Khari Willis, fellow Spartans careful not to poke the Wolverines

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) makes a catch against Michigan State safety Khari Willis on Saturday.

East Lansing — Khari Willis got his first career start against Michigan.

That came back in 2015 when the true freshman safety got the call alongside fellow freshman Grayson Miller as the Spartans headed into Michigan Stadium.

That game, of course, ended in epic fashion as Michigan State won on the final play of the game — a blocked punt picked up by Jalen Watts-Jackson, who followed a convoy into the end zone. For the native of Jackson, it was a special moment. Not only had he played a critical role so early in his career, but getting a victory in this rivalry for an in-state kid is something special.

“I think we were both pretty highly ranked at the time,” Willis recalled Tuesday. “It was a marquee matchup, tough game going back and forth from what I remember, and then I just …”

Willis trailed off. Perhaps he quickly remembered that, three years later, it’s Michigan-Michigan State week again and everyone is careful of saying the wrong thing.

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So, bringing up the most painful play in recent Wolverines history maybe wasn’t the right move. The senior captain then quickly shifted.

“I think we played pretty solid as a defense,” Willis said. “It was going back and forth and we pulled it out with the punt at the end. That was a long time ago.”

Yeah, that was a long time ago in the life of a college football player. Since then, Willis has seen plenty. That 2015 team reached the College Football Playoffs, went through the 3-9 fall-off in 2016 and was a huge part of the rebound last season to 10 wins.

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He’s also got a winning record against the Spartans’ biggest rival, adding a 14-10 win in Ann Arbor last season after Michigan won in East Lansing in 2016.

All three of the meetings were big, and for a player from the state, it’s hard to say which one means the most.

“I'm from Michigan, so they are all meaningful to me,” Willis said. “This is the next one up; this is the most meaningful for me, simply because I'm from Michigan.”

As No. 24 Michigan State gets set to host No. 6 Michigan at noon Saturday in what will be Willis’ final time in the rivalry, those from outside the state have begun to have the same appreciation for it that Willis and those from Michigan already had.

“For me, my freshman year in 2016, just the pregame, like the week leading up to it,” said Ohio native and junior linebacker Joe Bachie. “All the players talking about it, our video that we have before the game has past Spartan players talking about how big this game is and how much it means to them. So just kind of like the week leading up to it.

“Obviously, game time and once you get out there and play for the first time and just experience it, you definitely get the feel of what that game means.”

Michigan State running back LJ Scott runs past Arizona State linebacker Darien Butler earlier this season.

Ditching depth chart

Michigan State has had its share of injuries this season and eight players that have been starters or played key roles this season did not travel last week to Penn State.

So, this week, coach Mark Dantonio opted not to provide a depth chart.

“A lot of times it changes on Saturday afternoon, so just this week, just decided, ‘Hey, let's just not do it,’” Dantonio said.

Of course, the depth chart hasn’t always reflected the status of injured players and Dantonio wasn’t offering up any updates this week.

That includes the status of running back LJ Scott (ankle), wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. (ankle), wide receiver Jalen Nailor (undisclosed) and guard Kevin Jarvis (ankle). Others are out more long-term, including wide receiver Cody White (hand), punter Jake Hartbarger (leg) and guard David Beedle (arm).

Civil war

Dantonio said he’s noticed more civility in the rivalry over the past three seasons, saying there has been more sportsmanship in 2015, ’16 and ’17. He credited the shift to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

“I think he's all about that,” Dantonio said. “I think he tries to play the game like it's supposed to be played and I think he respects the football game, he respects the game, the general game of football. We do the same at our place and I think it permeates down through the players. I hope that's the case.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau