Battle of Michigan highlights football teams searching for different goals

LEFT: Joe Milton #5 of the Michigan Wolverines carries the ball in the third quarter during the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on October 24, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Wolverines defeated the Gophers 49-24. (P

There is one certainty that takes place in rivalry games: the uncertain. 

Rosters may not line up correctly or programs may be at different points in the college football pecking order and it doesn’t always matter. Just the sight of the other team’s laundry across the way - a neighboring school, a long-time antagonist -  can change the dynamic of everything. 

For the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans - two teams whose first meeting took place in 1898 - that couldn’t be more possibly true. And when they gather Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor for the Big Noon Kickoff on FOX (12 noon EDT), that lesson will be lurking on the brain of everyone in the Great Lake State. 

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The sports betting information 

On Sportsbook, the Wolverines were listed as 25 point favorites over the Spartans as of Thursday afternoon. On the money line, Michigan was a whopping -2500 (you would have to wager $2,500 to win $100 on the game) while Michigan State was a +1200 (a $100 bet would pay off with a $1200 win.) The over/under total on this game over 51 ½ points.  

The line is one of the highest spreads in the history of the rivalry, which will play its 113th meeting on Saturday.  

The history 

Michigan has won the past two years and three of the last four. In 2019, it was all Wolverines as they romped to a 44-10 victory over the Spartans in the final game of the rivalry to feature long-time Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. That rout followed a 21-7 Michigan victory at East Lansing that was highlighted by a pre-game, mid-field brawl as Michigan linebacker Devin Bush tried to tear up the grass on the Spartans logo before going back to the locker room. Reprimands and fines were issued by the Big Ten because of that. 

The storylines to watch 

The Wolverines were one of the great unknowns heading into this season thanks in large part to an offensive attack that seemed light on experience. That may have changed after the Wolverines traveled to Minneapolis and were highly impressive in a 49-24 win over Minnesota. Quarterback Joe Milton protected the football and threw for 225 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 60 yards and another score. Michigan’s running backs - a big question coming into the year on how Jim Harbaugh would use a rotation of four backs- grinded out 256 yards on the ground while the Wolverines defense recorded five sacks. 

All is well then, right? Well, maybe not. Michigan’s problem under Harbaugh has been keep prosperity going and playing consistently from the beginning of the season to the end – especially against uber-rival Ohio State. Games like Michigan State fall into the “you should win it” category, but there have also been times over the years where the Wolverines have sputtered and either just eked out a win or were upset.   

For the Spartans, let’s start with the obvious storyline that Dantonio - the winningest coach in Michigan State history - won’t be on the sidelines for the Spartans in this rivalry for the first time since 2006 after compiling an 8-5 record against Michigan.  Mel Tucker, who was the defensive coordinator at Georgia who was a graduate assistant at Michigan State in the late 1990s, took over and was rudely introduced last Saturday when Rutgers broke its 21-game Big Ten losing streak with a 38-27 win at East Lansing. 

A key guy to keep an eye on is Rocky Lombardi, the Michigan State quarterback who threw for 319 yards in the Rutgers loss. There are some playmakers here, especially with Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor on the outside at the wide out spots. The question for Michigan State, however, is whether they can force Milton into coughing up the football. If Michigan State has any chance of hanging around in this one, it must force turnovers.

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