Harbaugh: Wolverines will be ‘really intense’ against Spartans

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Karan Higdon, left, and quarterback Shea Patterson celebrate after Higdon ran for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s voice didn’t change. It was even and clear, as was his point.

Not long after the Wolverines pounded Wisconsin 38-13, the topic turned to Saturday’s in-state rivalry game at Michigan State. Michigan is 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, while the Spartans are coming off an upset at Penn State, 21-17, and are 4-2, 2-1.

Beating Michigan’s rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, has been Harbaugh’s Achilles Heel. The Wolverines are 1-5 combined against the two.

Harbaugh was asked if Michigan will match the intensity the Spartans under Mark Dantonio always bring.

He was brief and to the point.

“We’ll be really intense for it,” Harbaugh said.

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Michigan State has dominated the last 10 games against Michigan, winning eight. The Spartans have won four of the last five, including a 14-10 victory last year in a second-half downpour at Michigan Stadium. Michigan last won in 2016, 32-23, at Michigan State.

Michigan travels to East Lansing to face Michigan Stadium at Spartan Stadium on Saturday at noon.

It will be UM quarterback Shea Patterson’s first time in the rivalry. Rivalries aren’t new to Patterson, having been in the midst of Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State rivalry.

Patterson attended Michigan games as a kid when he lived in Toledo, so he has a good feel for what this game means to the Wolverines, not only to extend their winning streak and keep them in the running for the Big Ten title, but because of the intense feelings between the two programs.

“I understand it,” Patterson said after the Wisconsin game in which he threw for 124 yards and ran for 90, including an 81-yarder. “I understand the expectations and the hype around the game, but I think we’re going to attack it every single week moving forward these last few weeks just like we have done the last few weeks.

“Playing Michigan State and Ohio State means a little bit more. It’s a little bit more personal, but it doesn’t matter who we play. We have to come out with the same intensity and the same expectation and belief in ourselves that we’re going to win.”

The Michigan State game has long been considered by Michigan players to be the most physical on their schedule. The teams and players don’t like each other and don’t hide that. Patterson said he doesn’t have to be told how much more physical and chippy this game can be.

“I’m sure some of the guys on Michigan State grew up Michigan State fans and were raised like that and so were we,” said Patterson, who is ranked 14th nationally in completion percentage (68.6 percent). “It’s going to be a battle. We’ve got to come out ready to play and know they’re going to give us everything they got. They just beat Penn State, a great team, so they’re going to come out ready to play.”

There is considerably more balance overall on this Michigan team than in recent seasons. The defense has been top-three nationally under coordinator Don Brown, and dropped one spot this week to No. 2 after the Wisconsin game. The Wolverines are holding teams to an average of 238 yards a game, and are ranked No. 1 in pass defense (129.1 yards) and No. 9 in scoring defense (15.4).

But a big difference this season since the opening loss at Notre Dame has been a continually-improving offensive line under first-year position coach Ed Warinner. Last season, Michigan was among the nation’s worst in sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed, and this year the Wolverines are ranked 35th in sacks allowed and 36th in TFL allowed.

More significant to the linemen, though, is rushing yardage. Michigan ranks 28th nationally (217 yards).

The defensive players have set a tone the last few weeks, making it clear that the Wolverines are not going to beat themselves.

“We don’t care who we play,” said linebacker Josh Uche, who had a sack of Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was 7-of-20 for 100 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. “It doesn’t really matter. We don’t care. You playing us. You gotta go through us. That’s how we look at it. It doesn’t matter what your accomplishments are, whatever, you’ve got to play us. We’re going to see how good you are when you play us.”

Uche said it would not be difficult to switch gears to prepare for Michigan State.

“It ain’t tough at all. It’s what we do,” he said. “Just going to keep doing what we do and look up at the end. It’s always motivation. It’s none extra. Every game is a big game. “

Safety Josh Metellus, who had one of the two interceptions against the Badgers, said the Wolverines were going to briefly celebrate the win over Wisconsin, go through post-game treatment on Sunday “to get our bodies ready,” and then prepare for the Spartans.

This is the second big game in a three-game stretch for the Wolverines, who will have a bye the week after the Michigan State game before playing Penn State.

“We want to win the Big Ten championship, we want to play for the national championship,” Metellus said. “It just starts every week with the mentality this is the game that can decide our season, so let’s treat it like that. Everybody is focused, everybody is working hard in practice.”

Running back Karan Higdon, a senior and co-captain, had 105 yards rushing and a touchdown against Wisconsin. This was his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He said the win over the Badgers was significant for the Michigan players.

“This was more of a personal game for us,” Higdon said. “A lot of people have a lot of questions about who we are as a team. Our offensive line and run game showed up in big games. There’s no question we’ve got the best offensive line in the country.”


Twitter: @chengelis