'It's elimination mindset': Michigan State stands in way of Michigan reaching its goals
Ann Arbor — Before the season, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh announced to the crowd at Big Ten Media Days that he was as enthusiastic and excited as ever.
This coming off a 2-4 season, an offseason when he signed a contract extension worth half his previous salary, and revamped his staff, especially on defense.
“Always am (enthusiastic), even more to have at it, to win the championship, to beat Ohio, our rivals Michigan State, everybody, that's what we want to do. And we're going to do it or die trying.”
Michigan is ranked No. 6 and 7-0 (4-0 Big Ten), and now faces the guts of the Big Ten East schedule with no bigger game so far this season then at unbeaten and No. 8 Michigan State (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday. This is the first time both teams have faced each other as top-10 opponents since 1964.
This is such a big game, not only is Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff originating from East Lansing — Fox is carrying the game at noon — but ESPN’s College GameDay also will be live there before the game.
The Michigan-Michigan State game is an annual slugfest, and this year has so much on the line. For Michigan, it is a steep roadblock between the Wolverines and advancing toward their goal of reaching an elusive Big Ten title.
“It would help for sure. Would give it a boost,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference when asked the energy a win would bring to his program. “Win the conference, win the national championship, it’s one of those, it’s elimination mindset.
“You’ve got a playoff mindset at this point. Win this game, gonna help your chances.”
Harbaugh was very much in what he might call “submarine mode” on Monday. This is where he isolates the team as much as possible from distraction and doesn’t share much in interview settings. He responded to a few big-picture game-focused questions with this answer: “Obviously, the kind of questions that answer themselves.”
This has always been a personal game for the in-state players on both teams. Michigan linebacker and two-time captain Josh Ross from Southfield, and Aidan Hutchinson, an edge rusher and two-time captain from Plymouth, will make clear to the younger players and those from out of state just how physical the game can be and its importance.
"It’s definitely a physical, gritty game," Ross said Monday. "It’s definitely important for us as guys in-state, me and Aidan, specifically, guys that are captains, guys that are leaders, guys that are in-state to emphasize the importance of this rivalry. But at the end of the day, it’s about doing our job, executing, and preparing the right way so we can have a great game this weekend."
Left tackle Ryan Hayes, who is from Traverse City, said the game has a different type of energy and feel. What would a win mean?
"It could really help propel us through the rest of the season," Hayes said Monday. "We’ve got a few more really tough games we’ve got to prepare for and this could really help us with our momentum and confidence going into the rest of the season."
While Harbaugh chose to mostly avoid sharing much during his news conference, he did share in broad terms what impresses him about Michigan State.
“They’re playing team football, winning football,” Harbaugh said. “On offense, they take care of the ball, their running game is outstanding, quarterback playing very well, very efficiently versus all coverages. He’s very good against the blitz, very good scrambling, averaging about eight yards a run. A lot of things. Playing really good defense. Not a lot of tendencies to pick up on and playing really well on special teams. Playing really good ball.”
As the Wolverines prepare for Michigan State this week, this is when the “die-trying” part kicks in as they work toward another step toward their goals.
“Excited to be in the position we’re in,” Harbaugh said. “Ready to start practice, ready to roll and get our preparation (going) for a huge game on Saturday.”
Right guard Zak Zinter (ankle) has not started the last two games and was replaced by Chuck Filiaga. Trevor Keegan (shoulder) missed his first start at left guard last week against Northwestern. Karsen Barnhart filled in at left guard.
Zinter has been referred to by offensive coordinator Josh Gattis as the team’s best offensive linemen, but Harbaugh was vague about their availability for Saturday’s game.”
“We’ll see,” Harbaugh.