ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The most important day of college football in the state is almost here, as Michigan and Michigan State will duke it out Saturday with the Paul Bunyan Trophy and a year of bragging rights on the line.
Michigan and Michigan State have rarely been on such heated terms. Last year’s game turned into a skirmish hours before kickoff and ended with the coaches taking jabs at each other at the podium. Devin Bush disrespected the Spartan logo at midfield and Michigan State was ultimately fined for the ordeal. That hasn’t sat well with MSU the last 13 months.
Mark Dantonio has had unprecedented success in the rivalry since taking over at Michigan State in 2007. When he arrived, it had been 40 years since Michigan State won consecutive games against Michigan -- going 9-30 overall in that span.
After losing a close game his first year, Dantonio won four straight against Michigan, lost in 2012 and then dominated in 2013 and 2014. He took over the state while Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were leading the Wolverines.
For the first time in decades, Michigan State controlled the rivalry. Then, Jim Harbaugh arrived to level the playing field.
Alternating one-sided rivalry
In four seasons of Harbaugh vs. Dantonio, the series is deadlocked at two wins apiece. The road team has won all four meetings, with three decided by single digits.
This series has long been one of alternating stretches of dominance. Before the aforementioned 30-9 stretch in Michigan’s favor from 1968 to 2006, Michigan State won 13 of 18 meetings, with two ties, from 1950 to 1967. The Wolverines won 10 straight from 1938 to 1949. Michigan State won all four meetings from 1934 to 1937. Before that, the Wolverines went 23-2-3 to kick off the rivalry.
The point is, Michigan vs. Michigan State has never really been a yearly back-and-forth over a significant stretch of time. The closest example might be Michigan’s 11-7 record from 1984 to 2001.
Harbaugh vs. Dantonio
Right now the series is very much back-and-forth. Michigan State was clearly the better team in 2015 and 2017, coming away with a miraculous win in 2015 and an ugly victory in 2017. The Spartans went to the College Football Playoff in 2015 and won 10 games in 2017.
Michigan was clearly the better team in 2016 and 2018, holding on for wins in both, though neither was easy. Those Michigan teams ultimately went into Columbus with a chance to go to the Big Ten Championship game and earn a playoff appearance.
To sum up the rivalry over the last four years, the better team wins, specifically on the road.
Something has to break, though, because this year, the better team is at home.
There’s no question Michigan has been superior this season, coming in with a 7-2 record and the No. 15 ranking in the CFP poll. Michigan State is 4-5 on the season.
Michigan didn’t look like the better team in September. An ugly win against Middle Tennessee State, a near-disaster against Army and a blowout loss to Wisconsin raised questions about whether the Wolverines would even be a competitive team in the Big Ten.
That has since changed, largely due to Michigan’s win over Iowa and the blowout of Notre Dame. Even a close loss at Penn State gave Michigan some credibility, as the Wolverines stormed back from a 21-point deficit to come within one dropped pass of tying -- and likely winning -- the game.
Mix in wins over Rutgers, Illinois and Maryland by a combined 100 points and Michigan rides a strong 5-1 streak into Saturday’s in-state rivalry.
October and November have been nowhere near as kind to the Spartans.
Michigan State limps into this weekend on a four-game losing streak. Losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State would be less notable had they not come by a combined 83 points. A loss to Illinois would be more respectable if, well, it wasn’t a loss to Illinois.
This isn’t quite as bad as the 1-9 stretch of 2016, but it’s by far Dantonio’s second-worst streak at Michigan State. He lost four games in the span of 35 days. Coming into this year, he’d had fewer than four losses total in half his seasons at MSU.
Dantonio teams simply don’t get run out of the stadium very often, and it happened three times in a month. They certainly don’t blow 25-point leads to programs like Illinois, but that’s exactly what happened last Saturday.
There’s a vibe surrounding the Michigan State program that’s foreign to Dantonio’s historic tenure. For once, he doesn’t seem to have an answer to his team’s struggles.
But does he have an answer for Michigan?
On the field
The recipe for Michigan’s turnaround isn’t a secret: run the ball, take care of the ball, dominate on defense.
In the first three games, Michigan fumbled 11 times and committed nine turnovers. In the last six games, Michigan has turned it over just five times, including two fumbles.
After struggling the run the ball effectively for the first five games, Michigan found a spark against Illinois, averaging 6.1 yards per rush on 48 carries. The Wolverines buried Notre Dame with 303 rushing yards and added another 155 yards on the ground against Maryland.
Michigan has 12 rushing touchdowns in the last four games -- three in each contest.
The Spartans bring a stout run defense into Ann Arbor, allowing just 3.15 yards per attempt -- the 15th-lowest in the country. Only 17 teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than Michigan State -- nine in nine games.
Since Michigan comes in with 23 rushing touchdowns, something has to give.
Michigan State’s overall defensive numbers are strong, but that’s largely because it allowed just 44 points in the first four games, against Tulsa, Western Michigan, Arizona State and Northwestern. In the last five games -- against Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois -- the Spartans are allowing an average of 33.6 points per game.
Is Michigan closer to the first or the second ground offensively?
Here’s how those teams rank nationally in terms of yards per play:
Good Michigan State:
- Western Michigan -- 20
- Arizona State -- 71
- Tulsa -- 111
- Northwestern -- 130
Bad Michigan State:
- Ohio State -- 6
- Penn State -- 34
- Indiana -- 42
- Wisconsin -- 56
- Illinois -- 106
With Western Michigan and Illinois as the exceptions, Michigan State has generally dominated offenses outside the top 60 and struggled against the others. That wouldn’t bode well for Michigan, which ranks 80th in terms of yards per play.
But it’s also possible Michigan State’s struggles are more about injuries and recent decline. The suspension of star linebacker Joe Bachie doesn’t help, either.
The overall numbers suggest Michigan should struggle against Michigan State’s defense. But Shea Patterson and the Wolverines appear to be ascending while Michigan State’s defense wears down. Which trend will win out Saturday?
Offensively, Michigan State played much better against Illinois. The Spartans put up more than 500 yard of offense and would have won the game easily if not for three interceptions from quarterback Brian Lewerke. The senior has improved dramatically on last season’s numbers but still doesn’t look like the player who starred in 2017.
Like the defense, Lewerke has struggled recently. He threw 10 touchdown passes and one interception in the team’s first five games. He’s thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions in the last four games. That coincides with the offensive line allowing eight sacks after giving up just four in the first five games.
Michigan’s defense should be up to the task. Here’s how many total yards the Wolverines have allowed the last six games:
- Rutgers -- 152
- Iowa -- 261
- Illinois -- 256
- Penn State -- 283
- Notre Dame -- 180
- Maryland -- 233
Other than a strange 25-0 run by Illinois and a few untimely breakdowns against Penn State, Don Brown’s unit has been elite. The Wolverines held Iowa to one rushing yard on 30 attempts. Notre Dame averaged just 2.37 yards per play.
As a result, Michigan is back in the top 10 in terms of total defense and ranks fourth in yards allowed per play. Other than Ohio State and Penn State, this is the best defense Michigan State has seen by a wide margin, and the Spartans scored just 17 total points against those two teams.
What to expect
On paper, Michigan’s defense should be able to stifle Michigan State’s offense. If recent trends are any indication, the Wolverines should be able to move the ball, too.
But this isn’t the type of game that can be predicted on paper. Weird stuff happens in this rivalry, from the fumbled punt snap in 2015, to the returned two-point conversion in 2016, the three-hour monsoon from 2017 and the weather delay in 2018.
The Spartans will play their best game Saturday. Their backs are against the wall, and Michigan had better be ready.
Dantonio’s program survived 2016. If he wants to get 2019 back on track, he needs to win in Ann Arbor. We should expect that sense of urgency to shine through on the field.
Harbaugh has the better team. The Wolverines are at home. But this is Michigan-Michigan State. You just never know.