Michigan clash offers slumping Michigan State 'sweeter taste' to disappointing season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — After four straight losses, there is no magic dust to sprinkle on Michigan State’s season.

The Spartans entered 2019 expecting to compete for the Big Ten East Division with a shot at playing in the conference championship game and beyond. However, an early loss to Arizona State revealed what have become typical offensive problems and by the time Michigan State was deep into the conference schedule, the defense had begun to falter, as well.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is 8-4 against Michigan.

The string of four straight losses began with three in a row against top-10 teams, then culminated with last week’s collapse against Illinois.

Nope, nothing is going to take away that sting, especially handing away last week’s game.

“Very disappointed,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It's one that I'll carry with me for probably the rest of my life, but that's coaching.”

But, even as Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) tries to scrap its way toward a bowl game, there is something out there that is worth something more — the rivalry game with Michigan. No, a win wouldn’t suddenly erase everything that’s happened over the first nine games, but the Spartans admit ending their skid against the team down the road would be a nice bonus.

“Yeah, it would put a sweeter taste in everyone's mouth and would make things feel a lot better than what they are now,” fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “And after a four-game losing streak, this would be one that would — any win after a four-game losing streak would be big — but this one would be especially big.”

There won’t be many arguments from those surrounding this rivalry, one that Dantonio has played a big part in flipping. Before his arrival in 2007, it was dominated by the Wolverines, but Dantonio is 8-4 in 12 games against Michigan, including 2-2 in the last four against Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

From “Little Brother” to spikes in the turf to tearing up grass, there is no love lost between the Spartans and Wolverines, and while Dantonio says he does what he can to keep things cordial, he also understands the intensity involved.

“If you don't like confrontation, this probably isn't a good game to go to, because it's just the way it is,” Dantonio said. “It's just the natural. You have guys that have played against each other in high school. You have guys that have played already in this football game, so it's a competitive environment,

“I've chosen to try to be respectful towards the rivalry and take — I sort of take the high road. I think our players have tried to do that, as well. I'm sure there's something going on always, but that's the nature of this game a little bit, too. Like I said, you don't like confrontation, best stay at home. You need to get yourself ready for it. It's coming.”

There’s no doubting the intensity in the game, and circumstances often play into it, as well. In some years, both teams are battling for a Big Ten championship, meaning the game has high stakes. In others, it’s about one team trying to spoil another’s.

For Michigan State, it’s about trying to slow Michigan’s momentum while finding something positive in its own.

“It’s definitely a big game, a big rivalry game,” said junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, an Ann Arbor native. “I'm not about to sit here and say (a win) will make us feel like the season wasn't bad, but it definitely would make us feel a lot better to beat them.”

It’s probably worth tossing in the old cliché about throwing out the records, too.

Michigan State has been the underdog often in the series, regardless of record and ranking, and it hasn’t seemed to change the intensity. In fact, Dantonio referenced on Tuesday the matchup in 2009 when the Spartans were 1-3 and had lost three straight while Michigan entered a perfect 4-0. The Spartans built a 20-6 lead at home before the Wolverines rallied to force overtime where Michigan State earned its second straight win in the series.

Getting that type of performance, even when the teams are heading in opposite directions, seems like a good bet this time around.

“It’s because I feel like you’re going to get the best out everybody in this game,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “So records won't matter or the games played previously won’t matter because everybody will be at the top of their game.

“It’s just one of those things you can’t explain about this Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but I know I’ll always get the best from everybody this week.”

The best has been pretty good for Michigan so far. After the early loss to Wisconsin, the Wolverines have started to come to life. They lost at Penn State, but played well in the second half and that has led to two straight victories.

The Wolverines (7-2, 4-2) are technically still alive in the race for the East, and Michigan State understands that. The Spartans want a shot to end those title hopes, but just as importantly, they want to feel like there’s something left to play for.

A win this week would be a good start.

“Every game makes the year for us right now,” Dantonio said. “Every game is significant. We have two games left (after this) guaranteed to us, so every game is significant. This is one that again we need to measure up on.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau