No matter what fans think of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, the Spartans have done their best to raise the level of hype.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has a clock counting down to the start, and he even went as far as to set the Wolverines as a model for his program.
Michigan has a seven-game winning streak to defend after its 0-2 start – not to mention it wants the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
The Spartans need a win to save a disappointing season while the Wolverines still have a Big Ten Championship on their mind.
Which can survive the backyard battle?
Michigan rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense
Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor, thanks. But now it’s time to step aside. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr wisely rested star running back Mike Hart over the past few weeks, and all indications are that the Heisman Trophy candidate is ready to go this weekend.
That’s great news for Michigan, considering Hart has topped the 100-yard mark in every game he’s played in this season. And if he does go down, Brown and Minor have the confidence to step in and perform like they did the past few games.
Even though the Spartans yield less than 130 yards on the ground per game, Michigan has shown that with a healthy Hart, it’s nearly unstoppable on the ground.
Michigan pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense
Mario Manningham’s four straight 100-plus-yard games have proven he’s one of the nation’s elite wide receivers. When you throw in Adrian Arrington, likely the nation’s top No. 2 option, and an emerging Greg Mathews, you have one of the most formidable receiving corps Michigan has ever had.
But who will be throwing to them? Chad Henne is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but he suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder two weeks ago against Illinois. If Henne can’t go, true freshman Ryan Mallett will get the starting nod for the fourth time as a Wolverine. He has been solid at times, but shaky at others. And a first start in a hostile environment could rattle the 18-year-old.
Otis Wiley and the Spartan secondary have been a mixed bag. They can lock down the opposing aerial attack and then inexplicably fall apart. Michigan State has allowed more touchdown passes than it has thrown, and no matter who is throwing it up to the Maize and Blue receivers, it’s likely Super Mario and co. will come down with it.
Michigan State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Michigan defense finally gets to face a traditional, pound-it-down-your-throat offense. The players seemed relieved after facing spread offenses for most of the season.
But be careful what you wish for.
The thunder and lightning combo of Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick is the best running tandem Michigan has faced this season and could be the catalyst for a Spartan upset. Shawn Crable should move back to his natural linebacker position, opening the door for emerging defensive end Brandon Graham to see more snaps, but it probably won’t be enough to stop the Spartan backfield tandem.
Edge: Michigan State
Michigan State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
With Michigan’s defensive line on a mission to strike fear into every Big Ten quarterback, the Wolverines have looked increasingly effective against the pass. Last week, Minnesota entered the game allowing just six sacks on the season. Michigan laid out Gopher quarterback Adam Weber three times behind the line.
The added pressure has made life much easier on the defensive backfield. Weber completed just 14-of-30 passes for 99 yards, well below his season average of 238.33, which ranks 36th in the nation.
The Spartans, however, come in with their own potent attack. After shadowing Drew Stanton the past two years, Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer has emerged as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Big Ten (152-for-253, 1910 yards, 11 tds). It helps that he gets to throw to 6-foot-2 Devin Thomas, an Ann Arbor native who grew up idolizing the Wolverines.
But Hoyer has one big problem: His offensive line. The Spartans have allowed more sacks than nearly anyone in the Big Ten. Given the Wolverines’ recent performance, Hoyer might want to make sure the trainers bring extra ice.
Earlier this season, the coach of Ann Arbor’s Pop Warner team probably wouldn’t have trusted the Wolverines’ special teams. Jason Gingell missed field goal after field goal, Michigan’s returns went nowhere and the Wolverines made more mental mistakes than President Bush.
But recently, things have come together for the unit. K.C. Lopata is a perfect 8-of-8 on field-goal attempts. Returners Greg Mathews and Carlos Brown are poised to break off big runs soon. And Zoltan Mesko continues to boom punts, he just needs his coverage team to down them.
For the Spartans, Thomas poses a threat on kickoffs, and kicker Brett Swenson is 10-of-16 on the year. But given how poorly Michigan played earlier this season, we’re not ready to give it this category yet.
As Detroit Free Press columnist (and Daily alum) Michael Rosenberg pointed out the other day, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is taking a page right out of Jim Tressel’s playbook.
Much like Tressel erased the legacy of the John Cooper era from day one, Dantonio has his team hyped for its game against the Wolverines. A clock in the Spartans’ locker room has been counting down the seconds until Saturday’s matchup.
Michigan probably doesn’t care quite as much about winning for rivalry’s sake. The Wolverines are focused on continuing to redeem their season. Michigan has slowly moved up the polls thanks to its seven-game winning streak, and, not to jinx it, but a trip to the Rose Bowl seems like a very real possibility.
The Wolverines have also beat their annoying rival for the past five years.