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Niyo: Something different about these Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — De’Veon Smith says it’s all starting to make sense now, from the punishing, four-hour practices back in March and that now-fabled undersea adventure in August to the daily fights over the most trivial — and basic — tasks with his teammates. Such as who can get to the dinner table first.

“We just compete at every … little … thing,” Michigan’s junior tailback said Saturday as he tried to make sense of this apparent reversal of fortunes for the Wolverines’ football program.

In a word, it’s easy to explain. Ask any alum. Harbaugh, they’ll shout.

In practice, though, it’s a bit harder to define, as Michigan, which climbed to 12th in the AP poll after Saturday’s 38-0 thumping of previously-unbeaten Northwestern, has rediscovered a physical brand of football that has UM fans swooning.

“Those four-hour practices are helping us out now,” said Smith, who returned from an ankle injury Saturday to lead the Wolverines to another 200-yard rushing day. “I didn’t know that back then, but I understand it now. They’re helping us finish games like we weren’t last year.”

Not just with victories, either. With shutout victories, lately, as Michigan has rattled off three in a row — the first Division I team in 20 years to accomplish that feat, and the first at Michigan since 1980.

“There’s just something different about this team,” Smith continued. “Even though we have basically all the same players it’s just … I don’t know, there’s something different about us. We’re tired of losing.”

‘We want Sparty!’

More specifically, they’re tired of losing to their rivals, including the ones “40 minutes away from us, or however long it is” to East Lansing, said Smith, who might need to check a map but clearly hasn’t forgotten how long that bus ride home from Michigan State felt the last couple years.

“We want Sparty!” the UM fans started chanting in the fourth quarter Saturday.

And now they’ve got them, along with the national spotlight. ESPN’s GameDay crew will be in Ann Arbor for Saturday’s showdown with seventh-ranked Michigan State.

The Spartans are undefeated, having survived another scare Saturday night in a 31-24 win at Rutgers. They’ve won 10 in a row dating to last season, and they’re 30-3 the last 21/2 years. But they were installed as four-point underdogs to Michigan, a team they’ve beaten six of the last seven years.

And while that may suit head coach Mark Dantonio just fine — his Spartans seem to play their best when they’re feeling disrespected — it probably will drive Michigan State fans batty this week. The Summer of Harbaugh has given way to the autumn of their discontent.

Michigan State has struggled, with some inconsistent play and an injury list that officially turned grisly Saturday night. And as Dantonio noted after the game, before his team’s charter flight home from New Jersey was cancelled due to mechanical problems, “I think we’re getting everyone’s best shot.”

But, he added, “The bottom line is that we’re winning.”

Resilient vs. resistant

That’s the bottom line in this Michigan-Michigan State series, too, something the Wolverines would be wise to remember this week. A year ago, they tried staking their claim to someone else’s property well before they’d won it, and we all saw what happened in a 24-point thrashing.

Joe Bolden’s pregame actions, driving a tent spike into the Spartan Stadium turf as he tried to fire up his team, led to Dantonio’s late-game anger, as MSU’s coach opted to tack on a last-minute touchdown rather than take a knee.

“It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point,” he explained afterward.

A day later, it was Michigan coach Brady Hoke issuing an embarrassing apology for “poor sportsmanship.”

Now these two teams might finally be on equal footing, though it’s hard to say for sure where Michigan State stands at the moment with all those injuries, most notably to All-America center Jack Allen.

“We know we’re in a tough situation,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We don’t care. We’ve got to keep moving. I think that’s our mentality. We’ve just got to stay strong, keep our chemistry strong, and we’ll be all right. … It’s really tough right now, but we’re resilient.”

They’ll have to be Saturday, because this Michigan team is proving to be remarkably resistant. The Wolverines rank No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, No. 2 in pass efficiency defense and No. 3 in rushing defense. The 38 points they’ve allowed this season are the fewest for a Michigan team through six games since 1985. And if you believe redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers, “there’s still room for improvement.”

But no room for overconfidence, his teammates agreed. Not the way this rivalry has gone in recent years.

“They executed more plays than we did — they outplayed us,” senior defensive tackle Willie Henry said, when asked why Michigan State has held the upper hand. “But it’s a new team, a different year.”

And a different vibe, without a doubt.

“It’s fun when you’re winning,” Henry added. “It feels good when you’re on a roll like this.”