EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio began his news conference this week by talking about how well Michigan is playing, and how the No. 6 Wolverines certainly deserve a lofty ranking.
He later pointed out that recent matchups between the Spartans and Wolverines have been played in good spirit.
“The three games that we’ve had, ’15, ’16, ’17, I think they have played with great sportsmanship on the field, I really do,” Dantonio said. “Everybody’s playing hard and I think that’s good for college football. Well-coached football teams and respect — respect what they have done.”
When Michigan State talks about respect in this rivalry, it’s often to complain about a lack of it, but both teams have avoided major sound bites in the days leading up to Saturday’s clash between the Wolverines and the 24th-ranked Spartans. There’s still plenty at stake this weekend — and the potential for plenty of hostility — but each side seems aware of what it’s up against.
“Very good run defense,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They’re very stout up front. They’ve got some real hard-playing guys — linebackers that are some of the best in the league. Very sound system.”
The Wolverines (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) and Spartans (4-2, 2-1) can play nice all they want in their pregame comments, but there’s no changing the history between these two rivals. There have been plenty of dustups and harsh words between them in the past. Here are a few of the highlights — just since Dantonio took over at Michigan State:
2007: After a win over the Spartans, Michigan’s Mike Hart refers to Michigan State as a little brother. Dantonio responds by warning the Wolverines that “pride comes before the fall” — and the Spartans have won eight of 10 in the series since then.
2011: Michigan State wins 28-14 for its fourth straight victory over the Wolverines, but Spartans defensive lineman William Gholston is shown on video taking a swing at a Michigan lineman and is suspended for the following game. Michigan State is flagged 13 times for 124 yards, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says afterward that his Spartans tried to play “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” against the Wolverines. He’s later admonished by his athletic director for the comment.
2014: Michigan State wins 35-11, showing no mercy while scoring a final touchdown with 28 seconds left. Afterward, Dantonio rails about a pregame gesture by Michigan in which the Wolverines planted a tent stake in the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan coach Brady Hoke later apologizes for that.
2017: When asked late in the season to compare his team’s bowl bid to Michigan’s, Dantonio says simply: “I’ll just continue to concentrate on beating Michigan and let things sort of sort out.” Harbaugh shoots back on Twitter: “Saw Coach D comments on continuing to ‘focus’ on how ‘he’ can beat Michigan. Congrats on turning around a 3-9 team, plagued with off field issues. Good for BIG to have him back.”
Perhaps more grievances will be added to the list after this week, but regardless, the winner will have the usual bragging rights — and a chance to keep eyeing a Big Ten title this season. Here are a few more things to watch:
PUT UP OR SHUT UP
Harbaugh is in his fourth season at Michigan and in many respects, he’s done what he was hired to do. The Wolverines didn’t spend much time in the top 10 under their previous two coaches.
However, Harbaugh is 1-5 against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, and reversing that trend is important if he’s going to break through and win his first division title in Ann Arbor.
WHO CAN RUN?
The team with more yards rushing has won 43 of the past 48 games in this series, but both teams could find the going difficult on the ground. The Spartans have the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense. Michigan’s run defense is solid too, and Michigan State’s rushing attack has been underwhelming.
This is an important test for Shea Patterson, who arrived at Michigan as a transfer amid plenty of hype. The Michigan State pass defense has looked vulnerable.
Brian Lewerke has plenty of experience for the Spartans, and he threw a last-minute touchdown pass to beat Penn State a weekend ago.
Michigan is 0-17 against ranked teams on the road since 2006. Harbaugh certainly isn’t responsible for all of that, but it’s on him to break the drought.
Michigan State has nine wins over top-10 opponents since 2013. Only Alabama and Ohio State have more. Michigan was in the top 10 last year when the Spartans won in Ann Arbor.