U-M has struggled at times this season, but rivalry game is no less important for MSU football
Some games can define an entire season, but they usually don’t happen in week seven.
Outside the state of Michigan, that is.
When Michigan (3-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) comes to Spartan Stadium on Saturday to face No. 8 MSU (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) it won’t just be to keep the Spartans’ hopes alive in the College Football Playoff. This game will earn a year’s worth of bragging rights in a state that, as Mark Dantonio said, is either green or blue.
Biggest game on the schedule
The history of the rivalry has been colored in blue. U-M holds the all-time series lead 68-33-5, but since Mark Dantonio has arrived, MSU has gone 5-2 against the Wolverines, including winning four straight games from 2008 to 2011.
This season the Spartans are favored by as much as 17.5 points, something that hasn’t happened in East Lansing for a long time.
Even with a matchup in two weeks against No. 13 Ohio State (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) Dantonio and players say this game is always the biggest on the schedule.
“From my perspective, this is the most important game on the schedule,” Dantonio said. “We compete with them day in and day out for recruits, and that carries over to basketball, it carries over to volleyball, it carries over to every sport.”
Dantonio said from the time he stepped on campus in 1995 as an assistant coach he began to understand what the rivalry was about.
“When I first got here I got a taste of it,” he said. “It gets in your blood a little bit, it’s just the way it is.”
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said he got his initial taste of the rivalry when he experienced his first loss as a coach at MSU.
“After the first year in Spartan Stadium and we got beat on a Mario Manningham pass, it changed after that one,” he said. “What I think about from that game is what my kids felt like going back to Haslett Public Schools after the game.”
Narduzzi said his kids were teased by students and teachers after the loss.
“My kids got razzed by teachers, if you can believe that,” he said. “That’ll get you cranked up.”
Players say the large point spread doesn’t change how cranked up they will be when U-M comes to town. It’s just like any other matchup with the Wolverines.
“Being at Michigan State, we’re always known for being the underdog,” senior linebacker Taiwan Jones said. “We never overlook or underlook anybody. We just go out and play Michigan State football.”
Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett had a simpler answer.
“Nope,” he said. “We kind of like being the underdogs, even if we’re not. We always feel like that.”
Chip on their shoulder
For fans that go to MSU or U-M, the battle between the two schools becomes personal because so many of the students have friends that attend the other school.
For MSU, some of the Michigan prospects haven’t forgotten that they weren’t recruited as heavily by the Wolverines.
Taiwan Jones is from New Baltimore, Mich. — about 75 miles northeast of Ann Arbor — and said U-M didn’t recruit him very heavily.
“Coming up, Michigan didn’t really recruit me,” he said. “So you always take that personally, but I know a few guys on that team and we talk a little bit. But this week we haven’t said much to each other.”
Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett is from metro-Detroit. He said he didn’t really get into the rivalry until he came to East Lansing. He said everything about the rivalry gets him excited now.
“I would say all of it combined,” he said. “Leading up to it, not even during the week but year-round, just knowing that we get another shot at them. I would say all of them are tied into one.”
Senior defensive end Marcus Rush was one of the few Spartans that was recruited by both U-M and MSU. The Ohio native said he wasn’t very close to committing to U-M and his visit to East Lansing sealed his commitment to MSU.
“It was just a matter of how many visits I went to Michigan, it was probably three or four, and then I got the offer from Michigan State and it was a no-brainer to do a visit,” he said. “I think I made the right choice.”
Rush said it doesn’t take long for these games to get physical in the trenches.
“It’s a rivalry game,” he said. “The day after last year’s game, as soon as last year’s game was over, we were ready to play them again. It’s two teams from Michigan that don’t like each other.”
Rush added that he respects Michigan, but the trench warfare does turn ugly very quickly.
Intense week of practice
MSU players said something feels different whenever they get ready to play U-M. The pace of the game is quicker, the practices are more intense and the energy is different.
“You have coaches flying around, the coaches are moving fast and the players are moving faster,” Cook said. “Everything is done with more intensity. With meetings, there is more intensity with meetings. I don’t know how you can do that, but there is.”
MSU understands the importance of the game, but Dantonio said it is also important to remain composed and not become so fired up before the game that mistakes are made during the game.
“There’s got to be balance,” he said. “You’re going to be at your best when you’re in control, but you’ve also got to have that energy they’re talking about, so there has to be balance in that.”
Narduzzi said it isn’t hard to see that there is a different edge to players during this week of practice, but he said he doesn’t follow suit.
“I feel like I’m not any different,” he said. “I feel like I get nervous about Michigan and I get nervous about Eastern Michigan. I get nervous about anyone we play, so I don’t feel I’m any different this week.”
Junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun agreed with his defensive coordinator, saying that while he is intense, Narduzzi doesn’t ramp it up any for this week.
“He always has passion for the game,” he said. “His attitude never changes for any team. He wants perfection.”