Aidan Hutchinson knows what this rivalry is all about. He grew up in Dearborn, less than 100 miles from both schools. He heard stories about it from his dad, a standout linebacker at Michigan in the early 1990s. In high school, he was recruited by both sides.
Monday afternoon, standing in front of a rivalry-sized swarm of cameras inside Schembechler Hall, that experience is what led him to declare Michigan State “our biggest rival,” before realizing what he said and pausing. “Or, maybe our biggest rival.”
It’s a declaration that would seem ridiculous in 49 states, with Ohio State looming in two weeks. But not here, where this rivalry — and your side of it — defines friendships and shapes childhoods.
That’s the reality that’s encompassed Hutchinson’s life for the past 19 years. And now, four days from the Spartans’ biannual trip to Michigan Stadium, it’s the reality that stares him in the face.
Because for all his experience on periphery of this rivalry, Saturday is Hutchinson’s first time truly on the inside, as a key cog in the Wolverines’ defense.
“It’s completely different (to play in it),” Hutchinson said. “I think it intensifies the rivalry even more. You watch it, you kind of get the feel of the rivalry. But when you’re actually in it — you’re hitting them, you’re talking a little bit — that’s when things kind of intensify.”
The preparation, in a football sense, isn’t any different. Film study started the day after Michigan’s last game, much like it will for Indiana next week. More experienced players haven’t been inundating underclassmen with words of advice. When the Wolverines take the field, there won’t be any special ceremonies or alterations to the routine.
But the difference is tangible.
“It’s about who’s the big brother and who’s the little sister in this state,” said junior cornerback Ambry Thomas, providing the day’s requisite viral rivalry quote. “That’s what it’s really about.”
For Hutchinson, the difference is more understated, coming from his ingrained knowledge of what this game means.
It’s also more personal, coming from his friendship with Theo Day, a reserve quarterback for the Spartans.
“The talking has definitely started between me and him,” Hutchinson said. “… I don’t know if I can tell you what he said, but some words were said between us. He was talking a little bit about the game. I’m just pumped to play him.”
It’s a familiar refrain for anyone who listens to these rivalry week pump-up speeches masquerading as press conferences.
Every year, in-state players position themselves in front of cameras and talk about their relationships on the other side, often with brash declarations included. And then, every year, the in-game jawing follows suit, crescendoing in the most physical, personal game of the Wolverines’ season.
“Obviously there’s going to be a little bit more stuff after the whistle,” Hutchinson said. “I’m expecting that because of how this rivalry has been in the past.”
For players like Ben Bredeson or Carlo Kemp, that part is normal by now. They’re the ones who know better than to provide any bulletin-board material, instead emitting a respect for the opponent that won’t land them any cheap shots Saturday afternoon.
Hutchinson might be expecting it, having gotten a few snaps last year. But for now, all he can do is wait.
That, and get ready for the self-described most important game he’s ever started.
“Last year, I came in as a backup, only got a couple plays,” Hutchinson said. “But I’m expecting to do some big things in the game.”