ANN ARBOR, Mich. – With Michigan and Michigan State set to square off in Ann Arbor this weekend, we’re breaking down which team is better at every single position. The question is: Does MSU have an advantage anywhere?
There isn’t a lot to go on here, as Joe Milton played his first meaningful college snaps last weekend and Rocky Lombardi hasn’t seen a ton of action, either.
Milton was very impressive in the win over Minnesota, with accurate throws and efficient runs, but most importantly making smart decisions while running the offense.
RIVALRY PREVIEW: Michigan has to avoid overlooking massive underdog Michigan State
He completed 15 of 22 pass attempts for 225 yards, rushed for 52 yards on eight carries and scored two total touchdowns.
Lombardi wasn’t the main reason Michigan State lost. In fact, he completed 31 of 43 passes and scored three touchdowns. But he threw two picks, fumbled twice (lost one) and isn’t a threat to run.
Plus, Lombardi had a completion rate under 43% coming into the season, with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Those numbers don’t inspire much confidence.
Some of the positional comparisons between these two teams are close, but running back isn’t one of them. Michigan might have each of the four best running backs between the two teams.
Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins were an effective duo last season, rushing for 1,348 yards and 15 touchdowns combined. They got off to a hot start again this season, rushing for 152 yards and three scores on just 10 combined carries.
Freshman Blake Corum was also solid in his debut, rushing five times for 24 yards and catching two passes for an additional 24 yards. He was a top 150 player in last year’s recruiting class.
Chris Evans scored a touchdown in his return, too. He’s racked up more than 2,000 total yards in his college career.
The Spartans brought back leading rusher Elijah Collins, who ran for 988 yards and five touchdowns last year. He managed just three yards on nine carries against Rutgers, though.
Freshman Jordon Simmons led the team with 43 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed put on a show for the Spartans on Saturday, catching 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. He scored eight times and racked up nearly 800 yards for the Broncos in 2018.
Unfortunately, his two fumbles were part of the team’s disastrous turnover problem.
Jalen Nailor chipped in six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers to bring his career totals to 29 catches, 328 yards and three touchdowns. He also lost a fumble, though.
Michigan State’s receiving numbers were much more impressive last weekend, but that’s because Michigan was playing from ahead and ran the ball at will. It’s not a reflection of the actual talent at wide receiver.
Ronnie Bell is the most accomplished wideout on either roster, coming into the season with 903 receiving yards on 60 catches. Behind him, Michigan has an array of weapons in Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning.
Only Johnson went without a catch Saturday, as Milton connected with five different receivers, two running backs, a tight end and a fullback.
If the Spartans still had Cody White or Darrell Stewart, they would probably have the edge. But it’s pretty clear which group is more talented.
Michigan seems to be moving away from its heavy tight end usage from the pre-Josh Gattis days, but it still has a couple of weapons at the position.
Erick All took over atop the depth chart Saturday with Nick Eubanks unavailable, and he caught two passes for 33 yards. He dropped a sure touchdown, but then made up for it with a 27-yard grab to set up a score on the very next play.
Eubanks caught 25 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns last season. When he returns, he’ll be a key cog in Michigan’s offense.
Michigan State has a reliable tight end in senior Matt Dotson, and he caught five passes for 50 yards in the opener. His career numbers are similar to those of Eubanks: 37 catches, 379 yards and two touchdowns (35, 461 and five for Eubanks).
Redshirt sophomore Trenton Gillison, a former four-star recruit, didn’t record a catch in the opener. He had 12 grabs for 147 yards last season and should be a top target for Lombardi going forward.
This position is a bit of a tossup, but I think All is the best of the bunch, and Eubanks has been the most productive.
Saturday was a rough showing for Michigan State’s offensive line, which dealt with an incredible number of issues last season. The Spartans gave up three sacks and 12 tackles for loss while helping the running backs rush for just 2.1 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Ed Warinner appears to have Michigan’s O-line up and running despite replacing four starters.
Against what appears to be a weaker Minnesota front seven, the Wolverines allowed just one sack and two tackles for loss while averaging 8.3 yards per run.
Milton had clean pockets all game, and some of the long runs were thanks to massive lanes opened up by the line. This is a clear advantage for the Wolverines.
Michigan State lost 15.5 sacks along the defensive line when Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams moved on to the NFL, but there are still some good players on the defensive front.
Naquon Jones had 1.5 tackles for loss in the opener. Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley combined for 12 tackles and three tackles for loss on the ends. Jacob Slade has some upside at the other tackle position.
All four have experience from last season, and they led the way en route to 11 team tackles for loss Saturday. On top of that, Rutgers only ran for 2.6 yards per carry.
Michigan, meanwhile, allowed Mohamed Ibrahim to rush for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. The interior of the line is a concern, though Carlo Kemp remains a reliable presence.
Where Michigan truly separates itself from Michigan State is at defensive end, with Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson. They were monsters in the opener, combining for 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
The vaunted pass rush is expected to be one of Michigan’s greatest strengths this year. Last season, Paye and Hutchinson combined for 11 sacks. Both should be early-round draft picks.
Anjuan Simmons was at it again Saturday, leading Michigan State with 11 tackles, including three for losses. He’s coming off a 2019 season in which he led the team with 90 tackles.
Cam McGrone would be Michigan’s counter to Simmons, and the two are both elite players at the position. McGrone was arguably Michigan’s best defender after taking over for Josh Ross early last year.
Noah Harvey was right behind Simmons at nine tackles Saturday, while Josh Ross was Michigan’s leader with the same number. Harvey and Ross are both solid No. 2 linebackers.
Michigan gains an edge at the viper position, which has been filled by Michael Barrett. It’s too early to declare he’s the next Jabrill Peppers or Khaleke Hudson, but Barrett was Michigan’s best player in his first game as a starter.
Barrett made seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and had a strip sack that resulted in a defensive touchdown. He had the athleticism to return a kickoff 66 yards and saved Corum by falling on a special teams fumble.
The Wolverines are a bit weak at SAM linebacker, but there’s plenty of young depth at the other three spots.
Both teams had a part-time starter step is as the new No. 1 cornerback without much proven depth behind, so this is a tricky position to judge after just one game.
Shakur Brown is a solid cover guy, but the Spartans are extremely unproven behind him. The same goes for Vincent Gray and the rest of the Michigan secondary.
Rutgers' Noah Vedral and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan put up very similar stat lines in the first game, with Michigan obviously facing the much more potent passing attack.
There really isn’t an obvious edge to lean either way, so I’ll go with Mike Zordich, who has proven time and time again that he can pump out NFL-caliber cornerbacks. Gemon Green looked up to the test against Rashod Bateman and the Golden Gophers offense, so the Michigan secondary might not be as weak as many expected.
Tre Person had a strong opener against Rutgers, with six tackles and a sack alongside returning starter Xavier Henderson’s matching six stops.
Henderson was the team’s second-leading tackler with 83 last season. He also added a pair of interceptions.
Michigan returned two starting-caliber safeties in Brad Hawkins and Daxton Hill -- a valuable combination of experience and young talent.
Hawkins made seven tackles in the opener, while Hill made three before being removed due to injury. Jim Harbaugh expects him to be ready to go Saturday, but any advantage Michigan has at this position is contingent on Hill being back on the field.
Safety is a strength for Michigan and Michigan State, but Hill has by far the highest ceiling.
For his first two years as a starter, Matt Coghlin was as steady as they come, making 33 of 41 field goal attempts.
He’s never missed an extra point, but he went just 22 of 32 on field goals last season, including a rough eight for 14 from 40+ yards.
Coghlin got back on track Saturday, making both of his attempts, from 45 and 48 yards.
Michigan’s kickers have more leg strength, but accuracy has been an issue. Jake Moody filled in for an injured Quinn Nordin in Minnesota and shanked all three attempts, including two from inside 40 yards.
Nordin will likely retake the starting duties, but he’s been hot and cold throughout his career, too.
Confidence is key for kickers, and Michigan isn’t off to a good start in that regard.
ADVANTAGE: Michigan State
Michigan returns former All-Big Ten punter Will Hart, who took a small step back in 2019 but still averaged 44.2 yards per attempt.
He didn’t officially register a punt in the opener because his only attempt -- on the first drive of the game -- was blocked by a Gopher who blew right through the line.
Michigan State went with Bryce Baringer at punter, and he booted two punts for 55 and 46 yards against Rutgers.
In 2018, he averaged 32.4 yards in 15 attempts. Saturday was obviously a much improved performance.
These teams have great athletes at the skill positions, so the options for kick and punt returns are aplenty.
Reed averaged just 16.5 yards per kick return in four attempts last weekend, while Nailor returned two punts for a total of 18 yards.
Minnesota’s kicking and punting were so bad Michigan never really got a chance to return the ball, though Barrett did bring back a kick 66 yards on a fluky play.
Overall, we didn’t learn much about returners for either team last weekend, but since Michigan has more speed with Jackson, Bell, Sainristil, Henning and company, it gets the edge.
Considering the circumstances surrounding both programs, it’s not all that surprising to see Michigan dominate these comparisons. Mel Tucker just took over a few months ago, while Harbaugh is in year six at Michigan.
The Spartans saw their recruiting dip in the latter years of Mark Dantonio’s tenure, and it was nearly impossible for Tucker to put together a strong 2020 class after accepting the job in February.
The raw talent gap has always favored Michigan in this matchup, but now that the Wolverines have a functioning coaching staff, the rivalry has started to shift in their direction.
Michigan is recruiting near the top of the Big Ten and Michigan State is trying to reboot under a new regime. The talent gap won’t always be this wide, but Harbaugh has much more to work with for the foreseeable future.