John Niyo: Michigan has guard up after 2013's beatdown

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — They sat there with gritted teeth and guarded answers.

And as uncomfortable as it got — the questions that weren't batted down like bad passes mostly fell incomplete Monday — this was to be expected.

Michigan isn't comfortable playing the underdog role, and it shows, as it braces for Saturday's rivalry matchup against No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing.

But this is football, not a game of show-and-tell. And unlike a year ago, there was none of the yammering about taking punches and acting tough.

"We're not going to get bullied this year," Michigan's Taylor Lewan vowed last fall, right before his Wolverines did just that, allowing seven sacks and finishing with minus-48 yards rushing — the worst total in program history — in a 29-6 loss.

Asked Monday if the bruises from that beating still lingered, coach Brady Hoke was quick to note these are different teams with different mindsets in 2014.

"I know that and you know that," he said.

But then he acknowledged something else everyone knew.

"It would bother me if I played in that game (last season) and I didn't do my job," Hoke said. "It would bother the hell out of me."

Now, if you're asking his players, don't expect to get the same honest answer. More than likely, they've been coached not to offer many this week. Better to keep it to themselves for now.

Quarterback Devin Gardner insisted Monday that last year's loss was no different than any other, really.

"They all hurt," he said. "They all hurt the same."

And as a fifth-year senior, this being his last shot at Michigan State?

"It means a lot to me," he said. "But it means a lot to me every year. So I'm just excited to get to the game."

'It's about us'

Michigan will arrive in East Lansing as two-touchdown underdogs, if not more, and the last time it won a game that was that big an upset was probably the 1996 victory over No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus.

The early 17-point line for this week's game would stand as the largest in series history favoring Michigan State.

"Look, the only people who really care about that are gamblers," Hoke said. "I don't gamble."

Still, there's plenty at stake here.

There's Hoke's job security, having lost 10 of his last 15 games, 11 in a row to ranked opponents on the road, and four of six to chief rivals Michigan State and Ohio State.

"But it's not our job to think of the big picture and all that kind of stuff," junior center Jack Miller said Monday.

There's also Michigan State's lofty goals, as the Spartans chase both a repeat Big Ten title and a possible national playoff berth.

"But it's not about us ruining their season," Gardner said. "It's about us."

Run, run, run

Of course, that has been the problem for some time now, as Michigan struggles — and that's putting it mildly — to decide just what it is, exactly.

The bye week might have helped heal some injuries, including Gardner's bum ankle. But as for the rest of his team's issues, Hoke said, "For us, it's always going back to what we want to be identity-wise. And we want to run the football. How can we do that better?"

I'm not sure if that was a rhetorical question or not, but Michigan ranks last in the Big Ten in total offense, 12th in scoring offense and eighth in rushing offense. And unless they've figured out a way to cut Gardner loose as a runner — by design rather than a form of self-preservation — Saturday could be another painful reminder about just where things stand in this rivalry.

In which case, the Wolverines probably won't have much to say after the game, either.