ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football took care of business against Northwestern to set up the unbeaten in-state matchup everyone has been craving in East Lansing.
Michigan and Michigan State are both a perfect 7-0 and ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation. But it still feels like the Wolverines have much more to prove.
Michigan’s body of work
The three best wins on Michigan’s resume -- Washington, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- haven’t aged well. The Huskies not only lost to an FCS team in their opener, they’re struggling to get bowl eligible. Wisconsin picked up a nice win over Purdue this weekend, but the Badgers are 4-3 and unranked. Nebraska, well, Scott Frost has a mess to clean up.
Even Rutgers, a team that walked into Ann Arbor undefeated and took the Wolverines to the brink one month ago, completely fell apart. Since that day, Rutgers has lost its three games by a combined score of 104-33.
Everyone has heard the old cliché, “You can only play the teams on your schedule.” That’s absolutely true, but so far, those teams have left us wondering what Michigan is really capable of doing.
Michigan’s resume includes two solid road wins, but this week will be a much tougher test.
Say all you want about the variables of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That doesn’t erase the mental image of Michigan State running up and down the field against what was supposed to be a vaunted Michigan defense.
Both teams are entirely different this year. Rocky Lombardi plays for Northern Illinois and Joe Milton is at Tennessee. The Spartans have brought in a ton of transfer players and Michigan overhauled its entire coaching staff.
But still, how did Mel Tucker outcoach Jim Harbaugh with that Michigan State roster?
The Spartans were coming off an 11-point loss to Rutgers. After the Michigan win, they lost four of their final five games by a combined score of 164-43. That loss was unfathomable at the time, and it aged like unrefrigerated milk.
Michigan won its last two games in East Lansing, but that rivalry momentum evaporated last Halloween. If Tucker can beat Harbaugh as a three-touchdown underdog, he’ll have his team more than ready this time around.
Cade McNamara takes plenty of criticism despite leading Michigan to a 7-0 start. Some of it is unfair.
But the Northwestern game might have been his worst of the season. He missed a handful of open deep balls and averaged just 4.8 yards per pass attempt. Northwestern never felt threatened over the top because Michigan simply can’t convert those opportunities.
It didn’t inspire much confidence ahead of the Michigan State game.
The Spartans own the 28th-ranked rush defense in the country, allowing 119.29 yards per game. Opponents average just 3.27 yards per rush against Michigan State.
Can Michigan pass the ball effectively when Tucker decides to take away the run? McNamara’s accuracy and the wide receivers’ hands will be put to the test.
Chance to make a statement
Fans thought Washington would be Michigan’s first chance for a statement win. Then, it was Wisconsin, and even Nebraska.
With Michigan State, there’s no question. Saturday will be one of the defining moments of Michigan’s season -- a rival, a top-10 opponent and the most hostile road environment the Wolverines will experience.
Nobody’s going to remember those first seven games when they look back at the 2021 season, but they’ll all remember whatever happens in East Lansing.