If looks could kill, Max Bullough would have created a bloodbath.
As one of three players available to the media during Michigan week, the senior linebacker was asked Tuesday if he felt the No. 23 Wolverines finally recognize a closing gap in talent after a storied history of mostly one-sided physical superiority. The question was slow and calculated, looking to draw out the news from the third-generation Spartan, whose family has been part of the MSU-Michigan rivalry for more than six decades.
But Bullough, well known for his confident yet brash personality, gave a hard stare and scoffed at the question, making it understood the No. 24 Spartans play second fiddle to no team in terms of talent — a notion he expects the Wolverines know by now.
What to know Saturday
Kickoff time is 3:30 p.m.
For those looking to watch the game on television, check out ABC.
Spartan Stadium’s student entrance opens about two hours before kickoff.
Other stadium entrances open about 1.5 hours before game time.
Police advise visitors to be aware of stadium policies.
“If you ask the Michigan players that have played us the last four, five, six years, they wouldn’t even know what gap you’re talking about, and I quite frankly don’t either,” Bullough said. “We’re Michigan State, we’ve got good football players here, we always have. We don’t take a backseat to anybody, Michigan or anything.”
Bullough is looking to close out his MSU career with his third win against the Wolverines, as the Spartans (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) welcome Michigan (6-1, 2-1) to Spartan Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) for the 106th meeting between the two teams.
Always a matchup fueled by fire, the rivalry reached a boiling point this week when Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint awoke the embers of former Wolverine Mike Hart’s “little brother” comment from 2007. Hart’s comment set off a firestorm between the teams, which led to head coach Mark Dantonio’s “pride comes before the fall” press conference and four-consecutive MSU victories.
Asked if the rivalry with MSU is nastier than the one between Michigan and Ohio State, Toussaint said he believes it is.
“We labeled them as a little brother. And, you know the little brother always want to prove themselves and try to beat up the big brother one day,” he told reporters after practice on Wednesday. “I think they really take offense to that.”
Yet, that rhetoric of distaste for the other side is ubiquitous in MSU’s locker room.
Senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard refused to say the word “Michigan” this week, instead electing to talk about “the guys down the road,” eschewing the opportunity to give any sort of credit to MSU’s rival.
“Yeah, that’s a bad word,” Dennard said. “I’m going to stay away from that. I don’t want to give them acknowledgment. I don’t want to give them more than they … you know. It is what it is.”
But that’s not to say the Spartans aren’t gearing up for another instant classic — one that could propel the winning team toward a Legends Division title and a shot at the Rose Bowl.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be too fired up,” Dennard said. “I mean, football is a very emotional game, and when you have a lot of emotions, that can also help the team, and that can give them a great advantage of momentum, and just them being excited, everybody being excited and ready to go. I think you can’t be too fired up for this game.”
However, the arrival of Dantonio signaled a new era of the MSU-Michigan rivalry, where the Spartans of previous years had dropped five straight games and currently trail 32-68-5 in the all-team series. And for Dantonio, it’s the high level of competition with the Wolverines that has taken the rivalry to an entirely new level in his tenure.
“For it truly to be a rivalry, it cannot be one?sided,” Dantonio said. “I mean, it can still be a rivalry, I guess, but I think it makes — when it’s much more competitive, obviously — things take on a whole new meaning. If you can’t back up the words, it’s just empty words, and it just becomes — it sort of gets lost in its meaning.”
Matchups across board will define game’s outcome
It’s not often two rivals can play for something on the line. MSU is looking to avenge its 2012 loss on the road versus Michigan, and a victory likely will come down to key plays at a few positions.
It’s been well-documented the Spartans have struggled at quarterback this season. However, it’s starting to look like a storyline of the past with the emergence of sophomore Connor Cook.
After battling three others, including incumbent senior Andrew Maxwell, Cook seized the position and started to turn the corner in wins against Iowa, Indiana and, most recently, Illinois. Cook quietly has grown into a confident pocket passer with the scrambling ability for head coach Mark Dantonio to anoint him a potential 100-yard rusher.
But when it comes to quarterback, Michigan’s Devin Gardner to have the edge in this matchup.
Although possessing similar running ability to former-Wolverine Denard Robinson, Gardner is a far more talented passer and can burn teams as well with his arm (503 passing yards against Indiana) as he can with his feet (121 rushing yards against Penn State). And while he won’t come close to either of those career highs against the loaded Spartan defense, he’s a playmaking threat and should challenge MSU’s secondary all afternoon.
With the departure of Le’Veon Bell from the Spartan backfield, few knew what to expect from MSU’s remaining running backs coming into 2013, given one of their top returners, Jeremy Langford, had just nine career carries.
But given a more expansive role with this year’s team, Langford has become a feature back in MSU’s offense, leading the team with 655 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Langford leads a group, which includes junior Nick Hill and freshman Delton Williams, who have found ways to be productive on the ground this season.
On the flip side, Michigan’s leading rusher Fitz Toussaint made headlines this week by rehashing former Wolverine Mike Hart’s “little brother” comment in regard to the MSU-Michigan rivalry. Don’t expect MSU’s defense to take the comment lightly, as the Spartans have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher through eight games, and likely won’t let Toussaint out of their sights on Saturday.
Three hundred and sixty nine receiving yards.
Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon set a Big Ten record by accomplishing that in a single game in a win against Indiana. And combining with Devin Funchess, the Wolverines have as potent of a one-two punch at wide receiver as any team in the Big Ten right now.
For the Spartans, it seems the successes and failures of the wide receivers are based on the throws Connor Cook is able to make. With the unit no longer dropping balls left and right, much of the pressure falls on Cook, who has struggled with accuracy.
After battling injuries for much of 2012, MSU’s offensive line this season has been as talented a group as there ever has been in East Lansing, according to head coach Mark Dantonio.
The unit has been rotating positions and finding a way to succeed by employing different combinations at all five offensive line positions. This has allowed for the Spartans to get more touches and show off the depth they possess at various positions.
The result has been evident, as junior running back Jeremy Langford has reeled off three straight 100 yard rushing games, while sophomore quarterback Connor Cook has had plenty of time to make plays in the pocket — and finally has shown the ability to make plays.
Credit seniors Blake Treadwell and Fou Fonoti for leading this group, which has seen younger players blossom into terrific players. Michigan’s defensive line will pose a challenge to this group, but they’re incredibly young, so expect for the Spartans to stand firm and control this key area.
Both squads boast talented defensive fronts capable of making big plays. For the Wolverines, it starts with defensive end Frank Clark. Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun is the big-play guy on MSU’s D-line, a pass-rush specialist with a formidable matchup against All-American tackle Taylor Lewan on deck. The Spartans’ strength is in their numbers, with a legitimate four-man rotation at defensive tackle that has been much better at rushing the quarterback this fall. MSU has better odds facing U-M’s young offensive line than the Wolverine defensive linemen do against the veteran Spartan O-line.
Cam Gordon and Jake Ryan are solid players for the Wolverines, so this isn’t a slight to them. But MSU’s trio of Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Taiwan Jones forms one of the most fearsome linebacking corps in the country. Allen and Bullough are three-year starters in defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s system, while Jones stepped in full-time this season. Equally stout against the pass and run, the versatility of all three Spartans speaks to the difficulty of solving this defense. A solid D-line coupled with shutdown defensive backs allow the linebackers to roam free.
Call it the secret sauce, the frosting on the cake — whatever you want. This is the unit that makes MSU’s defense go. Senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a potential All-American, and senior safety Isaiah Lewis likely should follow him to the NFL after this season. Junior safety Kurtis Drummond and sophomore corner Trae Waynes make up the rest of the self-proclaimed “No Fly Zone” and both are good players in their own right. MSU’s scheme puts a lot of pressure on the defensive backs, frequently leaving them in one-on-one situations to lock down receivers. When they aren’t being called for pass interference, the Spartan defensive backs are sticky and unafraid to hit people. Because of that, the linebackers and defensive linemen focus almost completely on the opposing rushing attack. It’s hard to argue against the third-best pass defense in the nation.
Head coach Mark Dantonio gets the nod because of his 4-2 record against the Wolverines and his well-publicized passion for the rivalry. He and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke have a win against the other, but Dantonio appears to have the formula to appropriately fire up the Spartans. They also have a defined identity built on punishing defense and physical running attack. Hoke and the Wolverines still don’t know if they’re a spread team, a pro-style team or some kind of unorthodox mix. He also has to worry about keeping his team’s emotions in check. The Wolverines feel they have bigger games to worry about. In MSU’s locker room, there is no bigger game.