As the No. 12 Michigan football team enters Saturday’s game against No. 7 Michigan State, it appears to be on the precipice of something special, a level of success that has not been seen in recent program history.
The Wolverines have rattled off five straight wins, the last three of which have been shutouts. The national hype train has begun, and the praise for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been effusive. Pundits are suddenly picking the Wolverines to make some noise, and the fans are starting to believe.
But one obstacle stands in the way of full-blown mania. The Spartans (2-0 Big Ten, 6-0 overall) haven’t won as convincingly as Michigan, but are a threatening opponent nonetheless. Michigan State has dominated the Wolverines (2-0, 5-1) by a combined score of 64-17 the last two years, but Michigan does not seem to care.
Harbaugh dismissed all questions about the past at his weekly press conference Monday, and Michigan’s players largely did the same. Harbaugh and his assistant coaches have been staunch in their belief that if their team plays 100 percent every week, then it’s impossible to put extra emphasis on a rivalry game.
“We’ve just been going about our business down there at Schembechler Hall, and I’m sure that there will be a lot of attempts made to make it … it’s already big,” Harbaugh said. “The game is big enough. Fair, healthy, honest competition with a heck of a good opponent. That’s enough.”
The refrain about fair, healthy, honest competition is one Harbaugh has often repeated this season. In his mind, the fact that a rival happens to be the opponent does not increase the competition.
Before his first game for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch didn’t notice anything different about the atmosphere at Schembechler Hall.
“There’s always an intensity in this building,” Fisch said Wednesday. “There’s a determination to win every game and play as hard as we possibly can. I haven’t seen much of a difference because of the fact that that would kind of go against our whole philosophy.”
Defensive line coach Greg Mattison experienced the program’s former philosophy about rivalry weeks under Brady Hoke. Countdown clocks to rivalry games adorned the walls of Schembechler Hall, and there was little question as to which games (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State) were more important than the others.
But with the arrival of the new staff, Mattison has changed, too. He believes the importance of rivalry games is inherent in their nature.
“I think when you’re at Michigan you understand exactly … we’ve always talked about this, and they understand it already, that when you’re at Michigan, the expectations are very, very high,” Mattison said Wednesday. “Whoever you’re playing, that’s a big game because you have to play up to what’s expected as a Michigan football player, so I think they look at each game that way.”
Mattison’s unit will be charged with rattling Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who has defeated the Wolverines in each of the past two seasons. Harbaugh said on multiple occasions this week that Cook’s record as a starter (29-3) stands out to him. The fifth-year senior has thrown 12 touchdowns and two interceptions so far this season.
Michigan’s own fifth-year senior quarterback will also face an increased challenge this week. Jake Rudock has steadied after his three-interception showing at Utah, but defeating Michigan State could require a performance of another level. The Wolverines’ recent dominance has left the pressure off Michigan’s passing offense late in games.
Rudock, his coaches say, is hard to faze. The Spartans will do their best to change that, but their success is no guarantee.
Harbaugh has remained steadfast in his belief that Saturday’s game is just another one, a statement that could help his players after years of getting hyped up for the game before falling. But if the Wolverines win, the hype will continue to grow.
And when Michigan plays Minnesota in two weeks, that, too, will be just another game. At least in Harbaugh’s eyes.