Disrespect. This one word has been the theme of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry for years. The rivalry started from the arrogance of the University of Michigan. People there think U of M is THE school in Michigan. Higher admissions standards and football program prestige differentiated the school in Ann Arbor from the school in East Lansing. MSU was known as the school where people who weren’t good enough to get into Michigan went. They were the basketball school; football was just a side-show. MSU fans, students, players felt disrespected by Michigan for these very reasons. Meanwhile the Michigan fans, students, players didn’t pay attention to any of this. The Wolverine’s real rivals were the Buckeyes from The Ohio State University; they didn’t even consider MSU a real rival. The Spartans were just the Wolverines’ “little brother”.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has beaten Michigan in 7 of their last 8 meetings. His angry demeanor helped fuel the Spartans’ resurgence. His attitude bred tough, mean, and physical Spartan teams during MSU’s climb to success. He and his teams have won by playing with a chip on their shoulders and playing every game like they had something to prove.
Last year MSU won on the last play of the game when Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap and MSU safety Jalen Watts-Jackson returned it for the game-winning touchdown. At the end of the game, the Michigan State players ran up to the Michigan student section and taunted the Michigan fans. After years of being disrespected, Sparty finally had their time to dish the disrespect right back.
However, 2016 has been a completely new season for MSU. The Spartans are now 2-5 and are looking like the Spartans people had gotten used to seeing over the pre-Dantonio years. For Michigan, this will be hardest game they have played since taking on Wisconsin at home. This is the first time the Wolverines will be playing a road game in a hostile environment (sorry, Rutgers). MSU has a lot of problems on defense but they do have a solid front 7. Malik McDowell is the best interior defensive lineman in the nation. Riley Bullough and Chris Frey Jr. are tough physical thumpers at the linebacker position. This MSU defense is built to stop the power run game, which is exactly the identity of Michigan’s offense.
This doesn’t mean Jim Harbaugh will shy away from the power run. I expect him to look to the inside run frequently, especially on early downs, but I think MSU will have success stopping it. McDowell will likely get 15 plus tackles, thriving when he is lined up against either of Michigan’s guards. This means Wilton Speight will have to win this game with his arm. He doesn’t need to throw for 400 yards. Like I said, the run game will still exist, and Michigan will have a balanced attack, but Speight will have to make plays with his arm. He made some really nice throws against Illinois last week, and he has been getting slightly better each game. This game will determine whether he is able to finally make that leap from being just a “game-manager” to an elite quarterback.
Michigan should be able to create a lot of big plays offensively. MSU’s secondary is pretty awful. MSU safety and defensive captain Demetrius Cox is the one of the worst players in college football. I think he only starts because he was elected to be a captain. Anyways, assuming Speight takes that next step toward becoming an elite quarterback, he should shred this secondary into smithereens. MSU’s horrible secondary has implications in the run game, too. If any of Michigan’s running backs can get to the second level they have a good chance to take it to the house because the Spartan defensive backs struggle to make tackles in the open field.
Jabrill Peppers will be the best player on the field; he will dominate on offense, defense, and special teams. The Spartans have a superior kicker in Michael Geiger. Kenny Allen has been struggling this year but Harbaugh seems to trust him, so expect to see him out there for field goal duties.
Dantonio will have the Spartans coming out hangry (hungry and angry). I don’t care that the Spartans are 2-5 and the Wolverines are 7-0. This is the freaking Super Bowl for Michigan State. Dantonio’s success as a coach has come from his ability to motivate his players and encourage them to play with aggression. This alone will keep MSU in the game. But Jim Harbaugh is on a whole different level as a coach, and his creativity will be the difference in this game. MSU will play with brute force, while Michigan will have the tactical and talent advantage.
Any Michigan fans that still say this isn’t a rivalry are wrong. The hate is surely mutual. This game is going to be an absolute bloodbath. Mark Dantonio will scowl 50,000 times. And there will be a lot of disrespect. Final Score: Michigan 27 - MSU 23.