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Michigan State Spartans vs. Michigan Wolverines: Preview, predictions and prognostications

When: Sat.; Oct. 17 (3:30p.m. ET)
Where: Ann Arbor, MI; Michigan Stadium (109,901)
TV: ESPN
Line: Michigan -7.5

1 Burning Question: Who’s the Real Little Brother?

We all remember it well. Former Michigan running back Michael Hart labeled Michigan State as Michigan’s “little brother” after beating the Spartans in 2007. The Wolverines were top dog at the time, but it added to the already boiling level hatred between the two fierce, in-state rivals.

Fast forward through time, and the Maize and Blue have looked more like the younger sibling trying to be like the older brother. Dantonio has owned the rivalry since arriving in East Lansing and Michigan has been through three coaches.

The newest and shiniest of those coaches is a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh. He may have Michigan ahead of schedule with light’s out defense and a physical style on the offensive end. But for all the good things that have gone on this year, the program needs a defining moment like what’s before it this weekend.

Will the Spartans continue to toy with Ann Arbor’s heart-strings, or will the passing of the baton begin in earnest on Saturday, marking the resurgence of winged-helmets?

2 Key Stats

— 6-2: That’s Mark Dantonio’s record against Michigan. The Wolverines had always been the preferred program in the state, but that’s begun to change with the culture of defense and winning that Dantonio has instilled in East Lansing. There are hot and heavy recruiting wars that are happening between the two, and this game goes a long way towards swaying those blue-chip recruits on the fence. For Michigan to regain that “it” factor it’s been missing, it needs to start winning against its arch-rivals. For Dantonio, he knows that he’s got a beast of a machine revving up and continuing to win is crucial.

— .188: That’s the percent at which the Michigan defense is holding opposing offenses to on third down conversions. It’s a telling stat, and it makes sense that Michigan is the top-ranked defense in the country. If you get the opposing offense off the field on third down, your defense gets to rest and remain fresh, and your offense gets more possessions to score more points. Interesting enough, on the other sideline, the Spartans are converting 50 percent of their third-downs on offense, good for eighth in the country. You can bet third-downs will play a huge role in who comes out of this steel-cage match on Saturday.

3 Key Players 

Jake Rudock, QB, Michigan — He hasn’t been asked to do much because the defense has put goose-eggs on the board, but in games such as these, you need good quarterback play. The Spartan offense will have more success moving the chains than other teams have, and will actually score some points. For all the top-shelf defense being played in Ann Arbor, the offense is still developing. Michigan will need Rudock to make some key plays and not revert to bad-Utah-game Rudock to beat the Spartans.

Riley Bullough, ILB, Michigan State — A perfect Jim Harbaugh game plan is one where the defense is pushing the other team around, and the offense is a doing much of the same via a punishing running attack. It’ll undoubtedly be run first again against Darth Vader, and you’d better have a guy that can diagnose plays, then make it to the point of attack and make a play. That’s where the fourth-year junior comes in. He leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks, but he’s got to shed-blocks, find the ball carrier and bring him down with the help of his teammates. Otherwise, it could be a long day.

Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State — Yeah, yeah, a quarterback as a key player. Yes it’s cliché, but it’s so true against a Michigan defense that’s going to challenge every single play. Cook provides the veteran presence and calm that the Spartans are going to need when all chaos is breaking around them. He’ll have to be cool, calm and collected, making plays when they are there — and at times — putting the team on his back so that dreams aren’t derailed in the Big House.

4 Bold Prognostications 

— Michigan State will get at least 380 yards of offense. Michigan’s defense is trending on Twitter and for good reason. It hasn’t given up points of any kind in the past three meetings. But the Spartans have a veteran line that’s getting healthier, a seasoned quarterback, and a game breaking receiver that can make plays in Aaron Burbridge. The Wolverine defense will still have its moments, but plays will be made on Saturday by Cook and company.

— Jake Rudock will throw at least two interceptions. Rudock has been a game manager and hasn’t shown any consistent threat to win a game with his arm. The last time he was asked to sling it around, he threw it to the opposing defense too often out in Salt Lake City. The Spartans will be able to slow down a punishing Michigan running attack and Rudock will have to put it in the air more like he did against Utah. Mistakes are bound to happen.

— However, he’ll also throw for over 225 yards. While that doesn’t sound like much, Rudock has not eclipsed the 200 yard mark through the air since the first game against Utah. The “no fly zone” has been lifted this year in East Lansing with all the plays the secondary is giving up, and he’ll take advantage. He’ll need to for the Wolverines to remain in the hunt for big, big things.

— Jabrill Peppers will take one to the house. Peppers is a talent in the secondary, but he’s also a big-play waiting to happen in the return game. He’s almost broken free on several occasions already this year, and he’ll get more chances in this one, where he’ll finally bust one on a punt return in a game where special teams will be huge.

5 Staff Predictions (overall season record; record against the spread)

Andy: Michigan State 28-24 (56-13 overall; 30-38 ATS)
Dave: Michigan 20-17 (58-11 overall; 38-29 ATS)
Greg: Michigan 30-13 (51-18 overall; 41-26 ATS)
Matt: Michigan 24-17 (56-13 overall; 41-26 ATS)
Phil: Michigan 24-20 (10-4 overall; 4-9 ATS) *joined in Week 5

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