The leadup to rivalry week couldn’t have gone any more different for the two teams.
Jim Harbaugh, as always, answered questions diplomatically. The Spartans weren’t going to turn the ball over seven times against Michigan, he said. His team would be ready. But the questions about the rivalry seemed almost farcical. Michigan State, after all, had just lost to Rutgers, snapping the Scarlet Knights’ 21-game conference losing streak.
Mel Tucker, the new kid on the block, needed to show how much this rivalry meant to him. He took a page from Ohio State’s playbook, referring to the Wolverines as “the team down the road.” At the time, it seemed desperate, like a coach trying to prove he cared about the game he was almost certain to lose.
For a week, you could talk yourself into believing this rivalry had lost its luster. Yes, it was still a big game, but this felt like two teams in two different places. Michigan, which had won its road opener decisively, and Michigan State, which had just shown how bare Mark Dantonio left the cupboard when he retired in February.
But it’s hard to imagine a better introduction to the rivalry for Tucker than this one, because it proved that the thing that makes this rivalry one of the best in college football is still as true as ever: Anything can happen when it’s Michigan and Michigan State.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been that shocking when the Spartans were the team doing jumping jacks on the sideline, the team that ran into the tunnel celebrating after a 27-24 win.
“We expected it,” Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “I know we were three-touchdown underdogs but everybody on this team knew going into the game that we had a chance and we had a good chance. So that was part of the reason why we played with so much confidence and ended up getting the win.”
Most of these games are punctuated by the strangest plays imaginable — botched snaps and monsoons and pregame antics and turnovers. This one felt almost normal by comparison, as normal as any game played without fans due to a pandemic can be. Neither team turned the ball over, the special teams were fine, the weather was a perfectly crisp 45 degrees.
The Wolverines can’t put this one on a handful of once-in-a-lifetime plays. They got outplayed on their own turf. Their secondary had no answer for Lombardi’s downfield heaves. They committed too many penalties, got too cute with their goal-line wildcat packages and couldn’t find success in their running game. Here, their biggest mistake may have been underestimation.
“We wanted to win, bad. Beat them up by a lot,” junior running back Hassan Haskins said. “There wasn’t no” — Haskins emitted a deep sigh — “no lack of confidence or anything. We wanted to get in there and do our job and do it well and just smash them for real. Anything can happen.”
When junior quarterback Joe Milton spoke after the game, he blamed himself for the result and noted that the Spartans didn’t do anything he didn’t expect. This, he said, was a simple lack of execution. But when asked what he’d heard about linebacker Antjuan Simmons — a second-year starter and All-Big Ten honorable mention last year — Milton asked, “Who?” When given a description, Milton said that he “wasn’t really worried about him, man. He’s a heck of a player but wasn’t on my radar.”
Simmons, of course, had a clapback.
“It don’t matter, Pauly B’s back with us, so I don’t know what those guys do over there but we study our opponents, we know who we’re playing against, so I don’t care if I’m on Joe Milton’s radar or not.”
Of course, the loss can’t be blamed on just one player. Milton wasn’t nearly as good as he was last week against Minnesota, but the real issue was that the whole team came out flat. The team that won in Minneapolis last week was crisp, prepared and ready to play.
Somehow, against the Spartans, it didn’t seem that way.
“We had confidence. We knew we had the game, it’s just lack of focus or something,” Haskins said. “I don’t know. We had it, we just, we beat ourselves.”
It’s hard to say this rivalry doesn’t mean anything to Michigan. It does, even if Harbaugh is less forthcoming about it in the week leading up to the game. It was just two years ago that Devin Bush defaced the Sparty logo in East Lansing. Last year, the Wolverines taunted the Spartans postgame by telling them to go home after a blowout. But after two straight wins, maybe Michigan got complacent and wrote off Michigan State too early.
Because in the end, Michigan and Michigan State don’t have one of the sport’s most storied rivalries for nothing. No matter the records or the momentum, this is still Michigan and Michigan State, still as unpredictable as ever.
After all, as Mark Dantonio once said, “Pride comes before the fall.” Previous iterations of Wolverines have learned this lesson before. Now they have to learn it again.