Spartans on rivalry with Wolverines: 'It's why you come to Michigan State'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State players celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after beating Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2017.

East Lansing — As Joe Bachie made clear Tuesday, current standings mean little when it comes to the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry.

As the old cliché goes, throw records out when the Spartans and Wolverines meet.

“My thing is if we were 6-0 or 0-6, we would still prepare the same way for these guys, this game,” Michigan State’s junior linebacker said. “Really, a lot of guys who are alumni, fans — this game means more than anything. We understand that, but we're a 4-2 team and I think they are (6-1), whatever it is. They are a good team. It's an exciting game.

"It's why you come to Michigan State.”

The latest meeting between the sometimes-bitter rivals happens at noon Saturday at Spartan Stadium (Fox/950, 760). Like many of the previous versions, though, this one qualifies as a big game. The Wolverines are ranked No. 6 in the nation and have won six in a row, while the 24th-ranked Spartans are coming off a victory at Penn State to keep their Big Ten East championship hopes alive.

And if it’s possible, this game is coming at the perfect time for Michigan State.

Following the loss at home to Northwestern two weeks ago, the confidence was crumbling. Had the Spartans lost last week at Penn State, there’s no telling what the collective mindset would have been this week. Instead, the Spartans are riding high.

“It always helps to come off a win, any game you're playing, especially a big win like we had last week,” junior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “The confidence is always high coming off a win like that. Any opponent we would be playing this week — obviously it's Michigan -- but we'll be ready 100 percent for that next person.”

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The fact the next “person” is the Wolverines means the intensity will be there. But this isn’t just a one-off. This game has plenty of meaning when it comes to the Big Ten East. Michigan and Ohio State haven’t lost a Big Ten game, but Michigan State will have its chance against both.

So, the Spartans still are in it with as good a chance as any to win the division and reach the conference championship game. That aspect only adds to the intrigue this weekend.

“It's always intense, but I think you play for more as you go forward. I guess now we're in the same division,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You take on the division race itself, it's an Eastern Division game and that type of thing.

“As I’ve said, October sort of points towards November. If you can play well in October, then you're going to be in the hunt for things in November. So that's our intent as we move forward, but yeah, I think it intensifies things.”

Dantonio’s point is simply that winning this time of year sets teams up for the stretch drive. This season, that has meant plenty of big games for Michigan State, which caps a back-to-back with Penn State and Michigan this week, and then closes the month with Purdue at home next week.

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Come out of that run unscathed and the division still is there to be had.

Of course, getting past Michigan is the priority, far from a simple task. But the Spartans believe they’re riding a bit of momentum, something that might not have come without the disappointment of the loss at home to Northwestern a couple of weeks ago.

“I think the loss the week before kind of showed (we needed to dig deeper),” Lewerke said. “Just coming off the loss, there was a lot of stuff we needed to improve on. That loss honestly was one of the better things that could have happened to us, just to figure out what was wrong and figure out what we needed to fix. I think that kind of showed last week when we came out and got a big win on the road.”

It showed that Michigan State, primarily, needed to find some production on offense. Things were far from perfect at Penn State — MSU gained 123 yards on the ground but had 418 total yards — but there was a different look to the offense. The running game actually found some creases in the defense and produced its longest run from a back all season when freshman La’Darius Jefferson broke free for 27 yards.

It was the result of some tweaking in terms of strategy, using more zone blocking in the run game and moving Lewerke around in the pocket.

Dantonio was asked if the Spartans will be just as aggressive this week against the No. 2 overall defense in the nation.

More: Postseason projections see UM in Rose Bowl, MSU in Gator Bowl

“I've always thought that we've taken an aggressive offensive approach,” Dantonio said. “On offense, it's all about the numbers. It's all about the production. Just like on defense. You know, if you're not stopping people on defense, people think you're not aggressive. I think it's all about production and really what have you done lately.

"That's college football. As you guys said, you need to adapt better; and last week I'm a genius, so it's amazing.”

Does he have to be a genius this week to get his ninth victory over the Wolverines and improve his record to 9-3 overall against his top rival? Probably not.

But considering the momentum the Spartans seem to have, they’re facing their biggest foe at the right time.

“It's an exciting game, rivalry game,” Bachie said. “We'll be ready for it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau