There are, realistically, two ways in which Saturday’s rivalry showdown between Michigan (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) and Michigan State (4-5, 2-4) plays out.
The first, and the most likely, follows down the path of least resistance. The Spartans rank 61st in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN.com’s rankings. They haven’t won a game since Sept. 28 and come into this matchup with the Wolverines fresh off blowing a 25-point lead at home to Illinois.
In that respect, the 13.5-point spread seems low, a direct nod to the emphasis Michigan State and its coach, Mark Dantonio, place on this game.
But that emphasis — which, it should be noted, has guided the Spartans to victories in eight of the previous 12 matchups between the sides — cannot be ignored, even in the bleakest of times in East Lansing.
Asked Monday what the common thread has been in his team’s games against Michigan State, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered a cagey retort.
“Common thread would be very competitive and intense.”
It’s to be seen whether Saturday will be competitive, but high intensity is a foregone conclusion. Here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s rivalry bout.
Indelible images of Devin Bush scraping his cleats across the logo at Spartan Stadium last year no doubt still linger in Michigan State’s mind. The then-junior linebacker had no problem letting his feelings out before the game, hours before his defense held the Spartans to 94 total yards.
There are rivalries in which mutual respect breeds a kind of pageantry — take the Red River Rivalry, for example. This is nothing of the sort. Michigan-Michigan State is a slap fight in which each side keeps its hands dutifully by its sides until they step on the field. Then it convulses left, right, up and down for three hours.
That kind of attitude often breeds altercation, sometimes premeditated, often not. Michigan players and coaches hardly indicated a desire for such events to transpire.
“You watch it, you kind of get the feel of the rivalry,” said sophomore defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson on Monday. “But when you’re actually in it — you’re hitting them, you’re talking a little bit — that’s when things kind of intensify.”
By now, you, a dutiful observer of this game and these teams, probably understand the threat Dantonio’s trick plays pose. There’s plenty more about this in Aria’s film breakdown, but the threat behind those off-schedule, unusual looks is to derail and dethrone the superior team.
Last year, Michigan State’s lone touchdown came off a reverse that ended in a four-yard pass from receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. to quarterback Brian Lewerke. All of a sudden, an offense that had shown nothing but ineptitude was locked in a 7-7 game in the middle of the third quarter. Momentum swung. The crowd came to life.
It’s quite clear Dantonio’s tactics have kept Harbaugh up at night this week.
“You look at everything a team has done in terms of fakes or misdirection. Deceptive type of plays,” Harbaugh said. “And what they’ve done, and OK, we’ve prepared for that, but also what is a possible complement to something that they’ve already done that they could be working on, they could be practicing? Alert for everything.”
It seems unlikely a couple successful trick plays will be enough to overcome everything else. But perhaps one early in the game to re-configure the expectations, or one late in a game that unfolds tighter than expected, could be the spark the underdog Spartans need.
There’s not a ton to glean from Michigan State rushing for 275 yards last week against Illinois, as the Illini rank 101st in the nation in rushing defense. But the roadmap for a Spartans’ upset runs through its rushing attack.
Running back Elijah Collins offers a formidable threat against a Michigan defense that will be foaming at the mouth.
On the flip side, the Wolverines will undoubtedly look to establish their running game at the outset. In its last four games, Michigan has averaged 223.5 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, the Spartans’ strength, no matter the skid, remains their rush defense, which ranks 16th in the nation.
The only way Michigan State comes out of this victorious — nabbing one of the bigger upsets in the recent history of this rivalry — is mucking up the game, making it ugly and then winning through smoke and mirrors. Scoff, if you want. The Spartans have only built their entire program off their ability to do just that.