Michigan, Jim Harbaugh finally control Michigan State rivalry again

Sporting News

It has taken five years to get here, but a 44-10 win at Michigan Stadium on Saturday means No. 15 Michigan now has complete control of its rivalry with Michigan State.

The direction both programs go from here will be the most interesting development to track over the next five years.

In Saturday's game, Michigan was happy to add a few long-awaited exclamation points against their in-state rival. Shea Patterson, who finished 24 of 34 passing for 384 yards and four touchdowns, played his best game. The Wolverines poured it on in the fourth quarter with a blocked punt, interception and late touchdown pass to Cornelius Johnson to cap the 34-point blowout.

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That marked their largest victory in the series since a 31-13 Wolverines victory in 2006, the year before Mark Dantonio replaced John L. Smith in East Lansing. Dantonio still owns an 8-5 overall record in the rivalry, but that doesn't represent the current state of the programs, and doesn't obscure what's happening now.

The Spartans no longer have an upper hand. Michigan is the better team. Michigan is the better program. It has been a while since that could be said with confidence.

Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh beat Michigan State at home for the first time in three tries and now has a 3-2 record against Dantonio. Michigan won back-to-back games in the series for the first time since Lloyd Carr won six in a row from 2002-07.

It feels like that is the trajectory the rivalry for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is trending again, unless Michigan State responds with a total philosophical makeover this offseason to match what Harbaugh brought in with new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Michigan outgained the Spartans 467-220 and limited the Spartans to a 2-for-13 conversion rate on third down.

It was domination, a separation between the programs that took Harbaugh five years to create. The numbers show it's only increasing, too. Michigan is 46-16 since Harbaugh took over in 2015, which is 10 games better than Michigan State at 36-26. That's two games better per season. The Wolverines are also 31-11 in Big Ten play in the same stretch, which is almost 10 games better than the Spartans at 22-20. That's also two games per season.

It has been a gradual process, but this was one of Harbaugh's objectives when he took over. The Spartans had won six of eight before his arrival and kept that going with the legendary “Punt Fumble” in 2015. Michigan's victories against Michigan State, however, get much less fanfare — because the Spartans haven't been ranked higher than No. 24 in those games.

Now, after next week's game against Indiana, the Wolverines can take their best shot at Ohio State: the game that defines Michigan's season. Harbaugh has winning records against Penn State and Michigan State, and has split with Notre Dame. Everybody knows he's 0-4 against the Buckeyes, who visit Michigan Stadium on Nov. 30. The Wolverines will be heavy underdogs, but they at least in that conversation again.

Seriously, who gives Ohio State a better game? Penn State in Columbus or Michigan in Ann Arbor? We'll take the Wolverines.

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The conversations in East Lansing are much less comfortable. This was the game Dantonio built the program around, but this team was only good enough to hang for one quarter. Questions about Dantonio's future, the offensive staff and a program that has slipped down the Big Ten East pecking order will be asked. Michigan State needs to beat Maryland and Rutgers to get to a bowl game, and looks closer to Indiana than the other three traditional powers in the division.

Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan beat the Spartans by a combined score of 106-27 this year. This wasn't a 49-3 moment like Bobby Williams in 2002, and it can't be given what Dantonio has done for the program. The Spartans have three Big Ten championships and a Playoff appearance since the Wolverines last won the Big Ten, and that's the only upper hand left. That's also living in the past.

Michigan is in control of this rivalry. That is what matters now, and Michigan State can't wait five years to catch up.

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