Week 9 B1G Primer: The stakes couldn’t be higher for Michigan and Michigan State
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the Week: No. 6 Michigan (-4.5) at No. 8 Michigan State
Everything. For a game in Week 9, there could not be more on the line. It’s the first meeting between these 2 as top-10 teams since 1957. Bragging rights and the Paul Bunyan Trophy are always on the table in this rivalry that dates to 1918 and has been played every year since 1945.
Beyond that, though, either Michigan (7-0, 4-0) or Michigan State (7-0, 4-0) will likely get a shot at Ohio State with the Big Ten East Division on the line. In the short term, though, the winner is probably going to move into the top 2 or 3 of the first College Football Playoff rankings, which come out Tuesday night.
This is a showcase game, as College GameDay and Big Noon Kickoff will both be on campus. There will be plenty of talk about how Jim Harbaugh has righted the ship after last year’s disaster, and of course, plenty of speculation about Mel Tucker potentially leaving for LSU in the offseason.
There are storylines galore in this rivalry that never needs anything extra to make it special. But it has it all this year.
The stat: Michigan and Michigan State are both top-5 nationally in plays of 50-plus yards
The Big Ten has a reputation as a conference built on a foundation of strong defenses and limited offensive abilities. So it’s a little surprising to see that Michigan (T-3rd) and Michigan State (T-5th) are both in the top 5 in the country in plays from scrimmage of over 50 yards. So while everyone in the B1G outside of Ohio State is stereotyped as some plodding offense, these teams rely on explosive plays. In fact, Ohio State is tied for 5th nationally in this category, despite having the No. 1 offense in the country.
Michigan State needs the nation’s leading rusher, Kenneth Walker III, to bust a long one, and it needs to find a way to get Jayden Reed in space, too, whether as a pass catcher, punt returner or both. Michigan’s big weapon is Blake Corum, but look out for Daylen Baldwin and Mike Sainristil, too.
It’s quite possible this game will be decided on one big play, and I’m not talking about a botched punt attempt.
The key matchup: Michigan State offensive line vs. Michigan front 7
Can the Spartans open up enough holes for Walker? That could be what decides this game. Walker has been held to under 125 yards twice in B1G play, and the Spartans escaped with an overtime win over Nebraska and a 5-point win at Indiana. They need to get Walker going to take some pressure off QB Payton Thorne, who has been very good this season but needs the threat of a run game to play his best. Thorne is thriving off play-action, as he is averaging a ridiculous 14.1 yards per attempt on those plays this season, per PFF.
This is a Michigan State offensive line that has really struggled in recent years but has been much better this season. Getting that run game going and not letting Aidan Hutchinson get into pass-rushing situations where he can tee off will be critical.
The big question: Will Cade McNamara (or JJ McCarthy) make enough big plays to win on the road?
McNamara is much maligned as a game manager, but Michigan obviously trusts him to run the offense and not make mistakes. That’s what he has done so far, with just 1 interception. Michigan is tied for second in the country with just 4 turnovers this season, and that’s exactly how Jim Harbaugh has drawn it up.
There will come a time when McNamara has to make some big-time throws in order for the Wolverines to win. It hasn’t happened yet. Will this be the week when he is really tested?
Harbaugh has been very cautious with JJ McCarthy, the true freshman who was a 5-star recruit. Will he unleash him against the 121st-ranked pass defense in the country? I’m not sure, but it has to be an option. Either way, McCarthy will probably get his normal allotment of runs to mix it up.
I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but I’m taking Michigan.
The Wolverines have the game’s best overall player in Hutchinson (though Michigan State edge defender Jacub Panasiuk has also been a huge disruptor and Walker is obviously a star), and they also have options to turn to if something doesn’t go according to plan. If Corum can’t get it going in the backfield, maybe Hassan Haskins can. And if neither can, there is true freshman Donovan Edwards. If McNamara is off, Harbaugh can pull the trigger with McCarthy, who has shown he is capable of making huge plays with his arm and his legs.
Michigan State, on the other hand, needs Walker to have an All-America type of performance, which he is perfectly capable of — but hasn’t done it every time out. And in those games, they’ve barely hung on against inferior opponents.
– – –
• Michigan 31, Michigan State 27
No. 9 Iowa at Wisconsin (-3.5)
Wow, that changed quickly. The Hawkeyes a few weeks ago were the unquestioned favorite in the West and Wisconsin was in the basement. Now, the Badgers are favored against the Hawkeyes. Part of that is Wisconsin winning handily at Purdue and Iowa losing handily at home to that same Purdue team.
Neither team will pass more than 20 times, probably, nor should they. Wisconsin is averaging only 14 pass attempts the last 3 games, and it needed just 8 to score 30 points and beat Purdue by 17. Since Iowa is so good at forcing poor throws from QBs, the best way to attack it is on the ground, even though the Hawkeyes have only allowed more than 100 yards once this season (107 vs. Penn State). The emergence of true freshman Braelon Allen alongside Chez Mellusi gives Wisconsin a dynamite 1-2 punch in the backfield.
Iowa has struggled to run the ball all season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. Even worse, the Hawkeyes have allowed more tackles for loss than any team in the Big Ten. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success against a Wisconsin team that is No. 1 in the country against the run. That means Iowa’s best chance to win is through the air with Spencer Petras. I don’t think he can make enough plays to win on the road at Camp Randall.
Are you ready for chaos in the West?
– – –
• Wisconsin 20, Iowa 13
Indiana at Maryland (-5.5)
Both teams desperately need a game like this. Indiana (2-5, 0-4) has played 5 of its 7 games against ranked opponents, and Maryland (4-3, 1-3) has lost by 18 or more in 3 straight weeks after that unbeaten first month of the season. Since it seems like both starter Michael Penix Jr. and backup Jack Tuttle are out, freshman Donaven McCulley is likely to start. That’s a huge advantage for Maryland and Taulia Tagovailoa.
– – –
• Maryland 27, Indiana 13
Rutgers (-1.5) at Illinois
This is a confusing line. The Illini are coming off one of the most impressive performances by any B1G team this season, the 9-OT triumph at then-No. 7 Penn State. So how is Illinois a home underdog to a Rutgers squad that is 0-4 in the Big Ten, including a double-digit loss last time out to lowly Northwestern? This is fishy. Perhaps starting QB Art Sitkowski suffering a broken arm during OT is the cause for concern, though backup QB Brandon Peters has started plenty over the course of his career. But it’s not like Illinois was overly reliant on Sitkowski, who completed 8 of 19 passes for 38 yards against Penn State. The Illini are coming off a game in which they ran for 357 yards against Penn State, and to me, that outweighs Rutgers being fresh off a bye week.
– – –
• Illinois 31, Rutgers 24
Purdue at Nebraska (-7.5)
It’s now or never for Scott Frost and Nebraska (3-5, 1-4), which still has Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa remaining. If the Huskers are going to win 3 of 4 to become bowl eligible, there’s not a viable path to that without winning at home against Purdue. For Nebraska’s sake, let’s hope the bye week allowed Adrian Martinez a much-needed break to get healthy and back to the dynamic player he was earlier in the season. No one ever knows who will finish the game at QB for Purdue, but whoever it is needs to come up with a solution when David Bell gets double- or triple-teamed.
– – –
Nebraska 30, • Purdue 24
Minnesota (-7.5) at Northwestern
Has anyone been committed to anything as much as Minnesota is committed to running the ball? Like seriously, it doesn’t matter who is in there, the Golden Gophers (5-2, 3-1) just want to control the clock and grind out a win with their massive offensive line. Since Northwestern (3-4, 1-3) has been gashed in the run game by 3 B1G opponents already (Michigan State, Nebraska and Michigan all ran for 294 yards or more), I don’t like the Wildcats’ chances, even at home.
– – –
• Minnesota 31, Northwestern 20
Penn State at Ohio State (-18.5)
What would this spread have been just a few weeks ago? Much closer than 18.5, that’s for sure. But things have changed, and now I’m not so sure that line is enough. The Buckeyes have scored 52 points or more in 4 straight games, and while they haven’t faced a quality opponent in that stretch, it hasn’t seemed to matter. CJ Stroud has found his groove with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TreVeyon Henderson is firmly established as one of the country’s elite backs. Henderson has only carried more than 12 times twice this season as Ryan Day looks to keep him fresh for the stretch run, and this game looks like one where he might want to feed the guy, considering how porous Penn State’s run defense looked last week against Illinois.
– – –
• Ohio State 45, Penn State 21
Week 8 record: 3-2 straight-up / 2-3 vs. spread
Season record: 58-13 straight-up / 41-29-1 vs. spread