Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Saturday's showdown between the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Detroit News
A state divided.
From friends to family to co-workers, there is almost no one who sits on the fence when it comes to the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.
For the most part, the annual game, set for Saturday night, is a week’s worth of good-natured jabs complete with bets to wear the other team’s colors should the team you root for loses.
It’s all in fun.
Except, of course, for the players and coaches involved.
The intensity is unmatched, something players on both sides of the rivalry have attested to for decades. And even though in many seasons there was little more at stake than bragging rights, that never changed the passion of the game.
“We just know what this game means,” Michigan State sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said this week. “From the past, just seeing how physical it gets and seeing the hatred between the teams — the competitive hatred.
“We are going to get our guys ready to go. It’s going to be a fun one.”
Fun? Maybe, but what’s at stake when the teams square off at 7:30 p.m. at Michigan Stadium? That’s a tougher one to answer this season.
Michigan (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) comes in with expectations of winning its first Big Ten championship since 2004, reaching its first conference title game and earning a spot in the College Football Playoffs.
Michigan State (3-1, 1-0) has done all of that, last winning the conference title in 2015, the same year it went to the playoffs. But then 2016 came, and with it a monumental collapse to 3-9. For the Spartans, this year’s goals are not as grand. Finishing with a winning record and playing in a bowl game are the first step.
But would a win Saturday night change any of that? Could it lead to a quicker revival than most experts expected?
“You’ve got to earn that reputation, especially after last year,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You’ve got to climb back up that ladder, and that’s our intent. That’s where our mindset is, and again it’s a road game. It’s a rivalry game. I don’t think we need to factor in and say, ‘OK, we’re the underdog and all that kind of stuff.’ We have motivation. They have motivation. Should be a great football game.”
Now in his 11th season at Michigan State, Dantonio has built the Spartans into a consistent contender, winning three Big Ten championships and playing in nine bowl games. His success against Michigan has been a big part of that and entering Saturday night’s game he’s 7-3 against the Wolverines with a 3-1 mark in Ann Arbor.
Another win in the rivalry would not only signal to the rest of the Big Ten that last season’s woes were an anomaly, but it would continue to establish his dominance in the state. For those playing, however, they’re doing their best to not make this one bigger than any other game.
“Yeah, I would say so,” senior center Brian Allen said when asked if a win this week could lead the Spartans to big things this season. “But at the same time you have to come in every week just trying to win the week. But if we win this one and things start rolling in the right way the confidence will start going up. So, in that aspect it would be a huge win, but at the same time we want to win because it’s the next game.”
The Wolverines have been taking the same approach
“You give something a little extra this week for sure,” Michigan junior linebacker Chase Winovich said. “It is just another week. We’re going to keep going what we’ve been doing. We’ve kind of laid this foundation for success the first couple weeks, and this is no different.
“It’s 11 people versus 11 people. They have a job to do, we have a job to do and we’re going to see who does it better. They’re gritty, we’re gritty, and we’re going to be ready for this.”
But back to those expectations. While Michigan State’s might not be as high this season, they sure are lofty at Michigan.
While the talk this week has been focused on the opponent, Michigan State, the overall goal was clear before the season began — the Wolverines expect championships now.
“We’re not looking for next year, we’re looking for now,” sophomore receiver Eddie McDoom said back in August. “We think we’re going to win it this year. That’s the mindset. You come in every season, and you want to win.
“There’s no next year. No, it’s this year. We’re going to come in and grind, and we’re going to come in fighting. Our goal right now is to win the national championship, the Big Ten and be the greatest team we can be.”
Would a loss to Michigan State derail those plans? Not necessarily, especially considering Michigan still has games against Penn State and Ohio State, the other teams likely battling for the East Division title.
But they’re not planning to take any chances, which is why the Wolverines spent the week doing their best to keep it business as usual — even if that’s easier said than done.
“It’s not another game,” Michigan sophomore offensive lineman Michael Onwenu said. “It means a lot to me and the team. It means a lot but we’re not going to separate this game and say, ‘We gotta do this, we gotta do that.’ We take every game the same. Gotta win every game.”
That includes this one, but even that can’t change the fact this one is a little different.
“You can’t just say it’s another game,” said Michigan State junior title end Matt Sokol, a Rochester native.
“It’s a game that is just something very special, especially being a guy who is from Michigan, and for our whole team. This is just a very unique experience, a very unique game, there’s something special about it.”
MICHIGAN VS. MICHIGAN STATE
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV / radio: ABC / WJR 760, WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 4-0, Michigan State 3-1
Line: Michigan by 10.5