(Sports Network) The annual battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy takes on added significance this year as the 17th-ranked Michigan State Spartans head to Ann Arbor to take on the 18th-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Both teams come in sporting identical 5-0 records, and the winner has the early edge when looking ahead to challenging for the Big Ten title.
This is the first game for Michigan State in hostile territory, as its only other game outside of East Lansing took place in Detroit against Florida Atlantic on September 11th in what was officially a road game, although you certainly couldn't tell by the MSU faithful that made the trek to the Motor City.
The Spartans could be playing their third straight game without head coach Mark Dantonio on the sidelines as he was just released from the hospital for the second time in the last few weeks. First, it was a mild heart attack suffered after State's overtime win against Notre Dame, and then late last week it was a blood clot in his leg. Dantonio recently said he expects to be at least in the press box for this game. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell has guided the Spartans to victories over both Northern Colorado (45-7) and Wisconsin (34-24), the latter coming last week in the league lidlifter.
Michigan is fresh off a conference-opening win of its own, having outlasted a pesky Indiana squad in Bloomington last weekend, 42-35. The Wolverines, under the direction of third-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, have performed well offensively this year, scoring no fewer than 30 points only once in five games, hitting the 42-point mark twice and even getting to 65 points in a rout of Bowling Green in their final non-conference bout of the regular season.
The Maize and Blue are 3-0 at home this season, and will play three of their next four in Ann Arbor starting with this game against one of their most bitter rivals.
Michigan owns a 67-30-5 edge in the all-time series with Michigan State, and is 34-21-2 in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The Spartans, however, are the current owners of the trophy thanks to wins in each of the last two encounters. The home team has won 14 of the last 18 meetings.
Kirk Cousins threw for 269 yards and three TDs to lead the Spartans past visiting Wisconsin last weekend. When it came time to grind out some tough yards on the ground, running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell were up to the task, combining for 162 yards. Mark Dell led all receivers in the game with six catches for 91 yards and a score. The Spartans, who claimed a near-13 minute advantage in time of possession, outgained the Badgers by a 444-229 margin.
With Baker (107.2 ypg, five TDs), Bell (94.2 ypg, seven TDs) and Cousins (226.4 ypg, nine TDs, four INTs) all performing at such a high level, it's no wonder the Spartans are among the league leaders in most statistical categories. MSU averages 36.2 points and 460.6 total yards per contest, converting nearly 40 percent of its third-down tries and scoring on 85 percent of its trips to the red zone.
On the other side of the ball, the Spartans have gotten solid seasons from several players, including Greg Jones (41 stops) and Chris Rucker (37 stops). Jones also paces the club in TFLs with five and INTs with two. Overall, the MSU defense is yielding just 18.6 ppg. Foes have found it particularly tough to run the ball against the Spartans, doing so for only 101.2 ypg. Only three of the opposition's 12 offensive TDs have come on the ground.
It was actually the other way around in last week's bout with Wisconsin, as the Badgers tallied 165 yards rushing but only 127 passing. Jones and Trenton Robinson each tallied eight stops in the win, with the former making three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Coach Treadwell was asked about the adversity the Spartans have faced this season, "You kind of take it one day at a time with where we are now. I think, I mentioned it maybe a week ago -- that one of the biggest reasons is that all the young men on our football team that are sitting in the front row that are seniors, four years ago they sat in the back row. Now you fast forward and they have been through coach Dantonio's system. He continued, "Dantonio has planted some tremendous seeds in our young men, and they believe in that. It has been kind of neat to see it flourish in front of our eyes."
Denard Robinson accounted for 494 yards of total offense (217 rushing, career- best 277 passing) and scored the game-winning TD late in the fourth quarter as Michigan survived a scare from Indiana last weekend. Robinson, who has run for 100 yards in all five games this season, led the Wolverines to their 17th straight win over the Hoosiers. WR Roy Roundtree matched his career high with 126 receiving yards, and he scored once, while Junior Hemingway made the most of his three grabs, taking them for 129 yards and a TD. Michigan won the game despite holding possession of the ball for just over 18 minutes.
Robinson has tossed his name into the early Heisman talk by throwing for 1,008 yards, seven TDs and only one INT, while rushing for a Big Ten-best 905 yards and eight scores. Roundtree is far and away the team's most productive pass catcher, having reeled in 25 balls for 337 yards and two TDs to this point.
Indiana head coach Bill Lynch praised Robinson and the explosiveness he brings to the table for Michigan, "He's just a great athlete. He's one of those guys that's just different. He's got speed. He's got awareness. He's got instincts and he's a very, very good passer as well. You can see it on film getting ready for him, but on the field you sense the same thing. Some athletes are just different. They have not only talent, but competitiveness and a sense of how to play the game."
Indiana picked up a whopping 35 first downs in the game, doing so primarily by way of the pass which accounted for 480 yards and three TDs. Michigan's effort against the run was much better, yielding just 88 net yards, although the Hoosiers did score twice on the ground. Cameron Gordon led the Wolverine defense with 15 tackles, of which 12 were solo efforts, and he also had an INT. J.T. Floyd added a career-high 13 tackles and Jonas Mouton finished with a dozen.
Coach Rodriguez spoke about the disparity in the stats following the Indiana game, "The stats are interesting, huh? 35 first downs for them to 15 for us. They ran 98 plays to 45 for us. I don't like seeing that. But the most important one is the win so we'll take that. Any Big Ten road win is a good win. We still have to know that we have to play a lot better. But we made the plays when we had to and got the win."
Through five games, Michigan is allowing 25.4 points and 433.6 total yards per game, while producing 41.4 points and 565 yards per outing. Mouton is the team's top tackler with 47, but Jordan Kovacs is right there with 46. The Wolverines have come up with seven INTs thus far and 30 TFLs.
Robinson is the key to everything the Wolverines do on offense, and him staying healthy and productive will keep Michigan in the Big Ten title hunt all season. That said, expect the Spartans to put their best foot forward in an attempt to knock off their most hated rival and remain perfect on the season. In the end, the home field advantage coupled with Robinson's exploits under center will be the difference in what should be a physical game from start to finish.