The Paul Bunyan Trophy might just be the ugliest thing in college football.
Whoever designed it nearly 60 years ago seemed to eschew logic in some of the choices made. They decided, for one, to color it instead of leaving its natural metallic hue, the way most trophies are. And their choice of paint is questionable at best, with the mythical figure wearing an orange-brown shirt and dark green trousers. (One would hope Bunyan would have better fashion sense, if he were real.)
Yet never has anyone desired such an unsightly object as much as the Michigan football team wants that trophy.
The Wolverines will welcome Michigan State on Saturday for the 105th edition of the schools’ heated in-state rivalry, hoping to reclaim that trophy. With the Spartans having won the last four games in the series, it’s been in their possession since 2008.
This is typically the most physical and most intense game on the schedule for both teams. Perhaps Michigan’s rivalry with Ohio State is more important, but it doesn’t match the hatred that permeates the in-state clash.
Look no further than last season’s game, which is remembered as much for the tussles between Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Spartan defensive end William Gholston as it is for the result itself — a 28-14 Michigan loss.
To a man, the Wolverines know what Saturday’s game will be like.
“It’s a rivalry game. It’s going to be intense,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “It’ll be my first time starting against Michigan State and I’m excited about it. … Everybody knows what to expect going into a game like this. It’s going to be physical.”
Beyond getting that ugly trophy back, Michigan will be trying to prevent Michigan State from making history.
The Spartans’ four-game winning streak is their longest since they also won four straight from 1959-62, and should the Wolverines lose again this season, it’d mark the first time ever that they’ve lost five straight games to their brethren from East Lansing.
But if you believe the team, the ignominious recent history isn’t on its mind.
All week, players have said that they aren’t thinking about the losing streak — they’re just focusing on this year’s game. And Michigan coach Brady Hoke denied that he was feeling any pressure to reverse the current direction of the rivalry. Clearly, Hoke has more than bragging rights on his mind.
“I think it’s important because we’re trying to get our fifth win,” Hoke said. “We’re trying to get a conference championship just like everyone else. That’s important. (But) obviously the in-state — you know there’s a pretty direct line drawn in the sand about if you’re University of Michigan or Michigan State. You understand.”
The prospects of that conference championship that Michigan so desires look much rosier now, after the Wolverines’ two dominant wins over Purdue and Illinois to open Big Ten play.
The defense is coming off a shutout against the Fighting Illini, and the offense hasn’t been slowed much since the second half of the Notre Dame game.
A rededication to the running game has fueled the offense’s resurgence, with offensive coordinator Al Borges relying on senior quarterback Denard Robinson’s legs more than ever. (The running backs flashed improvement against Illinois, but there’s still no consistent threat with redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint finding it difficult to replicate his form of last season.)
It’s probably no coincidence that Robinson’s passing has also been better since the change in strategy, since he’s had less pressure to make plays with his arm. After he threw a career-high four interceptions against Notre Dame, Robinson hasn’t thrown any in the last two games — it’s the first time in his three years as the starter that he’s done so during conference play.
“I think he’s just gotten more comfortable,” Borges said. “He’s more grounded. His fundamentals have improved. The Notre Dame game had an effect on him, a great effect on him.”
Robinson, though, will have to buck the trend of his play against the Spartans. Like the team at large, he’s struggled against Michigan State. In two games as the starter, the Deerfield Beach, Fla. native has combined to complete 26-of-53 passes with four interceptions, and he’s averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.
Should the quarterback and the rest of the offense put up a better showing this season, it’ll help the defense that much more, though the rapidly-improving unit hasn’t looked like it has needed any help recently in holding its last four opponents to 39 combined points.
The defense will face a challenge in that, after playing more unique offenses in the last five games, the group returns to playing a smashmouth-type attack in Michigan State’s traditional pro-style offense.
“They’ve been the same for a while,” said senior defensive end Craig Roh. “Power offense. It’s going to be a physical game. They’re going to try to run the ball at us and we’ve got to stop the run.”
But just like Michigan State’s offense, the results of the rivalry also haven’t changed much in recent years. The Wolverines, clicking on all cylinders now, will try to remedy that on Saturday.