East Lansing — No matter how many times they win, no matter how resoundingly they pound, the Spartans' focus doesn't waver. This game always will mean everything to them, even when it's a mismatch, especially when it's a mismatch.
And that's partly why it's a mismatch now. Mark Dantonio has burned for this rivalry since the day he arrived, and doesn't need any more fuel. He certainly doesn't need to give Michigan any fuel, with Michigan State a whopping 17-point favorite Saturday.
So on Tuesday, Dantonio used all his restraint to tone it down, to say respectful things without betraying his deepest sentiments. He's still emotional, still confident, just more discerning. When you've won five of the past six and taken command of a rivalry and a conference, this truly is a case of actions speaking the loudest.
The differences between the programs and the coaches and the demeanors are startlingly stark, and it's hard to spot the seeds of a gigantic upset. Brady Hoke is embattled, and isn't inclined to tout anything. Dantonio was once embittered, and isn't inclined to forget.
"Why is it so personal?" Dantonio said. "It gets in your blood. There are just things that happen over the course of time that begin to set you on edge, one way or the other, either team. Like I said, I didn't make these rules up, but I'm involved in it, and I represent a lot of people."
The rule when Dantonio took over in 2007 was to change a culture, starting with one particular opponent. Michigan State was sick of its status, sick of being belittled, and Dantonio set the tone immediately when he talked about not "bowing" to Michigan. Then the match was lit in the first meeting, when Mike Hart dropped his infamous "little brother" comment following the Wolverines' 28-24 victory.
When we ask where Michigan State's fans and players get their fuel, their anger, that's one vivid place. Dantonio knows his constituency and stirs it well, just as Hoke did four years ago, when he came in extolling the great "Ohio" rivalry. It was exactly what Michigan people wanted to hear — and exactly what Michigan State people were tired of hearing.
"After Mike Hart made that comment and kind of upset Coach D and everyone here, he said to us that things were going to change," said quarterback Connor Cook, who wasn't here at the time. "That we're going to come back and the tides are going to turn and there is going to be a power shift. I think the main thing is the hard-work mentality."
The Spartans play that way, no doubt. Their defense is punishing, and now their offense is perfectly balanced. But this isn't just about a physical disparity, graphically evident in last season's 29-6 victory, when the Wolverines were stuffed for minus-48 yards rushing.
Michigan State (6-1) plays with a fierce edge and Michigan (3-4) must find a way to match it, or the pattern won't change. Hoke politely declined to admit this game is bigger than any other. Public disposition doesn't necessarily reflect private motivation, and words don't mean a whole lot anyhow. But if the Wolverines can muster an angry attitude, now would be the time to do it.
Even a heavily favored Michigan State team isn't likely to overlook Michigan, not now, probably not ever. Some of the Spartans' recent dominance can be explained dispassionately, in the makeup of the rosters. By maintaining stability with Dantonio and choosing wisely, they start seven fifth-year seniors. After the upheaval of the Rich Rodriguez experiment and the sudden transition to Hoke, the Wolverines have one — Devin Gardner.
This always has been a lopsided rivalry, and not just in the results. Before the Spartans won five of six, the Wolverines won six in a row. But the real disparity is in the passion, and Dantonio stokes it masterfully. At the Big Ten meetings this summer, he was asked how he keeps the fire burning and he responded, "I continue to live in Michigan. That ought to do it."
No looking ahead
The fact is, Michigan State's biggest game will be in two weeks against Ohio State. The winner likely will capture the East Division and maintain a solid shot at the national playoff.
But the Buckeyes reside one state away, not one hour away. And many of the Spartans still feel the sting of being spurned. Contrary to the tenets of the recruiting star system, the right type of player in the right system can be just as productive.
"I wasn't that highly recruited, but when I came here, I went on an unofficial (visit) to Michigan," said Taiwan Jones, from New Baltimore. "I just saw a big difference in the way they treated their players, their recruits. No matter how many stars you had, no matter your status, I felt like Coach D treated everybody the same."
Dantonio's assistants, led by defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, relish the chance to mold raw talent into the shape they demand. Dantonio talks often about avoiding players who are "entitled," which goes back to the hunger angle, which goes back to the rivalry.
"This is still the most important game on the schedule for me, personally and for our program," Dantonio said. "When you compete day in and day out with them — and that's what we do on recruits, for fans, for everything — it carries over to basketball, to volleyball, to every sport here. That still is a game we have to point to and say, hey, this goes beyond our schedule, this goes beyond the future."
Futures are uncertain and rivalries run in cycles, and the Wolverines won't be down forever. But getting back up won't be easy, because with Dantonio's fervor, the Spartans aren't likely to let up anytime soon.