ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan vs. Michigan State football rivalry is deadlocked at 2-2 since Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, but while the Spartans often play their best game in this matchup, the Wolverines have been prone to disastrous mistakes.
So far, the better team has won all four times Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio squared off. The Spartans beat Michigan in 2015 and 2017 -- the years they went to the playoff and finished with 10 wins, respectively. Both times the Wolverines beat MSU they later went into Columbus at 10-1 with a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
But in both the wins and the losses, Michigan has shown a trend of making critical mistakes.
Michigan’s struggles vs. Michigan State
The most obvious instance came in the very first year of the Harbaugh era, when the Wolverines had the game all but won coming down to the final play. But when the snap bounced off Blake O’Neill’s hands and fell rebounded perfectly to a Michigan State defender, right in stride, a signature victory turned suddenly into defeat.
That has set the tone for Michigan’s struggles against MSU.
In the following season, Michigan went into East Lansing with a much better team than Michigan State. Those Wolverines would end up coming one play away from the Big Ten Championship Game, while the Spartans finished with just three wins.
Michigan played a mostly clean game throughout the first half and went into the break with a 27-10 lead. But when Wilton Speight threw an interception on the first drive of the second half, Michigan started to slip.
A lead that once reached 20 points eventually shrank down to seven in the final moments as Michigan State scored with a second left to pull within 30-23. Fortunately for Michigan, a missed 34-yard field goal and a turnover on downs at the 13-yard line ultimately doomed MSU’s comeback effort.
Then, there was 2017 -- a complete disaster.
Michigan began the game with a 16-play field goal drive and then forced Michigan State to punt without gaining a yard. Then, as the offense approached midfield again, Ty Isaac fumbled the ball back to the Spartans.
That’s when everything changed.
Michigan State punched the ball into the end zone and quickly went from on its heels to in the driver’s seat. How did Michigan respond to adversity? Four straight punts and a second fumble before halftime. Meanwhile, Michigan State scored another touchdown to take a 14-3 lead into the break.
The Wolverines rebounded early in the second half, scoring to pull within four points. But then, three straight drives ended with John O’Korn interceptions as Michigan committed its third, fourth and fifth turnovers of the game.
Even then, Michigan had one last chance to come back, but Eddie McDoom dropped a deep pass that went right through his hands. It was a fitting ending to a disastrous Michigan performance.
Last season was more of the same, even in a win. Quinn Nordin missed a 36-yard field goal before halftime that would have given Michigan a 10-0 lead.
Then, on Michigan’s first drive of the second half, Chris Evans fumbled the ball away on the seven-yard line, giving a dormant Spartans offense the short field it needed. Two plays later, the game was tied.
How did Michigan respond? When the Spartans gifted away a free possession on a fumbled punt return, Shea Patterson fumbled the ball right back deep in MSU territory.
If not for a 79-yard touchdown pass from Patterson to Donovan Peoples-Jones, that game was starting to give off some familiar “weird Michigan State win” vibes. The Wolverines outgained the Spartans by more than 300 yard, yet mistakes kept the game much closer than it should have been.
That can’t be the case for a fifth straight season.
Michigan’s turnover improvement
Early in 2019, Michigan looked like the prototypical team to gift away games. The Wolverines committed nine turnovers in the first three games, most notably fumbling the ball 11 times, losing seven.
In the six games since, Michigan has turned it over just five times, including two fumbles. Illinois was the only game in which Michigan committed multiple turnovers during that stretch.
Michigan hasn’t lost a fumble in its last three games.
Dantonio always seems to draw out the turnover problems in Michigan. That won’t be as easy as it once appeared.
Michigan State has ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of forcing turnovers this season -- tied with Michigan at 15 defensive turnovers in nine games. Six of Michigan’s first nine opponents -- Illinois, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Army, Middle Tennessee and Penn State -- have forced at least 15 turnovers this season.
If Michigan can avoid catastrophic mistakes early in this weekend’s game, it will have an opportunity to put the game out of reach.
Michigan State limps into Ann Arbor on a four-game losing streak, including blowout losses to the three best teams on its schedule. If Michigan wants to be considered among those teams, it needs to do the same.
Dantonio will have his team ready to play, especially since he and his program have their backs against a wall. If there was ever a time for one of his signature out-of-nowhere victories, this is it.
Michigan has more talent, more playmakers and a healthier roster. But a few untimely mistakes would give Michigan State new life, and the Wolverines know how dangerous that can be.