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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.

Bacon: Pressure's on Michigan in rivalry game vs. Michigan State

Photos of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker.
Paul Sancya, Carlos Osorio
AP Photo
Jim Harbaugh (L) and the Michigan Wolverines will host Mel Tucker and the Michigan State Spartans in Ann Arbor Saturday for their annual rivalry game. Tucker is 2-0 against Michigan since taking over as MSU's head coach.

In college football, it's a big weekend in the state of Michigan. The Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans will play their annual rivalry game Saturday night in Ann Arbor.

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

Saturday's game: No. 4 Michigan vs. Michigan State - 7:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor

Doug Tribou: John, let's start with the kickoff time, 7:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor. The first game between the Wolverines and the Spartans was back in 1898, but this is just the second time they're playing a night game. I've heard that when games start later it is, in fact, possible to also begin tailgating later, although many fans seem to prefer to just ignore that option altogether.

John U. Bacon: [laughs] Yeah, I've heard that too. Doug. I think your data is correct. It is in fact, possible to tailgate later, and yet many folks choose to start drinking early in the morning anyway. Can you believe this?

DT: [laughs] I can believe it. I've witnessed it.

JUB: 'Cause you live in the neighborhood [in Ann Arbor]. There you go.

DT: Let's talk about some football. Michigan comes into the game on a roll. The Wolverines are 7-0 and ranked fourth in the country. They're coming off a big win over Penn State two weeks ago. What's driving all the success for Jim Harbaugh's team so far this season?

JUB: Well, as far as the personnel goes, they're pretty much hitting on all cylinders. I mean, the linebackers were supposed to be a weak spot. It hasn't been very weak at all. And people forget the real big bet that he made two years ago when he was given the do-or-die contract. He swapped out six of his 10 assistant coaches and it has worked fabulously well. They have lost a grand total of two games since they changed coaches.

Quarterback J.J. McCarthy and tailback Blake Corum are the keys. Last year, Michigan State had [standout running back] Kenneth Walker III. This year, Michigan's got Blake Corum, and that could be the difference.

DT: Michigan State is also coming off a win two weeks ago, in overtime over Wisconsin, but the Spartans aren't having a great year. Before that win over the Badgers, Mel Tucker's team had lost four straight. Rivalry games always matter regardless of how teams are doing. But does this one carry some extra pressure this year for Tucker because of the Spartans' recent stumbles?

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh's overall record against Michigan State is 3-4. He's 0-2 against Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker.

JUB: This might sound crazy, but the pressure actually goes on Michigan because nobody expects much out of the Spartans this year. All my Spartan friends are saying, you know, very little chance and so on. This is all upset, almost no downside for Tucker. And many seasons, Michigan State's had a so-so year, but they beat Michigan and that that makes the year.

So Michigan right now is 7-0. Many times, Michigan State has made a very good Michigan team stumble on the way to something bigger. I'd say in some ways, the pressure is more in Michigan than Michigan State.

As my father said, when you're on the floor, you can't fall out of bed right. Michigan State has got very little to lose. And with the Wisconsin game, they've got some momentum, also some confidence building, so this becomes a dangerous game for Michigan.

DT: Jim Harbaugh checked off a lot of boxes last season. His first win over Ohio State, his first Big Ten title, a trip to the College Football Playoff. But the Wolverines lost to MSU last year. Harbaugh's career record is just 3-4 against the Green and White, and he's 0-2 against coach Mel Tucker. Do you have a theory about Harbaugh's struggles in the big rivalry games and also in bowl games?

JUB: This basically proves my point about Michigan State having the knack of upsetting Michigan — I mean beating them when they are not the favorite team — more times than just about the rest of the Big Ten [Conference] combined. It's been that crazy.

And of the four losses Harbaugh's had out of seven attempts against Michigan State, I think Michigan's been favored in all four games. So I guarantee you that [for] Tucker's $95-million contract, a big part of that was the fact that he was, in fact, 2-0 against Michigan in these games. So, yeah, on paper, you know, not much chance, but there it is.

DT: Okay, John, in addition to bragging rights, the prize at stake tomorrow night is the Paul Bunyan trophy. Which team do you think will take Paul home for a year?

JUB: Well, Michigan is heavily favored in this game, so it'd be foolish to bet against them. But caveat emptor, by the way, this is a rivalry game. It's one of those deals, though, when all the cliches apply: throw out the record, etc., etc.

If you've seen the picture of Paul Bunyan on the Michigan State bus last year, there's your bet right there. So I'm going to bet on Michigan, but caveat emptor, everybody out there.

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

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio 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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