Win the rushing battle
Since 1956, the winner of the rushing battle is 52-4-2. Simply put, if you run the ball better than the other team, you win the game more often than not. It holds true for the majority of football games, but has proven especially true in games between these rivals. Michigan has the No. 4 ranked run defense – allowing just three rushing touchdowns this season – while Michigan State has the No. 14 rushing offense. On the other hand, Michigan State has the No. 10 rushing defense to try to stop Michigan’s 66th-ranked rushing offense. Whichever front seven holds up better should have good odds to win. This also comes into play on short-yardage situations, as Michigan State needs to improve on those and that means winning in the trenches.
Do not throw interceptions
Connor Cook has a tendency to make some very iffy throws, whether it stem from confidence (overconfidence) or misreading a defense, he makes a couple throws a game that just do not look well thought out. To avoid those against Michigan would go a long way. Michigan’s secondary has just two interceptions – both from Jourdan Lewis – and has just three as a team.
Continue to pass block impressively
Michigan State has allowed just four sacks this season and allowed them in just two games. Keeping Cook on his feet and giving him time to sit in the pocket, go through his progressions and find open receivers. Michigan’s front seven is strong in run defense, but has not gotten the same impact in rushing the passer. If that continues, Cook should have time to make plays and big throws Saturday.
Pressure Devin Gardner
On the other side … what Michigan State did so well last year was dominate defensively. It was not a dominating offensive performance that won the game for Michigan State. The pressure the Spartans front seven got did not give Gardner the time to make his reads or find open receivers – and there were some streaking downfield. MSU has had some coverage busts this year and getting pressure on Gardner will help cover those.
Stay on edge
What has allowed Michigan State to have such success against Michigan seems pretty simple: The is a chip on the shoulder that does not go away. Right now, Michigan has plenty to play for. Brady Hoke is essentially coaching for his job weekly, while the players are playing to make a bowl game now. Can Michigan State keep its edge and its underdog mentality?
Since Kruse returned to full-time action, Michigan State’s rushing attack has been clicking on all cylinders. Is he the key? Maybe. The guard play did leave something to be desired earlier in the season, but he has been very good since then. How well Kruse, Donavon Clark and Travis Jackson run block will be essential for Michigan State to win.
Last year, Waynes did a great job taking Michigan tight end Devin Funchess out of the game with his height and athleticism. The Wolverines figure to move Funchess around to get him matched up on a variety of players. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Wednesday the idea had been talked about of moving Waynes to match up with Funchess, but that remains to be seen how MSU will approach that. But take Funchess out of the passing game and Michigan’s offense becomes much difference.
This pair could be joined by R.J. Shelton and Keith Mumphery, as it basically is a key that receivers not named Tony Lippett step up. Last week, Indiana started double teaming Lippett at points and while he had some success, it is important that Michigan State finds plays and playmakers from other receivers to beat the Wolverines. A major strength of this Michigan State offense has been the versatility and variety of weapons.
A quarterback is always a key to the game, but this game should come down to Cook’s arm and decision making. If he takes care of the ball and is efficient against press coverage from the Wolverines, especially if he has to live with Lippett being less of an option at times. With the Wolverines playing good run defense in the front seven, the passing game should be prominent.