Alex Hickey: Michigan State's only chance of beating Michigan lives in Seattle
Michigan State owns Michigan in the post-Lloyd Carr Era. This is indisputable no matter how Wolverines fans want to frame the conversation.
The Spartans are 10-4 against the Wolverines since 2008, including a 4-3 record against Jim Harbaugh. Mel Tucker is a perfect 2-0 so far against the school from Ann Arbor.
Under normal circumstances, Michigan State fans should be approaching this week’s rivalry game with an air of confidence. But these are not normal circumstances. This is Halloween weekend. And the Big House is going to turn into a Big House of Horrors for the Spartans.
Only one man can save Michigan State, and he’s not walking through the door.
The Kenneth Walker Effect
Reading the box score, it seems impossible that the Spartans retained the Paul Bunyan Trophy last year.
Michigan racked up 552 yards — its second-highest total of the season behind a game against Northern Illinois. Game manager Cade McNamara passed for 383 of those yards. The Wolverines converted 8 of 17 third downs while the Spartans were just 4-of-13.
The turnover margin, which usually swings games of this nature, was even. Both teams finished with 2 giveaways.
Michigan’s 30-14 lead midway through the third quarter was the distillation of the type of score those numbers typically produce. But numbers cannot account for the miracle that is Kenneth Walker III.
Considering the quality of Michigan’s 2021 defense, Walker’s performance was one of the greatest in Big Ten history: 23 carries, 197 yards, 5 touchdowns. It belongs in the same stratosphere as Red Grange’s famed 5-touchdown feat against the Wolverines in 1924.
Remove Walker from the equation, and things may have gotten out of hand. And unfortunately for the Spartans, Walker is removed from the equation this year.
He may be on an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year path after his 168-yard, 2-touchdown showing for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Thus far, Walker is literally the fastest player in the NFL this season.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 23, 2022
Without Walker to carry them, the Spartans are 12th in the B1G in rushing yardage and 11th in yards per carry. Michigan State’s current backfield is broken.
Jalen Berger is the team’s leading rusher. He’s 15th in the Big Ten with 367 yards. Measured in yards per carry, Elijah Collins is Michigan State’s leading back at 4.9 yards per carry. That’s also 15th in the Big Ten.
Michigan State has 11 rushing touchdowns this season, but 6 of them were against Akron in Week 2. The Spartans have rushed for 5 touchdowns in their other 6 games combined.
Simply put, Michigan State’s current running backs needed half a season to accomplish what Walker was able to do in a single game against Michigan.
That’s a heck of a drop-off. And it’s not even the biggest mismatch the Spartans will encounter Saturday.
A mauling awaits Michigan State’s defense
We’ve already seen how this week’s game is going to play out. It took place Week 3 against Minnesota.
Minnesota, for lack of a better term, is Michigan Lite. The Gophers are constructed to do things the way the Wolverines do offensively. But Minnesota’s talent isn’t comparable to Michigan’s at any position but running back.
The Gophers mercilessly paddled the Spartans in that 34-7 win, which remains their most recent victory. Minnesota held the ball for 42 minutes. The Gophers gained 508 yards and 32 first downs. Minnesota did what it wanted whether rushing (240 yards) or passing (23-26, 268 yards).
Michigan averages 10 points, 23 rushing yards and 23 passing yards per game more than Minnesota.
From a personnel perspective, having defensive tackle Jacob Slade and safety Xavier Henderson back from injury makes Michigan State’s defense far better than what it fielded against Minnesota. But that alone is unlikely to be enough.
In Detroit-friendly terms, Michigan’s offense is a Lincoln to Minnesota’s Ford. And the Wolverines should be able to do whatever they want against the Spartans. Michigan State infamously had the nation’s worst pass defense last season, but was a respectable 15th against the run.
The Spartans are mildly better as a pass defense — 110th — but have dropped all the way to 80th against the run.
The biggest difference from last year to now is Michigan State’s ability to run the ball as well as its ability to stop it on defense. Even if Michigan has its worst performance of the season, the Wolverines are built to exploit both of those weaknesses.
By the end of Saturday night, there may only be one bit of solace for Michigan State fans. The result is likely to be another piece of evidence that the best college football player in the state of Michigan last season was Kenneth Walker III. And the coming weeks will probably provide more of them, both in East Lansing and Seattle.
At least Michigan State fans will be able to win that argument at the watercooler. Because there’s very little chance they’ll want to relive the 2022 battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.