Fitz Toussaint tries to fend off Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis during last year's U-M victory in Ann Arbor. Toussaint and Lewis return for the 2013 clash. (Tony Ding / Associated Press)
Ann Arbor – It won't exactly be West Side Story, but there just might be that street-fight feel.
At least that's what Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is anticipating when Michigan and Michigan State, which boasts the nation's top-rated defense, meet on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan is ranked No. 23 and Michigan State No. 24. The Spartans have won four of the last five against the Wolverines.
"This is a figurative street fight, and you want to go out there and match and exceed the intensity of your opponent," Borges said Tuesday before practice. "That's the only way you can play games like this.
"These aren't finesse games to me. When push comes to shove, the winner is going to be the guy who's the most physical and won't back down and still be smart -- not throw punches when you might be tempted to throw punches, because it's easy to get caught up in that stuff. That doesn't generally win football games. That generally loses football games. (But) you do want to play with some emotion."
The objective, Borges said, is not to go into the game against the nation's top-rated defense assuming the Wolverines will get pushed around.
But how could they possibly simulate a "street fight" atmosphere during practice?
"We do our best," Borges said. "Sometimes we literally have them. You're playing a team you know you're going to have play that way against. The message is being sent loud and clear by everybody involved. Usually it’s reflected by how you practice, whether it be hitting after the whistle a little bit -- as long as it's during practice and we can monitor that. Gotta be smart when it counts."
For Borges, being smart also means not turning over the football.
Michigan State has forced 15 this season, but more impressive, the Spartans' defense has scored five touchdowns.
Bottom line -- the Spartans don't want to give offenses any breathing room.
"It's much more a sick 'em mentality," Borges said. "They're trying to take everything away. They've done a really good job of feeding off turnovers. Either creating opportunities for the offense or literally scoring themselves, which is amazing how many times they've done that.
"That's the starting point (for Michigan) -- taking care of the football and minimizing the damage, if in fact there is some damage. Making what could be a bad play not into a disaster. You can't put yourself in bad situations where they become disasters. They've fed off that all year. If we do that, they'll feed off that against us."
Conversely, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison knows that while he must challenge the Michigan State offense, there's a big part of him will look at this game to see how his defense measures up against the MSU defense.
"If you're a Michigan defensive player, you want to be considered the best," Mattison said. "Michigan State has done a tremendous job on defense, so now we get a chance. Let's see where we are. You always want to play the best. You always want to be the best. This next game coming up is a chance for our defensive players to be where we say we want to be."
So where is the Michigan defense right now? After giving up 90 points the last two games, and more than 500 yards to Indiana, Mattison believes he has the pieces in place.
"We have the ability," Mattison said. "We've got to do it for 60 minutes. It's kind of like a test. This is one (you say), ‘Enough's enough.’ You can say all you want about all these other games, it's on the line now.
"There's not a lot of gimmicks. It's a physical, physical football game, and I love that."
Left tackle Taylor Lewan on Monday said it got physical in practice last Sunday when linebacker Jake Ryan and freshman left guard Kyle Bosch got into a scuffle. It was an example of the intensity with which the Wolverines are practicing this week for MSU.
The coaches like what they're seeing from their players emotionally.
"I love this (type of game)," Borges said. "At the end of the day, I love mixing it up. I always say, good offenses are the perfect mix of finesse and physicality, (but) as a competitor, as a human being, I love these games. This is why I coach, just personally. I think everybody feels that way. These are fun games to play."
The Michigan players, he said, have not struggled with motivation during practices. Michigan had a bye last Saturday and has not played since Oct. 19 against Indiana.
"It's Michigan State, and you can feel that," Borges said. "The kids are looking forward to playing the game, and they're going to compete, I don't have any doubt about that."