When two of the top teams in the Big Ten take the field in East Lansing on Saturday, many lingering questions will be answered. Can Michigan State's offense score on a winning team? Can Devin Gardner keep the ball out of the Spartans' hands? Will either offense get in the end zone?
The 2013 version of the Battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy will feature two teams that, despite a combined 13-2 record, have struggled to find consistency.
Michigan's offense has hinged on the ability to take care of the football. In their past five games, the Wolverines have won by an average of 22.5 points when turning the ball over zero times. The other three games, in which they turned the ball over a total of eight times, included an overtime loss to Penn State and near-disasters against Connecticut and Akron.
Likewise, Michigan State has struggled to find offensive consistency; largely due to the lack of a strong quarterback option. Though Connor Cook led the Spartans to 42-point efforts against Illinois and Indiana, the sophomore signal-caller hasn't exactly dazzled in his first full season as the starter.
Sandwiched between the two 42-point outbursts was a confounding effort in which Cook threw for just 107 yards against Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue. Coach Mark Dantonio resorted to throwing the ball with wide receiver Tony Lippett, who converted his only pass attempt for the team's sole offensive touchdown.
Cook's inconsistency can't be attributed to the strength of opposing defenses, as Indiana (113th), Purdue (105th) and Illinois (103rd) all rank outside the top-100 scoring defenses in the nation. The young quarterback will get a stiffer test against a reeling Michigan defense that has surrendered over 40 points in two straight contests.
The saving grace for the Spartans, and the most impressive unit featured in this in-state rivalry, is Pat Narduzzi's defense. Michigan State is holding opponents to 12.3 points per game, which is good for 3rd in the country. Only one opponent (Indiana) has scored over 20 points on the Spartans' defense and as a result, none of their seven wins have been by a single-digit margin.
This defense, led by stars like cornerback Darqueze Dennard, has certainly been one of the strongest in the country. But the numbers are slightly skewed by weak competition.
Of the seven FBS teams that have faced Michigan State this season, only one (Indiana) ranks in the top 50 in the nation in scoring. In fact, South Florida (120th), Western Michigan (121st) and Purdue (122nd) are three of the worst scoring teams in the entire country. Notre Dame (73rd) and Iowa (80th) combined for just 27 points against Michigan State, but neither team has been explosive on offense all season.
Statistically, Michigan's offense most closely resembles that of Indiana. The two teams are tied for 8th in country in scoring offense with 42.4 points per game. If Michigan can post 28 points against Michigan State like Indiana did, it should be enough to give it the lead in the Legends Division.
But with the stakes so high in the already-heated in-state rivalry, the Spartans will certainly bring more intensity than they did against the Hoosiers. If Michigan State can turn Gardner over multiple times and score on defense they will almost surely emerge with a win.
On the other end, Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison has had two weeks to prepare a battered Michigan defense for Cook's offense. Since taking the job in 2011, Mattison's defenses have allowed an average of just 13.3 points per game following bye weeks.
In a game that could decide the Legends Division, a trip to Indianapolis and ultimately a Rose Bowl appearance, any snap could decide this game. Though the 2013 rivalry may lack star power like Kirk Cousins and Denard Robinson, when Michigan visits East Lansing on Saturday, it will be the third match-up in the last four years in which both teams are ranked.
Football in the state of Michigan doesn't get any better than this.
Total Yards: Michigan- 300 Michigan State- 340
Turnovers: Michigan- 2 Michigan State- 1
Final Score: Michigan- 19 Michigan State- 17
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