When George Helow arrived as Michigan’s linebackers coach this offseason, he brought along a message that’s stuck with the program:
“Personally, on behalf of the defense, we always preach nameless, faceless opponents,” junior edge rusher David Ojabo said Saturday. “So we just gotta go out there and execute and do what we gotta do. We can’t start weighing games or whatever, we just gotta go out there and do our jobs, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Throughout the season, the No. 6 Michigan football team has worked to embrace that mantra. Whenever asked about whether they’re looking forward to a specific game, or remembering a past loss to their upcoming foe, the Wolverines always repeated that line: nameless, faceless opponents. Helow’s goal was to ensure his players didn’t look past any teams or get caught overthinking schemes.
So far, it’s worked. Michigan is 7-0 for the first time since 2016, the defense has surrendered more than 17 points just once this season and when the team has come out sluggish, it hasn’t been for lack of preparation or energy. The linebackers — fifth-year senior Josh Ross, in particular — have anchored a run defense that cedes just 116.7 yards per game, a vast improvement from last year’s average of 178.8 yards.
For Saturday’s matchup against No. 8 Michigan State, though, even Ross — a team captain and Helow’s most valuable weapon at middle linebacker — admitted there’s a little extra fire.
“At the end of the day, it is nameless, faceless opponents,” Ross said. “Regardless of who we play, that’s how we view it, and we’re just trying to go get it. But it is Michigan State week, and we know that. We’re just ready to have a great week of preparation and ready to go get it this weekend.”
Therein lies the reality of the situation. It’s already been repeated exhaustively — and it will continue to be repeated over the next several days — that Saturday’s game will be the first top 10 matchup between the Wolverines and Spartans since 1964. For both teams, it will act as the greatest challenge of the season so far and a measuring stick for two rebuilding programs in the midst of improbably strong starts.
The hype is massive, but that doesn’t mean the approach has to change. For Michigan, this week of preparation is about striking a balance between maintaining those same practices that have worked so far and elevating its energy to the magnitude of the rivalry.
“There’s the approach of one game at a time, which you need to do,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You have to do that, and you have to practice that, and that has to be implemented, lest a team be painfully humbled. Now we’re in a situation (where it’s a) huge game. In some ways, that mindset’s similar. In other ways, that definitely gets turned up a notch.”
Through seven games, energy has not been a problem for the Wolverines. They’ve shown it in every game, after every big play and in every moment where their undefeated record has looked to be in jeopardy.
And let’s be honest: No matter how many times they say otherwise, Michigan’s players don’t see Michigan State as the same as every other opponent. After the Spartans exposed all of their worst flaws last season, it’d be impossible for the Wolverines to not see this game differently.
But that doesn’t make that mindset irrelevant.
“I think it’s important especially for this game,” senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said. “When you get out there, you can feel it. No one needs to be nudged to be nastier. Everyone’s gonna know on Saturday, it’s gonna be a nasty game. It’s how these rivalry games go.
“The way that we play these nameless, faceless opponents just shows that no matter who we play, if we execute, you know we’re gonna be successful.”