MSU's Jeremy Langford has rushed for 100 yards in each of his last three games. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
The Spartans win if ...
Pound the rock
While QB Connor Cook has played will in three of four Big Ten games, the key to Michigan State’s success has been a solid running game. In four Big Ten games, the Spartans are averaging 206 yards, and junior Jeremy Langford has gained more than 100 yards in each of the last three. In 40 of the last 43 matchups against Michigan, the team that has run the ball better has won. The Wolverines are no slouch against the run, allowing 99.9 yards, but the Spartans experience along the offensive line and the fact they can spell Langford with true freshman Delton Williams and junior Nick Hill gives it a slight advantage.
Chew up the clock
The key to slowing most prolific offenses rarely lies simply in how defenses play and match up. Keeping the ball out of the opponents’ hands is just as important, and no team in the Big Ten has done that better than Michigan State. The Spartans lead the conference in time of possession (34:39). That will be especially important as Michigan averages 446.4 yards of offense and is second in the Big Ten in scoring (42.4 points). Michigan State boasts the No. 1 defense in the country, but keeping Michigan’s offense off the field — and staying off for long periods — will be just as important as stopping the Wolverines.
The intensity never lacks in this series and things have gotten chippy most seasons. That could become a factor as many Michigan players and coaches have emphasized how they must deal with Michigan State’s physical style. While it might sound like simple respect for the most part, it can also be a way to work the officials, and the Spartans must be aware they will be watched closely. As the most-penalized team in the Big Ten, staying out of the officials’ cross-hairs is vital for the Spartans.
The Spartans lose if ...
A step back
Connor Cook has been good in three of four Big Ten games, but against Purdue, he looked more like the inexperienced quarterback that struggled through most of the nonconference season (13-for-25, 107 yards, missed receivers). But he bounced back last week against Illinois and completed a school-record 93.8 percent of his passes. If Cook resembles anything near what he was against Purdue, the offense will have trouble scoring enough points to allow the Spartans to win.
As good as Michigan State’s defense has been, it has shown a vulnerability — especially early — to give up a big play or two. The best example was a 64-yard TD run allowed on the fourth play against Indiana. Michigan has a dynamic offense that features two of the best playmakers in the Big Ten — Devin Gardner had 584 yards offense (503 passing) in a victory over Indiana, and WR Jeremy Gallon had a Big Ten record 369 yards receiving and two TDs against Indiana. Those numbers likely won’t be repeated, but give up too many big plays, and the Wolverines could end up on top.
Losing the ball
Hanging on to the ball has been a bigger problem for Michigan, but Michigan State needs to be careful. The Wolverines are near the bottom in turnover margin in the Big Ten (11 INTs, six fumbles). And while Michigan State has three INTs and lost six fumbles, losing control could be costly. The offense has done a solid job, but two fumbles have been lost on punt returns, and in a tightly contested rivalry game, a turnover on special teams could be the difference.