Saturday, November 28, 2020

Preview: MSU vs. Michigan key matchups and a prediction

October 30, 2020

Twas the night before game day when all through the (big) house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Cleats, helmets and football pads all hung with care — in hope that the big game would soon be there.

It’s almost game day in Ann Arbor and no fans can be there.

“Obviously, this game against the school down the road is not just another game,” Mel Tucker said during a Zoom conference Tuesday. “It’s really special to me. It’s special to our players. It’s very important to our coaches, to our former players and to our fans and to the people of the state of Michigan.”

MSU was doomed by seven turnovers in a 38-27 loss at home to Rutgers. No. 13 Michigan made a statement on national television in a 49-24 road win over then No. 21 Minnesota. 

This rivalry is like few others in sports: Duke-UNC and Texas-Oklahoma are some that come to mind. Moments remembered forever by sports fans riddle the history. 

It’ll look different this time around. No fans is in some ways an advantage for the Spartans but also provides an eerie surrounding to the playing field. For the first time in the rivalry’s history, there won’t be tens of thousands of fans gathered in Ann Arbor to cheer on the two major programs in the state.

MSU and U of M will clash once more at Noon EST, on FOX in the 113th battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

Key matchup: Michigan’s defensive line vs. MSU's offensive line

The Wolverines consistently put pressure on a banged-up Minnesota offensive line last weekend. 

Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Josh Ross and a litany of U of M defenders were all over Tanner Morgan and the Minnesota offense. 

It was by design too. Don Brown, U of M defensive coordinator, blitzed a ton in their win over the Gophers and with how poorly MSU's offense played against Rutgers, you can bet there will be more to come Saturday. 

“Minnesota had a tough scheme you know," Hutchinson said. "They ran a lot of 12-personnel, a lot of heavy sets. They ran the ball a lot. So, it was hard to get pressure on those early downs because you know they always had their big tight ends in … but we managed to find a way."

No Luke Campbell or Devontae Dobbs last weekend. Jordan Reid opted out, and more OL shuffles hurt the consistency of a group that looks weak early on. 

While a few of the strip-sacks against Rutgers can be attributed to running backs not picking up a pass rusher, this group needs to be better if the Spartans want to get the ball moving.

“They're (MSU) a really good football team," Hutchinson said. "I can’t wait to get my opportunity to play them. Obviously I’ve been around this rivalry for a long time, and I understand it through my dad and kind of through my whole family.”

U of M had five sacks Saturday. It’s clear the short passing game will again have to be working if MSU is going to keep this one close, Michigan comes in as a 24-point favorite at home.

Prediction: 42-14, U of M wins big for a second straight week

Michigan lost a lot from last year’s team that went 9-4. Almost all of the offensive lineman that started Saturday had sat behind one of the best OL groups in the nation last season. But that wasn’t a problem in Week 1.

“Pass protection and the run blocking was outstanding,” Harbaugh said on Monday in a video conference. “Jalen Mayfield was lights out. I mean he played a tremendous game in pass protection. … Andrew Vastardis was also really, really good.”

Joe Milton, at 6-feet-5-inches and 243 pounds with a big arm, could unleash havoc on the Spartans. He wasn't asked to push the ball deep, which was evidently part of the game plan for U of M offensive coordinator Josh Gattis last Saturday as the Wolverines utilized screens, underneath routes and the run game to score 49 points.

MSU’s defensive line is a well-coached and active group. It will say a lot about them if they refuse to roll over against a powerful U of M offense.

Receivers that are gone? Nico Collins opted out, Tarik Black transferred to Texas and Donovan Peoples-Jones is getting time with the Cleveland Browns. This team took a hit with graduating seniors and the NFL draft, but reloaded and is deep, especially on defense. 

If receivers Ronnie Bell and freshman Roman Wilson, who showed promise against Minnesota, can have big games against an MSU secondary that struggled to adjust to a new scheme, this one won’t be close.

But Rocky Lombardi has the chance to cement a legacy if he can throw the Spartans to a win. That remains to be seen.

In rivalries anything is possible. Records often are thrown out the window. 

But this year is different. Harbaugh has his team playing. Michigan wins 42-14 at an empty Big House.

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