Today, Michigan and Michigan State can envision themselves atop
the Big Ten standings and Pasadena-bound. Yes, the Spartans, too
— later this month, they play Wisconsin at home).

Michigan Football
Jason Teague(AP PHOTO)
Michigan Football
Mike Hart (TONY DING/Daily)

Three weeks into the season, the thought seemed impossible. Both
teams had lost to Notre Dame. The Spartans also lost at Rutgers,
and the Wolverines beat lowly San Diego State at home by just three
points.

But then the conference season began. Now, No. 12 Michigan (5-0
Big Ten, 7-1 overall) is coming off a road win over Purdue, and is
just a Wisconsin loss away from having first place to itself. And
Michigan State (3-1, 4-3) put together its best performance of the
season in its last game, a 51-17 thumping of Minnesota two weeks
ago.

While both teams have had success in East Lansing, at the Big
House, the rivalry has been one-sided. The Spartans are looking for
their first win in Ann Arbor since 1990.

Michigan passing offense vs. Michigan State passing
defense:
Though his performance last Saturday against Purdue
didn’t look great on paper, Chad Henne is improving rapidly.
With opponents double-teaming Braylon Edwards on every play, the
freshman quarterback is making better use of his other receivers.
He still seems to throw at least one interception every game, and
needs to improve his awareness of the pass rush, but
Michigan’s passing attack is much more balanced now than in
the first few games of 2004.

The Spartans have allowed less than 200 passing yards per game
this season, but they haven’t yet faced an explosive passing
offense.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan rushing offense vs. Michigan State rushing
defense:
Last year at Spartan Stadium, Michigan coach Lloyd
Carr asked his running back, Chris Perry, to run the ball 51 times.
This year, Michigan initially didn’t seem to have a running
back. Then it found an unproven freshman. Now, 50-plus carries for
Mike Hart doesn’t seem impossible (though Carr probably
won’t want to do that again). Hart has amassed more than 600
rushing yards the last three games and has had a knack for playing
better as the game progresses.

Much has been made of the fact that the Spartans limited
Minnesota to 102 yards rushing. To get a better sense of Michigan
State’s defense, look at the previous week, when
Illinois’ Pierre Thomas ran for 188 yards on the
Spartans.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan State passing offense vs. Michigan passing
defense:
Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton’s
ability to run and throw is something Michigan hasn’t seen so
far this season. In his last two games, Stanton has thrown for 507
yards and six touchdowns. If he uses his legs to give himself time,
he’ll have a chance to put up big numbers.

But ultimately, Michigan’s combination of a dominating
pass rush and physical secondary should overwhelm the Spartans.
Just last week, the Wolverines’ defenses limited the
Boilermakers and one-time Heisman candidate Kyle Orton to just a
handful of big gains.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan State rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing
defense:
Stanton is also the Spartans’ leader in rushing.
He’s run for 454 yards and four touchdowns this season. As
for the actual running backs, a different player seems to take
control each week; three players have run between 267 and 397 total
yards for the Spartans this season.

Michigan’s rush defense has been strong thanks to
defensive lineman Gabe Watson, its linebackers and safety Ernest
Shazor, but it hasn’t been perfect. If the Wolverines have
shown any vulnerability, it’s against plays to the outside.
And since Michigan hasn’t faced a mobile quarterback yet this
season, that poses another challenge.

Edge: Michigan

Special Teams: Last week in West Lafayette, Steve
Breaston looked more dangerous on punt returns than at any other
time this season. But the performance of punter Adam Finley and
kicker Garrett Rivas, who have each had up-and-down seasons thus
far, is far more important. Also, with Finley replacing Matt
Gutierrez as the holder on field goals, it remains to be seen if
the transition will be a smooth one.

In Brandon Fields, Michigan State has the best punter in the Big
Ten. His average of 49.2 yards is far and away the
conference’s best, and he’ll be expected to provide a
field position-advantage. Kicker Dave Rayner is also solid, while
the Spartans’ return game has done nothing special this
season.

Edge: Michigan State

Intangibles: It’s hard to imagine either team
having the edge in confidence entering this weekend.
Michigan’s offense came up with its second game-winning drive
of the season, and its defense shut down Purdue’s vaunted
passing attack.

Michigan State is coming off a dominating win at home over
Minnesota. In that game, the Spartans gained 636 yards on offense,
410 of which came from Stanton. But they still haven’t proven
they can beat a good team on the road.

Edge: Michigan

Prediction: In the last three weeks, Michigan’s
defense has dominated Minnesota’s rushing game for a half and
contained Purdue’s passing offense for a full game. But that
doesn’t mean the Spartans’ attack will be easy to shut
down. Because their quarterback can use his arm and his legs,
Michigan might have some trouble.

But even if the Spartans are able to move the ball, their
defense will still have to do its part. And while the unit has
shown progress, nothing it has done thus far indicates it can
contain Michigan’s balanced attack.

Michigan 30, Michigan State 21

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