The 23rd-ranked Michigan Wolverines will try to stay atop the Big Ten Conference's Legends Division on Saturday afternoon when they host intrastate rival Michigan State at The Big House in Ann Arbor.
Michigan is 4-2 on the season, with its two losses coming on the road against top-ranked Alabama and No. 5 Notre Dame. Since the setback to the Fighting Irish on Sept. 22, the Wolverines have rebounded to knock off Purdue and Illinois by a combined score of 89-13. Still, head coach Brady Hoke knows his team faces a stiff test this weekend.
"This game has always, in my recollection, been a very physical, feisty to some degree, football game," Hoke said. "You know, there is a lot of pride in both universities and programs and guys who are out there representing. Our guys know their guys; their guys know our guys a vast majority. So it's always a physical game."
Michigan State suffered its third loss of the season last week, falling at home to Iowa in double-overtime, 19-16. The Spartans have been in some tight battles of late, also losing to Ohio State by one point (17-16) on Sept. 29 and then notching a four-point win at Indiana (31-27) the following week.
UM leads the all-time series, 67-32-5, although the Spartans have claimed the last four meetings to retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Keep an eye on the respective running games for this matchup, as the team that has won the rushing battle has won 39 of the past 42 meetings in the series.
Michigan State's offense has struggled to put points on the board with any real consistency, as the unit ranks 102nd out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense (21.0 ppg). The transition from Kirk Cousins, last year's starting quarterback, to this year's starter, Andrew Maxwell, has been shaky at times. Maxwell ranks 11th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, although he did manage to go six games in between throwing interceptions. That streak came to an end in the latter stages of last week's loss to Iowa. Le'Veon Bell ran for 140 yards and a touchdown against the Hawkeyes. Bell has now run for 916 yards (4.6 ypc) and eight touchdowns on the year, and he remains a focal point of the Spartans' offense.
Whereas the Spartans' offensive production has been spotty, the defense has been just fine. In fact, the team enters this tilt ranked seventh in the nation in total defense (270.1 ypg) and eighth in run defense (91.3 ypg). The Spartans also boast the nation's No. 14 scoring defense (15.7 ppg) and the No. 17 pass defense (178.9 ypg). However, the defense came up short last week in a game that MSU never trailed until the final whistle. Leading 13-6 late in regulation, the Spartans allowed Iowa to drive 68 yards in nine plays, forcing overtime on a five-yard touchdown run with 55 seconds on the clock. During the drive, MSU gave up a 35-yard completion on 2nd-and-26 and a 37-yard run on 3rd-and-6.
For Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, the low point of his season came late in the first half against Notre Dame a few weeks ago when he was intercepted on four consecutive pass attempts. Since then, however, Robinson has been lights out. He had a 340-yard (235 rush, 105) effort in a rout over Purdue two weekends ago, breaking the Big Ten career quarterback rushing record in the process. Last week, Robinson threw for 159 yards and two scores while also adding 128 yards and two scores rushing -- the seventh career game he has tallied two scores both on the ground and through the air. During his weekly press conference, Hoke said offensive coordinator Al Borges has spoken to Robinson about making plays, not miracles.
"Making miracles is trying to not stay within the framework of what we're trying to do from an offensive standpoint," Hoke said. "It probably happens more in the passing game than in the run game.
"(Robinson's) got something that a lot of people don't have (running the ball), his ability to start and stop and then accelerate."
Wolverines linebacker Jake Ryan had a monster performance in the team's shutout win over Illinois, tying a career-high with 11 tackles, including seven solo and 3.5 for loss. Ryan, who paces the team with 42 tackles on the year, also tallied 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble, and as a result was named this week's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. With Ryan leading the charge, UM allowed a mere 134 yards of total offense and seven first downs to the Fighting Illini, who managed just 29 yards passing. Fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens also added eight tackles and his first career interception in the victory. That tandem has helped the Wolverines to surrender just 283 yards per game on the season, which ranks second in the Big Ten and 10th in the FBS.