Rivalry Belongs To The Players
Oct. 12, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Michigan State has had a countdown clock for five years; Michigan installed one in March.
The Spartans are defending Big Ten champions; the Wolverines are undefeated.
MSU is ranked No. 23; U-M is No. 11.
This rivalry is on.
Contrary to a long-held popular belief, the state of Michigan is big enough for two big-time football powers.
And while rivalry games almost always sizzle regardless of records, pecking orders and perceptions, there's no question they are a lot more fun when pride and a trophy aren't the only things on the line.
Michigan State can no longer be accused of not holding up its end of the relevancy bargain struck by contentious rivals, while Michigan is holding a strong if not better hand going into the game for the third straight season.
Last season, both teams were 5-0 going into the game, and while MSU was ranked 17th and U-M was 18th, the game was in Ann Arbor. The Spartans beat the Wolverines for the third straight time, 34-17.
In 2009, Michigan was 4-0 and ranked 22nd while Michigan State was 1-3 and unranked. Michigan State prevailed 26-20 in overtime.
The Spartans only looked significantly better on paper in '08 when co-captain Joel Foreman was a red-shirt freshman, and 6-2 MSU went on to handle 2-5 U-M, 35-21, at Michigan Stadium. Foreman was also in uniform the previous year, but didn't play, when Michigan came back to win, 28-24.
By definition, the stakes can never be low in this game, but Foreman prefers it this way.
"They're playing good football right now and we know that every year we're going to get their best no matter what their record is," the preseason All-America guard said. "And no matter what our record is, they're going to get our best."
The current records and rankings "add even more stakes to the game, if it could get any higher," Foreman continued. "They're going to get our best shot, and we know we're going to get their best shot."
There have been different approaches to this game, within each program, over the years. For example, the date of the game has been highlighted on calendars in both locker rooms for 365 days. At other times, it's been equated to "just another game on the schedule."
Based on a completely unscientific appraisal, both attitudes have provided opportunities for success, and each has resulted in shortcomings, but it appears that making the game a red-letter opportunity has had the best overall effect.
One of the first things Mark Dantonio did after he became MSU's head coach is install a digital countdown clock ticking off the seconds to the Michigan game.
"From Day 1 when we walked in here, we pointed towards that," Dantonio said. "There were others who said we couldn't, and so we wanted to make a point. I think we've made the point, and now we'll move on from there.
"But in the end, this is a player's game. This is a rivalry game. It's a game of execution. It's a game of emotion, and there is no question in my mind that this game belongs to the players, to the current players that are playing in it, and to the past players that have played in it."
After four seasons, it can be concluded that looking past opponents that come before the Wolverines on the schedule in such a way, and putting more emphasis on one game than any other, obviously doesn't have a detrimental effect on a team's psyche, even in a the context of they-all-count-one.
"It's a game we look forward to every year and it's a game we talk about every day when we're going through our workouts in the summer and the spring," Foreman said. "It's something we point to and it's really important around here.
"We're always thinking about the school down the road. It's very important us, it's very important to this team and to this program to go out there and be successful. It's always going to be a more physical game, and a game you give a little bit more to throughout the week."
Foreman is a member of a senior class that could be the first to leave with a 4-0 record against Michigan since the Class of '62. Nothing would compare to having a complete set of wins, and he's had just enough of a taste of losing to the Wolverines to know it's not something he wants to experience again.
"When I came here, the Michigan game was always something that is special to me," Foreman said. "Being able to play in it for three years has made it very, very important. We didn't have a lot of success in the past against them, and since Coach D came here and kind of changed the culture a little bit, we've been able to be successful.
"You want to be successful against your rivals because that's how you measure yourself. When I first got here, we had a senior class that had never beaten Michigan. I could see how much it meant to them and how much it hurt them. It's something that's kind of stuck with me."
Senior free safety, co-captain and team inspirational leader Trenton Robinson wishes he could put into words just how emotional he is about this game, but some things are better left unsaid.
"I can't explain how you're supposed to feel," Robinson said. "I really don't want to go all into that, but you see it on Saturday, everybody sees it on Saturday. I'm not going to get into it. I am emotional and I don't want to get all involved in that.
"This is it. This is that game that for us that we gotta win and the goal of beating them four years in a row would be great."
As cautious as Dantonio is about some things, he has never been one to ignore the elephant in the room. In fact, rather than pretending this game isn't bigger than any other, or that sending the seniors out with a 4-0 record against Michigan isn't on everybody's mind, he'd just as soon have all the cards dealt face up.
"If things that are important, (and which) people hold great value in, which I believe this game is one of them, I believe in making it important and doing certain things to try and put an asterisk behind (it)," Dantonio said. "It becomes personal when you play in this game.
"I think our freshmen right now maybe understand a little bit of it, and maybe their freshmen understand a little bit of it. But once you play in this game or are on the sidelines of this game, you've got a definite feel for it, and it's a beautiful thing."
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