Last year was a banner season for both Michigan and Michigan State. Each team recorded double-digit totals in victories and finished the season ranked in the top ten. Michigan won 12 games, captured the Big Ten championship and advanced to the College Football Playoffs. Michigan State won 11 games, including the Peach Bowl, and not for nothing, defeated Michigan in the battle for the Paul Bunyan trophy.
Hoping to build on last season’s momentum, each team entered the 2022 season looking to pick up where it left off. Through seven games, however, the teams’ seasons have taken decidedly different paths.
Michigan comes into this weekend’s showdown with Michigan State flying high. Ranked in the top five in the country, the undefeated Wolverines are fresh off an impressive 41-17 victory over previously undefeated Penn State. On the strength of a dominant run game and a defense that’s improving each week, Michigan is rolling.
Michigan State is also fresh off a victory, a 34-28 overtime triumph over Wisconsin. But that victory didn’t extend a Spartan winning streak, rather it snapped a four-game losing streak.
Sitting at 3-4 and fighting to achieve bowl eligibility isn’t where Mel Tucker’s Spartans thought they’d be at this point in the season. Michigan State returned several key performers from last year’s Citrus Bowl championship team, including quarterback Payton Thorne, receiver Jayden Reed and safety Xavier Henderson, and had designs on competing for the Big Ten championship. One player who didn’t return, however, was All American running back Kenneth Walker III. If there was an overriding question concerning this year’s Spartan team, it was how much of last season’s success could be attributed to Walker. It turns out ... a lot of it.
Without Walker, issues with the offensive line and defensive secondary have been harder to overcome. As a result, the Spartans have struggled and their fan base has become frustrated. Nothing would turn the season around faster, however, for the team and its fans, than a victory over the hated Wolverines. But as a three-touchdown underdog, do the Spartans have much of a chance?
If you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention to this rivalry.
Michigan State is hopeful that its performance against Wisconsin is a sign that its starting to come together. It’s also hoping that it’s getting healthier. The Spartans got a lift with the return of Xavier Henderson against Wisconsin and are hoping the off week off between the Wisconsin and Michigan games will allow the entire team will get a little healthier.
Perhaps the best thing for Michigan State, however, even more than the week off, is the fact that they play Michigan. The Spartans tend rise to the occasion when they play the Wolverines, and have certainly done so during Tucker’s short tenure. Tucker is undefeated against the Wolverines, winning as a three-touchdown underdog in 2020 and coming back from a 16-point deficit to defeat Michigan last season. Frustrating season aside, there’s little doubt Michigan State will be up for this one.
If Michigan State always has the Michigan game circled on its calendar, the perception is that isn’t always the case for Michigan. Whether that’s historically true or not is open to speculation, but this season, it’s clear that the Spartans have the Wolverines’ full attention.
Over the offseason, Michigan players and coaches talked about the importance of playing – and beating – Michigan State. “Beat Michigan State and Ohio State in the same year,” is how Harbaugh described one of Michigan’s goals at this summer’s Big Ten Media Days. In the time since, Harbaugh hasn’t softened his stance. “Our guys really want to win this,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “I’m not going to lie to you, I really want to win it.”
Michigan players have been as vocal about the importance of this weekend’s game – and about the sting they’re still feeling from last year’s loss. Michigan’s Trevor Keegan told reporters that he and his teammates have not forgotten last season’s game and will not be taking this weekend’s match-up lightly, “We’re going to do everything we can to prepare for this game,” Keegan said. Grand Rapids native Mazi Smith added, “Everybody knows how important this week is and everybody knows how important this game is.” Roman Wilson was a little more to the point, telling reporters, “We’ve been waiting for this moment.”
As have the fans of both teams.