How Michigan and Michigan State’s No. 4 compare statistically ahead of Saturday’s clash
After both teams enjoyed a week off, the Michigan and Michigan State football teams are set to meet in their annual rivalry matchup Saturday night in Ann Arbor (7:42 p.m. HE, ABC). So far this season, the Wolverines, fourth in the standings (4-0 Big Ten, 7-0 on aggregate), have more fun than the Spartans (1-3, 3-4) and are heavily favored in the game of Saturday.
What do the numbers say about Saturday’s clash? As we do every week, we take a look at how both teams rank statistically in over 50 categories in our numbers preview. As always, the numbers below show each team’s national ranking out of 131 FBS teams.
To Michigan State’s credit, the Spartans’ schedule turned out to be tougher than expected. A season ago, Maryland and Washington weren’t what they have been this season, and Ohio State is what it is. But even in the face of a tough schedule, the Spartans have been disappointed so far after an 11-win campaign in 2021. Michigan State has appeared static in the running game, with no improvement in coverage and suffered losses in the trenches that even his random teams in recent years have not endured. The end result was a four-game losing streak, interrupted only by a double-overtime home win against a Wisconsin team led by an interim coach.
Now Michigan State must upset a ranked team from Michigan, Illinois or Penn State on the road (in addition to home games against Indiana and Rutgers) just to get six wins this season.
Michigan Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Last season, the Spartans finished the season as the nation’s worst pass defense. Things only look slightly better on that front this fall, and now Michigan State is also struggling to stop the run. Injuries have played a part, but the Spartans are also undersized up front, struggling with speed at linebacker and their secondary continues to be plagued with an alarming routine. Michigan State hasn’t delivered in the passing rush since starting to face power-five opponents, and Minnesota and Ohio State have both topped 200 rushing yards on more than five yards per carry.
Precedent suggests the teams better go first against the Spartans, but the numbers indicate Michigan might be able to head the ball as well.
Michigan State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
To say Michigan State misses Kenneth Walker III would be an understatement. The Spartans have turned to two transfer running backs this fall, in Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard, but neither has been effective in midfield or in the open. Michigan State’s offensive line, mustering less than 1.4 yards before contact per carry, doesn’t help, but the Spartans are almost entirely one-dimensional offensively at this point.
That dimension has potential, as quarterback Payton Thorne and receivers Jayden Reed, Tre Mosley and Keon Coleman have proven themselves capable of making big plays and moving quickly down the field. There’s an element of fearlessness to the Spartans’ passing game that also keeps defenses guessing a bit. Still, Michigan State struggled to score when the game is still within reach against Power-Five teams, and their gaps in the trenches were a major culprit.
Special teams and more
Michigan State has a fantastic punter in Bryce Baringer, as he averages over 51 yards per punt and 46.7 net punt yards when returns and touchdowns are factored in. Reed is also a dangerous punt returner even though the stars are like that this season, with three career touchdowns with punt returns. Otherwise, however, the Spartans are pretty meager on special teams.
One area to watch, especially in this rivalry game, is penalties. Similar to Indiana, Michigan State incorporates draw penalties into its game plan, so it will be up to Michigan to avoid the obvious penalties and regroup quickly when called for penalties.
Pro Football Focus Ratings
Other than the Spartans’ run-blocking rating, which makes no sense, this mostly lines up with what both teams have shown on paper. Michigan State has talent on defense, but is terrible on coverage and on offense from an assignment standpoint. The Spartans’ passing game had moments, but not enough to make up for a seemingly complete lack of running game.
By the numbers, Saturday’s game is shaping up to potentially be Michigan’s easiest Big Ten game of the season. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen this rivalry in action knows better than to assume that the game will always play out the way it does on paper.