November 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Michigan-Michigan State rivalry fiery as ever

Mark Dantonio has restored Michigan State competitiveness in the rivalry with Michigan. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

The hits always seem harder. The bruises tend to linger a bit longer.

And the words? Nobody seems to be able to forget those. Big brother, little brother. Jolly Green Giants and Arrogant Asses. “This is Michigan” and “Pride comes before the fall.”

Players come and go, and so do the coaches in this Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but the games they play on and off the field ensure the contentious history will continue.

“I think in this state ... you either grow up green or you grow up blue,” said Mark Dantonio, the Spartans coach who has helped color the water as much as anyone in recent years. “Not too many people are any different than that in Michigan.”

And with these two set to clash again today at Spartan Stadium (3:30 p.m., ABC) for the 106th time and Big Ten championship hopes perhaps on the line, you certainly can argue just what this game means in the wider landscape of college football. Both teams are ranked nationally, just barely: The Wolverines (6-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) are 23rd in the latest Associated Press poll, while the Spartans (7-1, 4-0) are 24th.

But there’s no debating what it means closer to home — between the lines, if you will.

“It’s important, and there’s a lot riding on it,” said Jim Miller, the former Michigan State quarterback who played 10 years in the NFL and now works as a TV and radio analyst. “Just within the state, on Monday morning around the water cooler, just for the office chat. It’s fun, a great rivalry. I was proud to be part of it.”

It’s that rivalry pride Dantonio has worked hard to restore while trying to rejuvenate Michigan State’s tradition, ruffling feathers out of necessity as he did.

When he took over as coach in 2007, the program was in a state of disrepair, with five losing seasons in its last seven and five consecutive losses to their in-state rivals. Dantonio installed an annual countdown clock to the Michigan game in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building. He offered history lessons highlighting the 1950s and ’60s when Michigan State dominated. He invited former players to speak to the team.

“He really brought back the tradition of the Michigan State-Michigan game,” said Eric Gordon, a four-year starter at linebacker from 2007-10. “He imprinted it in our brains and showed us how important it was. … He wants everyone to know, especially the freshmen, who don’t understand the rivalry until they’ve played the game, he wants them to understand.”

Making it personal

And after the Wolverines’ fourth-quarter comeback victory made it six in a row in 2007 — running back Mike Hart’s “little brother” taunts adding insult to injury — Dantonio publicly made it personal. A few days later, Dantonio vowed “it’ll never be over,” angrily suggested his rivals “need to check themselves sometimes” and issued his now-famous warning: “Just remember, pride comes before the fall.”

He wanted everyone to understand. Not just his players.

“I have a great deal of respect for who they are and the game — a great deal of respect for that — and I think that everybody should understand that,” Dantonio explained. “But at the same time, I’m a competitor, too, just like our players are. So there are times when I need to stand up and be accountable for who I am and the position I hold, because I represent a lot of people. A lot of people have feelings towards this game. I think that’s important to recognize, because that’s a part of it, too.”

It’s all a part of it now, of course. And though Dantonio claims he hasn’t “given it that much thought,” the way this Zanesville, Ohio, native’s views of Michigan have been shaped by his coaching stints at Ohio State and now for a second time at Michigan State, “It’s sort of ingrained into who we are, or who my family is,” he admits.

No love lost

Likewise, Michigan’s return to its roots — with former Wolverines assistant Brady Hoke replacing Rich Rodriguez in 2011 — has helped reshape its own jaded view of the rivalry. Four losses in five years certainly helps, or hurts, in that regard. But Hoke added his own countdown clock for Michigan State, and after that initial loss in East Lansing, there was no mistaking his message.

“If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face, would you take that personally?” asked Taylor Lewan, one of the Wolverines’ senior captains.

It was a rhetorical question, but the answer was reverberating around Schembechler Hall this week. Yes, they’ve taken this personally.

“We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” Lewan said. “That’s the beauty of this game.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s hard not to see and hear the shifting dynamics in this series.

After two decades of dominance for the Spartans under Daugherty, the Wolverines countered with four of their own upon Bo Schembechler’s arrival in Ann Arbor. In fact, Michigan State hadn’t won consecutive games against Michigan since the mid-1960s until Dantonio’s teams rattled off four straight, culminating in that 2011 beatdown that still has the Wolverines griping about “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” and insisting, as Lewan said, “We’re not going to get bullied this year.”

Legends race on line today

The series mark shows Michigan comfortably on top at 68-32-5. But while it probably seems like fuzzy math in Ann Arbor, “based on my count right now, we’re up,” Dantonio said.

Based on the Big Ten standings, this year’s game carries some added significance as well. A victory today would put Michigan State in control of the Legends Division race at 5-0. A victory for Michigan would allow it to control its destiny as it seeks its first trip to the Big Ten championship game.

But that’s the big picture, and when it comes to rivalries like these, the true stakes are a bit more myopic. Not color blind, certainly — there’s no mistaking the green from the blue — but nearsighted, nonetheless. What matters is who wins, and who loses.

“For it truly to be a rivalry, it cannot be one-sided,” Dantonio said. “I mean, it can still be a rivalry, I guess. But when it’s much more competitive, obviously things take on a whole new meaning. …

“If you can’t back up the words, it’s just empty words, and it sort of gets lost in its meaning.”

After all that’s been said — and done — lately, there’s little chance of that now.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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