Charles Woodson scores on a punt return vs. Ohio State in 1997 on the way to the Heisman Trophy and the national championship. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
Ann Arbor — Ask any college football player, and most will tell you that while they enjoy the comforts of home, they often thrive in the atmosphere of playing on the road.
They like the antagonism of the opposing fans, enjoy the heated welcome and the showering of boos.
Michigan will get plenty of that Saturday at Spartan Stadium, especially as an underdog to Michigan State.
“That’s one of my favorite things, that’s why you play the game — those road games that are just the best,” Michigan junior linebacker and co-captain Jake Ryan said. “You’re stepping in there and getting all the boos. I think it’s sometimes better than cheers.”
Michigan State has won four of the last five in the series and enters the matchup with the nation’s No. 1 defense. Michigan is coming out of a bye, and is led by quarterback Devin Gardner, who leads the Big Ten in total offense (328.4 yards).
So, there is plenty on the line.
But this truly is — and always has been — about state pride and bragging rights.
“It’s like high school, it’s like a state championship game — we’re playing for the state of Michigan, the Paul Bunyan trophy,” Michigan senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “It’s a great game. It’s fun. I know the last few years playing in it, it’s been real physical. I’m personally extremely excited for it.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke knows how intimidating the atmosphere will be at Spartan Stadium, especially for his offensive line.
The Wolverines will start their fourth offensive line combination this season, partly because of injury (Joe Burzynski suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago).
That has freshman Kyle Bosch stepping in.
“You grow up sometime,” Hoke said. “It will be intense.”
So will Michigan State’s defense.
Hoke said the Spartans defense is as good as he’s seen — it leads the nation in total defense (215.5 yards) and rushing defense (54.9 yards).
And, it’s something he’s seen before.
“It reminds me a lot of our defense here in 1997,” said Hoke, appearing on Sirius XM College Sports, about the defense he helped coach at Michigan as an assistant. “They’re very comfortable in their skin in what they do. ... They play at a high rate when you talk about playing fast. You see that. There’s times when I see that from our team, and there are times I don’t see us playing as fast as we need to, to win the championship in the Big Ten.”
The 1997 Michigan defense, which helped lead the team to a co-national championship, held teams to 222.8 yards and 89 yards rushing.
That defense was led by cornerback Charles Woodson, and it was against Michigan State when Woodson put his phenomenal skills on display.
Against the Spartans, Woodson made his famous one-handed interception. Earlier this year, James Hall, a teammate of Woodson’s, recalled that play as the greatest he had ever seen.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ” Hall said of Woodson, who also returned kicks and played a little offense on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy that season. “I saw him jump, he just kept elevating. The ball was so high. He caught it with one hand and came down. I was like ‘We’ve got to make the most of this, because this cat isn’t going to be here after this season.’ ”
Hall said Woodson was the best player he has seen.
“In college and in the NFL, all encompassing, he’s probably one of the most talented football players, athletes I’ve ever been around,” Hall said. “It has absolutely nothing to do that I played with him or against him. He’s impressive.”