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Wojo: Wolverines, Spartans face critical juncture

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing – It's here sooner than expected — sooner than the Spartans wanted, not soon enough for the Wolverines. It's here so quickly, it's hard to figure out where it's headed next.

It's a Michigan State-Michigan showdown that resonates nationally like none of these backyard tiffs ever has. Both teams are ranked in the top 12 and both harbor playoff aspirations. But it's wildly anticipated largely because of the coaches, one rising rapidly, the other never inclined to retreat.

Mark Dantonio's Spartans are unbeaten, ranked seventh, and winners of six of the past seven meetings. He has defined his program by beating up on the Wolverines, yet enters Saturday's game a wounded touchdown underdog. Jim Harbaugh's team is once-beaten, climbing the polls and gathering confidence, yet can't stamp its status until it takes down one of the big guys.

No one has stirred any controversy this week, as if the coaches are respectfully sizing each other up and players are following orders. Harbaugh has been cautious and humorous, but surely is familiar with the rivalry's bitterness. Michigan State pounded to a celebratory late touchdown in a 35-11 victory last season, angered by Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden's pregame stake-planting in the Spartan Stadium turf.

There's no vitriol now, not yet, not publicly. Dantonio sounded almost subdued — or was it coy? — while dodging questions Tuesday about the rash of Spartans injuries and the sudden Wolverines turnaround.

"Am I surprised?" Dantonio said of Michigan's record. "I think every football team, I don't care where they're at, they expect to win. So the expectations are high at Michigan State, and the expectations are high down the road. That's probably the way it's always been, so I don't think there's any difference there."

The difference is, Harbaugh has the credentials and talent to fulfill those expectations, although it can only begin by beating the opponent he called "the biggest guys on the block." I asked if he was sticking to his preseason assessment of Michigan State.

"There's no question there," Harbaugh said. "Outstanding football team. It'll be fair, healthy, honest competition."

Measuring stick

This is what true rivals are supposed to do, measure against each other, push each other, define each other. Harbaugh is here because Michigan couldn't beat Michigan State and Ohio State regularly. With grinding forcefulness, he already has altered fates and raised stakes.

Not to overstate the state of the state, and the importance of this game, but the history of the rivalry suggests it's difficult for both to be great at the same time. They haven't met with rankings this high since 1999, when No. 11 Michigan State edged No. 3 Michigan 34-31. Usually when one rises, one retreats, a pattern perhaps due to be broken.

A few weeks ago, it seemed unfathomable Michigan would be the team rolling with growing possibilities, and Michigan State would be squeaking out victories and searching for its identity. The script has been flipped, at least for now, because Harbaugh and his staff changed everything, from the mindset to the pro-style offense to an aggressive defense ranked No. 1 in the country.

Dantonio hasn't changed much, but the Spartans have struggled with injuries and inferior foes. It's unclear which ailing players might return, but suffice to say, Michigan State desperately needs left tackle Jack Conklin to battle Michigan's fearsome front.

Dantonio: No reason MSU, UM can't both be great

I don't think the Spartans have intentionally held anything back, as some have theorized. And I know they won't hold anything back Saturday, with quarterback Connor Cook, freshman runner LJ Scott and a batch of dynamic receivers presenting the biggest challenge yet for Michigan's dominating secondary, led by Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers.

Legitimately and finally, this clash presents monstrous possibilities for both teams. Harbaugh can firmly establish his program in his first season, while Dantonio can immediately wipe away doubts.

"I think you're only underdogs if you think you're underdogs," Dantonio said Tuesday. "I will say Michigan is playing outstanding football right now, and we need to play better at certain points. But we are undefeated, we've found a way to win football games, that's the bottom line."

Learn from the past

The polite introductions are over, and there won't be such cordiality on the field Saturday. Harbaugh's competitive fervor burns as hot as Dantonio's, although he's not ready to turn the rivalry into something too big to grasp. He even took down the countdown clocks in Schembechler Hall that marked the days until the Michigan State and Ohio State games.

The point is, every game matters. The unspoken point is, it's hard to focus on rivalry games when you've performed poorly in many games. Harbaugh is so determined to avoid references to the past, he took the amusing tact of quoting from "The Lion King."

"Simba gets hit over the head and tells 'em, 'Yeah, the past can hurt — you can either run from it or embrace it and learn from it,' " Harbaugh said. "So those seem like very wise words."

Or in other words, Michigan is sick of getting clobbered and doesn't want to belabor it. Naturally, Dantonio has a different view of a period he has enjoyed.

"I've said this before, you measure yourself against the past," he said. "You sort of keep track of your record against these particular teams."

Dantonio's record against Michigan is 6-2, with four victories by two touchdowns or more. His only loss the past seven meetings was 12-10 in 2012 in Ann Arbor. Brady Hoke couldn't sustain that, so here we are, with Harbaugh using his power brand of football to restore a power brand program. With his crazy energy, he has created a hunger craving to be sated.

"He makes me love football more than I ever thought possible," tight end Jake Butt said. "He's such an intense guy, and he's hilarious too. When he first got here, we were all super nervous, and we didn't really catch his humor. We got such a good thing going now, I think I'm addicted to winning."

The addiction is so pervasive, it's easy to forget Michigan hasn't won a big one yet, and easy to suggest Michigan State is slipping. The past is the past, and not necessarily a precursor. Pleasantries out of the way, I have a feeling these types of collisions are just getting started.