Game of the Week: Big House hosts big battle between 5-0 rivals
In-state rivals Michigan and Michigan State are both ranked and undefeated
Michigan State won't be able to stop Denard Robinson -- if he stays healthy
But Michigan's feeble pass defense won't stand up to MSU's receiving corps
For the first time since 1961, both Michigan and Michigan State will be ranked as they battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy at Michigan Stadium. They've faced off as ranked teams periodically over the last 50 years, but all of those contests took place at Spartan Stadium. No. 18 Michigan and No. 17 Michigan State carry undefeated records into this year's matchup in Ann Arbor, and one will exit as one of the more surprising 6-0 teams in the nation.
1. Will anything other than an injury derail Denard Robinson? The numbers posted thus far by Michigan's other-worldly quarterback are staggering. He is the first player in NCAA history to throw for 200 yards and run for 200 yards in a game twice in one season, and he accomplished that by the first week of October. He has proven to be clutch (a 72-yard game-winning drive vs. Notre Dame, a 73-yard game-winning drive vs. Indiana), accurate (69.8 percent completion percentage) and insanely productive (382 total yards per game, more than 59 teams). But he hasn't been durable. Robinson missed nearly all of the Bowling Green game with a knee injury and brief periods against UConn, Notre Dame and Indiana. This will be the toughest defense Michigan has faced, led by linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Robinson has given no reason to doubt he'll be able to pile up the yardage once again, but if the Spartans lay too many licks on the 193-pound sophomore, Michigan's hopes for a 6-0 start will go up in smoke.
2. Mark Dantonio's return will give the Spartans an emotional edge. Since being hired four years ago, Michigan State's coach has made a point of ratcheting up the Michigan rivalry from the Michigan State side, installing a Countdown Clock in the Spartans' weight room which measures the time until the showdown. He passionately defended his team after Wolverines running back Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as Michigan's "little brother" following a Michigan win in Dantonio's first season. Dantonio has since won the last two games against Michigan, and is literally getting out of the hospital to coach in this one. Dantonio missed two games after a mild heart attack following the dramatic Notre Dame victory, but that number was not going to reach three. "I'm not going to miss Michigan week," Dantonio said Tuesday. "I'm not going to miss it." With his go-for-broke approach against the Irish setting the tone for the aggressive play-calling that clinched a win over Wisconsin last week, it's clear the Spartans believe in their leader. They will welcome him back during their biggest week of the season.
3. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins could post some rather large numbers. The junior is enjoying a strong start to his second season as a starter, and he will be facing one of the weakest pass defenses in the nation. Actually, statistically Michigan is the weakest pass defense in the nation, giving up 307.8 yards per game. Rich Rodriguez doesn't really have any answers for it, saying this week, "We're in a tough, tough situation, but we have to just keep battling through that. Some of the problems didn't happen overnight, (and) won't be solved overnight." Michigan State receivers Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham will be looking to light up Michigan's back line all afternoon.
Michigan enters the game as a five-point favorite. The Wolverines are 1-6-1 against the spread in Big Ten home games under Rodriguez and 4-8 as the home favorite under RichRod. Michigan State is 2-7 versus the spread in its last nine games as an underdog. Neither team looks like a safe pick.
When Robinson runs or throws the ball (including incomplete passes), Michigan is averaging 9.9 yards per play and has scored 15 touchdowns.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
OLB Jonas Mouton, Michigan: Mouton is tearing it up this season and has elevated his game to another level. Scouts are impressed that the athletic linebacker added 15-pounds of muscle this offseason without losing a step of speed or quickness. He's an every-down linebacker with starting potential in the NFL. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
LB Greg Jones, Michigan State: The Spartans' tackling machine the past four years, Jones is a blue-collar player with a great head for the game. He lacks the classic size for a middle linebacker and scouts are not sure exactly where he'll line up at the next level, but they like his potential. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
OL Steve Schilling, Michigan: Schilling made an immediate impact as a freshman when he started at right tackle for the Wolverines. He struggled initially during Michigan's transition from a power offense to a motion blocking system, but he's made big strides the past two seasons, and scouts like his potential at guard. Grade: Fourth- to fifth-round prospect.
LB Eric Gordon, Michigan State: Gordon doesn't get the same notoriety as his All-America teammate, but he's a legitimate NFL prospect who brings his lunch pail to every game. He's a fierce competitor who makes plays sideline-to-sideline, but as with Jones, poor measurables are a concern with the undersized Gordon. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
The Big House figures to be humming on Saturday. According to StubHub.com's metrics, this is the No. 1 ticket this weekend based on sales and price and is in fact the biggest event in the Detroit area this year -- surpassing Eminem and Jay Z concerts at Comerica Park. This is not an ideal setting for Michigan State's first true road game, though the Spartans are riding high and will give their all with Dantonio watching from the press box. It will be tight, it will be high-scoring and it will be fun to watch. MICHIGAN 41, MICHIGAN STATE 38.