The One Michigan-MSU Stat That Almost Always Determines Who Wins The Rivalry Game
For more than a half-century, there's been one key statistic that's predictive of the winner of the annual college football clash between Michigan and MSU by a nearly 90 percent accuracy rate.
Since 1969, 46 of the last 52 Paul Bunyan Trophy games have gone to the the team that wins the rushing battle. That means that, dating back to Bo Schembechler's first season as Michigan's head football coach, the team that runs for more yards when the Spartans and Wolverines lock horns wins the rivalry game about 89 percent of the time.
That's one hell of a trend with a hell of a lot of history behind it. And it's befitting of this bitter rivalry between two often-rugged teams that have traditionally prioritized defense and physicality. It's also befitting of the Big Ten, which for decades owned the brand of College Football's Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust Conference®.
Is That Stat Still Relevant?
But college football has undergone drastic, wholesale changes over the last few decades. At present, the sport is pioneering the uncharted territories of Name, Image, and Likeness and instant-eligibility transfers. But shifts in the way the game is played are still relatively novel in the overall history of college football.
The spread offense has revolutionized the game at every level. It began to take hold in college football in the late '80s and into the '90s. The Big Ten, overproud of its status as the sport's oldest conference and stubbornly clinging to its old-school traditions, was one of the very last to join the trend. It wasn't until 1999 when Joe Tiller was hired by Purdue that the Big Ten featured its first spread offense. It would be about another decade before that style of play was more popular than not in the league.
In 2022, college football is nearly unrecognizable compared to its prior incarnation just one generation ago. That's also true for the Big Ten, despite Jim Harbaugh's best efforts. (Hey, you can't blame Ol' Harbs — Michigan's commitment to tedium on offense has worked out pretty damn well the last season and a half.)
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The fundamental changes to the way college football is played manifest in the results of Michigan and Michigan State's rivalry. From 1969 to 2003, the team that ran for more yards between U-M and MSU won 33 of 34 rivalry games. That's a .970 winning percentage.
But since then, the team with more rushing yardage has won 13 of 18. Now, .722 is still a pretty damn good clip, but it represents a significant decline of more than 25 percent.
Looking At The Outliers
Here's a more emphatic way to interpret these statistics: Over the last 52 games in the series, the team that runs the ball for less yardage between Michigan and MSU has won the rivalry game just six times. But of those six instances, five have occurred within the last 18 meetings.
Here are those five instances, in greater detail:
- 2020 (at Michigan): MSU won 27-24 despite being outgained in ground yardage by a 152-126 margin. The Spartans routinely torched U-M's pass defense as Rocky Lombardi completed five passes of 30+ yards, as well as two 50-yard bombs.
- 2016 (at MSU): Michigan defeated State 32-23 in a game that really wasn't that close. The Spartans piled up more yards on the ground, 217 to 192, while both teams ran the ball 42 times. But MSU was ultimately done in by three turnovers on downs (leading to 10 points for Michigan), settling for a field goal, and missing another.
- 2015 (at Michigan): MSU won 27-23 on the legendary "Trouble with the Snap" botched punt as time expired. Both teams had practically no success running the ball, despite each calling exactly 33 rushing plays. But the Wolverines held a slight edge, running for 62 yards to the Spartans' 58. Michigan State did its damage through the air, where the Spartans accumulated 328 yards to U-M's 168.
- 2007 (at MSU): Michigan won 28-24, despite the Spartans rushing for more yardage by a 191-100 margin. It was the first rivalry game for then-first-year MSU head coach Mark Dantonio. State stormed back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to take a 10-point lead with under eight minutes left in the game. But Michigan's fourth-year starting quarterback Chad Henne orchestrated two scoring drives to end the game and bury MSU at the end. Afterward, U-M running back Mike Hart delivered his infamous "Little Brother" remarks, which set the tone for the rivalry and the Spartans' resurgence therein for years to come.
- 2004 (at Michigan): Michigan scored an historic 45-37 triple-overtime win after trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. MSU churned out 368 rushing yards to Michigan's 223 that day, but it was outdone and undone by Braylon Edwards, who caught 11 passes for 189 yards and three second-half touchdowns.
The only other time the Michigan-MSU game was won by the team that ran for fewer yards?
- 1995 (at MSU): MSU won 28-25, despite being outgained in ground yards by a 218-73 margin.
That means that all six instances over the last 52 meetings wherein the team that lost the rushing battle won the rivalry game have occurred within the last 26 years.
What It All Means
The obvious takeaway from these stats is that the transformation of college football's style of play away from run-oriented offenses toward more pass-heavy schemes has made the unique bellwether that rushing yardage represents in the Michigan-MSU rivalry less relevant and not as predictive of victory.
But that doesn't mean that winning the ground-game battle isn't important. This stat is still indicative and predictive of success, just less reliably so than it was a generation ago, when it was practically a guarantee.
If you're trying to forecast the winner of the 2022 edition of this rivalry game, perhaps this 52-year-old trend isn't as pertinent as each team's resume through seven games this season.
For reference, Michigan has the No. 7 rushing offense in the country, averaging 241.7 yards on the ground per game. The Wolverines are fifth-best nationally at stopping opposing rushing attacks, allowing just 86 yards on average. In stark contrast, MSU's ground game is ranked 115th of the 131 teams in the FBS at just 106.1 yards per game. The Spartans' defense ranks 79th against the run, giving up 153.3 yards per game.