There’s always plenty of discussion about which team is
Michigan’s bigger football rival: Michigan State or Ohio
State.

But, for Michigan linebacker Joey Sarantos — a Portage
native whose brother, Paul, is also on the Wolverine roster —
the answer is clear.

“To me growing up, I always thought of Michigan State as
the biggest rivalry,” Sarantos said. “I didn’t
learn until later that a lot of people thought Ohio State was the
biggest one. To me, I still consider Michigan State the
biggest.”

As someone who grew up in the state of Michigan, Sarantos is
just one of many involved in Saturday’s game between No. 12
Michigan (5-0 Big Ten, 7-1 overall) and Michigan State (3-1, 4-3)
that have spent their lives entranced with the rivalry.

And it’s that intrastate interest that makes the annual
Wolverines-Spartans skirmish a highly anticipated affair.

“As a kid, you hear Michigan vs. Michigan State and you
feel that rivalry,” Sarantos said. “I always grew up
not liking the colors green and white, especially together.

“It’s definitely a big game every year, and this
year is no exception.”

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State coach John L.
Smith lost his debut against Michigan last year, 27-20, in East
Lansing, but will be making his first trip to the Big House as the
Spartans’ head man.

In the 2003 contest, Smith got enough of a taste of the rivalry
to understand its magnitude.

“Why do I keep getting the question, ‘This is a big
rivalry for Michigan State and not a very big rivalry for
Michigan?’ ” Smith said at his weekly press conference.
“It’s the biggest game of the year for us. I
can’t speak for them.

“To make this a big rivalry, we have to contribute. We
have to start winning some of these games to make it what (the
rivalry) should be, and what it can be.”

Saturday’s game will mark the 97th time Michigan and
Michigan State have done battle on the football field, with
Michigan sporting a 63-28-5 record in the series.

The Wolverines will also be trying to hold onto the Paul Bunyan
Trophy, which has been awarded to the winner of the matchup since
1953. But while both teams would love to take the trophy home, that
doesn’t mean that the winner will admire it much over the
next year.

“I think it’s the ugliest trophy in college
football,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “But you
know that doesn’t mean that we don’t love it. And we
want to give him a nice, secure place to live and to spend his
years — we’re going to fight to keep him.”

Michigan senior offensive lineman David Baas thinks the biggest
problem with the Paul Bunyan Trophy is that the figure on top
doesn’t look so much like Bunyan as one of Baas’s
fellow linemen.

“It looks like (Matt) Lentz with an axe,” Baas
said.

Still, the Wolverines know the rivalry has bigger implications
than just a piece of hardware. In this year’s game, both
Michigan and Michigan State will be playing to stay near the top of
the Big Ten standings.

Michigan enters the game tied with Wisconsin for first place in
the conference, while the Spartans have been one of the Big
Ten’s bigger surprises. Since a season-opening upset loss at
lowly Rutgers, Michigan State has made an impressive turnaround
— culminating with a 51-17 shellacking of Minnesota two
weekends ago.

“It looked like a much-improved team from earlier in the
season, and from last season, they look a lot better,”
Michigan cornerback Marlin Jackson said.

That turnaround has been spearheaded by sophomore quarterback
Drew Stanton. The former Farmington Hills Harrison standout
severely injured his knee while on special teams in Michigan
State’s Alamo Bowl appearance last year. But Stanton has
returned strong, taking over the Michigan State offense in its Big
Ten opener at Indiana.

Since then, Stanton has passed for more than 1,000 yards and
rushed for 454 more — good enough to lead the team in both
categories.

“That is always a challenge for a defense, going against a
quarterback that can run as well as pass,” Jackson said.
“He can drop back, and you can have everybody covered, but he
can take off at any time. That is going to be a tough thing to go
against.”

With the Stanton-led Spartans charging up the conference
standings, Saturday’s game has taken on the feel of a
potentially epic chapter in this rivalry.

“Where would you rather be?” Michigan linebacker Roy
Manning said. “The Big Ten championship on the line, playing
at home, playing in an in-state rivalry. There’s so much
riding on this game, I’m sure everyone on both sides of the
ball are going to be excited.”

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