Michigan football vs. Michigan State: Which team is better at every position?

Wolverines look to stay undefeated against Spartans

Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans and Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines shake hands prior to the start of the game at Michigan Stadium.
Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans and Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines shake hands prior to the start of the game at Michigan Stadium.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – This season's Michigan-Michigan State game may have a different feel to it, but there's as much on the line as ever.

Michigan State is coming off its worst season in a decade, but Mark Dantonio already has his team back on track. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have their eyes on the College Football Playoff race for the second season in a row.

Saturday night's matchup will be a collision of two great defensive teams with mediocre offenses. The game will likely come down to which team takes care of the ball and doesn't give up big plays.

From a talent standpoint, Michigan clearly has an edge. But there are certain spots where Michigan State appears to have an advantage.

Here's a look at which team has the edge at each position.

Quarterback: Michigan State

It's difficult to say which team has a better quarterback without seeing more from new Michigan starter John O'Korn, but the Spartans certainly have a more established quarterback situation.

Brian Lewerke has been solid through four games this season, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.

While both O'Korn and Lewerke can make plays with their feet, Lewerke is the more seasoned runner. He leads the Spartans with 248 rushing yards on 38 carries.

Running backs: Michigan

Over the past five years, Michigan State has dominated this category, but it didn't take Jim Harbaugh long to catch up.

Chris Evans has the most big-play potential of any running back in this game, and while L.J. Scott-Gerald Holmes is a nice duo, Ty Isaac has been the most productive overall.

If Isaac is healthy, he's a good bet to get the majority of the carries for Michigan, but Evans has started to find his groove against Purdue. He rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, and caught two passes for 28 yards.

Wide receivers: Michigan State

It's shocking that Michigan hasn't gotten more production out of its talented young receivers this season. With Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black joining the mix, and Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom coming off solid freshman seasons, the Wolverines figured to be strong in this area.

But through four games, only two receivers -- Grant Perry and Tarik Black -- have more than seven catches on the season. That's an incredibly low number, and on top of that, Black is out for the foreseeable future with a foot injury.

For Michigan State, Felton Davis III has more catches than Michigan's top two healthy receivers combined. Davis has 21 grabs for 256 yards and four touchdowns already, so he'll be a handful for the young Michigan secondary.

Darrell Stewart Jr. also has more catches than any Michigan receiver, with 17 for 170 yards and a touchdown.

Tight ends: Michigan

This one's a blowout for Michigan, as Harbaugh lives up to his reputation for developing tight ends.

Michigan State has only completed nine passes to tight ends this season, highlighted by Matt Sokol's eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.

Michigan's tight ends have picked up the production lacking at the wide receiver position, with 19 catches overall.

Sean McKeon leads the way with 10 catches for 120 yards, as he's become one of the team's top third-down targets. Zach Gentry emerged as a complimentary weapon against Purdue, making three catches for 48 yards and a score.

Nick Eubanks and Tyrone Wheatley also figure to get into the mix.

Offensive line: Michigan State

Michigan has all the tools to field an excellent defensive line, but that simply hasn't come to fruition yet.

The Wolverines have allowed 12 sacks through four games, and only 13 teams in the entire country allow more sacks per game. Purdue, which only had one sack through its first three games, lived in the backfield against Michigan, picking up four sacks, and it should have been even more.

Michigan State, however, has done a much better job protecting its quarterback, allowing just 1.5 sacks per game.

Neither offensive line has done a great job run blocking, but the Spartans have been significantly better at protecting their quarterback.

Defensive line: Michigan

This unit could be the difference in the game, as Michigan fields one of the best pass rushing defensive lines in the country.

Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary make up the best edge rushing duo in the Big Ten, with 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss between them. Maurice Hurst is a possible future first-round pick at defensive tackle.

Michigan State has half as many sacks (nine) as Michigan, as the Spartans lack the same firepower on the defensive line. They do a great job defending the run, and Michigan's performance at Purdue proves anyone can get pressure against the offensive line.

Linebackers: Michigan

Coming into the season, linebacker was an unknown for Don Brown's defense, which had to replace Ben Gedeon and Jabrill Peppers. Now, it's become one of the team's greatest strengths.

Devin Bush has been Michigan's best player through four games, leading the team with 33 tackles and four pass break-ups. He's also made 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, both second to Winovich.

Bush and VIPER Khaleke Hudson are the most athletic linebacker duo Michigan has had in years, and they're thriving in Brown's aggressive scheme. They have the versatility it takes to defend a dual-threat quarterback such as Lewerke.

Mike McCray is the only returning starter on Michigan's defense, and he's quietly enjoying a strong season. He has 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He can't defend the pass like the other two, but he's great against the run.

Cornerbacks: Michigan

This is a tough call, as both Michigan and Michigan State have been stingy in pass defense. The Wolverines rank fourth in the country in passing yards allowed, and Michigan State ranks ninth.

Michigan's cornerbacks gain the edge with their playmaking ability, as Lavert Hill and David Long have already shown they can make plays on the ball in man-to-man coverage. Hill already has a pick-six this season, while Long and Brandon Watson have been reliable in coverage.

Tyson Smith and Josiah Scott each have an interception for the Spartans, so they aren't without playmakers. It will be tough for either passing game to make a big splash.

Safeties: Michigan

The most underrated players on Michigan's defense are the safeties, who have performed well against the run and the pass.

Tyree Kinnel is a big part of the cornerbacks' success this season, as he's provided good support over the top. He's got an interception and two pass break-ups this season to go along with his solid work against the run.

Josh Metellus is more of a hard-hitter, but he's fit into the role well. He has 14 tackles and one forced fumble.

Kicking: Michigan

Quinn Nordin could be a difference maker in this game, as points will be at a premium. If Michigan's offense continues to struggle in the red zone, Nordin will have to cash in on his field goal opportunities.

Nordin has already made 11 field goals this season, three of which came from 49 yards or longer.

Michigan State's Matt Coughlin hasn't had many opportunities, making just two of three field goal attempts. His longest kick came from 40 yards.

The Wolverines are also very good in kick coverage. They're 12th in the country, with 64.43 yards per kickoff, and opponents average under 16 yards per return.

Michigan State is 104th in the country, with 59.28 yards per kickoff, and opponents average more than 27 yards per return, which makes the Spartans 117th in the nation.

Punting: Michigan State

When two defensive-minded teams match up, punting can often be the difference in the game. Last time these teams met in Ann Arbor, it was a botched punt that took a win from Michigan and handed it to Michigan State.

The Spartans have been much better punting this season, averaging 43.3 yards per punt.

Michigan is 117th in the country, averaging just 37.55 yards per punt. Harbaugh will want to win the field position battle, so new starter Bradley Robbins will look to turn this trend around.

The Wolverines only allow 2.8 yards per punt return, while the Spartans allow 5 yards per return.

Return game: Michigan State

Michigan has more potential in the punt return game with Donovan Peoples-Jones, but so far, the overall return game hasn't been a huge strength.

When Peoples-Jones returned a punt for a touchdown against Air Force, it proved what a dangerous returner he can be. Michigan has been much better at returning punts, averaging 13.5 yards per attempt.

But the Wolverines are terrible in the kick return game, ranking 105th in the country, with 17.63 yards per return. Michigan has been much better off just taking touchbacks.

Michigan State averages 24 yards per kickoff return, so it poses more of a threat in that regard.


Even though Michigan State is a strong defensive team, Michigan has advantages at every level. Harbaugh has built an elite defense from up front to the secondary, and that has showed through four games.

Neither team has an explosive offense, but the Spartans have been better at quarterback and better in the trenches, so they have a slight advantage.

The special teams units are pretty even. Michigan has fixed some of the issues that plagued it early in the year, and now the punt return game looks dangerous. The coverage units have been strong all the way.