It’s a top ten match-up that few can say they saw coming - even those in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. Coming off disappointing 2020 campaigns, both Michigan and Michigan State entered the 2021 season with many more questions than answers. It was little surprise that both teams began the season unranked.
Michigan State came into the season with a second-year coach and a roster almost unrecognizable from that of last season. The cupboard may not have been completely bare when head coach Mel Tucker took the reins from former head coach Mark Dantonio, but it was far from overflowing. Tucker addressed that by hitting the transfer portal hard, probably harder than any coach in the country. With a relatively new coach and an unfamiliar, unproven roster, anyone claiming to know how this season would play out in East Lansing was only kidding themself.
Seventy miles down the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan extended head coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract, but overhauled the rest of its coaching staff. In addition to a new coaching staff, Michigan players insisted there was also a new attitude in Ann Arbor. Much of the off-season talk was how last season “wasn’t Michigan” and how much better the culture was this summer. But talk is talk. Would the coaching changes result in improvement on the field? Was there really a different culture? And if so, would it make much of an impact with a roster that, like Michigan State, had plenty of questions?
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes”.
If you paid attention to what Michigan’s coaches and players were saying over the summer, you knew the Wolverines wanted to run the ball this season. And run the ball, they have. Led by the “Thunder & Lightning” combo of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, Michigan leads the Big Ten and is among the nation’s leaders in rushing, averaging more than 250 yards per game. Sharing the load, Haskins and Corum have combined to rush for more than 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns through seven games and have been the driving force behind Michigan’s undefeated start.
With Haskins and Corum running roughshod over opposing defenses, Michigan has gotten by with a rather pedestrian passing attack, averaging fewer than 200 yards a game. When pitted against defenses that are tough against the run, however, quarterback Cade McNamara and Michigan have been able to do just enough through the air to allow Michigan to run a balanced offensive attack.
Michigan’s offense hasn’t been the only reason for the Wolverines’ early season success, however. Of all of Michigan’s coaching changes, the most significant was at defensive coordinator. Michigan’s defense had become predictable in recent years and hadn’t shown the ability to adjust. Opposing offenses took advantage. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was hired to change that. To design a defense that both put Michigan’s defensive playmakers in positions to make plays and had the ability to present different looks and schemes, based on situation and opponent. So far, Macdonald has been successful in both respects.
Credit Macdonald’s schemes, but Michigan has also gotten strong performances from individual players, particularly Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross and Daxton Hill. Along with stronger than expected play from the interior defensive line and linebacking corps, less-than-sure-things when the season began, Michigan’s defense has so far excelled in Macdonald’s debut season. The Wolverines rank second in the Big Ten in total defense, surrendering just under 300 yards a game.
Michigan’s schedule is backloaded and the Wolverines have yet to face their biggest tests. That said, sitting at 7-0, when many pundits had the Wolverines pegged for that many victories for the entire season, it’s fair to say that Michigan has been one of the bigger surprises in the country thus far.
As big of a surprise as Michigan has been, the eighth ranked Spartans might be an even bigger surprise. After a 2-5 inaugural season under Tucker, expectations weren’t exactly sky high in East Lansing. If the 2020 season did anything, though, it showed Tucker that he didn’t have the kind of roster he needed. Credit Tucker for taking action - and for not playing the slow game. Tucker hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in nearly 20 transfers. When you consider the new freshmen on campus, that’s nearly 40 players new to the program. No question it would be a different team than that which suited up last season, but would it be better?
Tucker had no doubts. “Our roster is stronger,” he told reporters over the summer, “and it’s going to lead to a better brand of football.” At the time, it was easy to pass off such a proclamation as coach speak, but through seven games, Tucker has proven prescient.
In some respects, this year’s Spartan team looks a lot like prior Dantonio teams. Tucker’s Spartans are a tough, physical, power-running team. Running behind an offensive line that has exceeded expectations, Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III finds himself both as the nation’s second leading rusher (with 997 yards and a gaudy 6.6 yards per carry) and an early Heisman candidate.
In other ways, however, this is not a typical Michigan State team. Yes, its offense is based on the run game, but with quarterback Peyton Thorne and the receiver tandem of Jayden Reed and Jaylen Nailor (both with 500+ receiving yards and a combined 11 touchdowns), the Spartans have also proven to be an explosive offense. One with a penchant for big plays.
How explosive? Against Rutgers, the Spartans became only the fifth FBS team to have a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver in the same game. And how prone to big plays? In that same game, Thorne and Nailor connected on three touchdowns of at least 60 yards. For the season, the Spartans are among the nation’s leaders in big plays.
Michigan State has had moments - or halves - where it couldn’t get it going offensively (most notably against Nebraska and Rutgers), but the Spartans still rank third in the Big Ten in total offense, and can hurt you on the ground or through the air.
Michigan and Michigan State mirror each other in many ways. Both are built around strong running games. Both are trying to bounce back from disappointing seasons in 2020. Both are playing with a new attitude and credit a new culture for much of their success. But this weekend, one team’s season of redemption will continue, while the other’s will suffer its first defeat. And not just any defeat, a defeat to a hated rival. For the winner of Saturday’s intra-state clash, what’s so far been a good season becomes a great one. But which team will that be?
The key for Michigan State? Slow down Michigan’s running game and try to make Michigan a one-dimensional team. Michigan, more than most teams, needs its running game rolling for its passing game to succeed. And when the Spartans have the ball? Their ability to create - and convert - big play opportunities in the passing game is key. The more this year’s game resembles last year’s affair, when Michigan State and then-quarterback Rocky Lombardi torched Michigan through the air, the better it will be for the home team.
The key for Michigan? The Wolverines will try to make life difficult for Walker, but he’ll get his yards. More importantly, the Wolverines need to keep Michigan State’s passing game in check. So far this season, Macdonald has been able to scheme his defense in ways to cover any weaknesses on the back end. That will be tested by Thorne and the Michigan State passing game. On offense, Michigan will have to stick with its running game, even if it struggles early. Michigan will also need a solid performance out of McNamara and the passing game.
There’s a long running axiom that whichever teams runs the ball better wins this game, and history bears this out. But this year, even with both teams dependent on their respective running games, it just might be the team that has more success through the air that will come out victorious.