ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One year ago, Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis and Michigan State receiver Aaron Burbridge engaged in one of the best 1-on-1 battles of the 2016 season.
Equally competitive, defensive lineman Chris Wormley and his counterparts slugged it out in the trenches with a loaded Spartans O-line.
Burbridge, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers, caught nine of 18 intended passes for 132 yards. He didn’t score, though. Lewis made sure that didn’t happen.
Michigan State’s O-line, led by left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, provided enough time for quarterback Connor Cook to make a few plays and move the chains. But all in all, the Wolverines did an adequate job versus the Spartans’ heavies.
Conklin, now with the Tennessee Titans, and Allen, now with the New Orleans Saints, won’t be available Saturday. Neither will Cook, who went 3-0 vs. UM but is now with the Oakland Raiders.
Times have quickly changed. Balances have been quickly titled.
One year ago, the then-No. 7-ranked Spartans squeaked out a 27-23 win over the then-No. 12-ranked Wolverines — but it wasn’t because of a defensive lapse: A botched punt cost the Wolverines their first in-state rivalry victory since 2012, when they won 12-10 thanks to a field goal from Brendan Gibbons.
However, this year should be different for now-No. 2-ranked Michigan (7-0, 4-0 B1G). A win over unranked Michigan State (2-5, 0-4) appears more likely than ever — at least more likely than it ever has during the Mark Dantonio-era in East Lansing.
The Wolverines have the No. 1-ranked total defense and simply haven’t allowed much of anything through seven games. They give up a nation-leading 4.74 yards per pass. Couple that with 2.91 yards given up per rush, fourth-best, and that says it all.
Expect more of the same stinginess Saturday in East Lansing.
Despite the absence of Burbridge, and others like him, the Spartans have a nice set of receivers in RJ Shelton, Felton Davis, Monty Madaris and true freshman Donnie Corley — whose final college choices boiled down to MSU and UM.
Madaris has burned a few defensive backs this season. Corley has wrestled for catches and appears to be on his way to Big Ten-stardom. Shelton, No. 3 in the league with 77.3 YPG, and Davis have helped to an extent.
But the facts remains clear: The Spartans have the No. 8-ranked passing offense in their league. On paper, they lack some punch. And they’re quarterbacked by redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, who has all of two starts on his resume heading into the biggest game of his young career.
One receiver doesn’t particularly stand out to Lewis, a Thorpe semifinalist, but he respects their abilities. He’s done the dance with MSU three times. He knows what to expect.
“They have a good corps — those guys can get open and make plays,” said Lewis, who has one pick and 10 tackles in four games played this year. “They’ve been doing it, you know, the whole year… so… definitely go out there and execute like I would (in) any other game, prepare just as intensely as I would (for) any other game.”
Facing Michigan’s D-line is cause for concern for any quarterback. But it must be amplified several times for a young kid such as Lewerke, who has shown promise but still needs assistance from his offensive line.
Oddly enough, Michigan State — which has had issues at left tackle — gives up fewer sacks than Michigan (1.57 SPG), but the current five-game skid has certainly showcased deficiencies across the board. MSU’s two prior opponents, Maryland and Northwestern, each took plenty of shots at Lewerke, who was safetied during a 54-40 loss to Northwestern.
“Whether they’re a struggling offense, or an offense that’s been dominating the whole year, we as a defense… I mean, (defensive coordinator) Coach (Don) Brown’s philosophy is to be aggressive,’ said Wormley, a fifth-year senior and captain who leads UM with four sacks. “Our goal each week is to hit the quarterback as many times as possible — get into his face, disrupt the pass, get sacks, get pressure, get knock-downs…
“As a defensive line, that’s what you look for. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they’re a first-round pick or a struggling offense — our mentality is the same each and every week.”