When backed against a wall, Mark Dantonio comes out fighting. That’s the best explanation for his impressive track record as an underdog and his success in Michigan State’s rivalry with big brother Michigan.
Born in the west Texas town of El Paso, which is far from glamorous, and once an assistant coach to the humorless Nick Saban, Dantonio is about defense, toughness and never backing down from a challenge. So, here comes Jim Harbaugh with a challenge.
The Wolverines, riding high after a butt whipping of Wisconsin, roll into East Lansing on Saturday as favorites and College Football Playoff contenders. The Spartans, who tend to be flaky favorites and dangerous ‘dogs under Dantonio, pulled off a stunner last week by taking down Penn State 21-17 as two-touchdown road ‘dogs. A year ago, Michigan was a 13-point favorite in a 14-10 loss to Michigan State, which is 3-1 straight up and ATS as an underdog since that win in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh has the stronger defense, but not by a huge margin. Michigan ranks No. 2 in the nation in total defense (238 yards per game) and No. 9 in scoring (15.4 points per game). Michigan State ranks No. 1 in run defense by allowing only 62.3 yards per game. Despite yielding 205 rushing yards to the Nittany Lions, the Spartans had 11 more first downs and won the time of possession by almost 8½ minutes.
Michigan also has the edge at quarterback, with Shea Patterson continuing to gain confidence in a new offense, but Patterson is not hitting on many big pass plays and the Spartans can stuff the run. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (eight touchdown passes, seven picks) is turnover prone, but injuries have sidelined a couple of his top wideouts and star running back LJ Scott, who could return this week.
The Wolverines struggled in their only two road games, digging a 14-0 first-quarter deficit in a loss at Notre Dame and digging out of a 17-0 second-quarter deficit in a narrow win at Northwestern. A home ‘dog with a strong run defense and a veteran quarterback is a good combination, particularly in a rivalry game.
Dantonio has dominated this in-state fight, winning eight of the past 10 meetings with a 10-0 record against the spread. The Spartans posted outright wins four of the past five times they were underdogs to the Wolverines. The trends point to Dantonio, who’s tough to handle as a ‘dog, so I’ll take the 7½ points.
Five more plays for Saturday:
* NEBRASKA (-4½) over Minnesota:
Scott Frost’s first season as Cornhuskers coach has been a nightmare. No team on the planet is more desperate and hungry for a win than Nebraska, which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last week by blowing a 10-point lead in the final 5½ minutes and falling 34-31 in overtime at Northwestern. Minnesota is starting a freshman walk-on at quarterback, and the Cornhuskers will have an edge at that position because dual-threat freshman Adrian Martinez is improving each week. The Gophers were surprisingly competitive in a loss at Ohio State, yet they poured everything into that upset attempt and this is a negative scheduling spot with back-to-back road games. It’s tricky to lay points with a team that’s 0-6, and some value is lost after this line opened at 3½, but Nebraska should finally find the win column.
* PURDUE (plus-12½) over Ohio State:
Urban Meyer is on upset alert as he heads to West Lafayette for a prime-time shootout. The bettors are alert, too, because this line was projected to be between 17 to 21 points a few weeks ago and opened at 14 this week. Dwayne Haskins has put up incredible numbers (72.3 percent completions, 2,331 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions) in Ohio State’s 7-0 start. He bailed out the Buckeyes in their sluggish performance against Minnesota. Meyer is not worried about his quarterback, but Ohio State’s run defense is a question mark. Purdue has won three in a row while making dramatic progress on both sides of the ball. The Boilermakers averaged 39.3 points during their win streak. It’s a credit to Jeff Brohm, who’s a rising coaching star, and senior David Blough, who has 10 TD passes in the past four games. Brohm, Blough and the Boilers could spoil the Buckeyes’ season.
* Other plays: Oklahoma (-7½) over TEXAS CHRISTIAN; WASHINGTON STATE (-3) over Oregon; North Carolina State (plus-17½) over CLEMSON.
Last week: 3-4-1 against the spread