It was hard to walk into Schembechler Hall on Monday afternoon without becoming suffocated by the hoards of media members and television cameras lining the room. This week, the vibe was noticeably different.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh walked in and took the podium. His answers were terse. His tone was monotonous. There were no injury updates ahead of Michigan State. There was no discussion of the gameplan, retrospectively nor predictive. Sophomore fullback Ben Mason may or may not be injured. Junior defensive lineman Rashan Gary may or may not play.
Welcome to rivalry week, in all its absurdity.
“I think we could all use a break from the cliches that have been plowed so thoroughly on both sides,” Harbaugh says.
Certainly that includes last year’s demoralizing upset loss to the Spartans in the pouring rain. No doubt he’d like to avoid discussing his 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State — a figure firmly stamped into this program’s present ethos. No need for a reminder that Michigan hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2006. Perhaps those “cliches” include Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” comment 10 years ago. There’s no point in harping on the fact that the Wolverines are 2-7 in this matchup since that quip.
No one’s getting a break from those “cliches.” Not before Saturday at noon. And probably not after.
This is a big game pragmatically; No. 6 Michigan, coming off a blistering 38-13 win over then-No. 15 Wisconsin, needs to keep the foot on the gas pedal. A loss Saturday would derail the wind suddenly at the sails of this program, not to mention hope of a College Football Playoff appearance.
This is a big game rhetorically; the program is at a tipping point this season under Harbaugh. A win in East Lansing would do wonders for the narrative around the state of the program.
This is a big game. Period.
“Yes,” Harbaugh said, when asked if there’s any heightened emotion this week. “In-state rival. Big Ten opponent. It always has (been a big game), always is, always will be.”
As Harbaugh departed into meetings, media members rushed to greet the players made available. There, perched ever-so-slightly above the blockade of people, stood fifth-year senior Lawrence Marshall.
Reporters find dozens of different ways to ask the same thing. Marshall finds dozens of different ways to provide the same answer.
In what ways is this week any different for you heading into Michigan State? Or no?
“A lot of my friends went to Michigan State, so it’s a lot of tension there. But other than that, this is a big game for us.”
Is there some playful trash-talking?
“Of course there is.”
A lot of players have said this game’s personal for them. Why is there that chatter?
“This is a rivalry game, so every rivalry game is going to be personal.”
Missing Paul Bunyan?
“Yes. Of course.”
The reporters search for the soundbite. The player tip-toes around it as best he can. So on, and so forth.
The practice is far from surprising, of course. It’s even understandable. This type of visceral distaste — the kind that is so plainly evident between Michigan and Michigan State players, coaches and fans — is precisely what makes college football unique. The winner next Saturday will stake a serious claim for the Big Ten East division, sure. But it will also hold bragging rights for a year.
There’s a reason this week feels different than any other. It is different.
I wander over to linebacker Josh Ross’s media scrum, hoping for something to fall into my lap beyond the boilerplate back-and-forth I’ve grown frustrated by.
That hope dissipates quickly.
How much does this game mean to you?
“This rival is a big deal to me and I’m ready to go.”
It’s friendly here. Are you feeling any different? Emotions, excitement, how are you feeling?
“I feel like it’s natural, going into a game like this, to be super excited.”
Are you feeling any more excited going into this game?
“I wouldn’t say I’m more excited or anxious. I know how I feel about this game, and I know the passion I have for this game, and going into a game against an in-state rival, can’t beat it.”
I walk away, and look over at the group surrounding Tru Wilson. I walk leisurely toward that area. Just as I arrive, without an ounce of context on my end, a reporter asks Wilson a question.
Why did you get pet snakes if you’re scared of them?
Welcome to rivalry week. In all its absurdity.
Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter at @Max_Marcovitch or at firstname.lastname@example.org.