Barely visible at the base of one of the display cases in Schembechler Hall is a sentence etched in small black lettering on the white backdrop:
“The Paul Bunyan Trophy is temporarily located in East Lansing but will return next year.”
For a program on the upswing, those 15 words inked into the Michigan football team’s headquarters in Ann Arbor mark the Wolverines’ fatal flaw, their final stain: Their inability to beat Michigan State.
No one really expected it to drag on this long.
Here we are today, with the Spartans riding a four-year winning streak in the rivalry series against Michigan.
I’m a numbers guy. I call ‘em how I see ‘em — balls and strikes.
Losing to Michigan State four years straight? That’s painful. That’s a long, long time. (Not quite as long as The State News’ seven-year skid to the Daily in our annual touch football match, though.)
Michigan leads the series 67-32-5. If you squint hard enough, it really looks a lot closer. Keep in mind that the Wolverines kept the Paul Bunyan Trophy for six consecutive years before this stretch began in 2008.
And Michigan is going for win No. 900 on Saturday, hoping to push its title as winningest program in college football to the next level by becoming the first team to surpass 900 wins.
Try squinting. Doesn’t work, does it? That number just keeps getting bigger. Sparty’s not too far behind. Michigan State would need 22 consecutive unbeaten seasons to hit that mark.
Now, I won’t pretend to be nonpartisan because I’ve been on both sides of the rivalry. My parents and oldest sister were tried-and-true Spartans, while my three brothers and I have all opted to attend Michigan.
Growing up in Grand Ledge, Mich., just 20 minutes outside of East Lansing, I straddled the Michigan State-Michigan line for years. I know, that can’t be done. It’s wrong. It’s halfway illegal in most states, including ours.
But I did it. I cheered both ways. I know what this weekend is like around East Lansing. It’s got the air of the Super Bowl. The Spartan Marching Band adapts its cadence to insert “Go State, beat Michigan” and swaps the fight song lyrics to: “Smash right through that line of blue” and “Mich-i-gan is weak-en-ing.”
But Michigan’s not the one weakening.
The Spartans are boasting a 4-3 record this fall — and let’s be clear, that’s a bad 4-3. Like the Michigan State student section, the Spartans just didn’t show up against Iowa last week.
With a loss this weekend, Michigan State is poised to plummet off everyone’s radar. So it’s going to be a circus. It’s just too bad Michigan State even has to make the trip to the Big House.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke hasn’t lost a game in the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines are a perfect 11-0 at home since Hoke took the reins last January.
And they’ve got this quarterback. I think you’ve met him. Denard Robinson, meet Michigan State. Guys, Denard.
You probably know him quite well. Oh, and you know who else knows him? Everyone.
Robinson sat beside wide receiver Devin Gardner at the Michigan-Michigan State women’s soccer match in Ann Arbor last week, and in the closing moments of halftime, a group of elementary-aged girls lined up along a fence behind the goal line about 50 yards away to catch a glimpse of the dread-headed quarterback.
A Spartan parent urged them on. OK, one … two … three.
“DENARD!” the troupe of six girls shrieked in unison. He didn’t hear. They tried again, and this time he turned, smiled and motioned them over.
They slowly ambled two by two along the sideline to meet him. He posed for photos with them, noticing only when they started to walk away that they were all bundled up in Michigan State jackets.
“Hey now!” he laughed.
Somewhere in East Lansing, Andrew Maxwell whimpered off in a lonely corner: “But I’m your quarterback!”
On the gridiron, the ferocious Spartan defense has shut Robinson down twice, knocked him out of the game twice and given him a terrific little face mask yank along the way.
But he looks like a different player today. For the first time since his first month as starting quarterback back in 2010, Robinson hasn’t thrown an interception in two games — backhanded compliment for the win — and the offense has averaged a healthy 40.1 points per game at the Big House the last three seasons with Robinson at the helm.
Get your chirps in quickly, because this honeymoon is coming to an end. It’s time for Paul Bunyan to come home. Michigan State has won the battle, but Michigan still leads this war.
Sure, maybe it’s been 1,812 days since Michigan beat the Spartans, but I just went 800 words without making a joke about that naked professor.
Stephen J. Nesbitt is the Managing Sports Editor for the Michigan Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.