigan’s touchdown rate inside the red zone, scoring on 26 trips on 39 trips — that’s good for 46th-best in the country.
MSU will need a good dose of “bend-don’t-break” when its on defense, very similar to last season when the Spartans kept Michigan to four field goals inside the red zone. Any one of those four trips turn into a touchdown, and MSU isn’t looking for its third-straight win against Michigan this season.
And, on the contrary, MSU will obviously need to punch the ball into the end zone when it takes those red zone trips. Not only is scoring six points more beneficial than scoring three points (hard-hitting analytics right here), but MSU’s field goal brigade has made a combined one field goal on four attempts this season and has also missed two extra points. Field goals attempted inside the 20-yard line are hardly guaranteed chip shots, so save us all the drama and just run the touchdown play.
That’s how many 10-plus yard runs Michigan has rattled off this year, good for ninth-best in the country. Blake Corum is also tied for second nationally in runs that go for 20-plus yards, having 11 of those plays this season.
Michigan State’s defense held Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen to only two runs that went for at least 10 yards, both coming in the first half. The task will be more challenging this weekend, but mitigating the damage Michigan does in the run game will be crucial.
2 THINGS WE WANT TO SEE
Michigan State’s Sunday players performing like Sunday players
In my opinion, MSU’s best shot at winning this game will depend on an obvious group — its likely future NFL players.
That includes wide receiver Keon Coleman and Jayden Reed continuing where they left off in the Wisconsin game and winning their one-on-one matchups at will. And please find a way to get tight end Daniel Barker the ball more than three times this game.
On defense, it will have to be Jacoby Windmon having a big game at linebacker to hold Michigan’s run game to serviceable numbers while also playing strong in coverage. There is a good chance he still rushes off of the edge on third downs as well.
And let’s not forget punting — Bryce Baringer can be a potential MVP candidate this Saturday if he continues to flip fields with his gold-plated foot.
“Paul Bunyan Game” Jim Harbaugh
I don’t know what it is about this game, but Harbaugh loves to short-circuit in big moments during this rivalry.
Who could forget Jim sending out two gunners on punt coverage for the final play in 2015? You know, when MSU had no one deep to return the punt anyway. Not like they could have used two additional bodies closer to the fumbled snap or anything!
Or how about the 2017 game, when the entire state of Michigan knew a biblical storm was approaching in the second half? And, even when that storm did start raining down, opting to air the ball out instead of keeping it on the ground?
Or in 2020 when they found themselves inside the 10-yard line before halftime? Where instead of letting their Greek god quarterback Joe Milton make a play, Jim called for back-to-back wildcat plays that ended in Not A Touchdown. And then orchestrating the offense to move as slow down the field as humanly possible down two possessions, leaving themselves little-to-no time at the end of the game?
Or in 2021 when, instead of playing the veteran quarterback who carved up MSU’s defense all afternoon, he played the true freshman and had him run The Fumble Play? Not like that changed the course of that game or anything!
Jim likes to short-circuit in these games. We need him to do that again this Saturday.
1 BEST BET
MSU +22.5, over/under 55
Everything says Michigan should be able to win this game handedly, but the last 14 years of this rivalry have given us a sample size that can’t be ignored. MSU could very well win this game as easily as it could lose by 45, so I am staying far away from this spread.
However, I do like that over number. With MSU’s passing game weapons and Michigan’s goal of getting to blowout territory, I think there’s more road paths to an over hit than there is an under.
Pick: Over 55