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Inside the Numbers: Win the Ground, Win the Game

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There are many fascinating stats and trends that have emerged from the heated Michigan-Michigan State football rivalry, but there is one that has defined the series for over 50 years.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, it's Hate Week.

No, not State Week. Hate Week. It's the name aptly used to describe the week preceding the football showdown between two in-state rivals, Michigan and Michigan State, that loathe one another. Why? Students, alumni, and fans of both the Wolverines and the Spartans use this precious time to remind their counterparts of any and all reasons why their school is superior. And, in most cases, these digs drip with disrespect. Taunts are malicious. Jokes acrimonious. Trolls encouraged. Michigan's most important football rivalry is with Ohio State, but its nastiest just may be with its in-state rival -- even if this year's Hate Week is milder because, for the first time in half of a century, most Michigan fans do not expect the Wolverines, a 17-point underdog, to win on Saturday.

One of the least vicious approaches these fan bases have adopted to get a rise out of the other is to adjust the series record between the two schools with arbitrary data points. For example, Michigan fans highlight that the Wolverines have dominated the all-time series, 68-33-5. Spartans then respond that Wolverines must rely on the days when Michigan State was not a full-time Big Ten member and leather helmets were still prevalent to demonstrate such domination. Wolverines counter that Michigan is 31-14 against Michigan State since Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969, which only prompts Spartans to remind them that Michigan State's won five of the last six meetings.

Yet, despite all of these constant rebuttals about which series record is relevant, there's one record which both Wolverines and Spartans can agree upon:


This is the record of the team that has amassed more rushing yards in each meeting of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry since 1956 -- the earliest box score I could locate. For almost 60 years, the team, whether it has been the Wolverines or the Spartans, that has been able to win the battle on the ground has been able to emerge victorious and claim right to the hideous Paul Bunyan Trophy on almost every occasion.

While Hate Week describes the nature of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry off of the field, this statistical trend describes the nature of the rivalry on the field. For decades, this rivalry has been about which team can punish the other more. It has been about which team can be stronger, tougher, and meaner. More importantly, it has been about which team can win the line of scrimmage, which team's offensive line can block more consistently, and which team's running backs can fight for more yards.

Essentially, which team can play better, smarter smashmouth football?

Michigan does not seem to be the answer. In five games against Power 5 schools this season, Michigan has carried the football 165 times for 523 yards. This equates to an average of 104.60 rushing yards per game and 3.17 yards per carry, which are the 92nd- and 86th-best in FBS, respectively. These lousy averages can be attributed to an offensive line that routinely fails to execute assignments, running backs that often miss open lanes, few designed or read-option runs for Devin Gardner, and, to be fair, very stingy run defenses on the other side of the ball -- Penn State, Notre Dame, and Utah are all in the top 12 nationally in rushing yards allowed versus Power 5 competition.

On the other hand, Michigan State has been quite excellent at establishing the run this season. In four games against Power 5 schools, the Spartans have 174 carries for 935 yards and an average 233.75 rushing yards per game and 5.37 yards per carry. Both averages are the 13th-best in FBS. That Michigan State has the fewest sacks in the nation, which affect rushing statistics, and has not faced defensive front-sevens as stout as the ones Michigan's faced may boost these averages, but it is not enough to outweigh the compelling evidence that the Spartans have been much more productive on the ground.

And it seems unlikely Michigan will offset that advantage on the defensive side of football. The numbers actually indicate Michigan's been better against the run than Michigan State -- Michigan's ninth in yards allowed per carry vs. Power 5 schools; Michigan State's 48th -- but there's more to the story. The Wolverines have benefited from facing Notre Dame (utilizes a passing spread), Rutgers (didn't have star running back Paul James), and Penn State (has one of the nation's worst offensive lines). In contrast, the Spartans have opposed Oregon (runs an explosive spread offense), Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Indiana's Tevin Coleman (two of the nation's best running backs), and Purdue (revamped its rushing attack recently). According to S&P+, both rushing defenses are pretty much equal -- Michigan is sixth; MSU is seventh.

So all signs point to Michigan State having more success on the ground on Saturday, which, given the rivalry's history, means the Spartans will win. Of course, there have been exceptions, two of which in the past decade. In 2004, the Spartans shredded the Wolverines to the tune of 368 rushing yards and 6.46 yards per carry, but Michigan escaped with a triple-overtime win thanks to the heroics of all-everything wide receiver Braylon Edwards. In 2007, Michigan State out-rushed Michigan, 191-100, but Mario Manningham totaled 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, one of which was a 31-yarder for the game-winning score with 2:28 remaining in the game.

The problem, though, is that Michigan's passing offense has struggled to find a rhythm all season. No individual quarterback has thrown for over 200 yards in a single game, which has squandered the talents of Devin Funchessa future first-round NFL Draft selection that has the ability to take over a football game similar to Edwards and Manningham. So, unless Funchess is given an opportunity to have a virtuoso performance against a Michigan State secondary that dubs itself "The No Fly Zone," it looks like history will repeat itself like it has for 60 years.

This means that the fan base of the team -- Michigan or Michigan State -- that rushes for more yards on Saturday should have even more ammunition for Hate Week next season.