EAST LANSING – Michigan State is desperate for a win after starting the season 2-0, then losing four consecutive games. The Spartans will have another crack at getting back in the win column against Michigan tonight. Recapturing the Paul Bunyan Trophy would be just what the program needs in the midst of a season that’s slipping away week by week.
Taking care of the ball needs to be on the front of the Spartans’ minds after committing 12 turnovers in the last three games. Quarterback Katin Houser, who saw his first career start last week in Piscataway, has the tall task of facing the smothering Wolverine defense. Houser completed 18 of 29 passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-24 loss to Rutgers.
A gut punch was how Harlon Barnett described the defeat in this week’s press conference. It was another one the Spartans felt they had, carrying a 24-6 lead into the fourth quarter before seeing it quickly vanish. The fumbled punt recovered by Rutgers for a touchdown marked a momentum shift that lifted the Scarlet Knights through the rest of the contest.
The Spartan defense had been playing much better up until this point, only allowing one touchdown in their last seven quarters. However, MSU went three and out twice on offense and was outscored 21-0 in a disastrous final quarter. Barnett stressed the importance of closing out games. “Now it’s about finishing,” he said. “That’s our next step, we got to finish.”
The two bitter rivals have been heading in complete opposite directions as of late. The Wolverines are hungry to defend their back-to-back Big Ten titles and return to the College Football Playoff for the third straight year. Meanwhile, MSU is looking to avoid missing a bowl game for the second season in a row. To qualify for a bowl this year, the Spartans must win four of their final six games. That means knocking off either Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State, each of which are undefeated and ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 7th respectively in the AP poll.
Michigan State can only take it one game at a time though and start with the team in front of them which is Michigan, who has cruised to a 7-0 start behind a methodical offense and a dominating defense. The Wolverines have scored at least 30 points each week. Their defense has held opponents to 10 points or less in every game this season, surrendering just five touchdowns through seven games.
A few names to keep an eye on for the maize and blue are running back Blake Corum and wide receiver Roman Wilson. The two seniors are crucial pieces to Michigan’s offensive attack. Corum is the nation’s leader in rushing touchdowns and has found the end zone at least once in every game this season. Wilson has notched eight receiving touchdowns thus far.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy poses a real threat, ranking first nationally in QBR at 92.6 and second in both passing efficiency and completion percentage. After winning the starting job last season, McCarthy is having a solid year throwing for 1,512 yards and 14 touchdowns so far in 2023.
Harlon Barnett noted Michigan’s discipline and their balance between the running and passing game. “They do a good job of coaching those guys up and putting them in position to make plays,” Barnett said. “They’re a good football team.”
The last time the Wolverines made the trip to East Lansing, the Spartans came out on top in an epic showdown between undefeated, top ten teams. The stage isn’t nearly as big as it was two years ago, but MSU would like nothing more than to spoil its rival’s season. For what it’s worth, Michigan has not won in East Lansing by more than 17 points since 1985 when Jim Harbaugh was at quarterback. Michigan State will likely need to play a near perfect game to pull off the upset, but anything is possible in big time rivalry games like this one.
The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy will take place under the lights for the very first time at Spartan Stadium, with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on NBC.