Oct. 16, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Heat and high pressure cause things to collapse.
They also combine with the proper ingredient to form diamonds.
The heat is on both Michigan State and Michigan to do something remarkable when they renew their rivalry for the 105th time on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
The pressure is on the Spartans to produce a historic event in program history.
The pressure is on the Wolverines to avoid a fifth consecutive loss to a MSU team that has to look eminently beatable to their fans.
How MSU (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) and U-M (4-2, 2-0) respond to the conditions within the Michigan Stadium crucible will have a direct bearing on the Big Ten Legends Division race. The Spartans need a win to avoid elimination; the Wolverines need a victory to keep pace with Iowa.
Which team is feeling more heat?
Are the Spartans under more pressure to win, or are the Wolverines?
It doesn't matter, according to MSU head coach Mark Dantonio.
As destructive as heat and pressure can be to a football team, they can also extract the best from it.
"I've always said that pressure is good," Dantonio said. "We've always talked to our football team about pressure being good and stress is bad. So the important thing that we have to do is not stress about what we're doing -- don't stress out about this -- and understand there's pressure.
"It's a TV game, another big game, all these types of things. There are things that go along with winning and losing this football game obviously. Pressure is good. It helps prepare you, keeps you on edge, and keeps you mentally sharp. That's how we'll approach it."
The nature of this rivalry is that each team would feel the pressure to win if both teams were winless.
From that baseline, the forces to win increase exponentially with each individual factor both teams have on the line.
The Spartans are four quarters -- barring a fourth foray into overtime -- away from beating U-M for the fifth time in a row since the series began in 1892. Michigan State also won four in a row from 1934-37, 1950-53 and 1959-62 in addition to going 6-0-2 against the Wolverines from 1956-63. A win will also keep Michigan State in contention for the Legends Division title.
In addition to gunning for its first Legends Division crown, Michigan is going for its 900th program win while seniors like quarterback Denard Robinson want to avoid the stigma of leaving U-M without ever experiencing a victory over MSU.
Although a segment of Michigan State fans are behaving as though all is lost, this is still a 4-3 football team that's arguably three plays away from changing the complexion of games against undefeated and No. 5-ranked Notre Dame, undefeated and No. 7 Ohio State and Iowa, which is tied with Michigan atop the Legends Division standings.
This is by no means a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. Regardless of the inherent risks, the Spartans couldn't be more thankful that Michigan is next on the schedule because no other team has the ability to draw the best out of them.
"Michigan is a big game for everybody in this program," junior outside linebacker Denicos Allen said after last Saturday's double-overtime loss against Iowa. "We always have good preparation when it's Michigan Week.
"I think it's actually a good thing that it's Michigan coming up just to get our minds off of (the loss) and get ready to go to Michigan and get five in a row, which has never been done here before. That's extra motivation."
Allen is dedicating the game to the senior class.
"I came in with most of the seniors here now, and I know how much they like to beat Michigan," he said. "And I know what it would mean to them to lose to Michigan in their last year."
Michigan State's desire to establish an identity has been thwarted by untimely mistakes, such as dropped passes and penalties, and the inability to stop key life-sapping drives in the final quarters of the three losses.
In place of an identity, the Spartans have frustration which is why junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis sees Michigan as a hump game that if conquered, will result in the same kind of boost generated by last season's pivotal 10-7 road victory against the Buckeyes.
"From what I've seen, we really haven't had that type of game yet, that full game, where we find out who we are," Lewis said. "But I definitely believe it's gonna come and I'm just waiting on that game.
"We'll figure it out. Beating (Michigan) five times in a row would mean a lot to this team, especially with the position we're in now. I feel that getting that win would set us off like last year (when) Ohio State was the game that set our team off and gave us momentum for the rest of the season."
The reality of where MSU is hard to square with where the Spartans thought they'd be at this point, but they have no regrets.
"It's a little disappointing," Lewis said. "Coming into the season, me personally, and I think I speak for everybody when I say this, felt that we weren't going to be beat by any team. We were going to go undefeated and go to the National Championship, or at least the Rose Bowl.
"I'm kind of shocked, but the games we've lost have just been because of small things that we missed, and those things can be improved. If we can just get a little more experienced guys coming in, we'll be OK. I'm not worried about it."
In light of the three losses, the Spartans are getting some heat for publicly expressing their lofty goals as far back as spring practice. But Lewis couldn't disagree more with those who think they should have kept such talk amongst themselves.
"If you have high expectations, I feel like you play better," he said, echoing Dantonio's philosophy on pressure. "When I hold myself to high expectations, I play better and I meet those goals. Holding yourself up to those expectations makes you a better player."
And so, Michigan State is going all-in against its archrival knowing that while the risk of more disappointment is high, the potential reward is even greater.
"It means everything," said senior guard Chris McDonald. "Michigan is a very good team and I'm looking forward to going down there. I had an opportunity my sophomore year to go down there and win and there's nothing like that.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world."