Michigan State v Michigan will happen for the 115th time tonight, fighting for the Paul Bunyan Trophy under the bright lights of the Big House. Last year these two teams were undefeated when they met in East Lansing. This year that is definitely not the case for MSU as the Spartans have struggled to stay healthy in the run game and to defend anybody in the secondary on their way to a 3-4 record.
Michigan, meanwhile, has not struggled much at all, dominating teams with their fantastic run game and dominant defensive line. In fact, the Wolverines have only been tested for 1.5 games (vs. Maryland, first half vs. Indiana), on their way to a 7-0 record.
What are the 3 Keys to Victory for Michigan State?
We all know Michigan is the overwhelming favorite (-24.5), and they deserve to be based on what we’ve seen so far in this 2022 college football season. But upsets happen, and they play the game for a reason, so with that in mind, here are three keys to Victory for MSU.
Michigan State Needs to Pass to Set up the Run
Last year MSU had the amazing Kenneth Walker III to rely on, and rely on him they did as he rushed the ball 23 times for 197 yards and five touchdowns. But Kenneth Walker III is now playing on Sundays, and Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard, and Elijah Collins have not been nearly as prolific this year. The offensive line has not done nearly as good a job of blocking this season. Meanwhile, Payton Thorne has some great weapons in Jayden Reed, Keon Coleman, and Tre Mosley. Not to mention a few decent TEs in Daniel Barker and Maliq Carr.
The one full game Michigan has been tested in this year was against Maryland, where Taulia Tagovailoa threw the ball 30 times, completing 20 of them for 207 yards and one touchdown. And while he did throw two picks, Maryland could stay with Michigan until the end, falling 34-27.
Yes, Payton Thorne has been up and down this season, but in his last game against Wisconsin, Thorne was 21 of 28 for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Thorne is one of the leaders of this Spartan team, and he needs to play like one today if MSU is going to pull the upset of upsets. He has the weapons to throw to and needs to take what the defense gives him, be it a 5-yard checkdown or a chance over the top if Reed or Coleman get a step on the secondary.
Michigan State Needs to Win the Turnover Battle v Michigan
This is one area you should never count on, as turnovers are unpredictable, but when you are such a big underdog as the Spartans are, you need some luck to bounce your way. Michigan has been one of the best in football at taking care of the football having only four turnovers on the year, but they are not perfect.
Michigan State has not been so clean this year, with ten turnovers on the year. But they have also created ten turnovers defensively, so they know how to do it. With Jacob Slade back in the lineup, Jacoby Windmon has been free to move back to linebacker, where he has been his most dangerous self, garnering BigTen Defensive Player of the Week three times this year. Xavier Henderson is also back for the Spartan secondary, and his leadership proved dividends two weeks ago against Wisconsin.
JJ McCarthy is agile and accurate, and he will find ways to hurt you with his legs or arms, but again, he is not perfect. If Michigan State can find a way to get a turnover (or two or three) and take care of the ball offensively, they will have a much better chance of upsetting the Wolverines.
Bend but Don’t Break Red Zone Defense for Michigan State v Michigan
We all know how bad the Michigan State defense has been this season (and last season and the season before that). But if they can hold when it counts, it could make all the difference. And that means holding the Wolverines to field goals when they enter the red zone. Michigan has been in the red zone 39 times so far this season, scoring 36 of those times (92%), 18 of those 36 scores have been rushing TDs, and 8 of those scores have been passing TDs. That leaves 13 other times they were in the red zone and didn’t come away with six. If MSU can turn that 1/3rd number into something more like ½ today, their chances of pulling off the upset greatly increase.
Again, we’ve all seen how bad MSU’s pass defense has been, but on a shortened field, there’s only so much room available, which could play in the secondary’s hand if they can stay with the receivers and maybe even get some coverage sacks. It’s a tall task against an offense as good as Michigan’s, but seeing they’ve been held to a FG or less 1 out of 3 red zone trips, it can be done.