June 18, 2024 9:07 am

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The University of Michigan and Michigan State University Football Rivalry: A Battle for Bragging Rights and the Paul Bunyan Trophy

Dating back to 1898, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have faced off time and time again, building to become one of the great rivalries in college football history.
A photo of the University of Michigan football stadium in Ann Arbor, MI

Early Years of a Storied Rivalry

Since 1898, when the first football game between the University of Michigan Wolverines (UofM) and the Michigan State University Spartans (MSU) was played, these two universities have been locked in an intense rivalry. The Wolverines and the Spartans have faced each other annually since 1910, with a hiatus only during World War II.

In the early years, the University of Michigan dominated the rivalry, thanks largely to the legendary Fielding H. Yost, who served as UofM’s head coach from 1901-1923 and 1925-1926. The Wolverines, under Yost’s leadership, had a remarkable run, which set the tone for Michigan’s early dominance in this rivalry.


The Paul Bunyan Trophy: A Symbol of In-State Supremacy

The battle between the Wolverines and the Spartans took a decisive turn in 1953 with the introduction of the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Named after the mythical giant lumberjack of American folklore, the trophy was donated by then-governor G. Mennen Williams to give the in-state rivalry a physical symbol.

The trophy, a four-foot wooden statue of Paul Bunyan, stands atop a five-foot base, which has plaques recording the scores of each game. Winning the Paul Bunyan Trophy not only means securing state bragging rights but also making a mark in the history of this intense rivalry.

A photo from a UofM vs MSU football game


Memorable Games and Turning Points

Many games in this rivalry are etched in the memories of fans for their drama, unexpected turns, and last-minute victories.

1969 Match: This game marked a turning point in the rivalry when the Spartans beat the Wolverines 23-12, ending a ten-game losing streak. This victory was a key moment in MSU’s history, signaling that they were a force to be reckoned with in the rivalry.

1990 “No. 1 vs No One” Game: This match was historic because the Wolverines were the top-ranked team in the country, while the Spartans were unranked. Despite this, the Spartans won in a stunning upset, demonstrating the unpredictability of this rivalry.

2004 Triple Overtime Thriller: In one of the most exciting games in the rivalry’s history, the Wolverines emerged victorious in a triple-overtime thriller, winning 45-37.

2015 “Miracle at Michigan”: Arguably one of the most dramatic games in college football history, the Spartans secured a win after a botched punt by the Wolverines led to an MSU touchdown in the final 10 seconds.

A photo of Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI

The Modern Era

In the 21st century, the rivalry remains as fierce as ever. Both teams bring their best to the field, striving not only for victory but also for the chance to hold the Paul Bunyan Trophy aloft.

As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, the University of Michigan led the series. However, the Spartans have had notable victories and periods of dominance, making the rivalry dynamic and unpredictable.

With its storied history of excitement, passion, and unpredictability, the UofM-MSU football rivalry is quintessential to the college football season. From early dominance by UofM to the introduction of the Paul Bunyan Trophy and numerous unforgettable games, this rivalry represents the heart and soul of Michigan football. As long as the Wolverines and Spartans take the field, the spirit of this intense competition will endure. The two teams are set to square off on October 21, 2023, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.


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