Oct. 31, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - There's the game within the game, the individual battles and strategic decisions that usually determine who wins and who loses.
For about a century, Michigan State and Michigan have also been playing the game outside The Game, which has occasionally been blamed for a loss by either side - as specious a correlation as that may be - but is generally seen as a salty condiment for the main course.
It typically starts with a gentlemanly show of respect which has been followed, over the years, by contempt and disdain that once uttered and printed has been used as bulletin-board material hung in the opposing locker rooms. When lacking, there have even been allegations of it being fabricated to look like a photocopied newspaper article, inflammatory fake quotes and all.
The gamesmanship has taken the form of haughty indifference, name-calling, outright belittlement and retaliatory verbal strikes. There are countdown clocks and dates circled in red on calendars, all designed to draw out what may be an imperceptible edge that results in a win in the upcoming game, or the one that follows some 365 days later.
And, it typically doesn't end with the final whistle in Spartan Stadium or Michigan Stadium, because when it comes to MSU and U-M, no one ever forgets.
"I think we compete with the University of Michigan every single day, every single week, whether it's on recruiting, whether it's fundraising, a lot of different things," said Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio.
The affectionate acrimony - often framed in terms of a sibling rivalry given the hour's-drive proximity of the two schools and the former high school teammates and adversaries, brothers and even fathers and sons aligned with either team - is hardly a product of the Internet and its contemporary social gadgetry.
Today's Twitter feed was poster fodder in 1915 when Michigan Agricultural College's 24-0 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor was dubbed "The Slaughter on Ferry Field" and plastered all over East Lansing.
If Facebook had existed, it would have a field day with this entry from The MAC Record: "The outcome was exceedingly pleasing to Aggie enthusiasts for it established beyond the peradventure of a doubt the superiority of the MAC gridders, and Michigan can bring forth no alibi. And the nice thing about this is, that to our knowledge, followers of the Maize and Blue are not trying to dig out excuses. There ain't none such."
After the game, in what appeared to be a show of cross-rivalry fellowship, Wolverine coach Fielding Yost presented MAC halfback Blake Miller with a game ball for his spectacular open-field running that day. A year later, Yost's men got their revenge against the Aggies with a 9-0 victory that triggered a 14-game winning streak, the longest of the series by either school.
Which approach works best? All and none.
From 2003-06, MSU took the unusual tack of downplaying the game against Michigan to the point where it was no more, or no less, significant than the game against, say, Idaho. Whether this spate of detachment aggravated the Wolverines may never be fully known. But, Michigan State lost all four games during that stretch, including a pair of gut-wrenching overtime affairs, back-to-back.
The mood changed by 180 degrees when at his formal introduction as MSU's head coach in '07, Dantonio unabashedly listed beating U-M among the Spartans' highest priorities.
And, he's been at it ever since.
After the Wolverines took advantage of a fortuitous fumble recovery to pull out a 28-24 come-from-behind win in Spartan Stadium in Dantoino's first season, he created a stir by personally responding to U-M running back Mike Hart's classification of the Spartans as Michigan's "little brother."
"Let's just remember, pride comes before the fall," Dantonio said a few days later. "This game's an important game. If they want to mock us..., I'm telling them, it's not over and it will never be over, here. It's just starting. ... If they want to make a mockery of it, so be it. Their time will come."
Depending on your point of view, Dantonio's comments were either to be celebrated or deemed controversial, but MSU won the next four meetings in a row, including two in Ann Arbor.
So, there's that.
"I just worry about what I can control, and we try and do the very best we can in terms of the things we can control," Dantonio said. "And based on my count right now, we're up (4-2 in the series)."
The build-up for Saturday's game in Spartan Stadium has an unfamiliar, if not odd, vibe, so far.
First, U-M coach Brady Hoke said he "hoped" the Wolverines are ready for the physical challenge they'll get from Michigan State. Then, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan made an admission wrapped up in a proclamation by saying "we're not going to get bullied" the way the Wolverines were the 28-14 loss at MSU two years ago. Lewan also revealed that he had kept a photo from that game on his cell phone for a yearlong motivational reminder.
Aside from the sickening feeling that lingers from last season's 12-10 loss at Michigan, Spartan middle linebacker Max Bullough said he doesn't rely on such devices to get up for a game.
"No, I can motivate myself," Bullough said. "I don't need to use pictures or anything like that. Once you lose a game or once you win a game, you're on to the next week and you've got to win that game. So whatever they want to do or he wants to do is..., I'm sure it worked for him and it made him play well. He's a great football player; I think everybody knows that.
"But no, I've never done anything like that. It's just not how my mind works. I just do my thing."
Whether Bullough's compliment was sent over the net with a backhand or a forehand, Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint upped the ante by telling reporters, "You know, little brother always wants to prove themselves and try to beat up big brother one day."
Fifth-year senior MSU offensive guard Blake Treadwell distanced himself from the verbal sparring in favor of the real thing.
"Football is a physical game as we all know, so that's what we strive to be, physical," he said. "And that's all I'll say about that."
A boring rivalry serves no one, and all too often, the Michigan State-Michigan game has been for nothing more than in-state bragging rights.
This year, however, the matchup between the No. 23-ranked Spartans and No. 21 U-M has major implications. A victory keeps MSU undefeated in the Big Ten and maintains its foothold on first place in the Legends Division, while a loss all but eliminates the Wolverines from championship contention.
How news clippings taped to the back of a player's locker or trash talk impact the outcome may never be quantified, but Spartan senior cornerback and Thorpe Award semifinalist Darqueze Dennard summed the pregame saber-rattling like this:
"It's a rivalry game. Everybody knows that we don't like each other pretty much. That's what good teams do, we battle back and forth. We're just going to have a little fun, we're going to talk back, and that's all in the game. I mean, football is a very emotional game, and when you have a lot of emotions, that can also help the team, and that can give them a great advantage of momentum.
"I think you can't be too fired up for this game."