In the No. 4 Michigan football team’s opinion, Paul Bunyan has been in East Lansing far too long.
It’s been two years since the wood-carved, hands-on-the-hips, ax-planted trophy has found a place behind plexiglass in Schembechler Hall. Some of the Wolverines’ best players, household names, have never laid a finger on the symbol of state-wide bragging rights bestowed upon the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry game.
This week, they get their chance.
“Obviously, we have Michigan State this week,” junior running back Blake Corum said Tuesday. “In my time here, I haven’t beat them. So I’m focused on that right now. That’s very important — that’s the priority right now.”
And despite the Spartan’s lowly 3-4 record, the Wolverines know they can’t get overconfident if they want to bring Paul back to Ann Arbor.
“It’s not even like that’s a question for us, overconfidence,” senior receiver Cornelius Johnson said. “It can definitely be a factor, but for us, … We’ve just got one focus, and that’s bringing back the Paul Bunyan trophy to Schembechler.”
Whether it was overconfidence or simply lack of execution, both Johnson and Corum — and multiple other Michigan players — have been bit by Michigan State in the past.
Heading into the game in 2020, the appearance was much like this year’s: the Wolverines were the No. 13 team in the country, and the Spartans were coming off an embarrassing loss to Rutgers. Michigan State looked pitiful and there was seemingly no path to a green and white victory.
But that’s the rivalry.
The Spartans stunned Michigan, 27-24, and took Paul Bunyan with them in the process. The trophy was stripped from the Wolverines’ clutches, taken to lodging in East Lansing, and it was the last time anyone in the Michigan locker room saw it. That still eats at the Wolverines, and that’s playing into their preparation.
“Having Paul over there two years in a row, we want him back,” junior safety Makari Paige said. “(We) have more emphasis on it right now because it’s been too long over there.”
Of course, to make it to two years, Michigan had to fall short not once, but twice. Last year’s heartbreaker led to a morose bus ride home. It was quiet, and there was just one way to describe the feeling, Corum describing it best: “disappointment.”
Disappointment is crushing and soul-sucking, but it’s also motivating. Corum was in the weight room within minutes of the bus parking in Ann Arbor. Others are taking that disappointment and turning it into fuel for this Saturday’s matchup. No matter what, nobody is taking it lightly.
“I think coming here everybody just knows how much it means,” Paige said. “Being around the environment and culture, you just know Michigan State week (means) it’s time to go.”
The Wolverines are confident they are going to win, but everyone in the locker room knows the difference between confidence and overconfidence. The apparent quality of Michigan State’s squad doesn’t change any of that.
“Football is a game anyone can lose; anyone can lose any given day,” Corum said. “And so I think we’re confident with ourselves and confident in what we can do. I don’t think we’re overconfident just because of the type of team we are. We treat every game like it’s a championship game.”
Because no matter what, the Spartans are always a challenge.
“It’s a test, it’s always gonna be there late October, we’re gonna have them,” Johnson said. “… It’s gonna be a state championship like (Harbaugh) says, and there’s gonna be a battle.”
A battle, at least according to Vegas, Michigan should win. The Wolverines know that, frankly, Michigan State knows it, too. That doesn’t mean anything will be easy.
At this point, there are less players on the team that know what it’s like to beat the Spartans than what it’s like to lose to them. No Michigan State record — no matter how bad it is — will get the Wolverines to take this game any lighter.
“Their record isn’t the same as last year when we met, but we’re confident we know they’re coming to play,” Corum said. “They’re gonna give us their best game. And like I said, Saturday can’t come fast enough.”