Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Preview: Stakes are sky-high for top 10 battle between undefeated Michigan and Michigan State

October 29, 2021
<p>Senior linebacker Chris Frey Jr. (23) celebrates with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after the game against Michigan on Oct. 7, 2017 at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines, 14-10.</p>

Senior linebacker Chris Frey Jr. (23) celebrates with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after the game against Michigan on Oct. 7, 2017 at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines, 14-10.

Photo by Jon Famurewa | The State News

If you didn’t know already, there’s a pretty significant football game being played in East Lansing Saturday.

After a week of rest, Michigan State football is back into action this weekend looking to continue its perfect season against its bitter rival Michigan. The Wolverines and the Spartans are both entering the game undefeated and ranked in the AP top 10 for the first time in half a century, setting the stage for another historic rendition of the Battle for Paul Bunyan.

Michigan leads the all-time series, which started in 1898, 71-37-5. MSU has had recent success in the series, winning nine of the last 13 matchups including last year’s Halloween battle in Ann Arbor. MSU was a 24.5 point underdog in last year’s matchup and walked away with Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker’s first win at MSU.

Last season's woes are long gone for MSU in 2021. An influx of transfers coupled with the first offseason training with the new coaching staff launched MSU off of the cellar floor of the Big Ten to a 7-0 start to the season, its best start since 2015.

Michigan State did not look pretty in its last game against Indiana two weeks ago, but managed to escape Bloomington with a 20-15 victory. The defense, led by redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay, came up with big play after big play to keep MSU afloat while the offense sputtered for the first two and a half quarters.

It was the third consecutive game where MSU’s offense struggled to build and sustain a drive and give the defense a rest. Indiana’s front seven shut down junior running back Kenneth Walker III, holding him to 84 yards on 23 carries, his second-lowest rushing performance so far this season. If it weren’t for an amazing catch by redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne on a trick play late, MSU would have been in legitimate danger of dropping to the Hoosiers.

MSU had its bye week last week, giving them two weeks to prepare for the Wolverines and address any issues that have popped up through the first seven games.

“We got some really good work in during the bye. I thought we were effective, efficient, and productive,” Tucker said. “Our focus right now is preparing relentlessly for the game, preparing for pressure. Not just being ready or being prepared - but being prepared for the pressure on the game.”

Scouting the Opponent

Michigan enters the weekend undefeated at 7-0 after trouncing Northwestern 33-7 last weekend. The Wolverines are currently ranked 6th in the country in the AP poll, the second-highest ranked Big Ten school behind Ohio State. 

Similar to Michigan State, Michigan has seemingly exorcized its demons from the 2020 season and are legitimate Big Ten East contenders this year. The problems that plagued Michigan last year like inconsistent production from the quarterbacks or secondary, have not been a major issue for the Wolverines.

On the field, Michigan is led by its dominance in the trenches. The Wolverines have NFL-caliber players on its offensive and defensive line like senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson or graduate student right tackle Andrew Stueber. Michigan plays with a high level of physicality across all positions and it starts up front dominating the line of scrimmage.

On offense, the physical brand of football has led to a potent rushing attack led by one of the most deadly running back duos in the country in Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. The offensive line has easily pushed around opposing teams’ front sevens all year, allowing Corum and Haskins to run loose. 

Haskins and Corum have combined for 1331 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns through seven games. This has provided Michigan with a run-heavy attack on offense. The Wolverines average 442.9 yards per game and 253.3 of those yards come on the ground. The rushing attack has also lessened the load on junior quarterback Cade McNamara's shoulders as the face of Michigan’s offense.

McNamara has been solid in his first full season as the starting quarterback for Michigan. He’s served as a game manager rather than a playmaker for the Wolverines offense, which relies on the ground to score. McNamara has thrown for 1115 yards and five touchdowns but only surpassed 200 yards in a game once this year against Nebraska.

Michigan’s ability to run the ball has also benefited the defense. Michigan has had the ball for almost 33 minutes on average this year, good for 12th in the country in time of possession. The extra rest for the stars all across Michigan’s defense has made it one of the best units in the country under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald

The Wolverines defense ranks 11th in the nation in total defense, allowing a measly 299 yards to opposing offenses per game. The star of the show on that side of the ball is Hutchinson, who is tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks (5.5) and was voted Big Ten Midseason Player of the Year by the Associated Press. 

Hutchinson is not the only star on the defense, though. Players like graduate student linebacker Josh Ross and junior defensive back Daxton Hill have had amazing seasons so far this year as a part of Michigan’s stout defense. They will be looking to exact revenge after giving up 200 receiving yards to a true freshman and 27 points to a bad Michigan State offense in its loss last year. 

Michigan is looking to drive the Paul Bunyan Trophy back down I-96 to its football building like Michigan State did last season. Since the trophy was introduced to the rivalry in 1953, Michigan leads the series 38-28-2 and will look to have it back in its trophy case for the next year until the next game. MSU, who’s had the trophy for almost a year exactly, will look to keep Paul in East Lansing for the second year in a row. 

The battle for Paul Bunyan will kick off at Noon on Fox.

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