The battle for Paul Bunyan: a highly-anticipated rivalry game

The battle for Paul Bunyan: a highly-anticipated rivalry game

For the first time since 1964–almost six decades ago–the in-state rivalry game of Michigan versus Michigan State is a top 10 matchup. Coming into the biggest game of week 9 and arguably the biggest game of the season for both teams, the undefeated Spartans are facing off against the undefeated Wolverines in the battle for Paul Bunyan. The Wolverines enter the game favored by 4.5 points and will have to prove themselves against the current owner of Paul.

 Aside from the Paul Bunyan Trophy and a year’s worth of bragging rights, this game provides a major conference and College Football Playoff impact. Looking back at last year’s matchup, the Spartans torched the opposition with the passing game to edge out a 27-24 win.

Connor Heyward (#11) seals the upset at the Big House over #13 Michigan with a touchdown. (2020)

Noah Moore: Michigan State

Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Spartans have shined bright on the offensive side of the ball–something they have failed to do in years. The 2015 season, highlighted by the fumbled punt return against Michigan, was the last time Spartan fans saw an offense of this caliber. That squad was led by standout freshman running back LJ Scott; with him, the running game was dominant. Senior quarterback Connor Cook steered the team to a 12-1 record, landing the Spartans a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The infamous punt (2015).

Similar to the 2015 season, an excellent running game and consistent quarterback play have set the team up nicely. Second-year head coach Mel Tucker has made a name for himself across the country as a great mentor. After a 2-5 record in the 2020 season, Mel did everything he could to bring new energy to the slightly above-average team. Landing the 15th ranked running back in the transfer portal, Kenneth Walker III was a highly anticipated asset amongst Spartan Nation that brought energy to the team from the first play of the season. 

Kenneth Walker III breaks open the season’s first play for a touchdown. (2021)

On the first play of the season, Walker got the handoff on the right side and shifted his run back to the left, breaking one tackle on his way to a 75-yard touchdown. Walker, who is second in rushing yards this season, is just one highlight of this energized offense. Walker has been a true spark to the stagnant offense of last year. This season, Walker has rushed for just under one thousand yards and has broken the MSU record for the longest carry. His big-play ability is a blessing for the Spartan offense. 

Teammates since middle school, Thorne and Reed make up a spectacular duo.

Sophomore Jayden Reed, who is 6th in all-purpose yards in the country, has been another key factor to this MSU offense. Whether it be a solid punt return to set the Spartans up with good field position or a deep catch to set up a touchdown drive, Reed has done it all. Leading the country in punt returns taken to the endzone, Reed has taken a drastic step up from last season. His connection with quarterback Payton Thorne has been clear, and since high school at Naperville Central, this duo has been dominating the opposition. 

Jalen Nailor’s speed gives MSU a different component to the offense.

With the quarterback transfer Anthony Russo from Temple coming to East Lansing, sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne has had to prove he is QB1 for this team. Prior to the arrival of the season, fans had no idea who was winning this battle for the starting quarterback spot. Sharpening up his potential-filled finale of last season, Thorne has proven to be reliable on the deep ball and has cleaned up his decision-making.

MSU’s offense will have to stand up to Aidan Hutchinson, one of the nation’s premier defensive stars.

Looking at this matchup, the Michigan defense has stepped up tremendously since last year’s dual. Vincent Gray has improved his game after he allowed Ricky White to catch 8 balls for 196 yards and a touchdown a season ago; this poor play was key to the upset for the green and white. Although the defensive backs have improved, I still think that MSU will put pressure on the corners. With speedy receivers like Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed–who both have a background competing in track–running deep routes and trick plays will be a key factor in the success of the Spartan offense.

The Spartan defense enters with a head of steam after being quite stout as of late.

Michigan’s defense also has a top-five draft prospect in Aiden Hutchinson. The front seven, which is one of the best in the country, will be a test of Kenneth Walker’s skillset as an NFL prospect; Walker is yet to face a truly great defense.  If the MSU O-line can step up and create holes for Walker, the offense should be playing to its full potential. Running to set up the pass is going to be a key for the offense in this matchup. Michigan is going to come out aggressive; I think the Spartans should come out early with some aggressive play calls right back at them. 

Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins form arguably the top RB duo in America.

Michigan State’s defense will primarily aim at stopping the running game, which could allow Michigan to move the ball through the air. The MSU defense needs to stay within its assignments and not be too aggressive; the Wolverine offense can move the ball through the air if needed. Cade McNamara has proven to be shaky this season, only throwing for five touchdowns through 7 games. The potential pressure applied by the Michigan State defensive line could prove to be an issue for McNamara.

Stopping the running game from Michigan’s two standout backs in Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, who have both rushed for over 600 yards, will be key to the success of the Spartan defense. The Michigan State defensive line will need to stand out and be very physical with the Wolverines O-Line. If Jacub Panasiuk, who leads the nation in quarterback pressures, and the defensive front seven of the Spartans can step up and slow down the explosive combination in Michigan’s backfield, the team will be in good shape.  

In the end, I think this will be an amazing game to watch and a high-scoring battle of two very good offenses. A no-doubt classic will come down to who turns the ball over less. Surely, this matchup will leave any football fan on the edge of their seat. Although Michigan is favored by four points, I believe MSU will get it done and keep the Paul Bunyan Trophy in East Lansing. Playing at home in front of 75,000 ecstatic fans, the Spartans will take the cake and end up taking down the Wolverines 31-24. 

Pierson VanGorp: Michigan

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh takes in the Big House atmosphere in a win over Washington. (2021)

Michigan’s season has been unique compared to the past few. For the first time since 2016, the Wolverines are 7-0 and on a roll. Led by the revamp of the coaching staff and a new culture change, Harbaugh has the Wolverines competing for a Big 10 championship. Let’s get into why there was a culture change and what actions have been displayed.

Mike MacDonald, a former NFL positions coach, has turned around the Wolverine defense as DC.

After a poor 2-4 season and a 27-24 loss to Michigan State, Jim Harbaugh’s job security was the most cloudy it’s ever been. Warde Manuel, the current Michigan AD, met with Harbaugh in December to discuss the future of his job and the rest of the coaching staff’s jobs. In this meeting, Manuel decided to retain Harbaugh for a lower price while firing a few assistants; one of those coaches was Don Brown, the former defensive coordinator. Michigan was in search of a new defensive coordinator, and Harbaugh would find his guy, but from an unexpected source. 

Michigan’s defense leads the charge in 2021.

When Jim Harbaugh reached out to his brother and coach of the Ravens, John Harbaugh, he knew exactly what he wanted to symbolize the new culture at Michigan. Linebacker’s coach, Mike MacDonald, accepted the defensive coordinator position immediately after it was offered. MacDonald would bring in a few other young coaches from all over the country, including Kentucky cornerback coach Steve Clinkscale. 

The Wolverines swarm MSU’s QB Brian Lewerke (#14) in a 34-point blowout win for the maize and blue. (2019)

With this new-look defense, the team took the whole offseason to improve on a different style of defense compared to the strict man-coverage that was so frequently-ran last year. The results have shown that Michigan is a top-tier defense in the Big Ten. Michigan only gives up 14.3 points per game while being second in points allowed all season. Aggression and assignment are the two biggest focal points for the Wolverines and players, including Aiden Hutchinson and Daxton Hill, who have led the defense all year.

JJ McCarthy is an impressive freshman and the supposed future of the UM offense.

Against a big-play offense in Michigan State, the Wolverines will have to limit the big plays while following their assignments. The Spartans will look to get the ball on the outside, whether it is a screen-pass or a halfback pitch. Michigan sets the edge well with linebackers Josh Ross and Junior Colson. Kenneth Walker III will have a tough time navigating through the physical Michigan D-line, but if he gets to the second level, the Wolverines will be in trouble. Lastly, the defensive performance will rely on the secondary’s play. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor look to impose a substantial amount of pressure on the Wolverine’s secondary. If DJ Turner, Germon Green, and specifically Vincent Gray can stay in front of the talented MSU receivers, Michigan will feel extremely confident in this contest.

Blake Corum (#2) wins a foot race to the end zone. (2021)

Switching gears, the Michigan offense has shown improvements and adjustments compared to last year’s inferior performance. Now-Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton will not be a part of the rivalry this year, so a new face starts for the Wolverine against the Spartans. As much as people like to criticize him, Cade McNamara has been a phenomenal leader and an efficient passer. With only one interception in his short Michigan career, he has proved to be a smart passer. However, much of the criticism comes from Cade’s talent level and how high his ceiling is. An interesting wrinkle that I expect to see Michigan use is true freshman QB, JJ McCarthy. McCarthy has come in for read-option-like plays, but I expect Michigan to throw with him as well. 

Michigan’s strongest position heading into this game is the RB spot. Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins–known as lightning and thunder–have elevated Michigan’s play to a top ten team. Without the success these two have had, Michigan would have at least one loss, if not more. Hassan Haskins is the “listed” starter but both backs play around the same amount of time. While Corum brings the big-play ability, Hassan Haskins has been equally as important. Haskins averages 4.9 yards per carry, while Corum has 10 touchdowns and averages over 100 rushing yards per game. There is no doubt that MSU will try to stack the box and slow this run game down, but this duo will still give the Michigan State defense some fits.

Hassan Haskins (#25) gets to the second level against the Fighting Irish. (2019)

One reason why Corum and Haskins have had so much success this season is because of the stellar play from the offensive line. During the offseason, tight end’s coach Sherrone Moore was moved to coach the O-line. This was no surprise, as Moore was seen as Michigan’s best recruiter and one of the most talented coaches on the staff. With an experienced group returning from last year, Michigan has handled teams by averaging 253.3 rushing yards per game. They also have kept the passing attack secure with only four sacks given up on the season. The Wolverines continued the trend of dominating the offensive attack by running the ball against Northwestern this past Saturday. They were without two starting OG’s Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan. If both miss this week’s game, there could be some struggles running the ball since this is the best D-line Michigan has faced all year. 

Receivers AJ Henning (#3) and Roman Wilson (#14) celebrate a TD in the season opener. (2021)

That leaves the last position group: wide receivers. Michigan has been a run-heavy team, which means the receivers do not get many opportunities. Josh Gattis, the offensive coordinator, has done a solid job at giving receivers carries. Players such as AJ Henning, Mike Sainristil, and Andrel Anthony have all had flashes while running jet sweeps. But, these receivers still deserve to get more looks, and they have to step up this weekend. With the injury to Ronnie Bell, Corneilus Johnson and Roman Wilson will have to make plays against a solid Michigan State secondary. If Josh Gattis can get these players in space, then these receivers will wake up all those that think Michigan can only run the ball. A key player that many are not talking about is tight end Erick All. He was the safety outlet for Cade against Northwestern; he could prove to be pivotal against MSU. 

As always, #6 Michigan against #8 Michigan State will be a dogfight.

Ever since last year’s game, Michigan fans have had a sour taste in their mouth when the Michigan versus Michigan State topic comes up. This year’s Michigan team has shown better chemistry compared to last year’s team. The Wolverines come into Saturday’s matchup as a four-point favorite.

I believe this will be a lower scoring game than everybody thinks, with Michigan’s defense handling the high-powered MSU offense while Michigan’s passing game struggles continue. cIn the end, I think special teams and splash plays will determine the winner. Jim Harbaugh is 4-0 as a player and coach when playing at East Lansing and I believe he will continue to stay undefeated. Michigan will defeat Michigan State 27-24.