Michigan-Michigan State: Why Paul Bunyan Will Stay in East Lansing with Spartans

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Michigan-Michigan State: Why Paul Bunyan Will Stay in East Lansing with Spartans
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In anticipation of Saturday's heated in-state rivalry, I teamed up with Michigan writer Justin Potts. Each of us presents his case for how and why his respective team will win the game. Justin's article can be found here.

 

The battle for Paul Bunyan has come early this year.

Usually, Michigan State takes on Michigan in the chill of November, when the bitter temperatures match the relations between the players and fans of each school.

But perhaps early October is a more fitting time for this game this season, with the changing colors of the leaves a metaphorical match for the changing fortunes of these two teams.

Michigan has already eclipsed its 2008 win total. Michigan State has already matched its total losses from the 2008 regular season.

The true beauty of this game is that none of those numbers will matter when the two teams take the field at Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

It's a rivalry game. Anything can happen—last-second catches in the end zone, lengthy fumble returns by beefy Samoans, and upsets galore.

It's a rivalry that plenty of people don't understand.

When asked why I harbor such disdain for the University of Michigan, I'll tell people it's because of guys like Mike Hart, Larry Foote, and the Fab Five.

But really, this is a rivalry that goes well beyond sports if you're a Spartan fan. This football game represents over 150 years of institutional disrespect from that other school.

A brief history lesson:

In the early 1850s, before Michigan Agricultural College—now MSU—had even been established, the University of Michigan fought against its creation and eventual birth in East Lansing.

You see, the brass in Ann Arbor were all for an agricultural institution in the state. They just wanted it in Ann Arbor, under their control.

Just a few years later, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law. This act established the land-grant colleges in the United States—Penn State and Michigan State are the most famous examples.

The Morrill Act granted each state 30,000 acres of land for each member of Congress they had as of 1860. This land, or the sale of it, was supposed to go toward the establishment and funding of land-grant institutions.

Well, Ann Arbor attempted to strike again. They were perfectly okay with this bequeathal of land—as long as they were the recipients.

Michigan actually lobbied the state legislature to close the East Lansing campus so they could absorb their programs and funding.

I'll flash forward to 1946, when MSU—then called Michigan State College—gained entry into the Big Ten. A space in the conference had opened up after the University of Chicago had folded its varsity sports.

MSC was accepted into the conference by a vote of 8-1. Care to guess the lone dissenter?

This rivalry isn't about football and it isn't about basketball. It's about the repeated attempts by one university to handicap or destroy the other.

That's why the hundreds of thousands of proud Spartan alums have such a deep-seated hatred for their rivals in Ann Arbor.

Now, on to the game.

 

Welcome to the Big Ten, Mr. Forcier

True freshman quarterback. First road game of his collegiate career. Hostile environment.

Sounds like a recipe for Spartan success to me.

Michigan's Tate Forcier has been good this season, but he hasn't faced the considerable pressure of playing on the road. Every snap he's taken has been done in relative silence.

He's gotten loads of support from the crowds in Ann Arbor. Playing at home just gives a quarterback, especially a true freshman, a sense of comfort.

That ends on Saturday.

There are a lot of angry Spartan fans looking to vent their frustrations over a poor start to the season.

Spartan Stadium will be seething.

Don't forget about the men in green, either. The Spartan defense will have seen what mediocre Indiana did to Forcier last week and wants to take its own shots.

The fact of the matter is he's too small to endure the brutality of a full Big Ten season. If Indiana beat him up, what happens when Greg Jones takes a lick?

Even worse, what happens when Iowa and Penn State get their cracks? And that Ohio State defensive line?

Michigan State is the next school to step up and have a chance at Forcier. They won't be purposely trying to inflict injury, but there's a very real possibility that a bruised and battered Forcier will be the byproduct of the heavy hitting that always happens during this game.

Don't think the Spartans know how to welcome somebody to the Big Ten? They ran Sam McGuffie completely out of town last season.

 

Big Ten's Best Passing Offense vs. Boubacar Cissoko and Co.

Thanks to a veteran receiving corps, incredible depth at tight end and the savvy sophomore Kirk Cousins, the Spartans own the Big Ten's best passing attack.

The duo of Cousins and Keith Nichol—along with one 30-yard touchdown pass by wide receiver Keshawn Martin—has combined to average 320.75 yards per game through the air.

They've also thrown for 12 touchdowns already, three more than Brian Hoyer threw in 13 games last season.

Michigan knows the aerial attack is coming. But will they be able to stop it?

All signs point to "no" right now.

Michigan is giving up 242.75 yards per game in the air right now, but those stats are a little skewed because Eastern Michigan elected to try and win the game on the ground, resulting in some very lopsided playcalling.

Take out the game against EMU, and Michigan is surrendering 288.3 yards per game.

That's a porous secondary.

And it gets worse from here.

With regards to total defense, Michigan allows 385.75 yards per game. Notre Dame and Indiana showed that Michigan's defense was susceptible to the big play.

That's good news for Michigan State, who used the big play—I'm looking at you, Blair White—to assert itself last year.

The Spartan crowd won't need much help getting excited for this game, but a big play or two will turn the stadium from loud to deafening and demoralize the Michigan defense in the process.

 

Whose Defense Is Worse?

At this point, it's hard to say. Michigan State racked up some gaudy but misleading sack totals early in the season against mostly immobile quarterbacks.

Aside from the occasional sack, the defensive line has been pretty ordinary, placing a lot of pressure on the secondary.

The backfield hasn't responded well, surrendering big days to Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, and Scott Tolzien.

The good news for Michigan State is that Forcier is less likely to beat the Spartans with his arm than those three. The bad news is he can still do damage with his feet, especially if the linebackers are unable to rise to the occasion.

Michigan's defense has also been weak, especially the secondary. Some of the blame can be placed on the revolving door they've had at defensive coordinator. Greg Robinson is their third in as many years.

But that doesn't excuse poor fundamentals. Blown coverages and missed tackles have been a common sight during Rich Rodriguez's brief tenure.

Looking at total defense for all of the Big Ten schools, Michigan ranks two slots lower—ninth place—than Michigan State. The difference is negligible. A grand total of 23 yards per game separate the two teams.

We'll just look at a couple key areas.

First, Michigan has only registered four sacks on the season.

The Spartan offensive line has done a pretty good job of pass blocking this season, so it looks like Cousins will have time to pass.

Michigan has also allowed their opponents to run the ball fairly effectively.

Currently, the Michigan run defense is eighth in the conference, allowing 142 yards per game. That could be crucial when it comes to the time of possession battle.

Michigan State's pass defense is worse than Michigan's, but that might not be a huge factor this week. Forcier does have seven passing touchdowns on the season, but he's not as tough to handle through the air as LeFevour or Clausen.

These Swiss-cheese defenses should lead to a shootout, but expect the Spartans to come up with one or two more stops than Michigan.

 

The Records and Accompanying Statistical Dissonance

Michigan State is not as bad as their 1-3 record would suggest. Conversely, Michigan is not as good as their 4-0 record and Top-25 ranking.

The Spartans are a couple of unfortunate mistakes—and a better defensive line—away from 3-1 and being well on their way to another good bowl.

An offsides call on a missed last-gasp field goal against Central, and an interception in the last minute against Notre Dame is all that stands between Michigan State and their third straight fantastic start under Mark Dantonio.

Michigan stands at 4-0, but could easily be sitting at 2-2 if not for some terrible playcalling by Charlie Weis and a botched simultaneous-possession call against Indiana.

Two very close shaves by the Wolverines have their fanbase confident, but not necessarily comfortable. There is still work to be done in Ann Arbor.

There's a very real chance that some Michigan players will be overlooking the Spartans on Saturday. Some of their alumni already are—the Detroit Lions' Larry Foote has been shooting off his mouth despite the fact that he was 1-2 against the Green and White as a player.

By virtue of their 1-3 record, the Spartans are also a very desperate team. There's nothing more dangerous than a desperate team with some talent, playing for a win that could either turn the season around or sink it. You can't overlook the intangibles.

 

The Prediction

It promises to be an exciting game with lots of scoring. The Spartans will come out on top by a touchdown, 41-34.

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