Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry with Chris Howard and Nick Hill. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Maybe it was fake earlier this week when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio during the respective news conferences traded respectful commentary about each other.
Harbaugh called Dantonio a “master motivator” and Dantonio described Harbaugh as “intense.”
So fake, right? No, no, no. A million times, no, but Michigan coaches and players did discuss this week just how fake the Spartans can be. As in, trick plays, get it? Punt fakes, field goal fakes.
“On high alert for everything,” Harbaugh said this week of his team. “We understand Mark Dantonio’s a master motivator and there could be trick plays. Everything needs to be alerted and prepared and ready.”
That wasn’t all the 14th-ranked Wolverines (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) prepared for this week ahead of Saturday's game at Michigan Stadium, but fakes have always been a big part of Dantonio’s arsenal. The focus both teams placed on trick plays during preparations is just another indication of how important this game is to both programs.
“It’s the equivalent of a state championship,” Harbaugh said on his weekly radio show. “They want it, we want it. That type of atmosphere where it doesn’t matter what took place — I mean, how good our offense was or our defense was last week or what anyone did last week or the previous nine weeks.
“Now it’s this game, physicality, tackling, blocking, ball security and playing good are at a premium in a game like this.”
Michigan State has lost four straight entering this game and is 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten. Harbaugh mentioned the old cliché of throwing out the record books, and he meant it, and the players understand that, as well.
“Whatever has happened to them has happened (this season),” Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said, when asked if a slumping MSU team is more dangerous. “Regardless of what happened to them, we’re going to go out there and play our game.”
With the added emphasis, as Harbaugh said, on being on “high alert” for trickery.
“You look at everything a team has done in terms of fakes and misdirection, deceptive type of plays,” Harbaugh said. “What they’ve done, OK, we prepare for that. Also, what is a possible complement to something that they’ve already done that they could be working on or practicing? Alert for everything.”
For special teams coordinator Chris Partridge, who also coaches safeties, it’s a very studied approach to preparing for the possibilities of trick plays.
“We have to look at what our weaknesses might be and how they might attack them,” Partridge said. “That’s the first and foremost. Then we have to look at what they do, trick play or not, we’ve gotta prepare for everything.
“We just have to make sure our eyes are disciplined and we’re ready for anything they can throw at us and be ready to understand the situations they could throw at us and go from there. But it’s really looking at ourselves and how they can attack any of our weaknesses and then looking at what they’ve done and what their strengths are and how they can try to do something like that.”
Partridge said Michigan has “seen it all” over the years from MSU, not just against the Wolverines but other teams. He has studied all of them.
“We’ve seen every fake punt that they’ve run, probably, for 12 years,” he said. “We’ve seen all their trickery on field goals. We watch it all. We’re not gonna practice it all, but we’re gonna make sure we’re aware of all of it.”
He said MSU has varied its field goal trick plays but the fake punts have tended to look similar and operated from the same formation.
Still, running trick plays is all about the opportunities presented during games. They aren’t something a team does just to do.
“They’re not going out there doing crazy stuff for no reason,” he said. “When you watch their fakes, they’re executing them because the opportunity presented itself from what the other team was doing. It’s smart coaching, it’s smart football on their part.”
Michigan has gotten tricky this season, too. The Wolverines have successfully executed two fake punts, both involving Michael Barrett, who had been a successful high school quarterback.
Against Army, Barrett connected with freshman Daxton Hill for a 25-yard pass for a first down on a fake punt. The Wolverines would eventually score that drive. More recently at Maryland, Barrett rushed 14 yards on the fake punt on fourth-and-1. Michigan would score on that drive.
“The bottom line with fakes, it’s got to be presented to us and we’ve got to play complementary football, right? We’re not going to get carried away and start doing crazy stuff,” Partridge said. “We have gotten two opportunities to do that, and Michael Barrett has executed them because he’s comfortable with the ball in his hands.”
Which is why both teams will be on … high alert.
MORE MICHIGAN-MICHIGAN STATE COVERAGE
Michigan State at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Fox/760, 950
Records: Michigan State 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten; Michigan 7-2, 4-2
Line: Michigan by 14