The return of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is one of the great storylines of this season's matchup. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
I’ve tried over the years to bring Michigan and Michigan State people together, to move past the inflammatory insults and flammable furniture. I’ve tried to show how the fans actually are very much alike, except for those nagging issues of snootiness (Wolverines), insecurity (Spartans), sushi gorging (Wolverines) and class-credit beer pong (Spartans).
Now, sad to say, I’m about to give up. Because as Michigan and Michigan State prepare to meet in the Big Denard House on Saturday with unbeaten records, they’ve never been so close — and so far apart.
This could be a monumental moment in the history of a rivalry every football fan in America loves, except for every football fan south of I-94. Oh, well. Their loss.
Finally, we have all the elements of a great clash. Two ranked 5-0 teams. Two distinct styles. One future three-time Heisman winner in Denard “Loose Laces” Robinson. One great story line in the return of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
The unfortunate truth is, as the stakes rise, so does the vitriol. This is the crossroad Michigan fans have dreaded like the first day of P.E. (Not to perpetuate stereotypes, but yes, Michigan fans are far more likely to have been wedgied in gym class. And Michigan State fans have a higher rate of throwing up on their shoes in public. Studies confirm this. Google it if you don’t believe me.)
After decades of Michigan dominance, Michigan State apparently has had enough. You can’t utter the words “brother” and “little” in the same sentence without getting a bloodshot stare from a Spartans fan.
They seem intent on their first three-game winning streak against the Wolverines since 1967, and they’re doing it by pounding away with running backs that have 72-inch thighs.
That’s why the pressure sits firmly on Michigan and Rich “Rod” Rodriguez. Long-standing football theory states you must be proficient on offense, defense, the kicking game and practice-time record-keeping. Rodriguez is doing it differently, nothing like the famous “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust.”
This is “Three Denard Sprints and an Extra Point.”
It’s a unique strategy, and I understand the thinking: Robinson scores a touchdown really fast, then the defense gives up a touchdown really fast so Robinson can run back out and score another touchdown really fast.
It could be brilliant, but first, Rodriguez has to prove it works against Big Ten teams not named Indiana. And being 0-3 against Michigan State is no way to endear oneself to Michigan people who have spent their entire lives being dismissively annoyed by their East Lansing neighbors, a noisy bunch known to leave empties strewn about.
Power vs. speed
The offense does present problems for the Spartans, who are trying to pit their old-school power style against the Wolverines’ new-fangledness. It wasn’t easy this week simulating Robinson’s speed in practice, but Michigan State had no trouble simulating Michigan’s defense: Scatter 11 stationary cones around the field and run right by them.
The Wolverines might be fun to watch, but they have to do more if they want to go to a bowl played later than Dec. 18. That’s why Rodriguez is pulling out all the stops, and even recently solicited the help of student kickers and student time-keepers.
Alert rivalry observers will note I just made a joke about the famous “Spartan Bob” game in 2001, when Michigan State somehow got off six plays in the final 1.0001 second. For the record, I’m contractually obligated to mention it to ensure I receive obscene e-mails. (Please send to email@example.com.)People can get way too sensitive. For instance, if I innocently pointed out Dantonio’s terrific trick play to beat Notre Dame was called “Little Brothers,” I’d have all sorts of people telling me it was “%$@* Little Giants.”
It’s impossible to have a reasonable conversation this week, as you can tell by this exchange between the average Michigan and Michigan State fan, fabricated as always:
Gus (Spartans fan): “We have a way more complete team, with great receivers and big running backs that give Kirk Cousins awesome play-action capability. Plus, Greg Jones and our linebackers are tougher than anything you’ve seen. This is a physical mismatch and we’ll win in the trenches, nerd.”
Chad (Wolverines fan): “Shoelace! Shoelace! Shoelace! Heisman! Yeah!”
Why is Millen here?
It’s really not that simple, is it? Of course it isn’t.
Michigan actually has good, burly offensive linemen. And there will be so many swift receivers on both sides, there should be a restraining order to keep Matt Millen away.
Obviously, Michigan-Michigan State has a national respect deficit when ESPN sends its “GameDay” crew to South Carolina and Millen comes to Ann Arbor, where on a clear day you still can see the smoking wreckage of the Lions.
This should be one stirring afternoon, folks, and no one’s stopping anyone.
Pick: Michigan 49-42(2 OT)
More Bob Wojnowski
- After a little rest, don’t count Red Wings out yet
- Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is up for the challenge against Blackhawks
- Red Wings' steely resolve belies their youth; Blackhawks up next
- Wings-Ducks series has been good to the last gasp
- Wings duo of Zetterberg, Datsyuk steadies teammates through emotional win
- Exasperating gets best of exhilarating in Red Wings' Game 5 setback
- Young Red Wings aggressive from get-go -- and it pays off in big way