From a game he’d like to forget, Kenny Demens remembers this: At some point in the shell-shocked aftermath of last year’s bullying in East Lansing — after Michigan State had trampled his run defense, battered his quarterback and embarrassed his team — Michigan coach Brady Hoke sought out Demens.
“Don’t forget the feeling,” Demens recalled Hoke saying.
By now, the feeling is familiar. The Paul Bunyan Trophy, given to the winner of the annual clash between Michigan and Michigan State, has been in East Lansing for four straight years.
Despite the downplaying and ho-hum talk from the Michigan football team, despite Hoke’s insistence that this week is just another step toward a Big Ten title, this game means much more. It’s about pride, and it’s about grudges. It’s about memories and trying to erase some of the pain of yesterday.
Demens said the loss has stayed with him everyday.
“It hurt,” he said. “It still hurts.”
Each player has a different memory. Demens remembers the locker room. Redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon remembers the walk off the field and, like fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree, he remembers the bus ride home.
“We like to have fun on our way back from away games and everything, but it was quiet,” Roundtree said. “Everybody had their headphones on.”
Each of the last four years has added a memory like this. For three years, Michigan State rolled. Dominated. Last year, the Wolverines left bruised and battered. As fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs put it, “They played last year how we want to play.”
That style, of course, is physicality. The Spartans bulldozed their way to 213 yards on the ground last year. They received criticism for a number of personal foul penalties, but they succeeded in knocking Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson out of the game.
And Michigan couldn’t stop them.
“I think we were out-physicaled everywhere,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison agreed.
“They took it to us,” Mattison said. “You can cut it any way you want. They lined up, ran the football and knocked us off the football. And we don’t like that.”
It was more than that.
More than any other team, at least any other team in the Big Ten, Michigan State has stopped Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson through the air and on the ground. Robinson rushed for just 42 yards last year. Two years ago, he gained just 86 yards on the ground. In the two meetings, the Spartans forced four interceptions.
There was no trickery, no smoke and mirrors in what Borges called a “figurative fist fight.” The Spartans were just better and played harder.
That’s not something you change with a scheme, according to Borges.
“You go out there with an attitude that you’re going to exceed their intensity and you don’t let people do that to you,” Borges said. “It’s that simple. … And if you don’t think that way, don’t come to this game.”
For the players, the memories that stick never come from during the game. Listen to Demens or Gordon or Roundtree. The pain always comes at the end. Last year was an especially hollow feeling, knowing that the Wolverines’ four losses tied the longest losing streak against the Spartans in program history.
Indeed, for all the memories, none can remember walking by the Paul Bunyan Trophy in the Schembechler Hall trophy case.
“I saw it on my official visit, but not after a victory,” Gordon said. “I bet it looks a whole lot better after the victory.”
That would be something worth remembering.