Niyo: High-stakes game reignites in-state feud

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Aaron Burbridge makes a catch in front of Jeremy Clark in last season's game. Both players return to the rivalry game this year.

Ann Arbor — Mark Dantonio says it’s possible. But he didn’t promise it’d be peaceful. And with the stakes as high as they’ve been in years for today’s showdown in Ann Arbor, with seventh-ranked Michigan State squaring off against No. 12 Michigan — the highest combined national rankings for this Mitten State matchup since 1999 — the noise is only going to get louder from here.

It usually does when you get the kids all together in one place. And considering all the pent-up emotion that’s simmering in Ann Arbor, oh, brother, this promises to be entertaining.

The Spartans haven’t shown much mercy in winning six of the last seven meetings in this 117-year-old series. Last year’s rout ended with a gratuitous touchdown and an epic rant about respect from Michigan State’s head coach. So needless to say, they’re certainly not expecting a warm welcome today when the rivalry renews — and perhaps reignites — at Michigan Stadium,

“I’m expecting a very loud, hostile environment,” Connor Cook, Michigan State’s senior quarterback, said. “As soon as Michigan makes one big play, the stadium is going to erupt.”

Already, we’re starting to feel the tremors here, with Jim Harbaugh’s homecoming happening — and it’s a happening, make no mistake — just as Michigan State’s football program had ascended to heights not seen since the mid-1960s. In fact, this is just the fifth time in the last half-century this game has featured two teams ranked in the top 15 nationally — the last coming in 2003.

But is there room for these sibling rivals — two schools separated by 60 miles or so, two fan bases with irreconcilable differences — to share the top bunk in one Big House, as it were?

Room for two

“What are you asking? Can we coexist?” Dantonio said, smiling — or maybe smirking — at the spring-loaded question earlier this week in East Lansing, where the balance of power remains for the moment.

As does the Paul Bunyan Trophy, though it was missing from its glass case inside Michigan State’s football facility this week, replaced by an artful “Beat Michigan” print.

Michigan State players lift the Paul Paul Bunyan trophy at the end of the 2014 MSU-Michigan game.

“Well, families do that all the time in Michigan, so I guess we can do it,” said Dantonio, whose Spartans — still ranked No. 4 in the coaches’ poll — have won 32 of their last 35 games dating to the last two games of the 2012 season. “I think both teams can have good football teams, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s been done before.”

But with Harbaugh — the Wolverines’ third head coach in Dantonio’s eight-year tenure at MSU — getting it done faster than all but a fanciful few would’ve imagined at Michigan, it adds a different kind of contention to today’s reunion.

The victor will remain atop the East Division standings in the Big Ten — the Michigan-Michigan State winner has claimed at least a share of a conference or division title in six of the last 12 years — and the loser will have its championship hopes crippled.

This is the way it felt in 2011, maybe, when the Spartans won their fourth in a row in the series and quarterback Kirk Cousins announced, “For the rest of our life, we can walk the streets of this state” with pride. Or the way it felt back in ’99 — Nick Saban’s final year at MSU and the last time ESPN’s “College GameDay” rolled into town for this rivalry game — when Plaxico Burress had a career day with 255 receiving yards.

“The players realize the caliber of this game, what it means going forward,” Chris Wormley, Michigan’s senior defensive end said.

And if they haven’t yet — whether it’s Michigan State’s freshman tailback LJ Scott, or Michigan’s fifth-year transfer quarterback Jake Rudock — they will soon enough.

“As soon as you’re out there for warm-ups, you kinda feel it,” Cook said. “You know, the attitude, the emotion — there’s just something in the air that you get, that you feel playing against Michigan. It’s very intense. There’s a lot of emotion, there’s a lot of heart that goes into this game, and going out there and feeling it, smelling the air, all that stuff — it kinda runs through your body, runs through your veins.”

And yes, a rivalry like this, it runs “in cycles,” as Dantonio likes to say. Actually, he used that phrase this week to talk about the “old school” offensive approach that Harbaugh has reintroduced at Michigan.

Fullback dives and heavy formations, power running and precision blocking. Add to it a ferocious defense — Michigan’s the first team in 20 years to post three consecutive shutouts — and it’s easy to understand all the excitement.

And yet it’s also easy to see why the Spartans — injured but still undefeated — are heading “down the road” today with something to prove, despite their recent dominance.

“I don’t know who says we’re the favorite,” said Delano Hill, the Wolverines’ junior safety. “Last time I checked, they were 6-0 and we were 5-1.”

Las Vegas favorites

Still, at last check, the oddsmakers had Michigan favored by more than a touchdown.

Regardless, Cook noted, “It really doesn’t take much for us to have a chip on our shoulder.”

Where Paul Bunyan ends up when this game is over, nobody knows, of course. But everybody sure does care now, no matter how hard Harbaugh and others have tried to publicly downplay the significance of today’s conflict. (By Friday, the average selling price for tickets on StubHub was $235.)

Michigan State scouting report vs. Michigan

Michigan scouting report vs. Michigan State

“I’m sure there’s gonna be attempts made to build the game up and etcetera,” said Harbaugh, whose team is 5-1 with the lone loss coming at No. 4 Utah in the season opener. “But we’re just … we’re working. And not worrying.”

No worries, the fans of both schools will do plenty of that before — and after — today’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff.

“You know, growing up, it’s kinda crazy in this state, especially for my family,” said Michigan State’s Riley Bullough, a junior linebacker and third-generation Spartan who understands the rivalry better than most. “It’s not (just that) you’re a Michigan or Michigan State fan. You literally identify yourself as part of the blue and maize or the green and white. That’s your identity, that’s your everything.”

But today, with everyone in the stadium and everything on the line, there will be no mistaking this: The rivalry is alive and well.

Michigan State at Michigan

Time: 3:30 p.m. Satirday, Michigan Stadium

Line: Michigan by 7

TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760, WWJ 950, WTKA 1050