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Michigan keys to beating Michigan State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback John O'Korn

Detroit News staff writer Angelique S. Chengelis breaks down what the Wolverines have to do against the Spartans in order to prevail Saturday at Michigan Stadium (7:30, ABC/760,950).

Michigan keys to the game

Make O’Korn comfortable

John O’Korn is making his first start of the season at quarterback after coming into the Purdue game in relief of injured Wilton Speight two weeks ago and led the Wolverines on four touchdown drives. Facing Michigan State’s defense, though, will be a different task. The Spartans already have nine sacks this season, while Michigan is ranked 109th of 129 teams in sacks allowed, giving up an average of three per game. This is a function of several factors, but mainly the newness of the right side of the offensive line. The linemen said they used the bye last week to work on pass protection. Is that enough time to make big enough strides? Probably not, and that’s where O’Korn’s mobility will come into play. He showed some escapability in the Purdue game and likely will need some of the moves against MSU.

Stuff the run

Not even factoring in the weather — which looks potentially sloppy — running the ball will be key for both offenses. This is the Michigan defense’s wheelhouse, though. The Wolverines are ranked No. 1 nationally against the run, yielding an average 69.3 yards a game, and that's led by sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who enters this game with 5.5 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, the Spartans, while they have outstanding backs, have struggled to find some consistency in the ground game. The Wolverines gave up 168 yards rushing to Air Force, but remember, the Falcons and their triple option are a run-first team and completed 1-of-9 passes against Michigan. Take them out of the equation, and the Wolverines have allowed 36.3 yards rushing against more “traditional” offenses.  But keep in mind — MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke can run and runs well.

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Run the ball

The offensive line is not getting picked on here, but it plays such a huge role in how the offense — any offense — ticks, and the line will have its hands full against the Spartans. The run blocking has been OK so far this season for the Wolverines’ running back rotation, and it’s going to have to be better if the weather conditions are what is expected. Which back will be the one to stand out against the Spartans? Ty Isaac who was slowed by an injury in the Air Force game, says he’s healthy. He’s a big back who leads the team in rushing with 356 yards, including several chunk gains. Chris Evans and Karan Higdon will get their chances to find room to run.

Be special

No one spends much time talking about special teams until a game comes down to a kick. Remember? OK, won’t go there. Well not really, but the finish to the 2015 game made it absolutely clear that special teams can play a major role in this series. Punting is typically undervalued, and while Michigan State has a weapon in Jake Hartbarger, Michigan is sorting through its punting situation. Will Hart was the punter the first three games, and freshman Brad Robbins played in the Purdue game and averaged 40.6 yards and forced the Boilermakers to start one drive from its 15. The Wolverines also have a punt returned for a touchdown and they also have Quinn Nordin, jokingly referred to as Wild Thing because of his haircut (paying homage to the character in the movie “Major League.” Nordin is 11-of-13 this season and has boomed a couple 50-plus yarders. 

Pass to win

The objective is to have a balanced offensive attack, although the stat is brought up every year during the Michigan-Michigan State game that the team that rushes for the most yards tends to win. Fine. But weather aside, O’Korn is going to have to move the offense and who will he find? Look for Grant Perry, now the team’s leading receiver since Tarik Black’s injury, and freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. Everyone was wondering where the tight ends were, and they showed up in the Purdue game, particularly the second half. Keep your eyes on Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon.

Wolverines to watch

John O’Korn, QB: O’Korn spoke in preseason camp of the return of his confidence and credited new pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton for helping him reach that point. He lost a close competition with Wilton Speight and played sparingly the first three games become coming into the Purdue game and providing a spark after Speight was injured. Speight will be out for “multiple” games according to Jim Harbaugh, so O’Korn enters his first start of the season without having to look over his shoulder. He has admitted he pressed and rushed last season in his opportunities to play, including a start against Indiana, so the key against MSU will be his poise.

Chase Winovich, DE: Winovich, a defensive end, spoke at length this week about his endless motor and tireless approach to the game. He did not miss a play against Purdue in brutally hot conditions and had a mammoth performance with 2.5 sacks. He ranks second nationally in sacks (5.5) and is 13th in tackles for loss (7.5) and is the Big Ten’s leader in both of those categories.

■ Devin Bush, LB: The sophomore linebacker has quickly become a major tone-setter for this defense and will have to have a peak game against Michigan State’s running game. He leads the Wolverines with 33 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss, and he has 4.5 sacks and four pass breakups this season. He is seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Winovich. Bush responded in the opener when the Wolverines were called out by Florida as a team that lacks sideline-to-sideline speed and hasn’t slowed down. In four starts at linebacker, he has had seven or more tackles in every game.

Michigan facts and figures

Night, night: As everyone knows, this is the first night game in the history of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. It’s also the fourth night game at Michigan Stadium, and the Wolverines hold a 3-0 record in those games.

Run, run, run: Through 26 consecutive games from 1969 through 1994 in the Michigan-Michigan State series, the winning team gained more rushing yards. The Spartans ended that in 1995, winning despite the fact Michigan outgained them 218-73. And the Wolverines were outgained 191-100 in the 2007 game but won, 28-24.

Throw out the records: Rankings and records don’t matter when these two teams play, but … this is the 52nd time Michigan enters this game ranked in the Top 25 of the AP poll. The Wolverines currently are No. 7. They are 31-19-1 against MSU when ranked in the top 25, but when both teams are ranked, Michigan is 6-10-1.