There’s rarely a dull moment in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. It’s a rivalry that divides schools, neighbors, and families across Michigan. Something memorable seems every time these teams face off.
In the past four seasons, since Jim Harbaugh took over as Michigan’s head coach, the rivalry has been full of unforgettable moments. In 2015, Michigan punter Blake O’Neill had trouble with the snap, fumbling a last second punt, leading to a miraculous Spartan victory. Last season, Michigan LB Devin Bush stood in the way of a Michigan State pregame ritual, when they walked arm in arm across the field, as they do before every home game. After a brief scuffle with some Michigan State players, Bush tore up the logo at midfield. Michigan won the game behind a dominant defensive performance.
2007 had perhaps the most memorable sound bite of the rivalry, when Michigan RB Mike Hart referred to his in-state rival as “little brother.” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio fired back, saying that pride comes before the fall. That game, a 28-24 Michigan win, marked a turning point in the rivalry. With the win, Michigan was on a six game winning streak over Michigan State, but the Spartans won the next four. Since 2008, Michigan State has beaten Michigan eight times to the Wolverines’ three wins. Michigan has not won consecutive games in that stretch, but look to win their second in a row on Saturday.
Saturday is the 112th edition of the rivalry, and the two teams appear to be completely different positions. Michigan is 7-2 and despite losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, appears to be peaking at the right time. They recently had a big 45-14 win over Notre Dame. Michigan State is 4-5 and hasn’t won a game since September 28. They lost to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State, who appear to be three of the best teams in the Big Ten, but also lost 37-34 to Illinois last week. The Spartans led 28-3 with seconds remaining in the first half and held a 31-10 lead heading into the 4th quarter, but still lost on a last second touchdown.
Though it looks like Michigan should win fairly easily, this rivalry always produces close games. Both teams will be motivated, and it should be a pretty competitive game. Below is how I think the teams will match up on Saturday in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Michigan offense vs Michigan State defense
Michigan hasn’t performed as well on offense as they hoped this season, but they appear to be trending in the right direction. They’re only ninth in the Big Ten in passing yardage, but they could have an opportunity for big numbers on Saturday. Shea Patterson should have a lot of chances for big plays as all of his receivers should be healthy. Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Ronnie Bell will all be options. TEs Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon will also be big contributors. RBs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins have been key in establishing the run as Michigan looks to improve upon the Big Ten’s seventh best rushing offense.
Michigan should match up well against the Spartan defense, especially if they choose to throw the ball often. Michigan State has the ninth best passing defense in the Big Ten, and their secondary is their weakest point. Josiah Scott is an excellent cornerback, but the Michigan receivers should be able to take advantage of the rest of the defensive backs in single coverage. The run defense is where they shine. They’re ranked fourth in the conference in rushing yards allowed and are led by one of the best defensive lines in the conference. Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams, and Mike and Jacub Panasiuk make up the line, and LBs Antjuan Simmons and Tyriq Thompson help fill out an excellent front seven. The Spartans will be without LB Joe Bachie, who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and will be out for the rest of the season.
Michigan has an opportunity to take advantage of one of Michigan State’s weakest defenses of the past few years. They’ll need to have a big day through the air, because the Spartan defensive line will shut down the run.
Michigan State offense vs Michigan defense
Michigan State has struggled again on offense, but the passing game hasn’t been awful. They have the seventh best passing offense in the Big Ten. Brian Lewerke will have limited options to throw to, as WR Darrell Stewart and TE Matt Dotson are injured. Cody White, Matt Seybert, and CJ Hayes will need to step up on Saturday. Elijah Collins has been a force in the running game, but nobody else has stepped up. Lewerke has the next highest rushing total, and Anthony Williams has the second most yards of any running back with only 76. They will need Collins to lead the charge, as the Michigan State running game ranks 13th in the Big Ten.
The Michigan defense will look to have a big game against one of the weaker offenses in the conference. They don’t allow many yards through the air, as their passing defense is the third best in the Big Ten. White is the only one of Michigan State’s top three receivers who isn’t injured, and CBs Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas should be enough to keep him from having a big game. DEs Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, and Michael Danna and LBs Cam McGrone and Josh Uche have provided a dominant pass rush and should create problems for Lewerke. The best chance Michigan State has to beat the Michigan defense is running the ball up the middle, their weakest spot. Center Matt Allen is injured, however, and true freshman Nick Samac appears to be starting in his place, so Michigan may be able to win that battle as well.
Both teams are solid on special teams, but have had issues in the kicking game at times. Michigan State kicker Matt Coughlin is only 13/20 on field goals after having only eight missed field goals in 2017 and 2018 combined. He was 2/2 on field goals against Illinois, breaking a five game streak with at least one missed field goal. Michigan has experienced some field goal issues as well, with Jake Moody going 6/9 on field goals and Quinn Nordin making only one of his four attempts. Most of Nordin’s attempts have been longer than 50 yards, but accuracy has been an issue. Neither team has missed an extra point. Michigan State’s Jake Hartbarger and Michigan’s Will Hart are two of the Big Ten’s best punters.
Michigan appears to have the edge in the return game. Giles Jackson has a returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and Donovan Peoples-Jones is a dangerous punt returner. Brandon Sowards has been solid as a punt returner for Michigan State, and their best kick returner, Darrell Stewart, is currently injured.
Michigan has played better through nine games and seems to be improving heading into November, while Michigan State has been getting worse each week. Michigan has the advantage at nearly every position, and it looks like they should win fairly easily.
However, this is a rivalry game, and it'll probably be closer than it should. This is the biggest game of Michigan State’s season, who at 4-5 is still fighting for bowl eligibility. I think that Michigan will be in control for most of the game, but Michigan State will score a late touchdown to make the final score look closer than the game will actually be.
Michigan 28, Michigan State 13