EAST LANSING — Cody White has only one message for Michigan State’s underclassmen this week.
“Going into this week, we know we have a mission to do and that’s to win the football game,” the wide receiver said Tuesday. “At any means possible, win the football game, so I feel like that’s what we’re gonna drive through every day in practice until the game day.”
It’s safe to say the Spartans haven’t completed the mission they began the year with. At just four wins heading into the 112th meeting between Michigan and Michigan State, the Spartans are hoping for Saturday’s game to provide a spark to a season that’s vacillating between generally disappointing and outright dismal.
In the media room at Spartan Stadium on Tuesday, the Spartans made it clear that while this week is a chance to regroup from blowing a 25-point lead to Illinois last Saturday, the bigger emphasis is on the chance to beat the team 60 miles down the road.
In the midst of what is shaping up to be, at best, a mediocre season for Michigan State, a win in the rivalry game and everything that comes with it would soften the blow for the players. Defensive tackle Raequan Williams referenced the emotion that comes with facing off in a hotly-contested matchup, and Williams and White both mentioned the extra edge that comes with this game.
“(Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio) always tries to tell us to keep the lion in the cage,” White said. “Everything's going to be calmed down until game time, and then the lion's going to just unleash itself.”
Added Williams: “This is the biggest game of the year. It’s the next one up and we didn’t have the season that we wanted, so this game will be a lot for us emotionally. You will see a lot of emotion for this game.”
For linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who went to high school across the street from Michigan Stadium at Pioneer, his first introduction to the intensity of preparation in rivalry week came in practice before his first game of the rivalry as a freshman in 2017.
“I think it was my first play,” Simmons said. “I got hit by an upperclassman — like whacked — and he’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s Michigan week!’ and I’m like, ‘Alright, it’s Michigan week.’ … And then when I got out there in the game, it didn’t matter. Every player, it was nasty. It was a nasty game.”
But while the players went on about the extra emotion and the level of intensity that comes with Michigan week, Dantonio had little to say beyond the typical platitudes of rivalry week.
“Right now, for me, my main consideration is our football team and getting them down and football-game ready,” Dantonio said. “We’ve come and competed. We’ll compete. We’ll play hard. We just can’t make mistakes to beat ourselves.”
Taken out of context, Dantonio could be talking about any game on the Spartans’ schedule this year. He made a handful of more specific comments about the Wolverines, but the overall tone was one of a coach who mostly just wants to talk about the game, not everything else that goes along with it.
It was clear Dantonio didn’t feel the need to make a splashy statement that dominates the headlines leading into the game.
This iteration of the matchup brings a game with different stakes for each side, but the bottom line of what each team is truly playing for is the rivalry.
“This game means everything,” Williams said. “It depends on if you own Michigan or you don’t, so you gotta go out and win this one.”