Michigan’s surge pushes stakes even higher for MSU matchup
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — As well as Michigan is already playing under new coach Jim Harbaugh, it would be easy for the Wolverines to get a little ahead of themselves.
It’s all a bit surreal, the idea that Michigan State is undefeated and yet Michigan is favored to beat the Spartans this weekend.
"I’m sure there’s going to be attempts to build the game up, but we’re working and not worrying," Harbaugh said this week.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines could try all they wanted to block out the hype, but Michigan’s resurgence has raised the stakes for Saturday’s game against seventh-ranked Michigan State. This is now much more than just a chance for Harbaugh to spoil the Spartans’ unbeaten run. The winner of this matchup — whoever it is — becomes a clear contender for a Big Ten title and a spot in college football’s playoff.
Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is unbeaten, while Michigan (5-1, 2-0) hasn’t lost since its opener at Utah. Neither team’s record is a huge departure from what was expected against their early-season schedules, but the way the Spartans and Wolverines are playing has been a surprise.
Michigan State beat Purdue by three and Rutgers by seven. The Spartans were ranked as high as No. 2, but they’ve dropped amid mounting injuries and unconvincing victories.
Michigan, meanwhile, has shut out its last three opponents and is dominating games in a way many didn’t expect until a little later in Harbaugh’s tenure.
So the Wolverines opened as three-point favorites and then then line grew to over a touchdown.
"I think you’re only underdogs if you think you’re underdogs," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I will say Michigan is playing outstanding football right now, and we need to play better at certain points and times. But we are undefeated. We’ve found a way to win football games, that’s the bottom line."
Michigan State has won six of its last seven games against Michigan.
Here are a few things to watch when the Wolverines host the Spartans:
RUNNING GAME: The team that ran for more yards has won 42 of the past 45 matchups in this series. Michigan State running backs LJ Scott and Madre London have been effective this season, and the Wolverines have leaned on De’Veon Smith.
INJURIES: Michigan State lost linebacker Ed Davis and defensive backs Vayante Copeland and RJ Williamson to long-term injuries, and the offensive line has also been in flux because of health concerns. The Spartans’ depth, especially in the secondary, is being tested.
TURNOVERS: Michigan might have beaten Utah if Jake Rudock hadn’t been intercepted three times in that game. He’s only thrown three interceptions since then, but Michigan State will surely try to rattle him with an aggressive pass rush. Defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun is one of the top players in the Big Ten.
STAR QB: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has played in plenty of big games, and perhaps the best path to victory for the Spartans is if their fifth-year senior outplays Rudock by a significant margin. But it won’t be easy. Cook will be up against a Michigan secondary that’s playing very well. Defensive backs Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis have been impressive lately.
SPECIAL TEAMS: It’s been a rough season on special teams for Michigan State. That’s usually an area of pride for Dantonio and the Spartans, but kicker Michael Geiger has missed four field goals, and Michigan State has also had issues covering kickoffs and punts.
Michigan’s Jehu Chesson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in last weekend’s win over Northwestern.