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'Magnitude' of Michigan vs. MSU game unlikely to rattle Joe Milton, Rocky Lombardi

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Even if the Big House were full of fans, the bands playing, a typical raucous atmosphere for the gritty, hard-hitting Michigan-Michigan State game in a typical year, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t believe the stage would be too big or daunting for two quarterbacks debuting as full-time starting quarterbacks this season.

To be sure, that stage will be different at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. There will be a television audience, but only a few hundred parents will be in attendance since the Big Ten is not allowing fans to watch the limited season in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe Milton

Football players often say they feed off the fans, even if they’re the visiting team getting called things other than their names. Fans won’t be part of this 113th meeting of Michigan and Michigan State, but that won’t take away from what this game means to both teams.

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton and Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi will make their first starts in this rivalry, with Michigan ranked No. 13 and coming off a 49-24 win at Minnesota last week in the season opener. Michigan State is coming off a 38-27 loss to Rutgers pockmarked by seven turnovers. Michigan has won three of the last four games in the in-state rivalry, while MSU had won seven of eight through 2015.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh does not expect either quarterback to flinch Saturday.

“They’ve both seen it up close,” Harbaugh said this week. “I think they both have a really good understanding of it, the magnitude of it. Then you get consumed with your preparation and understanding as much as you can about the game plan and the opposing defense.

“I’m pretty sure both of them have a good understanding of the magnitude of the game.”

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Lombardi was 31-of-43 for 319 yards and had three touchdowns and two interceptions in the opener against Rutgers. The redshirt junior will be making his first start in the rivalry game and is not intimidated.

“My prep will be a lot different this year considering last year I played in the game as a personal protector for the punt team,” Lombardi said this week. “But it's exciting to finally get out there as a starting quarterback. The prep will be different from week to week, but it's ultimately the same. You’ve got to go out there, rep your plays, you’ve got to see the looks. So, it's exciting to take some of the reps in practice now and really feel like I have comfortability with what I'm doing with the offense and how I'm seeing the defense.”

Rocky Lombardi

Although fans won’t be at the game, this is always an emotional, physical, hate-fueled game. For that reason alone, Lombardi’s icy composure is well-suited for a matchup like this.

“I think that's something that I do really well,” Lombardi said. “I try to stay even keel, make sure everybody in the huddle feels a neutral presence in there and make sure that nobody's too high, nobody's too low. So it's really important in every game and especially in a rivalry game when emotions are flying high. You know just one dumb penalty or whatever, a turnover, somebody is not focused, it can really change the game.”

Milton, in his first career start last week, also exhibited poise and an in-control demeanor.

Ben McDaniels, Michigan’s quarterbacks coach, said that when he has a player going into his first start, he’s looking for how in control of the “procedure of the game” he is. Milton made solid decisions and later said he wanted “to prove to the world” what he’s capable of doing.

“He played with great poise, was comfortable in the pocket,” McDaniels said. “From a starting point, that’s a great start. We talked about being comfortable in your own shoes out there. Sometimes that can take some time, so I was really happy with how much poise he displayed and his ability to be in full control of the operation and the procedure and I thought it showed.”

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While Lombardi has made starts during his MSU career, Milton is new to this, having worked behind Shea Patterson, Michigan’s starter the past two years, and Dylan McCaffrey, who was the backup. Milton shared what his pre-game emotions were with reporters after last week’s game, saying he was calm and collected during warmups, then went to the locker room and shed some tears as he was about to fulfill a goal.

“He’s wanted this for a long time,” McDaniels said. “This is what he’s dreamt about. This is why he came to Michigan, to have a chance to play and he finally got that chance. He’s an emotional guy and he’s proud of the path that he’s been on. He was excited to get his opportunity and he should have been. He earned it, and it was special for everyone to watch him.”

Michigan is a 25-point favorite in this game in large part because of how MSU looked in its first game under new head coach Mel Tucker. The turnovers were brutal, but both teams know that how much experience either quarterback has in this rivalry game means little. This game has been about so much more than that.

“I thought Rocky Lombardi played well,” former Michigan All-American Jon Jansen, who works on the UM radio broadcast, said this week. “You can’t count on those same mistakes happening at least in regards to that many. You look at their offense, and Rocky Lombardi threw for over 300 yards. He only had 12 incompletions. He wasn’t bad. Their offensive line is going to be better.

“They’re going to be more in tune with a (offensive coordinator) Jay Johnson game plan and what Mel Tucker is like on game day. It was a first for everything. Do not expect this is going to be the same Michigan State team you saw last Saturday. They still have talented players. If I’m Mel Tucker, I make this game plan as simple as possible. I give them four run plays, a couple protections, and if it’s not enough, it’s not enough, but at least you’re not going to have the confusion or the turnovers, at least you hope you don’t, that you had against Rutgers. If you have seven turnovers against a team like Michigan, you’re in big, big trouble.”

Michigan vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV / radio: Fox / WWJ 950-AM, WJR 760-AM

Records: Michigan 1-0, Michigan State 0-1

Line: Michigan by 25