Wolverines, Spartans renew rivalry

Published 11:15 pm Thursday, October 13, 2011


Special to Daily Star

ANN ARBOR — For the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans, Saturday’s meeting in East Lansing rises above mere rivalry.

The game represents a chance for both schools to prove they deserve their rankings.

For Michigan (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten), players must prove to their own coach they deserve to be the 11th-ranked team in the nation.

“We are not a Top 10 team,” head coach Brady Hoke said. “You take care of the football, and defensively, you don’t give up 300 and whatever it was yards throwing the football.”

The Spartans (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten), on the other hand, will try to retain their status as the 23rd-ranked team in the country, their first time appearing in the Associated Press poll since the third week of the season. Michigan State lost to Notre Dame that week and exited the polls afterwards.

Of course, there is the rivalry.

The two will battle for the Paul Bunyan trophy this weekend. Michigan leads the all-time series 67-31-5, but has had some difficulties recently. Michigan State took advantage of the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor, winning three consecutive matchups against the Wolverines. On Saturday, the Spartans will try to make it four straight victories for the first time since 1959-62. The Wolverines are determined to not let that happen.

“We’re really motivated,” Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. “This is our seventh game of the season, and we’ve won six so far, this is the next obstacle we have to conquer to get to the Big Ten Championship.”

To do so, the Wolverines will have to figure out the Spartans’ defense, a task that has proved extremely difficult for opposing teams this season. Outside of a 31-point outburst by Notre Dame, the Spartans have not allowed more than seven points in a game. Michigan State’s defense also ranks best in the country in yards allowed per game, at just 173.4, with 64.0 of those coming on the ground. The Spartans’ game plan will obviously center around dynamic Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

“Obviously, it all starts with Robinson. That goes without saying,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “He can dish it where he needs to go, whether it’s wide receivers or running backs.”

Entering Saturday, Robinson has been the prototype for the dual-threat quarterback. Robinson has accumulated 720 yards and eight touchdowns, putting him ninth in the country at 120 rushing yards per game. He has also passed for 1,130 yards with 10 touchdowns. But it is Robinson’s poise late in the game that makes him so valuable to the Wolverines. The last-minute comeback against Notre Dame and last Saturday’s victory against Northwestern have shown that Robinson has the ability to change a game.

In charge of the task to contain Robinson will be the stellar Michigan State defense, a unit that includes one of the best defensive lines in recent Spartan history. Through five games, the Spartans have 14 sacks and have limited opponents to just 2.2 yards per carry. The defense has also allowed just seven touchdowns, while intercepting seven passes.

The constant pressure on Robinson will hopefully lure the Michigan quarterback into exposing his greatest weakness, the potential for rushed passes and interceptions.

Michigan’s defense, on the other hand, will have to contain the passing attack of Kirk Cousins and the balanced ground attack of Leveon Bell and Edwin Baker, who have combined for an average of 4.55 yards per carry. At quarterback, Cousins has a 67.8 completion percentage with close to 1,200 yards through the air and six touchdowns, but more importantly provides the Spartans with an experienced leader. Cousins is a senior and has led the Spartans to multiple victories over Michigan.

Cousins’ main wide receiver target is B.J. Cunningham, a senior who recently took over the all-time Michigan State receptions record, compiling 177 over his career. Cunningham has 38 receptions entering Saturday with 582 yards and two touchdowns. Second on the team is senior Keshawn Martin with 19 catches for 177 yards.

Michigan will turn to their strong defense to stymie the Spartans’ offense. With a weak offensive line, the Wolverines’ defensive line will try to provide enough pressure to force poor decisions from Cousins. The cycle of defensive lineman and linebackers used by Greg Mattison’s defense will also attempt to make the MSU running game a non-factor as they have other running attacks in recent weeks.

Bottom Line

In this rivalry, both teams show up to play regardless of rank or season status. Michigan will be eager to return the Paul Bunyan trophy to Ann Arbor, while MSU obviously wants to keep it in East Lansing.

Look for a strong defensive effort from both teams. The game will most likely be decided by which offense makes the fewest mistakes, which could very well be either team. In the end, Michigan will prevail on the road with the playmaking skills of Denard Robinson.

Michigan 27, Michigan State 24