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Michigan and Michigan State: Huge Big Ten Stakes Between Unbeatens

Michigan and Michigan State
(image from Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press)

#6 Michigan Wolverines @ #8 Michigan State Spartans

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University sit 49 miles apart from each other, and their football teams will meet for the 114th time this Saturday. The Wolverines will make the hour drive from Ann Arbor to East Lansing to take on the Spartans. The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy will take place between two top-10 teams for the first time since 1964 Saturday, October 30, 2021 at noon EST.

Both Michigan and Michigan State find themselves playing in control of their own destiny for the Big Ten East with five games remaining in the regular season. Both are tied with Ohio State at 4-0 in conference play atop the East division. Both still need to play the Buckeyes and the Penn State Nittany Lions down the stretch. Still, both teams have College Football Playoff aspirations after starting a perfect 7-0.

I’m hoping for another great game between these two schools – one like last year’s Halloween showdown that saw the unranked Spartans upset the #13 Wolverines 27-24 in Ann Arbor. This year’s game should be just as entertaining. Jim Harbaugh has his Wolverines ranked #6 in the nation, while Mel Tucker’s Spartans are #8. Harbaugh has a 56-22 record in his seventh year as head coach of Michigan, but more surprisingly, Tucker has been able to shake off a 2-5 inaugural season and improve to a respectable 9-5 by the middle of his second year. Just to serve as a reminder of where the Spartans were as a team last season, they lot at home to Rutgers – yikes. Somehow, he managed to beat Michigan the very next week, becoming only the second Michigan State head coach in the past 75 years to beat the Wolverines in his first season. The other? Nick Saban 1995.

There have been just four top-10 showdowns between Michigan and Michigan State since the rivalry started way back in 1898. All four of those matchups happened in a nine-year window from 1956-1964. Michigan State won three of those four meetings. This will be the nineteenth time this rivalry has seen the teams face-off while both ranked in the top-25. It will be the first since 2018. The Spartans also lead those particular matchups 10-8, but the Wolverines lead the overall series 71-37-5. The last time they were both undefeated at the time they played was 2010. Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins took down Denard “Shoelace” Robinson and the Wolverines 34-17 in Ann Arbor.

The Numbers

Michigan and Michigan State both started the season unranked (another reason we should ditch the preseason rankings…how can #6 and #8 be teams that the AP didn’t think were at least #25?), but both have impressed. Michigan’s numbers, I’d have to say, are more impressive than Michigan State’s. Let’s take a look at the numbers for Michigan:

Rushing yards per game253.35th in nation
Points scored per game 37.715th in nation
Points allowed per game14.32nd in nation
Points allowed per game299.011th in nation
Rushing yards allowed per game116.620th in nation
Passing yards allowed per game182.424th in nation

Michigan has gotten to this point on the backs of their stingy defense and smashmouth running game. They feature a two-headed monster at running back with Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins. Both have 10 rushing touchdowns this year, and Corum has 127 more yards despite eight less carries. Cade McNamara is the quarterback for the Wolverines. He hasn’t been asked to do much so far in 2021, as he has just 1,115 passing yards with five touchdowns and one interception. His favorite target has been Cornelius Johnson. Johnson has 17 receptions for 312 yards and three touchdowns.

And for Michigan State:

Total yards per game451.726th in nation
Rushing yards per game200.433rd in nation
Passing yards per game251.349th in nation
Total yards allowed per game406.44th out of 5 state of Michigan FBS teams
Passing yards allowed per game285.45th out of 5 state of Michigan FBS teams

Michigan State started off the year with three impressive victories where they dominated from start to finish and have followed it up with four shaky wins. The defense can be “meh” at times, and the unit even ranks below schools like Eastern, Central, and Western Michigan in passing yards allowed per game. They have an above average offense, but it definitely isn’t because of their quarterback. Payton Thorne has amassed 1,701 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has used two main targets, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, and they both have 27 receptions. Reed has 562 yards and Nailor has 512. They have combined for 11 touchdowns. Running back Kenneth Walker III will surpass 1,000 yards this weekend. He currently has 997 and nine touchdowns on 152 carries.


Michigan and Michigan State have given us some classics over the years. The one that stands out to me is 2015’s thriller when the Wolverines punter had trouble with the snap with under 15 seconds in the game and the Spartans scooped it and scored to win 27-23. It’s jaw-dropping moments like those that make this rivalry and college football so great. The winner of this year’s game will get some serious looks in the first College Football Playoff Rankings that are set to release November 2 – exactly one week from today.

At the moment, the Wolverines are a 4.5-point favorite on the road with the over/under sitting at 50.5. The forecast is looking absolutely beautiful. Expect a partly cloudy, mid-50s day with less than 10 mph winds.

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