East Lansing — Forgive Riley Bullough if he looks at the Michigan game a bit differently than the rest of his teammates.
The junior middle linebacker is one of nearly 40 players on Michigan State’s roster from the state, and the rivalry between the two top schools in Michigan is a big deal for every one.
But Bullough, from Traverse City, isn’t just another Spartans player. He is Michigan State royalty — part of a family that is at the core of the football program.
It has spanned generations, beginning with Riley’s grandfather, Hank Bullough, who won a national title in 1952 under Biggie Munn and then was defensive coordinator under Duffy Daugherty when the Spartans again won titles in 1965 and 1966.
Next came Riley’s father, Shane, who played linebacker from 1983-86, and his uncle, Chuck, who manned the middle of the defense from 1988-1991 and is sixth in career tackles at Michigan State.
Riley’s brother, Max, was a standout middle linebacker who played from 2010-13, with the two playing as teammates in 2012 and 2013.
Now, Riley’s younger brother, Byron, is a redshirt freshman linebacker with the Spartans.
So, facing Michigan brings a little more emotion out of the Bulloughs, and Riley Bullough knows it no other way.
“Growing up it’s kinda crazy in this state, especially for my family,” Bullough said. “It’s not you’re a Michigan or Michigan State fan, you literally identify yourself as part of the blue and maize or the green and white. That’s your identity, that’s your everything. Some people don’t really understand that that aren’t from around here, but I certainly do. I think the guys on our team, you know, start to understand that as they play in this game.”
Bullough isn’t alone in his position as a legacy player at Michigan State.
Redshirt freshman Matt Morrissey’s father, Jim, was a linebacker at Michigan State from 1981-84 and won a Super Bowl with the Bears. True freshman Grayson Miller’s dad, John, played safety at Michigan State from 1985-88. He was part of the 1987 team that won the Rose Bowl and was All-Big Ten twice.
And, according to co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, there is an edge to those guys this week.
“Riley is always fiery anyhow, but you gotta think about those guys,” Barnett said. “We gotta a lot of legacy guys on this team. (Bullough) has been hearing about this game since he’s been born. Matt Morrissey, Grayson Miller — those guys have been hearing about this game and have been knowing about this game for a long time. All the guys here from the state that play here … lot of guys really fired up and excited to go.”
Barnett understands the rivalry as well. He’s not from Michigan, but played for George Perles and won a Rose Bowl before earning All-American honors in 1989.
He wouldn’t delve too much into his emotions, but was sure the competitor in him would be on full display.
“It’s going to be fun,” Barnett said. “Our guys will be fired up. I will be fired up and the other guy will be out.”
The Spartans will be counting on several of the Michigan natives heavily if they expect to retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Senior Aaron Burbridge (Farmington Hills) is the leading receiver, while fifth-year senior Lawrence Thomas (Detroit) and sophomore Malik McDowell (Detroit) are stars on the defensive line. Junior tight end Jamal Lyles hails from Southfield and sophomore linebacker Jon Reschke (Sterling Heights) is second on the team in tackles behind Bullough.
All of them relish the chance to win the battle of the state.
“It’s important,” Bullough said. “I think we’re going to lay it down on the line this week.”