The annual showdown between Michigan and Michigan State doesn’t need more than bragging rights to bring out the best in both football teams. When the game has Big Ten implications, it just adds more juice to a heated rivalry.
Thanks to the Spartans’ 21-17 upset at Penn State last weekend, both teams head into Saturday’s matchup at Spartan Stadium with aspirations of winning the conference title.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) have won six straight and are tied with Ohio State atop the Eastern Division standings. No. 24 Michigan State (4-2, 2-1) is tied with Maryland in third place, 1 1/2 games behind the top pair.
“If you can play well in October, then you’re going to be in the hunt for things in November,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “So that’s our intent as we move forward. I think it intensifies things.”
The Spartans have won four of the last five meetings with Michigan and eight of the last 10.
“I experienced things first-hand at the start when Coach (Nick) Saban was here, and so I understood when I came back as the head football coach how important this game was to our fans, to the state, and sort of went from it from there,” said Dantonio, who is 8-3 against the Wolverines.
Michigan State used a variety of trick plays to stick close to the Nittany Lions but churned out an old-fashioned two-minute drive to win it. Quarterback Brian Lewerke connected with Felton Davis III from 25 yards out for the game-winning score with 19 seconds left.
That should serve as a confidence builder for Lewerke, who has been intercepted at least once in every game this season. He’s thrown eight scoring passes and been picked off seven times.
Michigan State’s top running back, LJ Scott, has missed the last four games with an ankle injury, and his status for Saturday is uncertain.
Michigan jumped into the Top 10 after clobbering Wisconsin 38-13 on Saturday night.
Coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t been able to deliver what Michigan fans really want during the regular season — victories over Michigan State and Ohio State. The Wolverines are 1-5 in those games since Harbaugh took over the program.
The lone win came in East Lansing two seasons ago. Michigan came away with a 32-23 victory but lost at home to the Spartans a year ago, 14-10, on a rainy night in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh was predictably tight-lipped about facing the Spartans, simply calling it a “big game” and a “great opportunity.”
Michigan linebacker Josh Ross was much more open with his feelings.
“It’s a big deal for me personally and for the team,” he said.
Revenge isn’t the biggest motivation factor, according to Ross.
“We don’t really pay attention to that,” Ross said of the Wolverines’ recent record against Michigan State. “We’re just looking at this year. We’re ready to go this year. We know the confidence we have and how good we can be.”
Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson has been quite good this season and showed another dimension against Wisconsin. Patterson completed 67 percent of his passes against the Badgers and was even more dangerous with his feet, breaking off an 81-yard run and scampering another 7 yards for a touchdown.
“Better each week,” Harbaugh said of his quarterback. “He finds another thing to be really good at every single week. This past week his running ability and his ballhandling was superb with the fakes, carrying out the fakes, his decision-making, ball security — he does a great job of taking care of the football. He had one (throw) that he forced in this ballgame last week and that’s the first one I can remember.”
Patterson has thrown for 10 touchdown passes while getting picked off just three times this season.
No. 1 running back Karan Higdon has gained over 100 yards in each of the last five games in which he’s played. He has rushed for 687 yards (5.7 per carry) and scored six touchdowns for the season.
He’ll face the top rushing defense in the nation. The Spartans have allowed just 2.34 yards per carry.
“They’re very stout up front,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve got some real hard-playing guys and their linebackers are some of the best in the league.”