Michigan, Michigan State renew rivalry Saturday, with higher stakes

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 31, 2013

Michigan coach Brady Hoke was asked this week to compare the Michigan State rivalry to the one with Ohio State. This game, especially in East Lansing, always feels like a playground fight.

This time, when the No. 23 Michigan football team meets No. 24 Michigan State on Saturday, the field will be muddy, the forecasts say. Windy again. Last time the game was in East Lansing, trash swirled around Spartan Stadium as if this game wasn’t being held in a stadium at all, but in a dirty lot anywhere in the state, in Detroit or Farmington Hills or Grand Rapids, and two teams met here to fight and settle old scores.

Hoke didn’t take the bait.

“I think they’re both important,” he said.

But this one has gotten more and more so since Mark Dantonio became Michigan State’s coach in 2006. Michigan hates the Buckeyes. But at least it respects them. For this game, the rhetoric has become familiar.

“We labeled them as a little brother,” said fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint on Tuesday. “And, you know the little brother always want to prove themselves and try to beat up the big brother one day. I think they really take offense to that.”

This game, always, is brutish and ugly, and it’s that brutish ugliness that makes it beautiful. This year, the stakes are higher. The game will be as close to a divisional championship game as it gets at the start of November. Michigan is 2-1 in the conference, with a tough month ahead. Michigan State is 4-0 with few tests remaining. For Michigan, a win means it controls its own Legends Division destiny. A loss all but hands the Spartans the division.

For Michigan State (4-0 Big Ten, 7-1 overall), not much has changed. Offensively, Michigan State relies heavily on the ground game. Its passing game has been inconsistent. Michigan’s defense has been vulnerable to the big play, but the Spartans hardly generate any. They rank second-to-last nationally in plays of 40 yards or more.

Defensively, the Spartans are dominant. Its defense is ranked first nationally in total defense and rushing defense. It is ranked third in passing defense and scoring defense. On both sides of the ball, the strategy is no secret: win the running game.

“There’s not a lot of gimmicks,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “And I love that.”

When opposing teams have had success against the Spartans, it has been through the air. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is one of the conference’s best, but so is Michigan’s fifth-year receiver Jeremy Gallon. Last time Gallon played, he set the Big Ten record with 369 receiving yards.

The Spartans’ cornerbacks are especially physical, but Michigan (2-1, 6-1) is well-suited for that. The 5-foot-8 Gallon is often pressed, with little success. Sophomore Devin Funchess is a converted tight end, where he grew accustomed to bigger defenders. Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner has flourished since Funchess moved to receiver, but he is also turnover-prone, and the Spartans secondary has returned four interceptions for touchdowns this year.

But the game is usually decided on the ground, and team that has won the rushing battle has won the game in 40 of the past 43 meetings. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has terrorized Michigan in the past with A-gap blitzes to generate pressure up the middle. The Wolverines enter Saturday with major question marks on the interior of the offensive line, where they have yet to find a successful combination of blockers. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint averages just 3.7 yards per carry this year. Michigan State’s defense averages just two. Michigan’s offense is weakest where Michigan State is best.

Like most things in this rivalry, the Wolverines take Michigan State’s physical supremacy personally. Michigan won in 2012, but it was a defensive struggle. In 2011, the Spartans dominated the line of scrimmage. They pulled Denard Robinson’s facemask after the whistle. Fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said it felt like Michigan was bullied.

“If somebody came up to you and hit you right in the face, would you take it personally?” he said. “Yeah, I take it personally.”

His fellow fifth-year senior right tackle, Michael Schofield, said the seniors talk about that game constantly.

“We don’t want to forget that,” he said.

Schofield said the veterans have tried to prepare the freshmen for the intensity of the rivalry. But Hoke said it’s impossible to understand the game until you play in it.

But, at the very least, even the young players know what’s at stake. When Mattison stepped to the podium for his weekly press conference Tuesday, he didn’t waste words on what everyone already knew.

“Michigan State week,” he said. “Here we go.”