Just 12 months ago, as an announced crowd of 111,740 filed out of Michigan Stadium in utter silence after one of the most shocking finishes in college football history, it would have been hard to imagine Michigan and Michigan State lining up again Saturday in their current positions only one year later.
The second-ranked Wolverines are 7-0 and in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten race, while the Spartans are 2-5 and three-touchdown underdogs. The Wolverines have the College Football Playoff in their sights. The Spartans have only a bowl berth to play for.
That, and an eighth win in nine years against Michigan.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh says nearly every week that the upcoming game is a championship game. This is the first one — though likely not the last — that really is. The two teams typically play for the de facto state championship. The Wolverines have not brought home the Paul Bunyan Trophy since 2012, an important factor even to those new to the rivalry.
“I can tell it’s Michigan State week — I know that,” said first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown. “Obviously my first experience, so I’m kind of feeding off my guys. … It’s the same, for us, in terms of the preparation. I get a sense from our guys that it’s a little bit more important. There’s no question about it.”
More than just last year — when Michigan State picked up a fumbled punt snap and returned it for a game-winning touchdown on the last play — the Spartans have owned the edge lately. They outscored Michigan, 64-17, at home in 2013 and 2014, in two games Michigan’s players said were even more embarrassing than last year’s.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is 7-2 in the game he has placed utmost importance on during his tenure, and with most of the Spartans’ season a disappointment to this point, they surely would love nothing more than to spoil the Wolverines’ season with a fifth straight home win in the series.
“I think they love beating us more than any other team in the country, and for fair reasons,” said fifth-year senior offensive tackle Erik Magnuson. “I remember it being hostile. … When you go there and all the fans are flipping you off and all that type of stuff when you’re pulling in, you kind of realize it’s a big deal.”
In the teams’ last meeting at Spartan Stadium, then-No. 8 Michigan State pounded a reeling Michigan team, 35-11. Wolverines linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake into the field before the game, and the Spartans responded by tacking on another touchdown late in the game. Michigan State went on to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, and Michigan finished 5-7 and fired coach Brady Hoke.
It was hard to imagine then, or even after last year’s stunner, that the teams’ fortunes would reverse so quickly. Following the 2015 loss, Michigan could only talk about how it would recover from that, how it would “put steel in the spine.”
“Coach Harbaugh also talked about, ‘We’re gonna handle this better than any team could ever handle it,’” said senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “He was right — we just go on and play the remainder of our games, and looking to this year, we just try to go out there and execute in East Lansing.”
The Wolverines have lost only once since then, against Ohio State last November at Michigan Stadium. They watched the Spartans move on from that game to a Big Ten Championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff, capping one of the most successful runs in school history. Even while focusing on the present, the Wolverines say they won’t forget about their struggles against their in-state rival.
“What we’ve got going now is special,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight. “If we take our foot off the gas, that feeling will go away.”
Now, Michigan State is on an entirely different trajectory. The Spartans have lost five straight games, the first against Wisconsin on Sept. 24, the last at Maryland on Saturday. In between, they fell to Indiana in overtime and gave up 54 points to Northwestern. They have not yet found reliable quarterback play between Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke.
That’s a bad recipe against Michigan’s top-ranked defense, which has playmakers all over the field: fifth-year senior Chris Wormley and senior Taco Charlton (four sacks each) on the defensive line, redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers (10 tackles for loss) at linebacker and the All-American Lewis in the secondary.
The Wolverines had all of those players in starring roles last season, when they appeared poised to exorcise their demons against Michigan State, end their losing streak in the series and gain the inside track to the Big Ten championship.
This year, the demons are back and all of those goals are still in play, but with higher stakes. For the first time since that “embarrassment” in 2014, for the third time in four years, for the first time under Harbaugh, Michigan is heading up to East Lansing to try to win a championship game.
“That’s all I want to think about — I don’t want to think about the other way,” Magnuson said. “I can only imagine us driving home with Paul Bunyan on our side, because that’s what we’re going in there to do.”