“Throw out the records,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh early Monday afternoon, a wry smile subtly forming on his face. “There’s a cliché you can use when you play this type of game.”
Whether he believes that or not — his team staring down the barrel of a bout against 4-5 Michigan State on Saturday — matters little. This is a week that annually breeds the kind of teeth-gritting clichés of coachspeak, muttered monotonously and meaninglessly. Respect for the opponent. The importance of rivalry games. All business.
Those clichés will evaporate the moment the ball is snapped and will be ripped to shreds after a victor is crowned mid-afternoon Saturday. Then everyone will gather again one year from now to rehearse this charade once more.
The reality is you can’t throw out the records. You can’t ignore the nosedive the Spartans have taken, nor the ramifications of what a beatdown on Saturday might mean. This is not 2015, two ranked opponents duking it out in Harbaugh’s first year, surely an even-handed promise of things to come. It’s not 2016, one side rampaging toward real postseason hopes, the other just praying to play spoiler. It’s not 2017, two hapless sides assigning meaning to a game that otherwise would have none. And it’s not 2018, two ranked opponents playing an ostensible elimination game.
You can’t throw out the records here because the records tell all. This is one side trying to cling to a fading sense of who it once was, the other looking to send that crisis into turbo. This is Jim Harbaugh trying to deliver a knockout punch to his most formidable foe. This is Michigan trying to bludgeon a Michigan State program slowly sinking in quicksand. The onus is on the Wolverines to grab hold of the reins.
Underneath those annual platitudes Monday, the hints of that mentality were readily apparent.
“You can’t let them get their heads up,” said junior cornerback Ambry Thomas. “Try to step on their throat and stay there all game. You know that they’re going to treat this game like their Super Bowl.”
Then asked what he sees of the Spartans’ offense, a group that ranks 96th of 130 teams in total offense, Thomas said: “I see a team with a lot of talent, honestly. They just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Harbaugh’s hesitancy this week is understandable, though. His counterpart, Mark Dantonio, has beaten Michigan eight of his 12 years at Michigan State, including two wins in four tries against Harbaugh. Even with a talent gap, the Spartans have found ways to muck these games up, slow them down and even win them. In 2017, Dantonio’s crew ran the ball 40 times, picked off Michigan quarterback John O’Korn three times and held on for a 14-10 win in the pouring rain. It was a master class in coaching, beginning to end.
That’s what guides Harbaugh’s trepidation heading into a game in which all signs point toward a blowout.
“On high alert for everything,” Harbaugh said. “Specifically, we understand that Coach Dantonio is a master motivator. There could be trick plays on special teams. Punt fakes, field goal fakes. Everything needs to be alerted and prepared and ready for.”
Still, what exists amidst Harbaugh’s suppressed fears cannot simply eliminate what’s right there in plain sight. Dantonio and Michigan State are 15-18 in Big Ten play over the past three-plus years. They are fresh off blowing a 28-3 lead at home to a mediocre Illinois team. There are questions swirling about the future of the greatest coach in that program’s modern history. Those questions are real, and perhaps lasting.
“Whatever’s happened to them, has happened,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. “Regardless of what happened to them, we’re going to go out there and play our game.”
Play our game. Throw out the records. High alert. This week, the typical clichés are out there to grab onto if you so choose. But they do a disservice to the abnormal stakes at play this weekend.
How about instead of throwing out the records, we throw out the pretense: If Michigan does what it should do on Saturday, it will shatter the balance of power in this rivalry for the foreseeable future.
Marcovitch can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch