Ambry Thomas: UM vs. MSU is 'about who’s the big brother and who’s the little sister'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry runs deep, especially for those from the state.

Michigan starter cornerback Ambry Thomas, who played at Detroit Martin Luther King was asked Monday what the rivalry means to him. Michigan and Michigan State play Saturday at noon Michigan Stadium.

“Right now it’s the most important game on our schedule,” Thomas said. “It’s about who’s the big brother and who’s the little sister in this state. That’s what it’s really about.

“We plan to give them our all just like they plan to give us their all.”

The “little brother” commentary has been around since after the Wolverines’ 2007 victory when Mike Hart, Michigan’s all-time leading rusher, discussed their comeback after trailing by 10 late in the fourth quarter.

“Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead,” Hart said at the time. “Then you come back and take it from him.”

In an interview with The Detroit News four years ago, Hart said he regretted making the comment.

“I was 21,” Hart, now running backs coach at Indiana, said at the time. “That was eight years ago. A long time ago. You grow, you learn. You live with what you did. Whatever people say to me I deserve at the end of the day.”

The "little brother" narrative was revived before last season, when Michigan State running back LJ Scott referred to Michigan as "our little sisters," during Big Ten media days, shortly after Michigan linebacker Devin Bush referred to Michigan State as "lil bros" in a tweet.

Michigan defeated Michigan State, 21-7, last season in East Lansing, holding Scott to 25 yards rushing on 10 carries, and the Spartans to 94 yards of total offense.

After the win, defensive end Chase Winovich, now with the New England Patriots, revived the little brother comment.

“Sometimes little brother starts acting up and you gotta put ‘em in place,” Winovich said during a postgame television interview.

A few days later, Winovich explained why he made the comment.

Ambry Thomas

“I’ve been interviewing with you guys for years, I'm not out here trying to call out teams in post-game interviews," Winovich said. "I don't like a lot of teams, but I'm not just going to pick a fight. But for them, they called us 'little sister' in the summer.”

Michigan is 7-2, 4-2 Big Ten and has won five of its last six. The Wolverines did not play last Saturday. Michigan State has been reeling and coming off a loss at home to Illinois. MSU is 4-5, 2-4. Michigan has won the last two games in the rivalry at MSU, and MSU has won the last two at Michigan.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Monday how to avoid the team letting its guard down preparing for a Michigan State team that has been wounded this year.

“On high alert for everything,” Harbaugh said. “We understand that coach (Mark) Dantonio is a master motivator. There could be trick plays. Special teams. Punt fakes, Field goal fakes. Everything needs to be alerted and prepared and ready for it.”

Thomas said it is vital to start fast and not let up.

“You’ve got to step on their throat and stay there all game,” Thomas said. “We know they’re going to treat this game like their Super Bowl. We’ve got to be prepared and just attack them like they’re going to attack us.”

 Before last season’s game, there was the now famous pregame brouhaha between the teams. Will that be fuel for the Wolverines as they ready for the Spartans?

“We’ve got to show them again,” Thomas said. “They’re going to try to come here and disrespect us. You expect it. I’m not worried about that. We just got to focus on now, can’t focus on last year. Want to focus on now and show ‘em we can do it again.”

Sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson grew up near Ann Arbor, the son of former Michigan All-American Chris Hutchinson, and understand this rivalry better than most. He attended Divine Child and counts among his best friends, Michigan State backup quarterback Theo Day. The two have traded spirited trash-talking texts, and for Hutchinson, this game feels extremely personal.

“My whole life, this rivalry has been huge,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve been watching Michigan football my entire life. I’ve always had that. I know what the game is, I know what the rivalry’s like. I’m ready to go out there and play.

“My dad played here. This is my second year here. I live 20 minutes from here. This rivalry is not just on Saturday. It’s all year around with everyone from the state of Michigan.”

This is always considered one of the more physical games both teams play because so much is on the line, primarily in-state bragging rights.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a little bit of stuff after the whistle,” Hutchinson said. “I’m expecting that because of how this rivalry has been in the past. I’m ready.”

The Wolverines had time last week to study MSU film and many caught the Spartans’ game last Saturday. They’re not worried about keeping their guard up against a team that has struggled this season because, after all, it’s the rivalry.

“We keep our guard up every week knowing that every game is very important to us just like it’s very important to the other team we’re playing,” co-captain Carlo Kemp said. “We’ve been taking it a one game, one down, one snap approach this entire season and that’s how we’re going to continue to go. This game is very important to us because it’s our next game. It’s Michigan State, it’s at home and I’m sure that’s their same mentality. This game is very important to them because it’s the next game.”

For Ben Bredeson, Michigan’s left guard and offensive captain, this will be his last Michigan-Michigan State. Bredeson is from Wisconsin but learned quickly how important this game is for his teammates from the state.

“This is one of those games you circle on the calendar,” he said. “Everybody’s already ready to go for it. I just try to always tell the young guys, keep your composure, keep your head. We’ve seen these games, they can get very heated, very emotional. We just don’t want any dumb penalties, no mistakes. Try to control the controllables in big games like this, especially when the in-state rival comes in. You always want to be your best. If we can limit the self mistakes. That’s going to pay dividends later on.”

Twitter: @chengelis