Come Saturday, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio will likely regret not giving his Spartans a road test before now.
The Spartans (3-1, 1-0) travel to Ann Arbor for their rivalry game against unbeaten Michigan (4-0. 1-0) having spent the first five weeks of the season sleeping in their own beds. But they also wasted their only bye week on Notre Dame, which crushed the Spartans despite their extra week of preparations.
Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh scheduled his team’s day off so the Wolverines would have the potential advantage of an extra week to prepare for their Paul Bunyan Trophy rivalry game.
He couldn’t have picked a better time for the break since Michigan again will be without starting quarterback Wilton Speight, who was injured in a win over Purdue two weeks ago. Backup John O’Korn will get just his second start for the Wolverines, but the fifth-year senior did start 15 games at Houston before transferring two years ago.
His experience at Houston will prove invaluable, but Harbaugh has spent the past week preaching the importance of blocking out any distractions. He’s told O’Korn to “concentrate on doing his job and playing his position.”
The matchup at the Big House features two of the nation’s top defensive teams, statistically, through five weeks. Michigan is No. 1, allowing only 202.3 yards per game. Michigan State is No. 5, allowing 248.3 yards in total defense.
It’s why Dantonio believes the team with the fewest turnovers will win the contest. If Michigan State can pull off the upset, it would put the Spartans back into the Big Ten East discussion.
“We get to find out a little more about our team, our young football team, as we go,” said Dantonio. “I think there are other opportunities and challenges that are waiting for us that will further define us one way or the other. How we handle our success or how we handle our failure really will ultimately determine our outlook.”
The Spartans have won seven of the past nine games in the series, but the Wolverines won 32-23 in East Lansing last season.
With Harbaugh obsessed with having his program take then next step, the Wolverines would like to make it two consecutive wins in what will be the first night game in the series history.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Illinois at Iowa, Saturday 11 a.m., BTN
Penn State at Northwestern, Saturday 11 a.m., ABC
Minnesota at Purdue, Saturday 2:30 p.m., ESPN2
Michigan State at Michigan, Saturday 6:30 p.m., ABC
Wisconsin at Nebraska, Saturday 7 p.m., BTN
- Penn State (5-0, 2-0): Last Week – W, Indiana, 45-14. The Impact – Receiver DaeSean Hamilton became school’s all-time receiver with 122 yards, 3 TDs against Hoosiers. Nittany Lions shouldn’t have problem getting to 6-0 going into bye week.
- Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0):Last Week – W, Northwestern, 33-24. The Impact – Garrett Dooley had three sacks and Badgers had eight overall, but they still got a scare from fast-closing Wildcats. A walk-through opportunity against Nebraska should clean things up.
- Michigan (4-0, 1-0):Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Jim Harbaugh broke his arm playing in this rivalry game in 1984. As a head coach, he’d probably give an arm and a leg to get his second win over Spartans, who have claimed seven of last nine games.
- Ohio State (4-1, 2-0):Last Week – W, Rutgers, 56-0. The Impact – Art Schlicter is still incarcerated on fraud charges, but prison isn’t where you will find Buckeyes’ career passing leader. J.T. Barrett has moved past Schlicter to No. 1 on school’s all-time passing list.
- Michigan State (3-1, 1-0):Last Week – W, Iowa, 17-10. The Impact – Spartans already have matched last season’s win total, but winning “state title” would make season a huge success no matter what happens rest of the way.
6. Purdue (2-2, 0-1):Last Week – Idle. The Impact – The Boilermakers will honor former head coach Joe Tiller during Saturday’s game, wearing helmets that replicate those worn during his years in West Lafayette. A video tribute to Tiller will be played at halftime.
7. Iowa (3-2, 0-2): Last Week – L, at Michigan State, 17-10. The Impact – Hawkeyes are 0-2 in conference for first time since 2008, but with Illini coming to town they shouldn’t have difficulty getting much-needed W.
8. Maryland (3-1, 1-0): Last Week – W, at Minnesota, 31-24. The Impact – Sophomore QB Max “Next Up” Bortenschlager threw two touchdowns and ran for another. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes are up next for Terps.
9. Minnesota (3-2, 0-1): Last Week – L, Maryland, 31-24. The Impact –P.J. Fleck wasn’t happy after Gophers’ run defense was bullied by Terps for 262 yards in his Big Ten coaching debut. It was also just Fleck’s fourth loss as a head coach in 27 games, and he Gophers now face a Purdue team that has had an extra week to prepare.
10. Indiana (2-2, 0-2):Last Week – L, at Penn State, 45-14. The Impact – Charleston Southern, 0-19 against FCS teams, was booked as a guaranteed win, but banged up Hoosiers really can’t afford to take anything for granted. Bucs have outscored last two opponents 124-7 and IU still can’t seem to settle on a QB.
11. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1): Last Week – L, at Wisconsin, 33-24. The Impact – Wildcats going nowhere fast. Justin Jackson was held to 25 yards on nine carries, which was actually Wildcats’ total rushing yardage on 34 carries against Badgers. That means Jackson averaged 2.8 yards per carry but Wildcats’ team total was 0.7 per rush.
12. Nebraska (3-2, 2-0):Last Week – W, at Illinois, 28-6. The Impact –. QB Tanner Lee, who leads nation with nine interceptions, didn’t toss any against Illini while passing for three TDs. He’ll need to match that effort for Cornhuskers to stand a chance against Wisconsin.
13. Illinois (2-2, 0-1): Last Week – L, Nebraska, 28-6. The Impact – Extra prep didn’t help Illini, who have now lost 15 of 17 games following a bye week. It doesn’t help that their offense ranks last in Big Ten.
14. Rutgers (1-4, 0-2):Last Week – L, Ohio State, 56-0. The Impact – Scarlet Knights get a week off to soothe their bruised egos. Rutgers has been outscored 83-17 in its two conference games and was shutout by Ohio State for second straight season.
(All times Central; projected winners in bold caps)
Illinois at IOWA, 11 a.m., BTN
PENN STATE at Northwestern, 11 a.m., ABC
Minnesota at PURDUE, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2
Charleston Southern at INDIANA, 2:30 p.m., BTN
Maryland at OHIO STATE, 3 p.m., FOX
Michigan State at MICHIGAN, 6;30 p.m., ABC
Wisconsin at NEBRASKA, 7 p.m., BTN
Last Week: 6-1
Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday. I covered teams in each of the conferences during my 41 years as a sports journalist and I’m not ready to give it up in retirement.