How Michigan football can avoid an upset against Michigan State

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press

Things change quickly in college football.

When Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan football was chasing Michigan State.

Now, the Wolverines are squarely ahead of the Spartans in the Big Ten East's pecking order. They've won three of the past four games between the two teams, with a combined margin of victory of 48 points over the past two seasons.

It's no surprise Michigan opened as a 24-point favorite over Michigan State this week. The Wolverines are coming off a 49-24 win at Minnesota; the Spartans lost at home to Rutgers, 38-27.

[ Jim Harbaugh: I don't expect MSU to turn it over seven times vs. us ]

But weird things happen in college football — especially in this rivalry.

Here's what Michigan has to do to avoid the upset:

Play clean football

Michigan receiver Giles Jackson is tackled by Minnesota defensive lineman Boye Mafe (34) and defensive back Matt Guggemos (28) in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.
Michigan receiver Giles Jackson is tackled by Minnesota defensive lineman Boye Mafe (34) and defensive back Matt Guggemos (28) in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium, Oct. 24, 2020.

The Wolverines are more talented than Michigan State on both offense and defense. The easiest way to muck up that advantage (and this goes for any favored team): Play sloppy football. Turnovers, perhaps more than anything, allow a lesser opponent to stay in the game.

Against Minnesota, Michigan didn't turn the ball over, and after the first possession (which was killed by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty), the offense generated nine consecutive scoring opportunities (with six touchdowns and three missed field goals).The Wolverines did get lucky at times, recovering two fumbles; meanwhile, a tipped pass found the hands of receiver Giles Jackson. Still, it was a turnover-free performance that was the opposite of what we saw early in 2019, when the offense turned it over 13 times in the first six contests — including nine in the first three games.

Provided it doesn't give the ball away, Michigan's offense is talented enough to put up plenty of points Saturday — like it did last fall, when it scored 44 points and had only one turnover.

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Get after the quarterback

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi is tackled by Rutgers defensive back Lawrence Stevens during MSU's 38-27 loss on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi is tackled by Rutgers defensive back Lawrence Stevens during MSU's 38-27 loss on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State's offensive line was poor in its opener. Rutgers tallied three sacks and 12 tackles for loss, with the interior of the defensive line knifing into the Spartans' backfield and disrupting the offense. Michigan is equipped to do the same: The Wolverines generated five sacks and eight tackles for loss against Minnesota, and one of the biggest plays of the game came when linebacker Michael Barrett blitzed and forced a sack fumble that was returned for a touchdown by defensive tackle Donovan Jeter. During one possession in the fourth quarter, Michigan's defensive line recorded three consecutive sacks to push Minnesota out of scoring possession, two from defensive end Kwity Paye.

Michigan's ability to generate pressure, whether with blitzes or four-man rushes, could hinder Michigan State's passing attack — especially if the Wolverines jump out to a lead and put the Spartans in a position where they have to pass.

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Big plays in the run game

Michigan continually swung momentum back in its favor against the Gophers, even after a rough start, thanks to the run game. The Wolverines had two big runs: A 70-yard touchdown from Zach Charbonnet and a 66-yard gain from Hassan Haskins. They tallied 256 rushing yards and five touchdowns, and averaged over eight yards per carry. The run game dominated, whether it was one of the running backs finding a hole or quarterback Joe Milton (who had eight carries for 52 yards and a touchdown, including a key 23-yard run on 3rd-and-2 that set up a touchdown). Michigan didn't ask Milton to throw downfield often, with most of his completions coming near the line of scrimmage.

[ What Michigan QB coach Ben McDaniels liked from Joe Milton's first start ]

In last season's win over Michigan State, the Wolverines relied heavily on the passing game, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns. With Michigan breaking in new faces on offense and the Spartans missing the presence of former defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, the Wolverines could be inclined to run the ball often.

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan football can avoid an upset against Michigan State