Preview: Michigan State (7-1) vs. Michigan (7-2)

With the Spartans atop the Big Ten and sporting an undefeated conference record and a #9 national ranking, they have a huge bulls-eye on their chest. On the other hand, despite their lofty #11 ranking in the nation and a 7-2 record, Michigan is considered one of the bigger disappointments in college football.

Preview: Michigan State (7-1) vs. Michigan (7-2) Special teams, field position likely to determine the outcome of epic contest By Mike Fowler MATCHUP: MICHIGAN STATE (7-1) VS MICHIGAN (7-2)
John Navarre threw three touchdown passes including two to Ronald Bellamy as Michigan scored 49 unanswered points to trounce the Spartans at East Lansing.

(ANN ARBOR) – While the annual backyard brawl between Michigan State and Michigan always generates passionate feelings on either side of the ball, seldom have things reached such a fever pitch as they have this week leading up to the 12:00pm high noon kickoff.

That's because seldom have the stakes been as high as they will be in this one. With the Spartans atop the Big Ten and sporting an undefeated conference record and a #9 national ranking, they have a huge bulls-eye on their chest. On the other hand, despite their lofty #11 ranking in the nation and a 7-2 record, Michigan is considered one of the bigger disappointments in college football.

Michigan was expected to enter this point in the season with a 9-0 record and a ranking as high as #1 or #2, second only to Oklahoma as the conventional pick for this year's national championship game in New Orleans.

But Michigan has had trouble winning on the road. First was the stunning loss at Autzen Stadium in Corvallis, OR when Michigan made mistake after mistake in losing to the Oregon Ducks who promptly were blown out in their next two games and subsequently have fallen out of major bowl contention.

Then Michigan stubbed its toe against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City. A team that was handled easily by the Michigan State Spartans came up and bit the Wolverines, putting a serious dent in Michigan's hopes for even a conference championship.

Michigan barely survived a feisty Minnesota team with the largest comeback in team history to post an improbable 38-35 win in the Metrodome. That win seems to give the Wolverines some momentum. So it was that they complete trounced a highly ranked, but untested Purdue Boilermaker squad in Ann Arbor in what was clearly their finest moment.

Now they must travel to a place that in the past has been a snake pit for them, Spartan Stadium. Previously undermanned MSU squads have beaten Michigan the past two times in East Lansing.

The most recent upset win came in the infamous "clock gate" game when quarterback Jeff Smoker found running back T. J. Duckett in the end zone as time expired to defeat the Wolverines 26-24. The Spartans also did the deed in 2000 when they came into the game sporting a 5-0 record under Nick Saban and knocked off a 5-0 Wolverine team 34-31 behind record setting performances by quarterback Bill Burke and receiver Plaxico Burress.

Michigan is playing at its highest level of the season and will present some problems for the MSU defense on Saturday.

Defending the Wolverines Say what you will about Michigan QB John Navarre, he is second in passing yardage in the Big Ten behind Jeff Smoker for a reason, he has put points on the board and has a trio of receivers in Jason Avant (37 catches for 615 yards), Steve Breaston (24 catches for 307 yards) and Braylon Edwards (52 catches for 686 yards) who are talented big play guys who can take it to the house on any play.

State must start by putting heavy pressure on Navarre. Navarre is susceptible to making mistakes (7 interceptions in 2003) when the pressure is on. That has been his "M.O." throughout his career.

If MSU plays it's usual decent two deep scheme with all-Big Ten candidates Eric Smith and Jason Harmon protecting against the long ball, leaving their corners Derrick Barnett and Roderick Maples on an island, the chances of getting to Navarre before he gets to the MSU secondary are good.

MSU leads the nation in sacks thanks to the play of defensive end Greg Taplin and defensive tackle Matthias Askew. Taplin and Askew both have six sacks to lead the Spartans and would love to add Navarre to their hit list.

The Spartans have been steadily sliding in the run defense stats since they were #2 in the nation at one point. Now ranked 14th, even that will be challenge by the rushing of Michigan tailback Chris Perry. Perry, the eighth ranked running back in the nation, is averaging 121.8 yards per game.

There is no way the Spartans can allow Perry that kind of success and hope to win. While MSU cannot continually put eight men in the box, they may have to walk an eighth man up if their front seven cannot contain Perry, making themselves vulnerable to play action. Middle linebacker Mike Labinjo (leads team with 3 interceptions) will be a huge factor in both containing the run game and in pass coverage.

Michigan loves to try to do to opponents what teams want to do against them. Look for them to run all three wide outs to try to spread the Spartans defense thin and then use Perry in sprint draws in a ball control scheme. MSU must play smart and then make plays defensively to prevent Michigan from possessing the football for large stretches of time.

Spartan Attack When MSU has the ball, they will spread the field with three and four receivers, but they will need to run the football effectively to combat Michigan's ball control scheme. Jaren Hayes (avg 70.4 yards per game) and Jason Teague are the keys to the Spartans run attack. While Hayes will start and play a lot, MSU will go to Teague in "must run" downs. Teague is a big physical punishing runner who doesn't have the speed and breakaway ability that Hayes possesses. Hayes is also a gifted receiver (37 catches for 365 yards)

Smoker must not allow Michigan to confuse him with a variety of blitz packages and varied looks. Instead, look for the senior to call for one of a number of screen passes against an aggressive Michigan pass defense. Tight ends Eric Knott and Jason Randall need to be huge factors against Michigan's linebacking group because they have a talent advantage in that position.

While Michigan State's group of receivers are deep an talented featuring Agim Shabaj, Aaron Alexander, Matt Trannon, Kyle Brown and Ziehl Kavanaught, they'll face a secondary that is deep and talented featuring the goat of the "clock gate" game Jeremy LaSueur, Markus Curry, Ernest Shazor and the banged up Marlin Jackson is expected back for this one.

Michigan is second in the nation in pass defense and will slow the Spartans vertical passing game, so MSU must be prepared to feature tight ends Knott and Randall and take the check downs to Hayes out of the backfield. All are capable of making big time plays.

Special Teams and Field Position This aspect of the game will likely be the difference in the outcome. While Michigan has upgraded its place kicking game significantly adding South Florida native Garrett Rivas, he cannot match the accuracy of one of a long line of talented MSU kickers in Dave Rayner.

Rayner (ranked 3rd in the nation) is one of the most accurate kickers in college football and ranks first in the Big Ten in field goals and third in the country with 2.25 per game.

Neither can the Wolverines match the punting of freshman Brandon Fields. Fields ranks 6th in the nation in punting with a 41.7 net punting average. Adam Finley has been the weak link in Michigan's special teams game as the 10th ranked punter in the Big Ten and 80th in the nation.

But what Michigan does possess is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country in sophomore Steve Breaston who leads the Big Ten with a 15.8 per return average. MSU has the conference's leading kickoff returner in freshman DeAndra Cobb averaging 25.6 yards per return, Cobb has already scored twice on kickoff returns of over 90 yards against Rutgers and Minnesota.

Pick In the end, MSU's edge in special teams will keep Michigan playing on a long field all day long. Conversely Michigan's inability to get out of poor field position will give MSU the advantage and put them in positions to score more than UM. Look for MSU to force turnovers from Navarre allowing them to win the football game and set them up to "run the table" en route to the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State 27 – Michigan 20

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