For the first time since 1964, the Michigan football team has a top-10 bout against in-state rival Michigan State on the docket. The sixth-ranked Wolverines and eighth-ranked Spartans both enter Saturday’s matchup with 7-0 records, but only one will remain unblemished after this weekend’s showdown in East Lansing. The Daily football beat offers their predictions and insight into a game Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called an “elimination” contest on Monday:
A year ago, I watched from the press box at Michigan Stadium as Rocky Lombardi torched the Wolverines’ defense time and time again. The Spartan quarterback finished with over 300 passing yards on the day, exposing the Michigan secondary’s reliance on man coverage in the process.
But Michigan State won’t replicate that success on Saturday. That ill-fated 2020 Halloween afternoon was one of the final nails in then-defensive coordinator Don Brown’s coffin. Brown, along with every other defensive assistant besides defensive line coach Shaun Nua, was not retained at the end of the 2020 season. Former NFL staffer Mike Macdonald has since taken over as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, installing a pro-style 3-4 scheme that relies on both man and zone coverages at the back end.
This year, that’s going to be the difference-maker. The Wolverines and Spartans’ offenses both rank towards the top of the Big Ten in explosive plays, but I believe Michigan’s defense has a better chance of getting stops. The combination of a star-studded defensive line and mixed coverages has been a recipe for success. It’s no coincidence the Wolverines enter this in-state rivalry with the Big Ten’s top-ranked scoring defense.
Readers may be aware of my winless record picking Michigan games against the spread this season, but it’s never too late to break into the left-hand column. I’m picking Michigan to escape East Lansing with a top-10 win on a national stage.
Michigan 26, Michigan State 21
Everything about this contest screams “coin flip.”
In virtually every aspect of the game, Michigan and Michigan State are near mirror images of each other. The Wolverines average 5.5 yards per rush; the Spartans average 5.4. Michigan junior quarterback Cade McNamara completes 63.0% of his passes; Michigan State’s Payton Thorne completes 61.2%. Even their punters are neck-and-neck — Brad Robbins, the Wolverines’ grad student, nets 43.6 yards per punt, while the Spartans’ Bryce Baringer nets 44.2.
Oh, and if you haven’t noticed, both teams are 7-0.
Even if Harbaugh and Michigan State coach Mel Tucker have a few rivalry tricks up their sleeves, both coaches have made their intentions pretty clear this season: Run the ball when they can, pass if they must. And given how effective the teams have been on the ground, Saturday’s matchup has a chance of being a true college football anomaly: an offensive showcase in which most yards are gained on the ground.
On paper, Michigan is the more talented team. Tucker’s transfer portal-built squad has already shown that talent isn’t everything, though. I don’t want to pick this game, but since it seems to be my job, I’ll give Michigan State the edge at home. The Spartans take a 10-point lead early in the second half and hold off a late push from the Wolverines.
Michigan State 34, Michigan 31
Michigan has circled this game on its calendar since last season’s loss to Michigan State. Now, the Wolverines have a prime chance to spoil the Spartans’ season, while also boosting their own College Football Playoff chances in the process.
This game is easily Michigan’s stiffest test to date, and I think it’ll be decided in the trenches.
The health of the Wolverines’ offensive line looms large. A sturdy, consistent line has buoyed the explosive running game and helped junior quarterback Cade McNamara avoid negative plays. But injuries have begun to take a toll. Sophomore guard Zak Zinter, perhaps Michigan’s best offensive player, has been hampered by a myriad of ailments, most recently a leg injury; along with Zinter, junior guard Trevor Keegan missed last weekend’s game against Northwestern with a shoulder injury. On Wednesday, offensive line coach Sherrone Moore referred to both players as “day-to-day.” If Zinter and Keegan are unable to play consistent snaps on Saturday, the Spartans may be able to exploit graduate guard Chuck Filiaga and junior guard Karsen Barnhart up front.
That being said, should Zinter and Keegan suit up, I like Michigan’s chances to steal a victory in East Lansing. Both teams are well-rounded and playing with the utmost confidence. The Wolverines have maintained all season that this team is different; they’ve relished playing on the road and haven’t wilted in the face of adversity. Until they prove otherwise, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Michigan 27, Michigan State 17