ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The altercations between Michigan and Michigan State football players after this weekend’s rivalry matchup have erased most evidence that a game was even played -- all anyone wants to talk about are videos that appear to show Spartans attacking two Wolverines.
Jim Harbaugh said his players were “assaulted.” Warde Manuel said police are investigating. Mel Tucker suspended four players.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the rivalry was taken way too far. But there’s disagreement about how much blame Michigan shares for what happened.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, the answer seems to be “very little.”
First, let’s talk about rivalries and trash talk. For those who need a crash course: Players on teams that don’t like each other are known to exchange the occasional unsavory comment before, during, and after games.
There have been some iconic examples of trash talk throughout the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry. Mike Hart’s “little brother” comment might be the most notable. Mark Dantonio’s “Where’d all the Wolverines go?” is pretty well-known. Tucker calling Michigan “the school down the road” is more subtle, but ultimately the same thing.
So, regardless of what Ja’Den McBurrows and Gemon Green might have been saying while they jogged or “skipped” into the tunnel after the game, it probably didn’t justify what came next.
Michigan State responded to Hart’s “little brother” statement by dominating Michigan on the field for an entire decade. Michigan got back at Dantonio by beating him his last two seasons. Do it between the lines -- that’s how you’re supposed to get revenge in sports.
Rivals, especially college football players, are always going to jaw at each other. “College player talks smack after beating rival” is a headline that could be written after every rivalry game, whether it’s Michigan-Michigan State, Alabama-Auburn, or Harvard-Yale.
Nobody got attacked when Devin Bush scuffed up the Spartan logo before the 2018 game, or when Joe Bolden (weirdly) planted a tent spike into the grass in 2014, or when Connor Cook spouted off while parading the Paul Bunyan Trophy around the stadium in 2017.
Part of being in a heated rivalry is listening to the other side talk when they win, and, with the exception of some chirping or shoving, taking it in stride. Yeah, it’s not fun. But that’s just the way it is.
I’m not sure why that expectation would change in 2022, regardless of whether a player was “skipping,” running, crawling, somersaulting, or doing the worm down the tunnel.
Speaking of which, don’t blame the tunnel, either.
These rumblings go back two weeks to a very odd peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich fueled scuffle involving Penn State. Long story short: Michigan’s team dietitian said the Nittany Lions threw PB&Js at the Wolverines during a minor halftime dust-up.
Penn State coach James Franklin avoided taking responsibility for the incident, instead putting the blame on a de facto hallway that’s gotten players safely to and from their locker rooms for decades (and in much more intense environments than that day’s beatdown).
After Saturday’s fights, the scrutiny surrounding the tunnel intensified. I agree that it’s probably a good idea to handle the postgame exit exactly how the referees handled halftime: Wait until the visitors have gone into their locker room before letting Michigan through.
Simple remedy, right? It’s perfect for opposing teams who are concerned about interacting in that space.
But does anyone really believe the presence of two walls and a ceiling is what compelled Penn State players to lob halftime snacks at the Wolverines?
If Michigan and Michigan State can’t handle being in the same tunnel for a few moments, separate them. I’m sure everyone would rather do that than have a repeat of what happened on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean the space itself is to blame. Nobody demanded Boise State repaint the blue turf after LeGarrette Blount punched an opponent on the field.
Harbaugh is also getting some blame for the trick play his team ran (unsuccessfully) with a 22-point lead in the fourth quarter. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: Harbaugh’s intention with that play was absolutely to run up the score and stick it to Michigan State. There’s no denying it.
But I don’t recall a whole lot of sympathy for the Wolverines when roles were reversed under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Dantonio relished embarrassing Michigan in those days -- as he should have. It’s not up to the winning team to keep the game close, it’s up to the opponent to keep battling (as Michigan State did on Saturday by stopping the trick play).
Like trash talk, running up the score isn’t new to football rivalries. Nobody got attacked with a helmet after Woody Hayes went for two against Michigan while up half a hundred points in 1968. Just last week, Ohio State let Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Stroud throw six passes during a fourth-quarter drive while up 47-10 against poor, hapless Iowa, and hardly anyone cared.
After Michigan went up by 15 points at the end of the third quarter, 14 of its last 18 plays were basic runs, and Harbaugh kept the clock moving. His game plan certainly didn’t resemble someone trying to embarrass a rival: The Wolverines hardly attacked Michigan State’s secondary the entire game (52 runs, 26 pass attempts).
Nobody likes losing a rivalry game, and Michigan State’s postgame frustration is relatable for anyone who’s played sports. Harbaugh running a wide receiver pass and Michigan players talking trash certainly contributed to that frustration, but again, that happens every day in college football.
Brawls that lead to suspensions do not.
It might be time to take a deeper look at the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry, which has steadily devolved into toxicity and become wholly unenjoyable over the past few years. Maybe it’s because of social media, or two fan bases that are uniquely intermixed on a daily basis.
Whatever the reason, it’s gone too far, and both sides share plenty of blame for that. As for Saturday, that falls on the Spartans.