Spartans hoping for another win over Michigan

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Bloomington, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. Michigan State won the game 56-17. (AP Photo/Sam Riche)
Sam Riche

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio refused to admit this week that his team has dominated its rivalry with Michigan lately.

In fact, the Spartans' leader wouldn't even acknowledge that Michigan State dominated last year's meeting, when the Wolverines finished with minus-48 yards rushing in a 29-6 loss.

Dantonio chose his words carefully, but his message was clear: No matter how many times the Spartans batter their in-state rivals, it will never be enough.

''When stakes are at their highest you want to be as competitive as you can. I think that's human nature. That's what we do,'' Dantonio said. ''We're not going to allow the opportunity to slip by and go through something nonchalant.''

The eighth-ranked Spartans host Michigan on Saturday, having won five of their last six meetings with the Wolverines. Michigan State is heavily favored in this one against a Michigan team that seemed to be in disarray before a win over Penn State two weekends ago.

For the Wolverines, there is still time to revive this season - and a win over Michigan State would be quite a start. With a spot in college football's playoff still a possibility, the Spartans (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) will be under a decent amount of pressure, knowing a slip-up against an apparently overmatched rival would be unusually painful.

''I mean, it's a rivalry game,'' Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush said. ''The day after last year's game, as soon as that game is over, you're already ready to play them again. So it's a year-round thing, and everyone's fired up.''

The Wolverines (3-4, 1-2) will try to do a better job dealing with Michigan State's physicality than in last season's loss. Michigan was 6-1 heading into that game before losing five of six to finish the season. This year has not been any better.

Meanwhile, the Spartans ended up going unbeaten in the Big Ten in 2013 and then won the Rose Bowl, leaving little doubt about their superiority within their home state. That's a reality Michigan is hoping to change.

''I like how our guys have prepared. I've said that every week. I like how they have prepared,'' Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said. ''They are a hard-working bunch, and they haven't disappointed in any of those things. I know that we will be ready to go play on Saturday.''

Here are a few things to watch when the Wolverines try to upset the Spartans:

ON A ROLL: Last season's Michigan State team was carried for long stretches by its defense, but now the Spartans are a much more balanced group. Connor Cook is second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, and Michigan State leads the league in scoring.

Michigan, on the other hand, is dead last in the Big Ten in total offense.

RECEIVING THREATS: Michigan State's Tony Lippett is averaging a conference-high 112 yards receiving per game, and Michigan receiver Devin Funchess is considered a top NFL prospect. Funchess has been hobbled a bit this season, but the Wolverines could use a big play or two against Michigan State's aggressive defense.

PROTECTION: Michigan State's seven sacks were a major reason why Michigan's rushing numbers were so awful in last year's matchup, and the Spartans also sacked the Wolverines seven times in 2011. Michigan's offense has bogged down this season against decent competition, and if the Wolverines can't keep quarterback Devin Gardner upright, it will probably be more of the same against the Spartans.

SMASH-MOUTH: Michigan held Penn State to 65 yards in the second half, and the Wolverines were impressive against the run for much of that game. Controlling the line of scrimmage is a huge priority against the Spartans. The team with more yards rushing has won 41 of the last 44 games in the Michigan-Michigan State series.

PREPARATION: Michigan was a huge underdog against Ohio State last season but nearly upset the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor. Gardner threw for 451 yards in that 42-41 loss, so it's not as though the Wolverines don't have an offensive outburst in them. Hoke and his players had an open date last weekend, giving them extra time to prepare.

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