EAST LANSING — This Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans (7-1, 4-0) will look to take back the Paul Bunyan Trophy as they face the Michigan Wolverines (6-1, 2-1) at Spartan Stadium. Aside from the obvious in-state rivalry, this game is big for both schools because the winner will control their own destiny in the Big Ten Legends Division.
Below are the five players for Michigan State who need to have the biggest impact in order for Spartans to be victorious.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end has been the best player on Michigan State’s no. 1 nationally-ranked defense this year. In eight games, the sophomore has three defensive touchdowns — two fumble recoveries and an interception return — which is the most by any defensive player in the nation this season. Also, he leads the Spartans with eight tackles for loss — tied with linebacker Denicos Allen — four sacks and 15 quarterback hurries, and his three fumble recoveries are the second most in the country.
Calhoun is the perfect weapon to get after Michigan’s quarterback Devin Gardner who can make plays with both his arm and his legs. His knack for the ball is something that will be pivotal for the Spartans because Gardner has struggled to not turn the ball over. Also, Michigan’s offensive line has had issues this season, and Calhoun will be as good as any at exploiting those flaws.
The fifth-year senior has had a fantastic season for the Spartans. His 48 tackles rank him first on the team, and like I said before, his eight tackles for loss are tied for first on the team. Allen is another one of those MSU defenders who can really get after the ball, and that’s going to be critical for Saturday’s matchup.
There are going to be many times when Gardner gets past the first line of defense, and it’s going to be on Allen and senior Max Bullough to make sure that he doesn’t make those big plays with his legs once he gets to the second level.
The anchor of the Michigan State defense, Bullough — a third-year starter — will face the Wolverines for the last time of his career, and if you can point out anyone that bleeds green and white more than the third-generation Spartan I’d like to see it. There is no way that he loses to Michigan during his senior year, he won’t allow it.
Along with Calhoun and Allen, Bullough is an imposing force defensively and has a natural instinct for the ball. These will be the three guys that will be in the face of Gardner all night long, and if they start causing mayhem early, that may have Gardner second guessing when it comes time to tuck and run.
Two questions: Which Cook will show up on Saturday? Will it be the guy who went 13 of 25 for 107 yards against Purdue, or will it be the near-perfect quarterback who went 15 of 16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns last week vs. Illinois?
Cook doesn’t even have to be near perfect for the Spartans to defeat Michigan, but he definitely can’t play like he did vs. Purdue. If Cook can make the easy throw and not try to do too much, then — barring any defensive collapse — there is no reason MSU shouldn’t be victorious.
Michigan’s offense has the ability to be explosive, very explosive, and it’s going to be critical that Cook and the rest of the offense makes the necessary plays to maintain long, methodical drive to keep the Wolverines’ offense off the field.
Langford, a first-year starter, has quickly found himself as the heart and soul of the Michigan State offense. With three consecutive 100-yard games to his name, Langford is beginning to add his name to the list of great MSU running backs that came before him. He leads Michigan State in touchdowns with 10 — nine rushing and one receiving.
Langford, who has an average of 4.6 yards per carry, will be key if the Spartans want to keep the Wolverines off the field. While breaking long runs are great, it’s going to be those rushes for three, four or five yards that will be important on Saturday, and that’s where Langford thrives.
This game is the Spartans’ to lose. If they can maintain long drives — rank first in the Big Ten in time of possession — and the defense doesn’t allow too many big plays, then this game could be over by the start of the fourth quarter. In even shorter terms, all Michigan State has to do is play the way they have been all season.
Michigan State’s strength, defense, is better than Michigan’s strength, offense; so it’s going to come down to the Spartans’ offense doing just enough to keep the Wolverines’ offense from getting a lot of chances to score points.