Having lost each of the last four meetings with Michigan State, the Michigan football players and coaches have some bitter memories of the in-state rivalry, which will be renewed this Saturday at the Big House.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke admitted on Monday that losses do, indeed, provide more vivid memories than victories. He especially remembers the controversial game against the Spartans in 2001, when he was the defensive line coach for the Wolverines.
“I remember the 12-men-on-the-field (penalty),” Hoke said. “And there was a coach on the sideline who was in charge of that substitution, which was me.”
Michigan State had the ball, down 24-20, on the final drive of that game. On a first down, the Michigan defense sacked Spartan quarterback Jeff Smoker, but the Wolverines were flagged for an illegal substitution that swung the momentum back in Michigan State’s favor.
Hoke joked that he “barely” kept his job after the loss.
With no Spartan timeouts remaining and 17 ticks left, Smoker rolled to his right and kept the ball on 2nd-and-goal before being dragged down at the one-yard line. As the clock continued to run, Michigan State hurried to the line to spike the ball, and it appeared that the clock may have stopped with one second left before Smoker actually spiked it.
“That was a long second, wasn’t it?” remembered fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. The current co-captain attended that game in 2001, and he remembers it as vividly as Hoke.
The rest is history. Michigan State lined up before there was time to argue about the clock, and Smoker delivered the game winning touchdown pass on the final play.
“I just remember being disgusted and just running out of the stadium — took off,” Kovacs said. “I think it was like a mile run to the car, didn’t stop, didn’t want to hear from anybody. I was with my dad, and we just got in the car and drove home. I don’t know that we said a word on the way home, but we were both disgusted.”
Evidently, the team’s memory of losses to Michigan State extends well past the last four seasons. Players and coaches maintain that every game on the schedule is important, but it was clear on Monday that this rivalry game is a bit more personal.
ROBINSON READY: Following his five-turnover performance against Notre Dame, senior quarterback Denard Robinson has rebounded strongly over Michigan’s last two games. Against Purdue and Illinois in back-to-back weeks, Robinson combined for 363 yards on the ground and 264 yards through the air.
It appears that Robinson his finding his groove just at the right time in the season, but the Boilermaker and Fighting Illini defenses are weaker than the Spartan defense he will face this weekend.
In both of Robinson’s career starts against Michigan State, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio has found a way to bottle up the Michigan quarterback’s lighting speed. Last season, Robinson was held to just 48 rushing yards on 18 attempts and was a miserable 9-for-24 passing, with an interception, in a 28-14 defeat in East Lansing. In 2010, he faired a little better on the ground with 86 yards, but his three interceptions proved costly in a 34-17 loss.
“That’s a great football team, and they got great athletes and they’re well coached,” Robinson said. “We know every time we play against them we got to be ready to play. … Last year we didn’t play Michigan football, and the year before we didn’t.”
Michigan State has done an outstanding job the past two seasons of protecting against the big play when Robinson breaks the pocket. Over the past two seasons, Robinson’s longest run against the Spartans is 16 yards. There were no 50-plus yarders like some of the runs he pulled off against Purdue and Illinois.
But he could be gearing up for one against Michigan State. When asked what his favorite highlight-reel run is, he replied, “The next one.”
GETTING PHYSICAL: The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry tends to bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, of those who play in it. The players play more physical, and sometimes a little bit dirty.
“Well this game has always, in my recollection, been very physical, feisty to some degree,” Hoke said. “There’s a lot of pride in both universities and programs, guys who are out there representing. Our guys know their guys, their guys know our guys.”
Robinson was on the receiving end of some of that feisty play against Michigan State last season when Spartan defensive end William Gholston jumped into a pile after the whistle and tugged Robinson’s facemask violently to the right. On another dead play, Gholston stood up and punched an unsuspecting Taylor Lewan in the neck.
On Monday, Michigan players denied that Michigan State played dirty at all.
“Play dirty?” said senior defensive tackle Will Campbell. “No, they played football. Football is a physical sport, and we’re prepared to play football as well.”
Added Robinson: “That’s football — it’s nasty, and you’re going to enjoy it.”