Wolverines center talks about the prime-time matchup with in-state rival Spartans Oct. 7 at Michigan Stadium. Angelique S. Chengelis
Ann Arbor — Michigan offensive lineman Jon Runyan Jr. was a freshman in 2015 standing with his teammates and excitedly anticipating beating Michigan State and bringing the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to Schembechler Hall.
But in the most famous final 10 seconds of the heated in-state rivalry, Michigan punter Blake O’Neill mishandled the snap and fumbled. Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson ran 38 yards for a touchdown in the stunning 27-23 Spartans' victory at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan won last year’s game at Spartan Stadium, but when the two teams play Oct. 7, it will be the first game in the series at Michigan Stadium since that craziest of finishes. The Wolverines do not play this weekend while Michigan State faces Iowa.
For the first time in the history of the rivalry, this will be a prime-time game.
“When we heard it was going to be under the lights, you get goosebumps just thinking about it and just know our fans are going to be behind us,” running backs Chris Evans said. “With our fans behind us there’s no stopping us. If we go out and punch them in the mouth first quarter, we’ll be great.”
The Wolverines have already begun studying Michigan State film and there seems to be an added edge because of the memory of that game.
“The game two years ago, I’m pretty much scarred by that,” Runyan said Tuesday night after practice. “I wasn’t playing at all. It was my freshman year. I still remember being on that sideline, 10 seconds left knowing we were about to win the trophy and we just had to punt the ball away. It happened. It just adds to the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. That’s what’s so good about it. That’s just something that’s been stuck in my head.”
Center Patrick Kugler was on the bench with teammates Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson as they prepared to celebrate.
“We were laughing just thinking about how great it was,” Kugler said. “And then seeing it just kind of freezing for a second, not believing what we saw. But it’s football, it happens. We’re excited to play them this year.
“We know it’s a rivalry game and they’re going to going to give us everything they got. Last time we were here they shocked us right at the end. We still do kind of have that bad taste in our mouth. Because it’s a rivalry game, we’ve got to come out swinging.”
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who has guided the Wolverines to the nation’s top-ranked defense after last week’s win at Purdue, said Monday night he and his staff had spent a lot of time earlier in the day preparing for MSU.
“Obviously, there’s a few games you watch tape throughout the year and you pay attention — this is one of those games,” Brown said. “Let’s face it, it’s an important game for Michigan football. Nobody loses sight of that fact.”
The Wolverines like the off weekend because it gives them time to rest and heal, but there is a frustration they’re not playing. The players said they plan to watch the Michigan State-Iowa game on Saturday.
“You just want to get out there and play them,” Runyan said. “Especially after what happened two years ago, you still kind of have that bad taste in your mouth even though we got some, I wouldn’t call it revenge, but payback last year when we went to their house. It’s going to be hard to watch them play this week knowing we aren’t going to be playing.”
Evans is a sophomore and his only experience was the victory at MSU last season. Still, he knows about the in-state rivalry and the Spartans’ recent successes.
“Really excited. Paul Bunyan. Michigan-Michigan State rivalry,” he said. “You really don’t know the rivalry until you’re at the game or in between the lines and feel it. Their record wasn’t as high (last season), but it wasn’t as crazy a game as it could have been. But it’s Michigan versus Michigan State so it’s always crazy from all the highlights and all the stuff you see and the great history. It’s just a great game.”
The team already is preparing hard for Michigan State.
“We’re already on top of it,” Evans said. “Game planning, everything.”
His early impressions?
“No. 23 is coming back,” Evans said referring to MSU linebacker Chris Frey. “He’s kind of a rowdy guy so we’re going to have to deal with him.”