We’ve reached that day in the year. Where friendships get put on hold, family is not over everything and depending on what color shirt you have on, you might be sleeping on the couch. That’s right, the Backyard Brawl between Michigan and Michigan State is Saturday and like usual the stakes are pretty high. For one team at least.
The Wolverines continue their march back to the college football playoffs. They don’t have a blemish on the schedule yet and have beaten most opponents with ease. Critics scoffed at their cupcake non-conference schedule. But Jim Harbaugh and Co. have quieted most of them were their dominant conference play.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has had a tougher time getting here. The Spartans came into the season riding a high from last year’s surprise success story. But they are just 1-3 in Big Ten play and were blown out by both Washington and Minnesota. The latter game being at home.
But in a game filled with as much hatred as this one, records don’t matter. If Michigan doesn’t show up on Saturday motivated and plays well, they’ll lose to Michigan State, again.
Might Be a J.J. Episode
Michigan has been dominant with their rushing attack. That’s putting it mildly. The Wolverines are averaging 241.7 yards per game, best in the Big Ten. Blake Corum leads the nation with 13 rushing touchdowns and has added to his Heisman Trophy resume each week.
Spartans coach Mel Tucker knows how dangerous the tandem of Corum and Donovan Edwards can be.
“Their backs run hard and they can make you miss,” Tucker said. “They can run you over.”
Michigan State will game plan to slow down the Wolverines run game. They were fairly successful at it last year. If history repeats itself, then quarterback J.J. McCarthy may have to put the offense on his back.
McCarthy has done a lot of things right in his first year as starting quarterback. But he hasn’t had to carry the team to victory yet. That’s not an easy thing to do for a young signal caller in a rivalry game.
In last year’s edition of the Backyard Brawl, McCarthy fumbled the ball away in the fourth quarter. Michigan State ended up scoring a touchdown on their next possession to take the lead. You remember the rest.
That fumble wasn’t the sole reason Michigan lost. But you can argue it was the biggest. McCarthy has the talent to put that nightmare highlight to bed on Saturday. And if this game plays out like the last one, he may not have a choice but to do just that.
Stop the Deep Ball
Defensively for Michigan, the biggest key will be not allowing the Spartans to complete long passes. This was something that turned devastating for the Wolverines last year.
Allowing the opponent to complete a 20+ yard pass is not good for multiple obvious reasons. None of which are more important in this game than momentum. The confidence meter swings heavily after a big gain. Your defense, which felt unstoppable getting the opponents to a 3rd and long situation, now feels defeated after giving up a 23-yard pass.
Michigan shouldn’t have much issue stopping the Spartans on the ground, as they hold the second-best rushing defense in the conference. State is near the bottom, averaging 106 rushing yards per game. This is another golden opportunity for guys like Mazi Smith and Jaylen Harrell to have big games. Harrell only has 16 tackles on the year, but most of those have come near the line of scrimmage.
This could also be a coming out party for true freshman Mason Graham. The interior defensive lineman was quiet last game against Penn State. But against a weaker offensive line, Graham should shine under the lights.
How much success the Michigan defense has is going to come down DJ Turner and Gemon Green. The two starting cornerbacks will have their hands full of the Spartan receivers. Keon Coleman has looked as advertised in the green and white. Jayden Reed is back and has recorded touchdown catches in the last three games.
In a week where compliments are difficult to give, Harbaugh showed respect for Reed.
“As good as anybody at the 50-50 balls,” Harbaugh said. “He can go up and get it.” The Michigan coach also noted that the Spartans have “probably the best receiving corps that we’ve faced.”
Players to Watch:
Michigan – DB Mike Sainristil
The senior didn’t pad many stats in his last game but he has played exceptionally well at defensive back this season. After moving over from receiver, Sainristill has been effective in both pass defense and rushing the quarterback. Him taking away the underneath routes and getting to the Spartan quarterback could be game changing for the Wolverines defense.
Michigan State – DL Jacob Slade
The senior defensive lineman made his return from injury two weeks ago against Wisconsin. If Michigan State is able to shut down Corum and Edwards, this guy will be a huge reason why. Watching Slade go up against a stout Michigan offensive line will be a nice side battle to keep an eye on.
Michigan 27 Michigan State 20
This won’t be a blowout. If you are betting Michigan to win by three touchdowns, I can’t help you. Michigan has only beaten State by three or more touchdowns once since 2002. It just doesn’t happen often, no matter how good or bad either team is.
I think this game will be similar to last year where Michigan gets an early lead, then State kind of comes back but doesn’t pull it off like last year. The score will look closer than how the game actually played.
Michigan State +23 – Again, I’m not taking Michigan to win by 24 points. That sounds insane. If you are able to do it, God bless, I hope it works out for you. Spoiler alert: it won’t.
Under 55 – That’s too many points for me. As you can see in my prediction above, I don’t know the total gets to 50. The weather is expected to be nice Saturday night, so that could help the offenses. Still, I think both defenses will be effective and if it does happen to get out of hand, Harbaugh won’t run it up.
Public Service Announcement:
If you’ve made it this far into the article, I thank you. But I did want to throw out a quick PSA. Most of you won’t need it, but we all know that one person who does.
No matter what happens in this game, let’s all remember to at least treat each other with respect. Especially if you are going to a watch party or the game itself, it’s ok to throw a few verbal shots at each other about their team. But remember this is just sports, and it’s not worth fighting and going to jail over.
Related articles: J.J. McCarthy can lift himself to “savior” status this weekend.