Feng: MSU won't be able to run vs. Michigan

Ed Feng
Special to The Detroit News
Connor Cook has passed for 300 yards or more in three straight games.

Can Michigan continue its success under Jim Harbaugh and beat Michigan State? Or will Michigan State begin to play up to its preseason expectations in this rivalry game?

Coming into the season, Michigan State looked like the favorite in this game despite not having home field. However, the Spartans have struggled. They let Central Michigan and Air Force outgain them in yards, and needed late defensive stands to beat Purdue and Rutgers in close games.

In contrast, Michigan has surged under Harbaugh. After an opening loss at Utah, the Wolverines have improved in all phases of the game and won their last three games by a combined 97-0 score.

Has Michigan traded places with Michigan State in the Big Ten hierarchy? To find out, let's break down the matchups and look at the predictions by analytics and the markets.

Michigan State must throw the ball

Michigan State's offense wants to control the game with the ground attack as they have run the ball on 59 percent of plays this season. However, this will not work against an elite Michigan defense.

The Spartans have run for 4.56 yards per carry this season (93rd in the nation) in numbers that do not count sacks as rush plays. They could only muster 3.7 yards per carry against a poor Rutgers rush defense last week.

Michigan State faces a Michigan defense ranks second in my numbers that take yards per carry and adjust for strength of schedule. The Spartans will find it difficult to eke out yards, much less break a big run.

The injury situation will not help Michigan State's ground game. RB Madre London is questionable, and center Jack Allen hurt his ankle in the final minutes against Rutgers. They do hope Jack Conklin, an NFL prospect at tackle, returns to the field.

Michigan State must throw the ball early and often with Connor Cook, by far the best QB Michigan has seen this season. In particular, Cook excels at throwing the ball down the field. By my charting, he threw 18 of 38 passes more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and completed 13 of these 18.

In addition, Michigan State's offensive line excels in pass protection. They have allowed a sack on 2.4 percent of pass attempts this season, best in the Big Ten. Cook will find it difficult to throw against Michigan's solid pass defense, but it will be easier than running the ball.

Can Michigan run the ball?

Jim Harbaugh also wants runs the ball as Michigan has run on 57 percent of its plays. UM faces a Michigan State rush defense ranked 43rd in my numbers, about the same strength as Northwestern. Last week, Michigan churned out 4.8 yards per carry against Northwestern, a good enough rate to control the game.

Jake Rudock

If Michigan can run the ball, this opens up the downfield passing game for Jake Rudock. Michigan State does excel at the pass rush, as they have registered sacks on 9.8 percent of pass plays, best in the Big Ten. However, the secondary has steadily declined over the last few years.

In 2013, Michigan State featured two future first-round NFL draft picks at cornerbacks, Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. This elite talent helped them allow the fewest yards per play in the nation and win the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State still had Waynes last season, but the defense was no longer elite. The Spartans struggled against Ohio State and Baylor and dropped to 27th in allowed yards per play.

This season, they no longer have Waynes and also lost starting cornerback Vayante Copeland and safety R.J. Williamson to injury. Despite a good pass rush, Michigan State's pass defense is not as good as Northwestern's in my numbers. Jake Rudock will have his opportunities to get the ball downfield.


The Spartans must throw the ball early and often. With a poor rush attack, they need to attack Michigan's defense with Cook's arm to score points.

Michigan will try to cram the ball down the throat of Michigan State's defense. Defensive linemen Malik McDowell and Shilique Calhoun must play big to slow down the Michigan offense.

Special teams could also play a vital role. ESPN's numbers, which use the concept of expected points to rank special teams, rank Michigan fourth but Michigan State 102nd.

In addition, did last year's game give either team added motivation? Michigan drove a spike into the turf of Spartan Stadium before the start of the game. Michigan State responded by running up the score with a touchdown in the final minutes.

My numbers predict a 25-16 Michigan win over Michigan State, which corresponds to a 76 percent win probability for the Wolverines. The markets also favor the Wolverines, with a spread currently at 8.5 points.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Email Ed Feng here.