Jim Harbaugh took the podium Monday for the start of his fourth Michigan State week as coach of the Michigan football team.
His ties to this rivalry are obvious. He went 2-1 against the Spartans as a player, and the Wolverines’ one loss with Harbaugh as the starting quarterback came in 1984, when Harbaugh broke his arm diving for a loose ball in the third quarter.
Since he returned to Ann Arbor in 2015, Harbaugh has led Michigan to a 1-2 record versus Michigan State, including that fumbled punt in his first season.
This record is part of one of Harbaugh’s greatest criticisms as a coach — his 1-5 mark against the Spartans and Ohio State.
In summary, Harbaugh is extremely familiar with this rivalry, which likely helped shape his answer when he was asked if there is any extra emotion entering Saturday’s game in East Lansing.
“Yes,” Harbaugh said. “In-state rival, Big Ten opponent. It always has, is and always will be (extra emotional).”
The rest of Harbaugh’s team shares the feeling, and for good reason. Junior running back Tru Wilson grew up in Michigan. Like anybody else who shares that bond, Wilson has been privy to the roots of this game his whole life.
“It’s in-state,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that are from the state and have been living this rivalry — going to the game, watching the game — they’ve lived it just as much as I have, and we’ll be ready for it.”
Lawrence Marshall has a unique perspective. He too played high school football in Michigan, and, as a fifth-year senior defensive tackle, has been a part of the actual game as long as anybody on the roster.
He has friends on the other team who, in light of the Spartans’ success under coach Mark Dantonio, have taken the opportunity to dig at Marshall and the Wolverines.
“I remember when I was getting recruited, that was the year they won the Rose Bowl, my friends texted me, like, smelling roses, things like that,” Marshall said. “So it’s a lot of tension.”
Donovan Peoples-Jones feels that bond to the rivalry as much as anybody. Five players from the sophomore wide receiver’s high school — Detroit Cass Technical — will be on the field Saturday.
To count the number of players Peoples-Jones played against would take a long time. To him, though, the motivation doesn’t come from growing up watching games or the relationships he has with those on the opposing sideline.
“I remember losing to them last year,” Peoples-Jones said. “The vibes that that brought our team, you know, it just wasn’t good. I think that’s all the motivation that we need for this week.”
Nick Eubanks isn’t from Michigan, he’s from Florida. But it doesn’t take long to get integrated into the Michigan State game.
The redshirt sophomore tight end gave perhaps the most colorful response of anybody about the Spartans.
“We hate those guys just as much (as the fans do),” Eubanks said. “We’re gonna see what they’re all about on Saturday.”
All of this is to say that this game means different things to different people.
No matter how you cut it, though, Saturday’s matchup is more than just the sixth- and 24th-ranked teams playing for conference position.
It’s an opportunity for the Wolverines to move a step closer to their postseason goals, yes. But it’s also an opportunity for Wilson, Marshall and Peoples-Jones to grab bragging rights over their friends for the next year. It’s an opportunity for Harbaugh to silence critics and make the extra emotions of the game positive ones.
It’s a chance for players and coaches to establish themselves as legends in a rivalry that means so much to so many people.