It’s that time of year again in the state of Michigan. Two fanbases driving down the same streets, going to the same schools and offices, and sometimes living under the same roof. Recycling insults from years past, doing their best to build controversy and fuel their respective teams, and hoping beyond hope that this is the year their team can finally get a resounding win to hang their hat on. When the Wolverines and the Spartans square off this Saturday in East Lansing, we’ll get a fresh dose of similar storylines from years past, and some new narratives to keep an eye on this year… In a game whose intensity has ratcheted up dramatically since the hiring of Jim Harbaugh four years ago, we could be in for one of the most important matchups in this rivalry in a decade.
Halfway through the 2018 season, both teams are still dreaming of Indianapolis, but early losses already have their dreams teetering dangerously on the brink. The Wolverines are in better shape at the moment, with only one loss coming to a highly ranked non-conference opponent in Notre Dame. Their playoff hopes are alive and they have a clear path to get there. The Spartans’ playoff hopes may have been dashed already, but they’re still aiming for a chance to return to Indianapolis and make history.
Since their opening night loss to the now-#4 ranked Irish, the Wolverines have reeled off six straight wins, none of which were more significant than last weekend’s thumping of the 15th ranked Badgers to the tune of 38-13. Wolverines faithful finally feel like they have the pieces in place they’ve been waiting for under Harbaugh, and this game represents the first chance to show that this team has what it takes to sit atop the Big Ten East.
The Spartans, on the other hand, are in a bit of a weird place at this point in the season. For a fanbase that was feeding on hype all offseason at the chance for another Big Ten Championship and a possible return to the Playoff, this team has been a whirlwind of dying dreams and, with their electrifying last minute win last weekend in Happy Valley, a reignited sense of hope. After an all-but-satisfying opening night win that went down to the wire against Utah State, spirits were dampened when the Spartans were handed their first loss in the desert against Arizona State. They added a pair of underwhelming wins going into their bye week, before their Playoff hopes were dashed by Northwestern in a surprising double digit loss at home. With the aforementioned road win against the then 8th ranked Nittany Lions, the Spartans’ hopes have been recharged and the possibility of an East Division and possible B1G title will be hanging in the balance every week.
For the Spartans, this game represents an opportunity to reaffirm their legitimacy as a top team in the Big Ten, and a chance to maintain their stance atop the rivalry. Since 2007 when he took over, Mark Dantonio has never failed to have his troops ready for this game, and even in their worst years (see: 2016) his teams still exceeded expectations. Winning this game could determine whether the Spartans and their fans look back at this season with pride or a sense of what could have been.
Michigan and their supporters, on the other hand, will be chomping at the bit for another chance at getting the 17-straight-road-losses-to-ranked-teams monkey off their back. Wolverines faithful may not think it fair to put Rich Rod’s and Brady Hoke’s struggles on the shoulders of Harbaugh, but nonetheless, the onus is on him to rid the program of a streak that has followed them for over twelve years now. Whether it’s seen as a streak that needs to be broken or just another big game, Michigan will have to find success in these games if they’re ever going to make it to Indianapolis and beyond to the Playoff. But more intimately than ridding themselves of some streak or curse, this game represents a chance to show they’re ready to take back Paul Bunyan and return to being the big dog in the state. They’ve had their chances to beat a highly touted MSU team under Harbaugh in both 2015 and 2017, but in both games they fell short in heartbreaking and frustrating fashion. They’ll say the Spartans got lucky, the Spartans will say a win is a win. Either way, the Wolverines will enter Spartan Stadium with as much confidence behind them as they’ve had in years.
Did I mention there’s an actual football game to play? Both these teams have had players and position groups that have exceeded expectations, and both have had disappointments. I could include a piece on every unit on both of these teams, from MSU’s stellar, but banged up receiving corp, to Michigan’s vaunted linebackers, but last I checked, most of us only have two eyes and we can’t watch every player, every play.
While the Wolverines have the ball, we’ll get a chance to see Michigan’s running game against the Spartans’ run stopping defense. This will be the top strength-vs-strength matchup of the evening, and it won’t disappoint. Since only rushing for 58 yards against Notre Dame, the Wolverines have put up at least 171 rushing yards in all six of their games since, eclipsing 300 yards on the ground twice in that span. This team’s run blocking has been improving as the season goes along, but they haven’t had to block anyone as solid up front as the Spartans this season. Even after allowing a season high 208 yards on the ground against Penn State last weekend, the Spartans still lead the FBS with only 62.8 rushing yards allowed per game. In a game in which the more successful rushing team has historically almost always won the game, this will be a matchup to watch all night. Somethings gotta give…
When the Spartans have possession, it’ll be all about Michigan’s pass rush against MSU’s pass blocking. Led by their dynamic pair of defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, the Wolverines have generated 20 sacks this season (13th in the FBS) and by this point ought to be paying rent for their space in opponents’ backfields. They’ll be more than excited to line up against an MSU offensive line unit that has seen more than their fair share of struggles so far. If the Spartans find themselves in a hole where they’re forced to rely on the passing game, Brian Lewerke’s ability to stay cool in the pocket and avoid pressure will be key to their chances of staying in the game.
All this leads to the ever present question: who will win? I’m not here to make predictions, that’s what we pay KP for. What I do know is that this game often goes against everything previous performances would lead us to expect, and that’s because there’s more emotion wrapped up in this game than most. Emotion gives us incredible plays, emotion gives us uncharacteristic mistakes, and emotion keeps us all glued to the game for far longer than any non-football fan would think reasonable. These fan bases have been going back and forth since before anyone reading this has been alive, and that won’t be put to bed this Saturday. Don’t expect either team to get out of this one convincingly. We might not be in for as much excitement as the 2015 finish, hopefully we’ll be in for more entertainment than last year’s game, but come Saturday evening, one team will be sputtering to an unknown, but underwhelming conclusion to their season, while the other will continue motoring full throttle toward their goal of an East Division title.