Michigan State is allowing just 215.5 yards and 12.2 points a game. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Most rivalries produce hard-fought, close football games and the battle between Michigan State and Michigan has rarely been different in recent years.
But analysts agree, there is one team that has a decided advantage in at least one aspect of the game.
“I think that is pretty obvious,” Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason said.
“When you look at the Michigan State defense, at least to date, it’s been one of those defenses, I think, that is a cut above. Most, if not everybody they’ve played, have really had problems moving the ball against them.”
The numbers certainly bear that out as Michigan State is allowing just 215.5 yards and 12.2 points a game. Those are both the best in the Big Ten while the Spartans are No. 1 in the nation in total defense and rushing defense, second in pass efficiency defense and third in scoring defense.
But what might tip the scales is the fact Michigan has had a hard time running the ball this season, ranking seventh in the Big Ten at 183.9 yards a game. Fitz Toussaint is the Wolverines’ leading rusher, averaging 82.1 yards and just 3.7 yards per carry.
“I think going into the game the edge would go to Michigan State just because Michigan struggles running the ball and they want to be more balanced,” said former Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo, also a BTN analyst. “It’s obviously something they have worked on during the bye week, but I would say at this point of the season, Michigan State’s defense has performed better than the Michigan offense.”
While Michigan has certainly shown it can put points on the board — it’s second in the Big Ten, averaging 42.4 points — it has yet to see a defense like Michigan State’s.
“They’re awfully hard to move the ball on and score,” Mason said. “And it seems like they are great at making adjustments midstream. In the game against Indiana, Indiana came right out and moved the ball at will like they have done against numerous teams. Then all of a sudden, boom, Michigan State makes some adjustments and shuts them down.”
And while Michigan’s defense certainly has some talent, they have given up big chunks of points in its last two games against Indiana and Penn State.
But it’s the fact the offense has yet to find its true identity, DiNardo believes, that is holding the Wolverines back.
“The difference with the Michigan defense is they know exactly who they are and they know what they want to do, it’s just a matter of young players getting better,” he said. “Whereas the Michigan offense hasn’t gone according to plan because they planned on being better at the line of scrimmage and better at tailback.
“So I think the defense has gotten better and can probably get much better or make decent strides during the bye week. Plus, game-plan-wise they’ve been working on Michigan State for two weeks and know exactly what Michigan State is gonna do offensively, other than whatever tricks Mark (Dantonio) has up his sleeve. Michigan’s offense is still trying to find an identity AND get ready for a great defense.”
As for Michigan State’s offense — one that has certainly had its share of ups and downs this season — DiNardo believes sophomore quarterback Connor Cook can be good enough for the Spartans.
“He has two interceptions and one fumble (since becoming the starter),” DiNardo said. “You take the fact he protects the ball and has a great defense and match it up with Michigan, who doesn’t protect the ball, I think Connor Cook is much improved and in position to be a good quarterback for this Michigan State team.”
Mason isn’t so sure and likens Cook to a 10-handicap golfer who can see his game vary wildly on any given day.
“A 10-handicapper may go out and shoot 79, but on a bad day he might shoot 90,” said Mason, a former head coach at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota. “A 5-handicapper may shoot 78 but he ain’t gonna shoot a 91. I think (Cook) is a 10-handicapper right now. We have to wait and see how he’s hitting the ball.”
But while the matchups are intriguing and both expect a tight game, it’s the turnovers that could be the difference.
Michigan is near the bottom in the Big Ten in turnover margin and has thrown 11 interceptions and fumbled the ball away six times. Michigan State, meanwhile, has nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries and has scored five times on defense.
“If Michigan continues to have turnover problems and Devin Gardner continues to have turnover problems,” Mason said, “that will be the deciding factor in the game.”