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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

John U. Bacon: 2021 Michigan, Michigan State rivalry football game is of "national importance"

Michigan/MSU footba
Michigan Photography
Michigan and Michigan State play their 114th football game Saturday in East Lansing. Both teams enter the game with a 7-0 record.

Michigan and Michigan State will play their annual football game Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Per tradition, the winner will get to keep the Paul Bunyan trophy for a year, but this time there's much more at stake than custody of America's favorite lumberjack.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou for a preview of the matchup.

114th Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. Saturday, Oct. 30 at noon in East Lansing.

Doug Tribou: For the first time since 1964, the Spartans and Wolverines are both ranked in the top 10 nationally coming into the game. Michigan is No. 6 overall, Michigan State is No. 8. Historically speaking, what else is unusual about this year's game?

John U. Bacon: Well, that's probably enough right there since I was born in '64 and I'm no longer a kid, so that's how big a deal it is. This year, the game is also two or three weeks later than usual in the season, which makes it much more remarkable that both are undefeated after seven games each. This is a game of tremendous national importance.

DT: A couple of weeks ago, you told me that Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker just needed to keep doing what he's doing and avoid a loss to Indiana. The Spartans did that, but Michigan is MSU's biggest challenge so far this season and vice versa. What does Michigan State have to do well or better to win [on Saturday]?

John U Bacon: Well, back to my boring quote, they have to keep on doing what they're doing, for starters, but they're also going to have to find a way to stop the top running offense in the Big Ten. Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum of Michigan could both break a thousand yards this season, and in the last decade it has been rare for one Michigan tailback to do that, so they've got a heck of a running attack.

Flip side, on the other side of the ball, Michigan State's quarterback Peyton Thorne has had a phenomenal season. He's got to keep doing what's he's doing.

DT: As you've mentioned, Michigan's running game has been its greatest strength on offense. Quarterback Cade McNamara has avoided turnovers, just one interception so far this season, but he threw for just 129 yards last week [against Northwestern] and averaged under five yards per completion. What does U of M coach Jim Harbaugh need from McNamara against the Spartans this weekend?

JUB: You hit on one of the things: no turnovers. This game is too emotional. Swings like that can count for too much and it's probably going to be a very close game. But he also needs to throw the ball downfield or give more time to his backup, J.J. McCarthy, who is both a better runner than McNamara and a better passer, but he's just less reliable.

If it's just McNamara, and the passing threat is not good enough to really release the running game. That makes it too easy for Michigan State, so McNamara is going to have to have his best game of the year, or J.J. McCarthy [will].

This is the first time the Spartans and Wolverines are both entering their rivalry game with a record of 7-0 or better.

DT: Regardless of who wins, there is a good chance that in a few weeks, that team will also need to knock off Ohio State to create a path to a Big Ten East division championship, or a Big Ten Conference championship, or even maybe a College Football Playoff entry. Have Michigan and Michigan State closed the talent gap with the Buckeyes this year?

JUB: They haven't closed it, but they have shrunk it. I think quite a bit, and both teams are playing better than they have in many years, so both teams should be close enough, I think, to pull off an upset if things fall right.

DT: The Detroit News reported this week that game tickets for Tomorrow for Michigan vs. Michigan State in East Lansing on the secondary market were selling for between $230 and $1900. A parking pass went for $775, so I guess that's a sign it's a big game. But beyond all the rankings and the high stakes, what do you love about this rivalry as we head into the 114th meeting of the Spartans and the Wolverines?

JUB: I love this rivalry, despite the prices. I think it might be the best in-state rivalry in the nation. I think it's underrated. They're so close and neither side will admit it. That's what makes it great.

And I was ready for this one. I knew you were going to see something like this, so if you'll let me quote Sigmund Freud, he called it the "narcissism of minor differences," which he described as the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other, exhibiting extreme sensitivity to just these details of differentiation.

The good Doctor Freud was probably not talking about Big Ten football when he said this more than a hundred years ago, but nobody has ever explained the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry better than that.

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of the page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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