Niyo: Wolverines, Spartans know ‘nothing gets forgotten’ in this rivalry game

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – Start wherever you’d like with this Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.

You can go way back to its inception in 1898 and take note of all those lopsided early matchups on the gridiron. Or maybe Michigan’s resistance a half-century later to Michigan State College joining the Big Ten Conference and then becoming a “university.” You could point the halftime brawls between students on the field in the early 1940s, or the late Daryl Rogers labeling the Wolverines and their fans "arrogant asses" in the late-1970s.

Or you could begin where most fans do today, with Desmond Howard getting tripped in the end zone in 1990 or the clock stopping in Spartan Stadium in 2001 or, yes, Michigan’s Mike Hart mocking his “little brother” in 2007. That last one ushered in a whole new era of enmity, of course, from a “moment of silence” to “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” and from a railroad spike that struck a nerve to last year’s “stormtrooper march” that ended with Devin Bush carving out his place in rivalry lore.

But that’s the point, really. And it’s something Carlo Kemp, one of Michigan’s senior captains, noted this week ahead of this 112th meeting between the Spartans and Wolverines.

“Anything that happens in this game gets written down,” he said. “And nothing gets forgotten.”

That’s the reason Fox Sports Films produced a documentary, “Divided We Stand: Michigan vs. Michigan State,” that debuted 36 hours before kickoff and will air again this weekend on the Big Ten Network. And it probably explains why athletic directors from both schools made a preemptive plea for civility Thursday, writing a letter asking everyone to “take care to keep the game in perspective” while celebrating this “friendly rivalry” with “class and shared respect.”

Then again, it’s also why Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio – the coach who famously declared “it’ll never be over” as tempers flared back in ’07 – issued a warning of his own earlier in the week, when asked about preparing his players to face Jim Harbaugh and the 14th-ranked Wolverines in a hostile environment Saturday in Ann Arbor.

“If you don't like confrontation, best stay at home,” Dantonio said. “You need to get yourself ready for it. It's coming.”

And now that it’s here once more, they all have no choice but to embrace it. The hate, the hype, the trash talk – all the telltale signs of a backyard brawl.

“It’s just a feeling in the air,” said David Dowell, Michigan State’s senior safety. “It’s a heightened level of awareness. … This game is different. It’s not just another game. A lot of times people try to dumb down rivalry games. But we don’t like them, they don’t like us. And you’ve gotta come with it, because if you don’t hit them in the mouth, they’re gonna hit you in the mouth. There’s no love lost.”

Dantonio made sure of that soon after taking over at Michigan State some 13 years ago, placing a premium on this game and doing everything in his power to get the Spartans to “measure up,” as he puts it, to Michigan. It worked better than even he could’ve imagined at the time. 

After his famous “pride comes before the fall” comments in 2007, the Spartans won seven of the next eight games in the series. Eight of 10 if you include the last game in Ann Arbor, and you have to go back to the start of Bo Schembechler’s tenure in 1969 to find a time when Michigan was feeling so besieged by both its archrivals at the same time. 

So if there was once indifference – or indignation – on the Wolverines’ part when it came to this Michigan State game, it was replaced by impatience in recent years. Maybe even acceptance.

“The greatest example would be 2012,” former MSU running back Nick Hill said. “When I was there, it was my only loss at Michigan, and they rushed the field. So, if it doesn’t mean that much to you, and it’s not that big of a deal, then why rush the field? You knew right there and then, all the smoke, all the (talk) that it doesn’t mean that much … trust me, it means a lot to them.”

Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh shake hands at the end of the 2016 game, won by Michigan 32–23.

Saturday means plenty, too, despite the fact that – for the first time in decades – both teams are all but eliminated from the Big Ten championship picture before kickoff of this game. That’s mostly because this is the latest calendar date for a Michigan-Michigan State game since 1928, when Harry Kipke brought Michigan State College to Ann Arbor and lost, 3-0.

A year later, Kipke was coaching the Wolverines, oddly enough. And while something like that would never happen today, there are questions about Dantonio’s future beyond this season, particularly with the Spartans sitting at 4-5 overall and winless since September.

“I live in the present,” was all he cared to say about that this week.

There was no public sparring with Harbaugh, either. Certainly not like what followed last year’s pregame fiasco and postgame outrage, which ultimately earned Michigan State a $10,000 fine and both coaches a public reprimand from the Big Ten.

In fact, they each traded compliments this week. A day after Harbaugh hailed his counterpart as a “master motivator,” Dantonio was asked to describe Michigan’s coach in just a couple words.

“Intense,” Dantonio began, “and I would say … intense.”

But he went on to call Harbaugh a “Hall of Fame coach,” and later referenced a desire “sort of take the high road” when it came to the rivalry.

Whatever you think of that, it’s worth noting the road team has won four in a row in this series, and thanks in part to a scheduling quirk, the Wolverines actually haven’t beaten the rivals at the Big House since 2012. So while they’re listed as nearly two-touchdown favorites Saturday, they insist they’re not listening to all that noise.

 “You can’t let them get their heads up,” junior cornerback Ambry Thomas said. “You gotta step on their throat and stay there all game. We know that they’re gonna treat this game like their Super Bowl, so we just gotta be prepared and attack like they’re gonna try to attack us.”

The message was the same a year ago, as Michigan’s “Revenge Tour” made a stop in East Lansing just long enough to deface the Spartan logo in pregame warmups, suffocate Michigan State’s offense (94 total yards) and then grab the Paul Bunyan Trophy on the way back to the bus. Still, even that game wasn’t a runaway, tied at 7-7 until Shea Patterson hit Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.

“In rivalry games, nothing else really matters,” Kemp said. “Records, how good you’ve been in the past, how good you are today, it doesn’t matter.”

No, all that matters is it won't be forgotten, whatever happens.


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Michigan State at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: Fox/760, 950

Records: Michigan State 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten; Michigan 7-2, 4-2

Line: Michigan by 14