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The Battle for Bunyan: Michigan-Michigan State

The typical script for the instate rivalry of the Michigan-Michigan State has been thrown out the window, as the Spartans come in as heavy favorites at home to defeat a wounded Wolverines squad. Poor coaching, injuries, and scandal have marred what was once the dominant power in the state of Michigan. Meanwhile the biggest quandary for Michigan State is whether or not the College Football Playoff committee will accept a Big Ten team. However, the Spartans are not invincible and the Wolverines are not completely hopeless, which means that a few key matchups could dictate the results of Saturday’s rivalry meeting.

Shilique Calhoun vs. Mason Cole

While Calhoun may not be leading the Spartans in sacks or tackles for loss, he is not far off and easily the most explosive playmaker on the MSU defense. Calhoun has elite get-off burst and instincts for a collegiate lineman and frequently beats tackles off the snap.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s left tackle is Mason Cole, a true freshman. Michigan has used a lot of tight end chip blocks to help Cole protect the blind side on pass plays. So look for Jake Butt, A.J. Williams, and Joe Kerridge to help in that area.

However, Michigan State will mix up their looks and swap Calhoun with senior end Marcus Rush on the opposite side of the line. Rush is dangerous in his own right and may pose a serious challenge to Cole, as well. Linebacker Ed Davis leads the team in both sacks and tackles for loss and could be tough to keep blocked for a Michigan team that is overmatched on the edges.

Devin Funchess vs. Trae Waynes

There are two ways to beat Michigan State: be significantly more athletic than they are on offense, á la Oregon (which Michigan is not), or barrage their secondary with downfield passes and hope that their physical nature will work against them in the form of pass interference penalties, á la Notre Dame 2013.

This is where Funchess comes in. The former tight end is the only playmaker the Wolverines have left on offense and presents a significant vertical mismatch for opposing secondaries. Funchess is listed at 6’5” 230 lbs. and has deep speed. MSU’s top corner Trae Waynes, on the other hand, is listed at 6’1” and just 183 lbs. Funchess presents a serious matchup difficulty for Waynes from a size standpoint, but there’s more to this matchup than just size.

The book on Funchess is that he doesn’t care to get physical (which explains his move to wide receiver in some part) and getting physical is just what Waynes and company like to do. The Spartans will also likely put speedy safety Kurtis Drummond over the top of Funchess in order to limit any big play potential. However, Michigan likes to move Funchess around a lot, and if they can get him in a desirable matchup enough times, the Wolverines may have fighting chance of making this game close.

Connor Cook vs. Michigan’s Pass Rush

Connor Cook has played about as well as they come in the Big Ten nowadays. However, in each of the last three games, Cook has thrown an interception and the MSU offense has been anemic moving the ball in the fourth quarter. While the Spartans offensive line has been stalwart this season, particularly because of left tackle Jack Conklin, only allowing four sacks on Cook, the signal caller tends to get panicky when his protection does collapse. When under pressure, Cook’s footwork, accuracy, and decision-making all breakdown.

The strength of Michigan’s team is on the defensive line and if they have any hope of stopping the Spartan offense, they will have to get pressure on Cook. Michigan does a good job rotating guys like Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer, Willie Henry, Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia, and Chris Wormley on defense. Michigan is notoriously horrible at creating turnovers, with only four on the season and half of those coming in their previous game, so the defensive line will need to force errors themselves.

Without generating pressure up front, Cook will be able to make deep and intermediate sideline throws with that deadly accuracy of his and put up points at a rate the Wolverines offense won’t be able to keep up with.

Devin Gardner vs. Devin Gardner

Yes, Devin Gardner is his own worst enemy on the field, frequently negating the big plays he is capable of making by turning the ball over. Gardner has thrown for just one touchdown pass against Power 5 opponents this season, meanwhile turning the ball over nine times in just six starts. Beating Michigan State’s defense is no simple task, and is likely something he will have to do nearly on his own, with Michigan’s running game crippled by the loss of running back Derrick Green for the season.

As I stated earlier, Michigan’s best chance for victory is taking shots downfield, an area in which Gardner is poor at best. His downfield accuracy is spotty and his composure in the pocket is easily shaken thanks to a below average offensive line. For Gardner, it will take a heroic effort like the one he gave against Penn State for the Wolverines to pull off an upset in East Lansing.

Let’s not forget the fact that Gardner is coming off a left ankle injury, and while he was able to walk during the week without a boot and without a discernable limp, it’s not guaranteed he will be in top form on Saturday, let alone be the starter.

Bottom Line

The biggest difference between these two teams is that Michigan State’s running game is light years ahead of Michigan’s, in terms of both talent and depth. The other thing to be aware of is that if the Spartans have the lead at the end of the fourth quarter, it will likely remain that way until the final whistle. While MSU had issues closing out both Nebraska and Purdue in the fourth quarter, the Spartans turned in a complete game against Indiana last week and are back on track in terms of consistent game performance. The Wolverines are also notorious for not being able to get up after a knockout blow in the third quarter, even struggling to be able to score in garbage time. Michigan has only scored twice in fourth quarter losses this season, both of them coming on Devin Gardner keepers. And with Gardner’s ankle likely an issue, don’t expect a late rally in this one.

Final Prediction: MSU 31, Mich 13


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