William Gholston pulls at the uniform of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in 2011, a Michigan State victory. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — In the Michigan-Michigan State game, there always is something extra.
It is more physical, it is more hard-hitting. There is more trash-talk and more chippiness.
Michigan, ranked No. 23, plays at No. 24 Michigan State, with the winner likely in the Legends Division driver’s seat, Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
The Wolverines ended the Spartans’ four-game winning streak with a 12-10 victory at Michigan Stadium last season, but the focus this week in Ann Arbor has been the game two years ago. Michigan senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said the Wolverines were bullied in that game, a strong message perhaps he was publicly sending to the younger players.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said after that game — and again earlier this week — his team was out-toughed by Michigan State.
The Spartans were penalized 13 times, including a handful of personal fouls. MSU’s William Gholston was suspended one game by the Big Ten after he punched Lewan, but Gholston said at the time he was provoked. Video shows Lewan held Gholston’s helmet to the ground.
Do the teams play dirty in this game? Well, dirty play is in the eye of the beholder.
Are they more physical than usual? You bet.
“It’s a beating,” former U-M offensive lineman Doug Skene said. “It’s a tough, tough game.
“This game brings out a lot of raw emotion among players. Even guys who were more reserved in their style of play found themselves at a different level. You just want to win this game because it means so much for the team. You have to win this game — it’s not an option.”
Michigan players over the years have been asked the dirtiest game in which they played. Almost always, the response has been the Michigan State game.
Former Michigan defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen played at Spartan Stadium in 2011 and thought the game at times crossed the thin line the separates physical from dirty.
“Man, that was a battle that wasn’t within the confines of the rules,” Van Bergen said. “But you know when you step between the lines in that game that anything can happen. There’s a physical nature of the game that makes everyone love it. I love it.
“There’s also a courtesy you have when you’re out there, that you do whatever you have to do between the whistles, but there’s no place for that stuff after the whistle. I did plenty of things dirty but never before and after the whistle. After the whistle, you should be protected. In this game, your antennae are up for more after-the-whistle kind of things.”
That said, Van Bergen thinks highly of Michigan State’s toughness.
“I’ll pay one and only one compliment to Michigan State — no one can call them soft,” Van Bergen said. “Being a nasty, dirty team isn’t the worst thing anyone can call you.”
Former Michigan State linebacker Eric Gordon looked at the Michigan-Michigan State game as two teams being as physical as the other.
He bristles a bit at the suggestion of the Spartans being “dirty,” though.
“I don’t like the word ‘dirty,’ ” Gordon said. “People talk about Michigan State and us being quote and unquote dirty or physical. That’s what coach (Mark) Dantonio and his staff bring to the program. They make us tough.
“I hope everyone says we’re the dirtiest or toughest team. That’s a compliment in my mind.”
Playing in the Michigan-Michigan State game is all about which team can be more physical while executing their game plans.
“To be honest, someone talks about a physical game, that’s about your manhood getting challenged, along with your football prowess,” Van Bergen said. “There’s a feeling when you play Michigan State they would just as soon fight you and win or lose as play football and win or lose.”
Hence, the use of the street-fight description from Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges this week, which Hoke echoed on a local radio show Thursday morning, saying it also applied to Michigan’s rivalry with Ohio State.
But Hoke also has shrugged off the talk of how physical this game is saying, simply, it’s football. It’s the nature of the game.
“In all rivalry games, there’s always a little extra that goes on from the standpoint of how you hit each other,” Hoke said on 97.1. “There’s just that little harder hitting and playing through the whistle. All those things are part of a rivalry game.”
Skene, a Michigan offensive lineman in the early 1990s, remembers the 1992 Michigan-Michigan State game as being exceptionally physical.
“The ’92 game was so chippy and it was getting out of hand in the second half,” Skene said. “I remember those referees stopped the game momentarily, and one ref went to (MSU coach George) Perles, and the other one went to (Michigan coach Gary) Moeller.
They told them to get the teams in order, because it was getting out of hand and it was elevating and elevating. We were leading big (Michigan won, 35-10), and those guys were talking, and of course (U-M center Steve) Everitt was talking.”
“We were all trying to kill each other. Every play you’re like, ‘What can I do to you this time?’ ”
Skene took the brunt of some of the more “physical” play in that game.
“I was at the bottom of the pile in the end zone after we scored, and I saw a green glove — I still don’t know whose green glove it was — try to gouge my eye out,” Skene said. “We were no angels, but I can tell you I never tried to purposely dive at a guy’s knees, and I never tried to gouge out an eye. I like to see butt-kicking football within the rules of the game.”
“Trying to twist the quarterback’s head off his body (in the 2011 game) after the whistle is low-rent, bush-league stuff. I don’t think true MSU fans like to watch that, either. Why can’t we just watch a tough, hard-nosed game?”
When former Michigan State quarterback Jim Miller was in the NFL, he heard frequently from Michigan players also in the league.
“They always admitted Michigan State was the most physical game,” Miller said. “I got that in the NFL all the time, ‘God, we hated playing Michigan State.’ ”
Miller knows the game has had, at times, a tendency to get chippy.
“There are a lot of things said out there that cross the line,” Miller said. “There are a lot of extracurricular activities, because it matters to Michigan State and Michigan. When you do that, players will police themselves. ... The officials are there to control the game, and they lost control of the game (in 2011). When it gets heated, you go over, warn each bench to cut out the extracurriculars.”
Van Bergen has watched a lot of Michigan State games this year. He has great admiration for the Spartans’ top-ranked defense, and said linebacker Max Bullough is “tremendous.”
“It’s not the same Michigan State of year’s past,” Skene said. “That’s a hell of a defense they’ve got there. Really freaking good.”
He wants to see a clean game.
“The other stuff takes away from the respect of the game,” Skene said.
The emotion, the big hits with a little bit extra, that’s all part of Michigan-Michigan State.
“A lot of it is people get emotional in that game,” Gordon said. “Sometimes they do things probably they shouldn’t have. We’ve all gotten our little fights on the field. That’s being into the game, that’s being emotional. That shows you care.”
Everybody will care Saturday.