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  • Michigan flexed its muscles against Wisconsin last week, but now gets a rivalry game against a Michigan State team that showed how dangerous it can be with a win over Penn State. Can the Wolverines cover on the road?
By Sam Chase
October 16, 2018

Michigan at Michigan State (+7)

Sat. 10/20, 12:00 p.m. ET

Three things to know before betting on Michigan-Michigan State:

1. First played in 1898, Michigan-Michigan State is one of college football's premier rivalries. It's a series that Michigan has dominated overall by a margin of 69-36-5, but the Spartans got the better of the Wolverines last year, winning 14-10 at the Big House. In that game, Michigan was forced to start backup quarterback John O'Korn, who completed 45.7% of his passes and threw three interceptions in the defeat. It was Michigan State's eighth straight-up win in the last 10 games in the series. Even more impressive, the Spartans are 10-0 against the spread in those contests.

But while Michigan State has had the advantage recently, Michigan looks poised to change the tide. For one thing, the Wolverines have upgraded significantly with Shea Patterson at QB instead of O'Korn. There's an even more compelling trend in Michigan's favor that relates to rushing disparity. Michigan is 18th in the country with an average of 5.3 yards per carry, while Michigan State is 113th at 3.4 YPC. Over the past 10 seasons, 3.5-10 point favorites averaging at least 4.8 YPC are 43-18 against the spread when playing a conference opponent averaging 3.0-3.5 YPC.

2. Michigan's running attack was particularly dominant last week, racing to 320 yards in a 38-13 home win over Wisconsin as the Wolverines easily covered a spread that inflated to -10 by game time. It was the most yards on the ground surrendered in a game by the Badgers since 2011. Michigan running back Karan Higdon picked up 105 yards and a score on 19 carries, and quarterback Shea Patterson ran for 90 yards and a touchdown largely on the strength of an incredible 81-yard run. Patterson's scampers felt more like a revelation than an anomaly. He's displayed impressive mobility throughout his career both in and out of the pocket, and it makes sense that he would start to utilize that ability downfield when the yards are available. Making it all possible is an offensive line that appears to be the best of the Jim Harbaugh era. This Wolverines offense ranks 23rd in the country in yards per play (6.47). In his previous three full seasons as head coach, none of Harbaugh's Michigan offenses have finished higher than 60th.

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Michigan State will be the toughest defense Michigan has played since Notre Dame in Week 1, when the Wolverines lost 24-17 in South Bend as three-point underdogs. The Spartans entered last week allowing an FBS-low 1.32 yards per carry to opponents, and then triumphed 21-17 at Penn State as nearly two-touchdown underdogs. The run D, however, didn't live up to its reputation, allowing 205 rushing yards to the Nittany Lions (6.4 YPC), including big runs of 78 and 48 yards to PSU back Miles Sanders. With an average pass defense (125.79 opposing QB rating, 55th in FBS), the Spartans will flop if they can't limit explosive plays on the ground. A weak pass rush (5.1% sack rate, 88th in FBS) would seem to be a particular point of vulnerability against the agile Patterson.

3. The Spartans offense has been nothing special this year, especially in recent weeks. It's scored 40 total points over it's last two games, the win over PSU and a 29-19 home loss to Northwestern as a double-digit favorite. Quarterback Brian Lewerke entered the season with significant NFL draft hype, but he hasn't looked much like a surefire pro this year. He's eighth in the Big Ten in yards per pass attempt (7.1) and 10th in passer rating (124.76). Lewerke averaged 5.0 yards per attempt against Penn State last week, and only 4.3 in last year's win over Michigan.

As mentioned earlier, the Spartans can't rely on their rushing attack to bail them out. Lead running back LJ Scott has missed four straight games with an injury, and he'll be questionable once again against the Wolverines. Backups La'Darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward are each averaging under four yards per carry.

A strong running game was key to Wisconsin keeping things competitive early on against Michigan last week. Once they were trailing and forced to pass, the Badgers were out of it. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook finished with 7-of-20 passing for 100 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. Against a Wolverines defense that is one of only three in the country allowing less than four yards per play to opponents, it's hard to imagine Michigan State moving the ball much at all. The Spartans' excellent defense should keep Michigan from running away with it, but another double-digit victory should be in the cards for the Wolverines.

Pick: Michigan -7

Confidence Level: Moderate (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)

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