- Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s rivalry week for Michigan, and perhaps a turning point game for head coach Brady Hoke.
A win against in-state rival Michigan State would bring the Wolverines to 4-4 on the season and perhaps turn the tide of negativity surrounding Hoke and his program. A performance like last year’s, when the Spartans held Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing, might prove to be a Rubicon crossing for Hoke’s chances to keep his job. Here are a few players that can play key roles in avoiding a repeat in East Lansing.
Junior WR Devin Funchess: During its bye week, Michigan went back to the drawing board to try to find ways to create more explosive plays. Quarterback Devin Gardner hasn’t been shy about feeding Funchess whenever possible. They connected for a 43-yard touchdown pass -- the team’s longest completion of the season -- in Michigan’s recent win over Penn State. The Spartans defense has been susceptible to big plays this season, and Michigan will need a few of them to keep pace with the country’s third-best scoring offense.
Junior RB Justice Hayes: Michigan’s running backs had 19 carries in the win over Penn State, and nine of those came in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines aren’t likely to find any more consistency in the run game against a fast and physical Michigan State front seven.
Hayes, though, can play a crucial role in the passing game. He’s the Wolverines’ best pass-protection back and can help buy time against Michigan State’s pass rush (which is averaging 3.71 sacks per game). He can also keep the blitzing Spartan linebackers honest by slipping into the passing attack as a receiver at times. The Wolverines gave up seven sacks a year ago in this rivalry. They won’t survive with a similar showing on Saturday.
Junior S Jarrod Wilson: Michigan State’s offense has found ways to pick apart just about every defense its played this season. Whether it’s Big Ten-leading receiver Tony Lippett, emerging tight end Josiah Price or one of the Spartans’ talented running backs, Wilson has a chance to slow down Michigan State’s weapon du jour. The junior made eight tackles in the win over Penn State. He’ll need to have a big day against quarterback Connor Cook to keep the score manageable for Michigan’s offense.
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