Michigan State football is preparing to go into enemy territory this Saturday with a trip to Ann Arbor to take on rival No. 4 Michigan in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The Spartans are 21.5 point underdogs heading into the matchup, but they’re not letting odds affect their preparation.
Fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson, who made his first appearance back from injury against Wisconsin, has been a leader on and off the field for the Spartan secondary. Coaches have emphasized that his leadership skills attract the respect of his peers and they listen to what he has to say.
Henderson made it clear ahead of Saturday’s matchup that the odds don’t matter to the team and it’s likely that mindset will be contagious.
“We're so used to it now,” Henderson said. "Especially for how long I've been here, there's been so many games where I just assume we’re gonna be underdogs. I don't care how many points it is, but yeah, it is what it is."
Henderson has been with the team long enough to have a deep understanding for the rivalry, but for younger players and transfers, like senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon, Head Coach Mel Tucker makes sure they’re aware of the rivalry’s past before they take the field.
“He gave us a little history background about it,” Windmon said. “What stood out to me the most was how they didn't think Michigan State should be in the Big Ten, so I think of that as something that is offensive because they probably think, you know, we're not good enough. At the end of the day, it’s still not about them, or what they think. It’s still about us.”
Although he received Tucker’s history lesson, Windmon got his first personal experience with the intensity of the rivalry when he took an official visit to East Lansing.
“When I came on a visit, I had worn a blue hoodie and they were like: 'Next time, just try not to wear that color because that's the school down the road,'” Windmon said. “You know, ever since that day, I just tried to avoid it as much as I could.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne didn’t grow up with the rivalry, but became aware of its intensity when he attended the Big Ten basketball championship game between the two schools in 2019.
However, when it comes to the football side of things, he believes you don’t fully know the extent of the rivalry until you’ve played in a game, but there are people that can help players who may not be as acquainted.
“You don't truly know what it's like until you are out there,” Thorne said. "The most important guys are the former players. We hear what it means to them and what they think about the school down the road and what they think about the game; you really get to understand and it kind of fuels you.”
Although Michigan State has won three of its last four trips to Ann Arbor, playing the game at Michigan Stadium will present challenges of its own. It will be the first time Tucker and most of his Spartans will have played in Ann Arbor with bleachers packed with fans.
To prepare his team, Tucker has been using crowd noise at practice as well as showing them videos so that they're "uncomfortable" both at practice and during meetings and won't be "overwhelmed" on Saturday.
Windmon looks forward to the idea of playing in front of over 100,000 people at "The Big House" in what promises to be another intense rivalry matchup.
"You got to feed off the energy," Windmon said. "So that's something I also look forward to is being out there and feeding off the negativity that they bring."
The Wolverines will certainly be looking for revenge after the Spartans pulled away with a 37-33 win in East Lansing last year. MSU has won 10 out of the last 14 matchups, including the last two, making Tucker 2-0 versus Michigan.
Kickoff in Ann Arbor is set for 7:30 p.m. on ABC.
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