The battle to win the Big Ten heats up this Saturday, as rivals Michigan and Michigan State clash in East Lansing as top-10 opponents for the first time since 1964. This showdown between these two programs comes a year after the Wolverines and Spartans combined for a 4-9 mark in the abbreviated '20 campaign. A year later, both teams enter Saturday's meeting at 7-0, and the winner of this game will take a huge step forward in the divisional battle, especially with the Spartans and Wolverines both yet to play Penn State and Ohio State.
Last year's dismal 2-4 mark prompted massive changes in Ann Arbor. Coach Jim Harbaugh was squarely on the hot seat after the disappointing '20 season, but a revamped staff and approach has led to a much-improved squad. Michigan has leaned on its power-rushing attack and standout defense so far, defeating four of its six opponents by 20 points or more. Nebraska (three) and Rutgers (seven) were the closest matchups for Harbaugh's team this year. With a win on Saturday, the Wolverines' revenge tour would lift the program to its first 8-0 mark since '16.
Improvement in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry wasn't just limited to Ann Arbor this year. The Spartans finished 2-5 in coach Mel Tucker's debut last fall but took bragging rights over the Wolverines (27-24). Similar to its in-state rival, Michigan State has shown marked improvement on both sides of the ball, which was aided by an emphasis on transfers, including difference-makers in running back Kenneth Walker III and a handful of contributors on defense. The Spartans have won five of their seven games by double digits, including a 38-17 victory at Miami and a 38-21 win over Northwestern to begin the season.
Michigan owns a 71-37-5 series edge over Michigan State. The Wolverines have won three out of the last five in this rivalry, including the last two in East Lansing.
No. 6 Michigan at No. 8 Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -4
When Michigan Has the Ball
The ground game has been the mode of attack for Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis this year. The Wolverines rank third in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (46.4) and pace the conference in per-game production (253.3). Running backs Blake Corum (729 yards) and Hassan Haskins (602) handle the bulk of the production, with freshman Donovan Edwards (139) also pitching in. The battle between Michigan's standout ground game and Michigan State's defense is going to play a large role in the outcome of this game. The Spartans rank sixth in the Big Ten in rush defense but are limiting teams to just 3.3 yards per carry. And in conference-only matchups, Tucker's group has yet to allow an opponent to eclipse more than 182 yards.
While the unquestioned strength of this offense is the play up front and with the ground game, the Wolverines haven't needed to make many plays through the air to win this year. Quarterback Cade McNamara has good numbers (63 percent completion rate, 1,115 yards, 5 TDs) but is averaging less than 21 pass attempts (20.9) a game and connected on just two throws of 40-plus yards in Big Ten games so far. McNamara's favorite targets have been Cornelius Johnson (17 grabs) and Daylen Baldwin (12), with tight end Erick Ali (16) also contributing. The Wolverines have the fewest sacks allowed (three) in the Big Ten, which is crucial with the Spartans boasting a big-time pass rush (26 sacks).
Will Michigan be able to control the game with its ground attack? Or will McNamara have to take to the air to open things up for Corum and Haskins? Michigan State has limited teams to just 18.7 points a game and 4.9 yards per snap, while also ranking fifth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit hasn't faced a potent ground game like the one Harbaugh has assembled this year. The Spartans will aim to take away what the Wolverines do best, forcing McNamara and the receivers to make plays more than they have so far. An x-factor to consider: How is freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy deployed on Saturday?
When Michigan State Has the Ball
What a difference a year makes. The 2020 version of Michigan State's offense sputtered to an average of 4.8 yards per play and 18 points a game. Fast-forward to '21, and the Spartans have taken significant steps forward behind quarterback Payton Thorne and running back Kenneth Walker III. Entering Saturday's showdown, Michigan State's offense ranks second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.95) and third in scoring (34.3 a game). This unit also ranks near the top of the conference in big plays and has lost just seven turnovers through seven games.
Walker's arrival in East Lansing has provided a needed spark to a rushing attack that managed only 2.7 yards per carry in 2020. The Wake Forest transfer has posted 997 yards and nine scores while averaging 6.6 yards per rush. Walker also leads all backs in the conference with three rushes of 50-plus yards in '21. However, the two best defenses Walker faced (Indiana and Nebraska) managed to hold him under 100 yards. Can Michigan State's offensive line clear lanes for him on Saturday? Michigan's defensive front is holding opponents to just 3.6 yards per rush and ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game. Also, just one opponent has eclipsed more than 165 yards on the ground against this unit. Containing end Aidan Hutchinson (6.5 TFL and 6 sacks) won't be easy for the Spartans' offensive front.
Similar to Michigan's offense, the Spartans may have to throw more than they would like to prevent the defense from stacking the box against Walker. Although some of the pieces and scheme have changed, it is notable Michigan State threw for 323 yards (10.1 yards per attempt) against the Wolverines last year. Thorne is capable of making plays on the outside against this unit, as he's been one of the Big Ten's top signal-callers through the first eight weeks and has two of the conference's top weapons at his disposal. Thorne has connected on 61.2 percent of his throws for 1,694 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four picks, with Jayden Reed (27 catches) and Jalen Nailor (27) working as the top weapons on the outside.
With the balance and big-play weapons Michigan State possesses, this matchup is likely to be the toughest of the year for Michigan's much-improved defense. After allowing 34.5 points a game and 5.5 yards per play in their abbreviated 2020 campaign, the Wolverines have lowered those totals to 4.8 per snap and 14.3 points a contest. Additionally, this unit struggled at giving up big plays through the air or overall pass defense but has tightened things up to rank seventh in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense while limiting opponents to just seven completions of 30-plus yards.
Between the rivalry and Big Ten East title implications, there's no shortage of intrigue for Saturday's matchup in East Lansing. Also, even though this Saturday is the final weekend in October, both teams still have a bit of mystery about them. Michigan State is the toughest opponent Michigan has faced this year. Will the Wolverines be able to establish their ground game and connect on enough clutch throws through the air? On the other sideline, can the Spartans take advantage of Michigan's secondary like last season, while also opening up running lanes for Walker? This one is a toss-up and should go down to the wire.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Michigan State 24
Podcast: Week 9 Preview, Predictions + Picks Against the Spread & Texas Tech Coaching Search