“Sometimes, it defines you. It defines your program. It defines who you are,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.


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EAST LANSING — Dantonio didn’t even need to say it. The tens of thousands of green-and-white-clad fans inside Spartan Stadium celebrating back-to-back Michigan State wins for the first time in 42 years said it with the loudest rendition of a school fight song I’ve ever heard.

If you’re looking for the same roaring, program-defining message from Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, keep looking. It’s not going to come from the West Virginia native. But for what Rodriguez is trying to accomplish at Michigan, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“This one hurts, and is going to hurt, and it’s going to hurt everybody in our program for 24 hours,” Rodriguez said following the Wolverines’ 26-20 overtime loss to the Spartans. “After that, we’ve got to move on, and we’ve got a big Saturday night game next weekend.”

I truly believe that even as a West Virginia native, Rodriguez realizes this in-state battle matters to fans. Rodriguez has said he understands Michigan-Michigan State is not just another game. But his actions say otherwise. Rodriguez is looking at the national picture.

It’s not like Saturday’s game was devoid of emotion. Quarterback Tate Forcier led an unthinkable comeback with less than five minutes to play in regulation, and the game ended in a thrilling but frustrating finish. Rodriguez walked to the podium for his postgame press conference, fuming with anger and answering questions curtly.

It was obvious this game was different for Rodriguez, but only because it was a loss — not necessarily because it was a loss to Michigan State.

In his attempts to create his own Michigan winning legacy, Rodriguez will succeed in the areas he knows best: national exposure and national recruiting.

The national exposure Michigan draws is right up Rodriguez’s alley. During his time at West Virginia, the Moutaineers never had the major intra-state rival that fans could rally around. With a small state population, Rodriguez had to recruit from the country-wide pool. In doing so, he established national recruiting ties that were attractive to Michigan athletic director Bill Martin.

In recent years, it’s been hard to ignore the increase in in-state players choosing the Spartans over Michigan. But under Rodriguez, the south and west are carrying more weight.

Check the birthplace of any of Rodriguez’s 2009 signees, and the numbers are telling: four from Michigan, 13 from the South or the West.

For Dantonio’s 2009 class: 13 from Michigan, two from the West and South.

It’s not that in-state talent is choosing Dantonio — it’s that Rodriguez is choosing out-of-state talent. While speaking at the Detroit Economic Club last Thursday, Martin was clear that Rodriguez’s national appeal was part of the reason Martin brought him to Michigan.

“That’s why, in recruiting Rich, I was looking for a coach who played a more up-tempo spread offense type that you see on the field today at Michigan and secondly, has recruiting in-roads into the South and the West,” Martin said on Oct. 1, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Rodriguez is about the national scene. He understands the Ohio State rivalry because it’s a national rivalry. Across the country, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry carries little weight. At this point in his Michigan career, the annual intra-state matchup is just another chance for him to get a win.

For Michigan State, winning the intra-state battle can change the whole season. Just ask Spartan wideout Blair White.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re 2-3,” White said. “It feels like we’re 5-0.”

Don’t scoff at White. For the Michigan State, it’s true. This might have felt like four wins for the Spartans.

But with Rodriguez at the helm, it’s just one loss for Michigan.

— Lincoln can be reached at lincolnr@umich.edu.

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