Another chapter in the bitter, storied inter-state rivalry will be written this Saturday in Ann Arbor. No. 4 Michigan welcomes Michigan State to a night game at Michigan Stadium, just the second time in history that the two will face off after dusk.
A year ago, the Spartans and the Wolverines clashed in a top 10 matchup of epic proportions. Thanks to an incredible performance from Kenneth Walker III, MSU stormed back to win 37-33 and remain undefeated.
The stakes are a bit different this year.
After a disappointing 3-4 start to the season, the Spartans enter the weekend as more than three touchdown underdogs. Michigan, on the other hand, certified itself in the upper tier of college football following a 41-17 win over Penn State.
Michigan State is no stranger to playing as the underdogs, especially in this rivalry. In Head Coach Mel Tucker’s first game against Michigan back in 2020, the Wolverines were favored by more than three touchdowns. The Spartans prevailed 27-24 on a monster day from former MSU wide receiver Ricky White.
However, that Michigan team wound up with a paltry 2-4 record. This year’s squad is 7-0 and has its eyes set on a second straight postseason appearance.
For Michigan State to pull off the upset this year, it’ll take the best 60 minutes the team has played all season.
“To be counted out, that means something to me,” senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon said. “You’re being underestimated. That’s another reason just to add to our burn.”
Just before the bye week a couple weeks ago, Michigan State showed glimpses of what it’s capable of in a 34-28 double overtime win over Wisconsin.
Redshirt junior Payton Thorne had his best game in quite some time, finishing with 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 28 attempts. His connection with redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed reemerged, as the star receiver accounted for 117 yards and a touchdown (not to mention the game-winning touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Keon Coleman in double-overtime).
“It was a winning performance from him and that’s what we have to have from him,” Tucker said. (11:56 Tucker)
While the Spartans finally found some success through the air, the ground game was still abysmal. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger led the team with 59 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts. For the second straight week, MSU finished with under 100 total rushing yards. Currently, the team ranks 116th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging just 106.1 yards per game.
Michigan State’s defense had one of its better performances of the season against the Badgers, notching three sacks and nine TFLs. Quarterback Graham Mertz only tossed for 131 yards against the Spartans’ secondary.
That improved play was thanks in large part to the return of two key leaders of the defense: redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade and fifth-year senior Xavier Henderson.
“It did help getting some players back,” defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said. “Guys communicating and building confidence.”
While Tucker has not specified who will be available Saturday, it is likely that Henderson and Slade will be in the lineup after playing against the Badgers.
Scouting the opponent
There’s a reason Michigan is the No. 4 team in the nation. With an offense chock-full of weapons and a defense that has played lights-out thus far, the Wolverines have established themselves as not only one of the best teams in the Big Ten, but one of the best teams in the nation.
Offensively, Michigan’s identity is clear: pound the rock and control time of possession.
Junior running back Blake Corum has been electric thus far, guiding a rushing attack that averages 241.7 yards per game (eight best in the FBS). Just a few weeks ago, the Wolverines racked up over 400 yards on the ground against a sturdy Penn State run defense.
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“They have a good line,” Tucker said. “The backs run hard, they can make you miss, they can run you over.”
However, the ascension of J.J. McCarthy to the starting role has added some big play ability through the air to the Wolverines’ offensive toolkit.
“He’s very confident and hyper competitive ,” Tucker said. “He’s accurate with the ball, he’s very mobile.”
As a package, Michigan’s offense has averaged 42.7 points per game this season. In summation, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and his coordinators have the offense humming.
With stars like McCarthy and Corum, it’s no surprise that Michigan’s offense has received a lion's share of attention from media and fans. However, the Wolverines defense has been just as good — if not better.
As it stands, the unit ranks fifth in the nation in yards allowed per game (opponents average 250 yards). To make matters worse for opposing offenses, the Wolverines are equally efficient in pass and rush defense — both are ranked fifth in the nation (164.1 and 85.9 yards per game allowed, respectively).
Michigan State has struggled to show offensive consistency all season. It won’t get any easier against the Wolverines.
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