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Game Preview: Michigan Wolverines versus Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This game doesn’t need much of an introduction, but the 2021 battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy seems to carry a little bit more significance on a national level, as the result of the game will have a direct impact on the Big Ten East race, and even the upcoming College Football Playoff rankings. The 7-0 Michigan Wolverines visit East Lansing on Saturday at noon (12:05 p.m. Eastern time) to compete against the 7-0 Michigan State Spartans. Both teams are ranked inside the Associated Press top-10, as Michigan boasts a No. 6 ranking and Michigan State enters the game ranked No. 8.

While the success of both teams through seven games adds an extra element of excitement to the game, this rivalry matchup always brings the intensity, fun and classic moments that makes college football special — regardless of records, rankings or expectations.

Before getting into the preview, here is a quick reminder that Michigan State is asking fans coming to Spartan Stadium to wear green for a “green out” look in the crowd.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 7-0 (4-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 451.69 total yards, 251.29 passing yards, 200.4 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 406.43 total yards allowed, 285.43 passing yards allowed, 121 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 240 (34.29 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 131 (18.71 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 21st

2021 Record — 7-0 (4-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 442.87 total yards, 189.57 passing yards, 253.3 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 299.03 yards allowed, 182.43 passing yards allowed, 116.6 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 264 (37.71 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 100 (14.29 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: seventh

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan leads 71-37-5
Current streak: Michigan State with a one-game winning streak
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 31, 2020
Last Michigan Win: Nov. 16, 2019
Michigan State all-time record: 717-470-44 (.600)
Michigan all-time record: 971-350-26 (.729)

Uniform Watch:

Michigan State unveiled awesome new helmets for this week’s rivalry game against Michigan, which are green with a green Spartan head logo outlined in white. The helmets also say “STATE” on the front and “RELENTLESS” on the back. To go along with the “green out” in the crowd, the Spartans are going with the all green look with the jerseys, pants and helmets. The jerseys have white numbering and lettering, while the pants have a white Spartan head logo and white Nike “Swoosh” logo. Also, note the bronze on the gloves.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

No word on Michigan’s uniforms as of press time.

Previous Game Results

Michigan State 20, Indiana 15

Michigan State is coming off of a bye week, but played the Indiana Hoosiers in the previous week. This one wasn’t pretty, but MSU did what it needed to do to get the victory and move to 7-0 on the season. The Hoosiers were able to bottle up Kenneth Walker III, holding him to just 84 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry, and the Spartans struggled on offense overall, as Indiana out-gained Michigan State 322 total yards to 241 total yards.

However, it was the Michigan State defense that stepped up, forced three turnovers and helped the Spartans leave Bloomington with a win. After Indiana got on the board first with a 24-yard field goal, MSU linebacker Cal Haladay then scored the first touchdown of the day for either team on a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Hoosiers would add two more field goals in the second half and took a 9-7 lead into halftime.

Michigan State kicker Matt Coglin would add a 51-yard field goal (tying a career high) in the third quarter, which was later followed by a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Payton Thorne to tight end Tyler Hunt. A couple plays before Thorne found Hunt in the end zone, Hunt completed a 15-yard pass to Thorne on a trick play. Following the touchdown play, the score was 17-9 in the Spartans’ favor.

Indiana would answer in the early fourth quarter, though, as Stephen Carr rushed for a touchdown — the Hoosiers’ only touchdown for the game — but the two-point conversion attempt was no good, and the Spartans still led 17-15.

Coghlin added another field goal with 9:21 to play, and the MSU defense took over from there. Cornerback Chester Kimbrough forced and recovered a fumble after sacking IU quarterback Jack Tuttle, but Thorne threw an interception right back. However, MSU would force Indiana to turn it over on downs and ran out the clock, spoiling Indiana’s homecoming game.

Michigan 33, Northwestern 7

Coming off of a bye week, the Wolverines handled the Wildcats with ease, however the first half was much closer than the second half. Neither team scored until the second quarter when running back Blake Corum punched in a one-yard score after a long Michigan drive to go up 7-0. The Wolverines got the ball back and put together another long drive that took 8:44 off of the clock, but ended in a 20-yard field goal by kicker Jake Moody. Northwestern immediately responded, though, with a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive by running back Evan Hull. That made it 10-7 with the Wolverines in the lead. The score would hold going into the locker rooms for halftime.

The second half was dominated by Michigan. The Wolverines scored on the opening drive of the second half to take a 17-7 lead and a rout ensued. Michigan would go to add two more touchdowns and a field goal, while shutting Northwestern out in the second half.

The Wolverines held the Wildcats to just 233 total yards, forced two turnovers and recorded a sack.

Key Matchups

Battle of the trenches: Michigan has a strong offensive line and run game — ranking fifth in the nation at 253.3 rushing yards per game — while Michigan State’s defensive front is good at stopping the run, allowing just 121 rushing yards per game, which ranks 31st in the country. On the other side of the ball, Michigan State ranks 32nd in rushing offense (200.4 yards per game), while Michigan ranks 24th in rushing defense (116.6 yards per game). Kenneth Walker III is the No. 1 rusher in the country with an average of 142.4 yards per game, but he can’t do it all himself. The MSU offensive line needs to play much better than it did against Indiana and Nebraska against what appears to be an even tougher defensive front in Michigan this week.

Cade McNamara versus the Michigan State defense: While Michigan’s offense dominates in the rushing game, the Wolverines leave a lot to be desired in the passing game. Michigan averages just about 189.6 yards per game, which ranks 104th in FBS. McNamara has not been successful with deep passes. It’s possible the Spartans’ defense also sees J.J. McCarthy come in at quarterback, and it is worth pointing out that Michigan State’s secondary has given up a significant amount of yards through the air this season due to the “bend-don’t-break” philosophy we’ve seen a lot of from MSU this season. But given Michigan’s passing game woes — particularly its deep passing attempts — this is and needs to be a matchup that the Spartans win.

Jayden Reed/Jalen Nailor versus Michigan secondary: Last season, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson knew the Spartans could take advantage of Michigan’s defensive backs. He dialed up the deep passing game as Rocky Lombardi threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns. Now, it’s Payton Thorne’s turn to provide a spark in the passing game. The Wolverines are much improved this season when it comes to defensing the pass, as the team ranks 20th in passing defense (182.4 yards allowed per game). However, Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor have the speed and playmaking ability to get by Michigan’s cornerbacks. And if they’re covered, this could end up being a big game for Tre Mosley. While the game will be won and lost in the trenches, getting big momentum plays in the passing game will be a key to the Spartans’ success.

Game Info

Time: 12:05 p.m. Eastern
TV Channel: FOX
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Cloudy with temperatures in the low 50s throughout the game. Rain showers possible with winds blowing north/northeast at at eight-to-10 miles per hour.
Line: Michigan -4


There isn’t much left that needs to be said. This game always means a lot in the state of Michigan, but it feels like the stakes are even higher this year, with both teams being undefeated, both teams ranking in the top-10 nationally, both teams in the chase for a Big Ten title and both teams looking to keep College Football Playoff hopes alive.

A lot of this matchup is strength on strength, as we’ve already mentioned both teams are good at running the football and also good at stopping the run. Michigan may have a slight advantage in offensive line play, while Michigan State likely has the advantage in passing offense and quarterback play in general. Honestly, this game can go either way and it will be decided by the small things, such as penalties and discipline. The team that makes fewer mistakes will come out victorious.

Expect this one to be close throughout the duration of the game. Expect a stressful afternoon for both fan bases. Expect the intensity and emotions this rivalry brings to be on full display for 60 minutes of gameplay.

There are a lot of questions that will be answered on Saturday. Can Michigan State’s offensive line generate enough push for Kenneth Walker III to get the yards he needs? Can Cade McNamara force the MSU defense to respect Michigan’s passing game, or can the Spartans key in on running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum? Will Payton Thorne hit some deep shots or will the Wolverines take away the deep passing game?

One other note: backup quarterback Anthony Russo may not be available for the game. Russo was charged with operating while intoxicated earlier this month and plead guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving. He may be disciplined by the program via suspension, which would mean Noah Kim would likely serve as Thorne’s backup.

All of the chatter about the Michigan versus Michigan State matchup will soon be over, and we will truly know who the better team is in 2021.

For additional thoughts on Michigan, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, read our Q&A with Maize n Brew — SB Nation’s home for all things Michigan Wolverines — or listen to my guest appearance on Maize n Brew’s podcast.


Who wins the Paul Bunyan Trophy?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    (50 votes)
  • 71%
    Michigan State
    (127 votes)
177 votes total Vote Now