Michigan vs. Michigan State football: Spartans looking to slow down Wolverines' run game

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EAST LANSING — It gets repeated every year: When Michigan State football and Michigan football play, the team that wins the rushing battle usually takes home the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

More than a half-century of data exists: In 45 of the past 51 meetings, the team with the most rushing yards got the win. (Though the Spartans defied that a year ago by assaulting the Wolverines through the air en route to a 27-24 stunner in Ann Arbor.)

Mel Tucker knows where this game will need to be won: In the trenches.

“Obviously, defensively, you have to stop the run,” Tucker said Monday. “You would like to try and make opponents as one dimensional as you can.”

Michigan State's Noah Harvey, left, and Jack Camper, right, tackle Michigan's Blake Corum during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Michigan State's Noah Harvey, left, and Jack Camper, right, tackle Michigan's Blake Corum during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

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No. 7 MSU hosts No. 6 Michigan in a battle of unbeatens, both 7-0 overall, both 4-0 in the Big Ten and both seeking a marquee victory that would give the winner an early leg up in the East Division race. (Albeit with a showdown with Ohio State still looming, and the loser of Saturday's game far from eliminated.) The showdown at noon (Fox) also will provide both in-state foes with their most significant test to date.

That's particularly true for the Spartans’ front seven; the strength of Tucker’s defense all season matches with the powerful run game that propels Jim Harbaugh’s offense.

Bruising Hassan Haskins and speedster Blake Corum form a tandem that averages 208.4 yards, accounting for more than 80% of Michigan's Big Ten-leading 253.3 yards per game on the ground (which is also fifth-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and nearly half of the Wolverines’ average 442.4 yards of total offense, which ranks 35th nationally.

Corum, a 5-foot-8, 200-pound sophomore, ranks 20th at 104.1 rushing yards per game, while Haskins, a 6-1, 220-pound senior, is 34th at 86 per game. They each have 10 rushing touchdowns, providing the bulk of the Wolverines' 25 rushing scores, third in the country.

“They’re both really strong and they train themselves to be that way," Harbaugh said Monday. "And they both have the natural, God-given ability, the things that running backs crawl out of the crib having — athletic ability, balance, innate ability to just see the hole and balance and contort their bodies.”

MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton and defensive line coach Ron Burton have built a strong front, particularly in the interior of the line. The Spartans allow just 4.85 yards per play, 20th best in the FBS. But safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose, along with nickel backs Darius Snow and Michael Dowell, chip in, too, as agile downhill tacklers who clean up missed assignments and limit second-level runs from going the distance. MSU is averaging 121 rushing yards a game, 31st nationally.

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“They're definitely run-heavy, and for good reason,” Henderson said of U-M’s offense. “They've got a solid O-line with two pretty good pretty backs there that kind of bring a little bit of different things to the table. Corum's a little shiftier, but he's still got some size to him —he packs a punch. And Haskins kind of is a bigger dude who falls forward a lot.”

Haskins has five 100-yard rushing performances in his past eight games (dating back to 2020), including three this season. He is coming off 110 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines’ 33-7 win over Northwestern last Saturday. And Corum put up 160 total yards against the Wildcats, including 119 yards on the ground, his fourth 100-yard game this season.

“We have to set the edge and build a wall and do a really good job with our perimeter run support,” Tucker said. “Not just in the run game, but with some of the wide receiver screens and the bubble game on the outside.”

Michigan State Spartans cornerback Chris Jackson (12) and Michigan State Spartans safety Emmanuel Flowers (20) tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
Michigan State Spartans cornerback Chris Jackson (12) and Michigan State Spartans safety Emmanuel Flowers (20) tackle Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Michigan rushed for 152 yards against the Spartans last season — with Haskins and Corum combining for 71 yards and three scores — but it wasn’t enough.

In seven games this season, the Spartans have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. The 87 yards by Northwestern’s Evan Hull remain the highest individual total, and MSU held both Miami (Florida) and Western Kentucky under 100 yards as a team.

“We're gonna do what we've been doing to get us here,” Henderson said.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football looks to slow down Michigan's strong run game