Michigan State scouting report vs. Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Josiah Price

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News provides a Michigan State scouting report for Saturday's game against Michigan (3:30 p.m., ESPN, WJR 760, WWJ 950, WTKA 1050).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Connor Cook, QB: Michigan State's fifth-year senior is 29-3 in his career as a starter, and this could be the type of game the Spartans lean heavily on his arm to produce No. 30. The offensive line is banged up and running back Madre London is questionable after injuring his leg last week. There is still plenty of depth in the backfield, but it likely will come down to Cook and his ability to throw the ball effectively against the Michigan defense. He threw for 357 yards last week and his receiving corps was good from top to bottom, plus tight end Josiah Price likely will return after missing two games with an ankle injury. He is one of Cook's favorite targets in the red zone.

LJ Scott, RB: The true freshman likely will get the start if London can't go, a spot Scott has been pushing for all season. He scored twice in the victory over Oregon, ran for a career-high 146 yards against Purdue, and scored two second-half touchdowns last week despite not playing in the first half because of a minor knee injury. Scott has the strength and vision to become a standout and this could be his first chance to be the No. 1 guy. But it won't be easy with Michigan State's health up front and the fact Michigan has the third-best run defense in the nation, allowing only 65.8 yards a game.

Montae Nicholson, S: The sophomore entered the season with high expectations but has struggled since the opener and even was pulled from the game in the second half of the Purdue game. A torn biceps injury to senior RJ Williamson has given Nicholson a reprieve, but he didn't play well again in last week's game at Rutgers, missing several tackles and getting beaten deep in the second half by Leonte Carroo. The Wolverines have certainly seen that and will, no doubt, test Nicholson often in the passing game. If Nicholson continues to struggle, it could mean more big plays allowed by the Spartans and a long afternoon for the secondary.

INTANGIBLES

Thinking ahead: There might not be a more intense game on the schedule for either team, and this season's matchup will be no different. Bragging rights have always been huge in this rivalry, but added this season is that both teams are ranked in the top 12 in the nation and have their sights set on the Big Ten title and a possible spot in the playoffs. Getting a win here would be a necessary step in that process.

Sick of the hype: The Spartans have never had trouble playing with a chip on their shoulder, and that will again be the case in this game. Michigan State is the unbeaten team that has dominated the series, but all of the attention has been on Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. It's been that way all offseason, and you can bet the Spartans are tired of hearing it and are eager to prove they still have a say in this rivalry.

Seniors' last shot: Michigan State's senior class has won its share of big games, including the Big Ten championship game over Ohio State and consecutive victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. But they've never won a game at Michigan Stadium and this will be their final shot. Granted, they've only played once – in 2012 – and that game was lost on a last-second field goal. They won't want to close their careers without a win in Ann Arbor.

Changing perceptions: Perceptions can be everything in college football, especially considering the way the teams are determined for the College Football Playoff. To this point, the Spartans are suffering under the idea they haven't been impressive in any of their wins, an idea being pushed more now that Oregon is struggling. A road win over a highly-ranked team that is riding high will no doubt help turn that tide for the Spartans.

Impact on recruits: It's hard to measure, exactly, how the outcome of this game plays in the minds of recruits, but considering the gains Michigan State has made over the past few years, a victory could be crucial. Michigan State already has a class of commits for 2016 that ranks in the top 10 in the nation, but recruits from the state will keep a close eye on the outcome, especially Detroit King senior receiver Donnie Corley, a four-star prospect who is considering both schools.

FACTS AND FIGURES

* Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series against Michigan and two of the last three at Michigan Stadium. The seven-year stretch equals the best for the Spartans, who were 6-0-1 from 1956-62. It's also the 17th time the teams have faced each other while ranked, with Michigan State holding a 9-6-1 record in those games.

* The team that has run the ball for more yards has won 42 of the last 45 meetings. Last season, Michigan State outgained Michigan on the ground, 219-61, in a 35-11 victory. Since Mark Dantonio arrived at Michigan State in 2007, the Spartans have outrushed the Wolverines by 858 yards (1,490-632). In six of those eight games, Michigan has been held to 100 yards or fewer.

* Michigan State enters the game on a 10-game road winning streak in the Big Ten, the second-longest under Dantonio. The Spartans also have the second-most victories over the Wolverines with 34 in 107 games. Only Ohio State is better, with 47 wins over UM in 111 games.

* ESPN's College GameDay will be making its 12th appearance at a Michigan State game and the second time this season after it was in East Lansing for the Sept. 12 meeting with Oregon. Since 2011, GameDay has featured eight Michigan State games, the most of any Big Ten school. The Spartans are 5-6 with GameDay on hand.

* Michigan State has allowed just one touchdown to Michigan in the past three meetings. The string of not giving up a touchdown ended in last season's victory when Michigan's De'Veon Smith scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter.