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Michigan football has chance to beat Michigan State in back-to-back years for first time in decade

In-state rivals heading in opposite directions this season

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a pass and avoids the tackle of Tre Person before scoring against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan vs. Michigan State football rivalry has stabilized since Jim Harbaugh got to Ann Arbor, but this year, the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to do something they haven’t accomplished in more than a decade: beat the Spartans in back-to-back seasons.

Michigan and Michigan State are heading in opposite directions as their paths cross this weekend in the Big House.

Michigan, after starting the season with a trio of shaky performances and becoming the target of national criticism, has won five of its last six games, including ranked wins over Iowa and Notre Dame. The combined score for the Wolverines over that stretch -- including a one-score loss at Penn State -- is 208-77.

In other words, the Michigan team everyone expected to see in the preseason has finally arrived.

Meanwhile, Michigan State is sliding. After starting the season 4-1, the Spartans have dropped four straight games -- three to then-top 10 teams and most recently to Illinois. MSU led the Fighting Illini by 21 points in the fourth quarter before surrendering the lead with seconds remaining.

Brandon Peters #18 of the Illinois Fighting Illini looks for running room while being tackled by Noah Harvey #45 of the Michigan State Spartans. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

This feels like a low point for Michigan State under Mark Dantonio. It also feels like all the troubles could be erased with one upset in Ann Arbor.

There aren’t many actual football reasons to believe Michigan State will win the game. A once-vaunted Spartans defense has been decimated by injury, ineffectiveness and the suspension of star linebacker Joe Bachie. Though MSU still ranks 19th in terms of yards allowed per play, it has allowed 529, 402, 302 and 405 yards over the last four weeks.

On the other side of the ball, quarterback Brian Lewerke simply hasn’t had the senior season many were expecting. He’s completing 55.7% of his passes for an average of 6.8 yards per attempt. He’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, most recently a costly pick-six that allowed Illinois to get back in the game.

In his last four games, Lewerke has thrown six interceptions compared to two touchdowns.

He’s still a dynamic playmaker with his legs. Lewerke rushed for 96 yards Saturday against Illinois, including his first touchdown run of the year. But if Michigan can shut down the quarterback running game, there simply isn’t a whole lot to like about Michigan State’s offense.

Cam McGrone will be key in that department. The standout sophomore has been one of Michigan’s best defensive players this season. McGrone does an excellent job spying on mobile quarterbacks, as evidenced by Sean Clifford and Ian Book. Clifford finished the Michigan game with 17 yards on 11 carries (two sacks). Book had 13 yards on six carries (two sacks).

Cameron McGrone #44 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a fourth quarter sack against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan State’s best offensive player, Darrell Stewart Jr., might not play against Michigan. That leaves most of the burden on running back Elijah Collins and wide receiver Cody White.

Collins is averaging 5 yards per rush and has scored five touchdowns this season. White has 37 catches for 527 yards and two scores.

The Wolverines don’t have anyone with as many rushing or receiving yards as Collins and White, but the offensive arsenal is much deeper. Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins have turned into a wicked one-two punch, combining for 985 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones have 1,370 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a group.

But Michigan’s offense ultimately hinges on Shea Patterson. When he was struggling to take care of the ball in the first five games, Michigan was a mess offensively. In the last four games, he hasn’t lost a fumble while throwing six touchdown passes and one interception.

Shea Patterson reacts to a teammate's second-quarter touchdown against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Regardless of the way this season is trending, Michigan has lost eight of the last 11 meetings with Michigan State and hasn’t won back-to-back games since 2006 and 2007.

This looks like Michigan’s best chance to buck that trend since Lloyd Carr retired. Michigan State is reeling. Michigan is hitting its stride. The game is in Ann Arbor. Other than the fact that Dantonio always gets the best out of his team in this rivalry, there’s no reason the Wolverines shouldn’t come out on top.

This game has produced some really strange results recently: the ending in 2015, the returned two-point conversion in 2016, the sloppy conditions in 2017 and the offensive debacle of 2018.

The last time these two teams met in Ann Arbor, Michigan was No. 7 in the nation and Michigan State was unranked. Everyone remembers how that played out. It’s impossible to know what will happen in this rivalry.

If Michigan can finally pull through at home, it’ll have a winning streak against its in-state rival for the first time in 12 years.

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