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Spielman: UM-MSU ‘the most physical game we’ll do all season’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Chris Spielman was a Buckeye playing for the Lions and living in this area. He quickly learned what the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was about.

Spielman will call the Michigan-Michigan State game from Michigan Stadium with Sean McDonough on Saturday. ESPN’s GameDay will be in Ann Arbor drawing national attention to the meeting between No. 7 and unbeaten Michigan State and No. 12 Michigan, which is 5-1 after three straight shutouts.

He has made clear to his colleagues what to expect from the in-state rivalry.

“I told the guys, ‘This will be the most physical game we’ll do all season,’ ” Spielman said Sunday. “I’m excited because it’s going to be a good game and a rivalry game and I have some familiarity with it. These teams will be getting after it. There’s such great energy, and the hits are a little bit harder and the emotions are high.

“It’s great for Michigan and Michigan State that the national spotlight is on that game.”

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a long-time coach, believes emotions are riding high for Michigan, coming off a win over previously unbeaten Northwestern. Michigan State is coming off a tough victory at Rutgers on Saturday night.

The Spartans have dominated the series in recent years, winning six of the last seven. Michigan’s lone victory in that span came in 2012, the last time the teams met at Michigan Stadium. DiNardo said first-year Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been masterful resurrecting the Wolverines’ program, but also believes this rivalry brings out the best in MSU coach Mark Dantonio.

“The game is at home, and they have tremendous momentum,” DiNardo said. “Michigan hasn’t beaten them for so long, and right now there’s so much positive on Michigan’s side.

“But Michigan State has the confidence because they know they’ve won. It’s an emotional game by nature and Mark has done an incredible job of making this so very important, which it always has been. But you can make a case he’s elevated it.

“He’s at his best this week. I think we all owe Mark Dantonio for making this one of the best weeks in college football. He really has with his humor and his motivation and his behavior. He’s hit all the right buttons to make you look forward to this week every year and reflect on the previous games. He’s just giving you enough to mark it hard on your calendar.”

Michigan has elevated its defensive game and is ranked in the top three nationally in many major categories, including No. 1 in third-down percentage defense and scoring defense, allowing an average of 6.3 points a game. The Wolverines have scored 97 unanswered points.

Meanwhile, Michigan State, which has had a rash of injuries, has gone 6-0 this season, and has veteran Connor Cook at quarterback.

“Michigan State carries that natural chip on their shoulder which they’ve done for years, and now Michigan has that chip on their shoulder,” Spielman said. “And I’m sure they’re looking for revenge for the way Michigan State has dominated.”

Spielman began heaping praise on Michigan after the Wolverines upset then-No. 22 BYU in a 31-0 victory. He took to radio in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, and said Michigan could soon be a top-10 team.

“I think I was the first one out there,” Spielman said, laughing. “It’s Jim (Harbaugh) doing his thing and hiring the coaches around him to do their thing and getting the players playing at the highest level and with the style of play that we’re going to run the ball, not turn it over and win with defense. That’s what they’ve done, that’s how they’re built.

“I would say I’m a little surprised (with the quick success). I never saw this coming. I always thought it was a possibility, but I never thought they would be this dominant, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Watching them manhandle BYU and do their thing, they are who they are, they know who they are, and they play like they know they’re good.”

Glen Mason can’t get over Michigan earning three straight shutouts.

“That’s unbelievable,” said Mason, the former Minnesota coach and current BTN analyst. “But I was one of those guys that I really thought Michigan would be better. I said that from Day one, and I said that because I believe they underperformed the last couple years. They had better talent than they performed.

“I guess this sounds critical of (former Michigan coach) Brady Hoke — I don’t mean it to be because I like Brady, but I thought Brady took the players off the hook for everything. I did the Rutgers-Michigan game a year ago, and he said (after a loss), ‘I coach these kids like they’re my kids, and they try hard.’

“Are you crazy? This is Michigan. I know how Bo (Schembechler) ran that program, wasn’t any different than Woody. Good God, if you lost to Rutgers, he’s not saying anything good about you.”

Mason said there are two important areas for him when he’s evaluating a game — the defense and quarterback.

“How do you bet against a team that has shut out three teams in a row?” he said. “So much of defense is attitude. The better you get, the better these kids get, they feel they can stop you. But in terms of quarterback, in big games, let’s face it, Connor Cook makes big plays.

“As far as coaching, what’s the difference at Michigan? Jim Harbaugh. But how could you not be impressed with what Mark Dantonio has done at Michigan State? It’s going to be a heck of a ballgame.”

DiNardo believes Saturday’s game takes on a different level with Dantonio, who had the Michigan game ingrained while he was an assistant coach with the Spartans, and Harbaugh, who played quarterback for the Wolverines and played in the rivalry.

“That’s intensified now by Jim having played in the rivalry. That’s a big thing,” DiNardo said. “Mark has said that Michigan State is a destination job, a place he wants to be. All of that matters and it motivates the coaches.

“It’s just totally cool. I like how Jim said after the (Northwestern) game that this week is just like any other week. You get back to work, just a little quicker. I just think these two guys are going to be masterful with their language. It’s fun. It makes it more unique, and to me that’s all very funny and exciting.”