It’s rivalry week. Michigan State (3-4) and Michigan (7-0) will play under the lights at Michigan Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast on ABC.
Fans on both sides know that records don’t mean much in this series, and each program badly wants to defeat the other to take home or keep the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
So, what has led to Michigan’s undefeated start? What does quarterback J.J. McCarthy bring to the table? Does Michigan truly downplay the rivalry with Michigan State, or have the Wolverines grown to accept the Spartans as a chief nemesis? David answers these questions and more.
1. Through the first seven games, Michigan is 7-0. What has gone well for this team? What would you like to see the Wolverines improve upon?
David: Offensively, it’s Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards’ world, and we’re all just living in it. The rush attack is arguably stronger now than it was last year due to a combination of factors — Corum is a more complete back than he was last year, while Edwards has slotted nicely into a Swiss army knife role that didn’t really exist in the “lightning and thunder” combination of Corum and Hassan Haskins last season. That being said, the dominance in the run game has covered up some deficiencies elsewhere; deep passes still aren’t being completed at a relatively high level, and in recent weeks the offense has had difficulties with scoring touchdowns in the red zone until late in the game.
Defensively, I’d say the front line is far more potent than anyone expected it to be, and the secondary has been stalwart when challenged deep. The major concern right now is in the second level, as the linebacker corps is still without Nikhai Hill-Green and other linebackers haven’t performed to the level they were expected to. In his media availability Wednesday, UM defensive coordinator Jesse Minter even acknowledged this, saying there’d be plays the Spartans will run that will challenge the linebackers and that they hope to limit them.
2. How would you evaluate quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s play thus far?
David: By and large, J.J. is exactly the quarterback we heard he was during training camp — what he does well, he does really well, but there are rough edges in his game that with time and snaps can smooth themselves out. In short; he’s a young blue-chip quarterback. Given that, I’d probably give him a solid B+ on the season so far, with the caveat that he’s clearly improving week-over-week and has a higher ceiling than where he’s graded right now.
3. Outside of McCarthy and running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, who are the players on Michigan’s offense to watch out for and why?
David: Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, without question. With Erick All being sidelined for the season with a back injury, Schoonmaker has taken the TE1 role and turned into one of the offense’s top receivers. The connection he has with J.J. is shockingly good for a guy who was presumed to be a backup in training camp, and it’s given the offense a potent way to attack the middle of the field.
4. Who are the players on Michigan’s defense to watch out for and why?
David: The pass rush has been absolutely beastly in the last few weeks, but don’t sleep on the secondary. Not only has DJ Turner lived up to the expectations set on him, but guys such as Gemon Green, Makari Page and Mike Sainristil have all gone from supporting cast to stars in their own right.
5. Much is made about how this rivalry seems to mean more to Michigan State’s players, coaches and fans. Would you agree or disagree with that? How badly do you think Michigan’s program and fans want to win this game? Do you think this is a must-win game for Jim Harbaugh?
David: I’d say it’s fair in some ways, but not entirely accurate in others. For a long time it was true Wolverines fans had a pretty clear pecking order of rivals; Ohio State at the top, Michigan State and Notre Dame tied in the middle, and Minnesota at the bottom. In the past 10-12 years or so though, there’s been in my mind a clear paradigm shift, to the point where I’d consider OSU and MSU as 1A and 1B, respectively.
There’s no better example of this to me than in how the Paul Bunyan Trophy is recognized. Two decades ago, it was a locker room trophy that was talked about in an “Oh, that’s a cool knick-knack” kind of way. Now? The trophy gets paraded around the field post-game, Michigan has specially made maize-colored pants to put on it when it’s in Schembechler Hall, there’s T-shirts and other merchandise with Paul Bunyan’s face on it — it’s treated like a trophy worth winning. And as much as a part of the Wolverines fan base wants to pretend nothing has changed if Paul is a trophy truly worth winning, the game itself clearly has taken on a deeper significance than it had in the past.
In terms of this specific iteration of the game being a “must-win” for Jim Harbaugh, though, I don’t really think so. Barring absolute catastrophe, Harbaugh’s seat is in a solid block of ice for at least the next two or three years. It’s certainly a “desperately want to win” game on a personal level, though, for him and the entire team.
Bonus: What is your score prediction?
David: I’ve gone back and forth on this a few times this week. Right now, I lean toward it being in the ballpark of 38-17 win for Michigan or something along those lines. It wouldn’t shock me at all if it’s closer, however, especially if MSU can take advantage of the Wolverines’ penchant for starting hair-yankingly slow.