Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his players have taken a decidedly un-chatty approach to Michigan-Michigan State week.
What that means is open to interpretation, of course, as the Wolverines make final preparations to play at No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans are two-touchdown-plus favorites and have won five of the last six meetings with their in-state rivals.
Hoke, upon his arrival in Ann Arbor, spoke about the Ohio State rivalry, referring to them always as "Ohio." On the Michigan team schedule, Michigan State is referred to only as "State."
There are countdown clocks for both rivalry games scattered throughout the Schembechler Hall football building, but it always has felt like The Game against Ohio State carries more weight.
But one rivalry is not more important than another, and Hoke, who has been here three-plus seasons, is more than aware of that fact. He is 0-5 on the road in rivalry games, and, because of Big Ten scheduling after the conference expanded, finds himself taking Michigan to Michigan State for the second straight season. Michigan plays at Ohio State at the end of the regular season, as well.
Michigan is 3-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten and is facing an uphill, five-game road to reaching a bowl game and restoring some credibility. A win at Michigan State, although Michigan is a heavy underdog, could, as cornerback Jourdan Lewis said this week, "catapult" the Wolverines.
While the players have said little this week about Michigan State beyond the expected statements of respect for a team that won the Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles last season, Hoke showed a bit more in his mid-week news conference on Wednesday.
"You can talk about underdogs and those things, (but) when you starting talking about rivalry games, things change a little bit to some degree," Hoke said. "Everybody talks about the week different, well, you want consistency (in) how you prepare. Is there an added dimension to it with the intensity and those things? Yeah. And the good thing is, it comes from the players, it doesn't have to come from a coach."
Hoke will need his players to respond on Saturday to help him lead the team these final five games in what has been a shaky fourth season.
Michigan went 11-2 in Hoke's first season, won the Sugar Bowl, and, perhaps, set the bar too high. The Wolverines' wins have dropped each season to 8-5 in 2012 and 7-6 in 2013. Michigan was 2-6 to end last season and lost five of the last six, including the bowl game.
Hoke doesn't want anyone to think his players don't understand what playing Michigan State means. He was on former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr's staff for eight years. He remembers how this week felt then and said the approach is similar now.
"I can go back to when I was an assistant for eight years, I just knew you knew it was Michigan State week," Hoke said. "Guys may miss a class here or there to prepare a little more. I'm just being honest with you, to see more film or whatever in their preparation.
"From that standpoint, who wouldn't want to play a game like this? Who wouldn't want to get ready to prepare to go play your best football? As you know, we've been evolving as a team and that's what we need to do every week, so when you say it's the next game, yeah, it is, but it's a daggone important game because it's a great rivalry game."
It's also daggone important because it can cure some of the ills of this season.
Some of them.
It has been a year of challenge after challenge, beginning with the 31-0 rout at Notre Dame and then consecutive losses to Utah, Minnesota and Rutgers.
And then there has been the player-safety controversy that swirled around the program after quarterback Shane Morris, who made his first career regular-season start against Minnesota, took a late-game hit that left him unstable when he got up from the field.
He was later diagnosed with a "probable mild concussion" and a high ankle sprain, but the program was heavily scrutinized for keeping a player with a concussion in the game.
Since then, several players, most notably Dennis Norfleet, have fiercely and publicly defended Hoke, But more important than that will be how they play on Saturday.
The Wolverines have talked this week unemotionally and let the Spartans do the talking. Undoubtedly, the Michigan players have tried to avoid giving MSU any bulletin-board material by not stirring up any of the rivalry-game animosities.
When asked if his players by design have not said much this week regarding Michigan State, their opponent on Saturday, Hoke at first offered a circuitous response about how the Wolverines use their news-conference platform to discuss the team and Michigan.
When it was pointed out to Hoke that the players have made an expressed point to not say much, he smiled slightly.
"They're pretty educated guys," Hoke said with a laugh.