Michigan football: Michigan State poses much tougher test than Wisconsin

MSU hosts Michigan at Spartan Stadium this weekend

Jim Harbaugh shakes hands with Mark Dantonio after a 32-23 Michigan win at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 29, 2016, in East Lansing. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team is coming off perhaps its biggest win of the Jim Harbaugh era, but the schedule doesn't get any easier.

Just seven days after the 25-point thrashing of Wisconsin, Michigan will be asked to tackle an even taller task: knocking off in-state rival Michigan State in East Lansing.

Looking only at the preseason rankings and the way the first several weeks played out, it might seem like the Wisconsin game would pose a greater threat to Michigan than the Michigan State game, but that's not the case.

Location

The biggest difference between the Wisconsin and Michigan State games is obviously that Michigan got to play the Badgers at home. Traveling to East Lansing has been a nightmare for the Wolverines.

Jim Harbaugh's team did win its last trip to Spartan Stadium in 2016, but that came against a bad MSU squad that finished 3-9. The previous four trips to East Lansing were losses for Michigan, including two by more than 20 points.

Jabrill Peppers runs for a touchdown past Grayson Miller against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 29, 2016, in East Lansing. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan's road woes have been well-documented throughout the last decade. It's been 12 years since the Wolverines beat a ranked team on the road -- a timeframe that's seen them go 0-17 in those matchups.

Harbaugh chipped away at the "Michigan can't win big games" narrative last week. Now he needs to end the long road drought.

So far this season, Michigan's only two competitive games have come on the road. It lost to Notre Dame in the opener after falling behind 21-3 in the first half, then survived against Northwestern after falling down 17-0.

It's extremely difficult to win on the road in college football, but Michigan has to prove it can do so if it wants to compete at a national level.

Rivalry

The Wisconsin game was intense because both teams were playing for their College Football Playoff lives. But the MSU game will be even more of a battle.

One of the reasons Michigan State has won eight of the last 10 meetings is because of the emphasis Mark Dantonio puts on the in-state rivalry. While, at times, Michigan has tried to shrug this off as "just another game," this has been the biggest game on the Spartans' schedule, and that has shown in the outcomes.

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Michigan State will play its best game Saturday against Michigan, as it has almost every season under Dantonio. Even in 2016, Michigan State was within a score late in the fourth quarter before Jabrill Peppers returned a two-point conversion attempt for a score.

Crazy stuff happens in rivalry games. The ending of the 2015 game was as fluky as any in the history of college football. Michigan didn't have to worry about that in the blowout win over Wisconsin, but it will be a concern against MSU.

Matchups

Michigan State might be ranked well below Michigan, but MSU's greatest strength could make life difficult for the Maize and Blue this weekend.

The Spartans are No. 1 in the country at stopping the run, both in terms of yards per game and yards per carry. Teams are averaging just 64.33 yards and 2.34 yards per carry against MSU.

Michigan's offense is more capable of being balanced between the run and the pass this season, but Harbaugh still greatly prefers to keep the ball on the ground.

Karan Higdon escapes the tackle of Rachad Wildgoose during a run on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan ranks No. 28 in the country with 217 rushing yards per game and No. 20 with 5.35 yards per carry. Conversely, the offense is 94th in passing yards per game and 113th in pass attempts per game. Only seven Power Five teams throw the ball fewer times per game.

The Wolverines are coming off a 320-yard rushing effort against Wisconsin, but they won't be able to pull that off against Michigan State. Dantonio will force quarterback Shea Patterson to win the game, and while he's been up to the task so far, he'll have to shoulder more of the burden this weekend.

Harbaugh wore down Wisconsin with the running game, but Dantonio's game plan will be to make sure that can't happen.

MSU or Wisconsin?

Playing on the road against a rival typically makes a game more difficult, but even if those weren't factors this weekend, Michigan State might just be a better team than Wisconsin.

The Spartans are technically ranked one spot below the Badgers in the AP Poll, but MSU's resume is stronger. The losses to Arizona State and Northwestern weren't pretty, but both of those teams are better than BYU, which beat Wisconsin in Madison.

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Wisconsin's best win came at Iowa, but Michigan State won at Penn State. Both of those teams are ranked in the top 20, but Penn State has been a much more difficult matchup during the Trace McSorley era.

Michigan State also has a more dangerous offensive duo: Brian Lewerke and Felton Davis III. Lewerke isn't having a great season, with seven interceptions to his eight touchdown passes, but he's a threat to pass and run, and he beat Michigan win his legs last year.

Felton Davis III catches a 25-yard touchdown pass to beat Penn State on Oct. 13, 2018, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Davis is one of the best wide receivers in the country. At 6-foot-4 with speed and good hands, Davis already has 31 catches for 474 yards and four touchdowns through six games. He carried the Spartans at Penn State, catching eight passes for 100 yards and two scores.

Wisconsin has Jonathan Taylor, but its passing game was nonexistent. Michigan will have to worry about two dynamic playmakers this weekend.

Overview

Michigan's win over Wisconsin was extremely impressive, especially in the way it ran the ball on offense and dominated overall on defense. Wisconsin is a good team, but so is Michigan State.

For Michigan's 2018 season to be a success, it has to be a year of tearing down a damaging reputation. The Wolverines have already won a big game, but they still need to end losing streaks on the road and in rivalry games.

Saturday is an opportunity to tackle both at once.

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