Michigan/Michigan State Preview

Graham Barker, Editor in Chief

When Michigan and Michigan State face off this Saturday, it will be nearly a year to the day of last year’s matchup in which the 8th-ranked and undefeated Spartans went on a 23-3 run in the final 20 minutes to take down the 6th-ranked and undefeated Wolverines 37 to 33. The game opened with a 4-point spread in favor of Michigan, was host to both ESPN’s College Gameday and Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, and was the most-watched college football game of the season through week 11. It was a thriller from beginning to end. This year, the game isn’t projected to be quite the same spectacle.

While Michigan again enters the rivalry game undefeated at 7-0, Michigan State sits at an underwhelming 3-4, a disappointment to Spartan fans who had high expectations coming off of last year’s 11 wins and a preseason ranking of 15. The 4th-ranked Wolverines open as favorites of over 20 points and should have all the motivation they need after last year, having set the perfect stage: home in Ann Arbor for a 7:30 pm kickoff under the lights of Michigan Stadium, just the second night game in series history.

The exact root of Michigan State’s struggles is unclear. The defense has been far from great, but after allowing more passing yards than any other FBS team last season, this hasn’t been nearly as surprising as the Spartans’ offensive problems. Despite losing solid production from 2021, dynamic duo QB Payton Thorne and WR Jayden Reed were projected to highlight one of the Big Ten’s top offenses, and many thought Wisconsin RB transfer Jalen Berger would be a solid successor to the unanimous All-American Kenneth Walker III. Instead, so far in conference play, the Spartans sit near the bottom in most offensive statistics, including 13th of 14 in both total yards and rushing yards per game.

But, as they say when it comes to rivalry games: throw out the records. The dire circumstances of the Spartans’ season only mean they’ll be bringing out all of the stops on Saturday. Michigan State was able to gain a bit of momentum heading into last week’s bye with an overtime win over Wisconsin, their first win since September 10, and Coach Mel Tucker has found ways to eke out narrow wins vs. Michigan in each of his first two seasons at East Lansing, both as the underdog. The Spartans will try and set this season’s woes aside and come in confident this Saturday, Thorne telling WXYZ Detroit Sports, “We believe in us and don’t listen to the noise.”

On the other hand, it’s been mostly smooth sailing for Michigan through their first seven games. Outside of a few moments or sluggish first halves, the Wolverines’ stout defense and ground-and-pound rushing offense, led by early Heisman contender RB Blake Corum, has made life easy for Michigan, although against an un-intimidating schedule. Sophomore JJ McCarthy has fit in nicely at quarterback, adding a new dimension to the offense with his running ability and connecting with his receivers at the highest rate in the nation. With Michigan’s success in the run game, though, McCarthy hasn’t been asked to do too much, and his deep ball accuracy has been a concern early.

JJ’s performance will likely be indicative of much of the Wolverines’ success on Saturday, assuming Michigan chooses to air it out more and take advantage of the weak State secondary. McCarthy will have to make more difficult, deeper throws than he has so far, while still playing mistake-free. For the Spartans to pull off a third consecutive win, a big game from the receivers may be in order. The last two years have seen Michigan State’s receivers dominate in their one-on-one matchups and come up with plenty of timely catches. The spotlight here is of course on Jayden Reed, whose speed and ball skills will create problems for Michigan’s secondary. And, as in every game between these two schools, everyone keeping their emotions in check will be key. Coach Harbaugh is especially looking to limit these outside factors from affecting the game, saying on the Inside Michigan Football podcast, “It’s a fact that the guy who retaliates gets penalized.”