4 reasons I’m picking Michigan football to win this weekend, without underestimating Michigan State

Can Michigan end losing streak to Michigan State?

J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines looks to throw a pass in the second half of a game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium on October 15, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Mike Mulholland, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – This hasn’t always gone well for me in the past, but here it goes: I’m picking Michigan football to beat Michigan State this weekend.

For years, I knew better than to pick the Wolverines in this matchup because, well, they always seemed to find a way to lose. Even after the era of being dominated under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke ended, there was the “trouble with the snap game” and the stunning 2017 loss -- both inside Michigan Stadium.

READ: Every Harbaugh-era Michigan-MSU game is remembered for something -- what will it be this year?

The Spartans finally fooled me in 2020. Coming off back-to-back lackluster seasons and trying to replace the best coach in program history, Michigan State lost by double digits against Rutgers to open the season and came into Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team that figured to be pretty good.

For the first time, I thought it really felt like a done deal.

Well, we all know how that went. I learned my lesson and vowed never to underestimate Michigan State in this rivalry again. I even wrote explicitly about those hard-earned trust issues ahead of last season’s undefeated matchup.

This is truly one of those rivalries where anything can happen. Jim Harbaugh even said so this week.

“The old cliche, ‘Throw out the records’ is very true,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t matter. Both sides just want it that much.”

But... you know that thing people do when they tell you all the reasons they don’t normally do something, and then they turn around and do it anyway? Yes, hi, it’s me. I’m doing that thing.

Here’s why:

Renewed focus on rivalry

Early in the Harbaugh era, Michigan would struggle against Michigan State even when it had the more talented team. It was obvious back then that one side took this rivalry much more seriously than the other.

Even as recently as 2020, I think the Wolverines took the Spartans for granted. After holding MSU to 94 yards in 2018, winning by 34 points in 2019, and watching Mark Dantonio retire suddenly in the offseason, it felt like the rivalry tide had turned.

It hadn’t. The Wolverines learned another hard lesson. Don’t expect them to overlook Michigan State again.

Blake Corum #2 of the Michigan Wolverines plays against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 30, 2021 in East Lansing, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

Moments after their dominant win over No. 10 Penn State two weeks ago, Michigan had no problem turning the focus immediately to the Spartans. Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference that Blake Corum and J.J. McCarthy hadn’t even left the field before saying “on to Michigan State.”

Michigan used to try to downplay the Michigan State rivalry, almost as if the Spartans didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

It was like a child touching a hot stove for the first time: Once the Wolverines got burned and saw where that attitude got them, they had to adjust.

Now, Michigan’s best players are openly circling the Michigan State game. Even Harbaugh acknowledged how much he wants to win.

“No question, our guys really want to win this,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to lie to you: I really want to win it.”

Whoa! “I really want to win it”? Harbaugh rarely emphasizes one game more than another, and he’s never been so candid in expressing his personal feelings about a game.

It took longer than it should have, but Michigan finally dove head-first into this rivalry.

Established winning culture

Picking Michigan football to win big games was dangerous in the past. For the first six years of Harbaugh’s tenure, the program made strides but always seemed to come up short on the brightest stages.

That all changed last season, when Harbaugh’s winning culture finally blossomed.

Michigan might not get the same credit as the top programs in the nation, but it has quietly become almost just as reliable. It’s not just the conference title or the second-straight 7-0 start, it’s the way Michigan takes care of business against very good teams like Iowa in the Big Ten title game or Penn State this season.

Michigan is trying to permanently close the gap with Ohio State at the top of the Big Ten. The first step toward doing so is to create separation with the rest of the conference, and that’s what the Wolverines have started to do.

Road losing streaks at Wisconsin and Penn State ended last season. Michigan finally won in Iowa this month. Games against the likes of Indiana and Northwestern have become much less competitive.

You might not notice it on a week-to-week basis, but if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, Harbaugh has brought back a dominant brand of Michigan football.

So many times Michigan has found a way to beat itself in the Michigan State game. The fumbled snap was not forced. The turnovers and dropped passes in 2017 were not forced. Even last year’s 16-point collapse had shades of the old Michigan.

But the culture that’s been built over the past 21 games is the main reason I expect the Wolverines to win this weekend. Chances are, they won’t beat themselves.

JJ McCarthy

Last season, the Spartans were the worst team in the country in passing yards allowed per game, but on a per-attempt basis, they were middle of the pack (60th out of 130).

While the per-game passing yards don’t look quite as bad this season (110th out of 131), Michigan State has plummeted to 114th in passing yards allowed per attempt (8.2).

Cade McNamara had the most productive game of his career in East Lansing last year, throwing for 383 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. For reference, he didn’t have another performance of even 260 passing yards all season.

Fast forward to this year, and Michigan is much more dynamic at the quarterback spot. McCarthy leads the nation (by a landslide) with a 77.1% completion rate and ranks 14th with an average of 9 yards per attempt.

So in many ways, Michigan has gotten better in the passing attack while Michigan State’s pass defense looks even worse. If the Spartans sell out to stop Corum and the dominant running game, McCarthy can still make them pay. Rivalry or not, that’s a conundrum.

Learning from 2020

The most dangerous unit for Michigan State is the wide receiver corps. Keon Coleman, Jayden Reed, and Tre Mosley can all take over a game, and it would be foolish for the Spartans not to try to exploit that.

Luckily for the Wolverines, they know what’s coming. That plan’s already been used against them: the last time these two teams met at the Big House.

When Rocky Lombardi throws for 323 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, something extraordinary has happened. In 2020, it was Ricky White who happened.

Ricky White #7 of the Michigan State Spartans receives a pass while being covered by Jalen Perry #16 of the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 31, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

Lombardi heaved 32 passes around an empty Michigan Stadium that day, and White came down with eight of them, for 196 yards. He was simply better than every single defensive player on Michigan’s roster, and he willed the Spartans to victory.

It’s going to take that kind of performance from someone for Michigan State to win on Saturday, and Coleman, Reed, and Mosley are three of the most likely candidates to fill the role.

Jesse Minter wasn’t Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2020, but he knows what happened. If the Wolverines can take away explosive plays, force MSU to piece together drives, and allow the defensive line to settle in, Payton Thorne will enjoy Ann Arbor much less than Lombardi did.

Final thoughts

I know, it’s really going out on a limb picking a 23-point home favorite to win, right? Fine, if you want a more specific prediction, I’ll go with a final score of 34-20.

The night game atmosphere will be electric, especially since the Maize and Blue fan base is so hungry for a win in this rivalry. Michigan State fans always travel well to Ann Arbor, but their number might be a bit lower this year after the team’s four-game losing streak.

Michigan is at home. Michigan has the better team. Michigan has all the motivation. The only -- and I mean only -- reason for doubt is because this is the Michigan State game, and inexplicable things always seem to happen in the Michigan State game.

There’s been plenty of heartbreak for Michigan in the battles for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. A loss this weekend would be the most painful of them all.

But I don’t expect it to happen.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.