ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Many regard this game as a “gimme” for the Michigan football team.
When the No. 2 Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten Conference) travel to East Lansing, Mich., for a noon ET kickoff Saturday at Michigan State, it could be the most competitively unbalanced contest in the matchup in recent memory.
Maybe even more unbalanced than 2013, when the Spartans defense sacked Devin Gardner seven times in a 29-6 Michigan loss at Spartan Stadium.
Or 2014, when Joe Bolden drove a stake into the sideline grass at Spartan Stadium — and Michigan State went on to pummel Michigan, 35-11.
The Spartans have controlled this series for seven of the last eight seasons, but enter Saturday’s game in East Lansing as one of the Big Ten’s downtrodden teams this season, wildly uncharacteristic for a program that made the College Football Playoff less than 10 months ago.
Maryland defeated Michigan State (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) 28-17 Saturday in College Park, Md., and the Spartans haven’t won a game in more than a month — a 36-28 win Sept. 17 at Notre Dame.
Past the halfway point of the season and in the midst of a five-game losing skid, Michigan State is 13th in scoring offense (20.3 points a game) in the Big Ten, 12th in scoring defense (29.7 points), 13th in rush offense (135.9) and 13th in pass defense (225.4) — and is in a furious game of musical chairs with quarterbacks Brian Lewerke and Tyler O’Connor, who is nursing an ankle injury.
At a time when the state’s apple harvest is tapering off, Michigan State, it seems, is ripe for the picking in the rivalry.
But, Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis said, “it’s just another game, really, on the schedule.”
Let’s be real: To everyone else, it’s not. Ask some of the former Michigan and Michigan State football players about the significance of the rivalry. Ask the locals in Ann Arbor and East Lansing what they think of the annual grudge match between the two football programs.
Still, Saturday might be the best chance Michigan has to regain some control in the rivalry.
While the Wolverines won’t say anything this week to disrespect their opponent — since 2007, we haven’t heard as mighty an echo as Mike Hart’s “little brother” declaration or Mark Dantonio admonishing how “pride comes before the fall” — there’s definitely an added weight to this game, one not only with a trophy on the line but in-state bragging rights as well.
“When I first got to college and I heard about it from Taylor Lewan, Mike Schofield and Elliott Mealer, and what the rivalry meant to them, it set the standard for how the rivalry is,” offensive lineman Ben Braden said, counting the names of former offensive linemen at Michigan. “But at the same time, as a team, we have to focus on this week just like we do every other week. It’s just another obstacle we’ve got to get across.”
Yet does it surprise the Wolverines that Michigan State has struggled so publicly, and so staggeringly, this season?
If it does, Michigan players didn’t say Monday afternoon. The Wolverines were rather diplomatic, actually, despite the fact that Michigan looks for its first win against the Spartans since 2012, and only its third win since 2007.
Braden pointed to inexperience as a factor in Michigan State’s stumbles.
“I know they have a lot of young guys on the offensive line, and you can learn as much as you can when you’re playing, but on the offensive line, there’s a lot,” Braden said. “Everything does eventually fall into place.”
But Braden wouldn’t necessarily give a direct answer when asked if Michigan State’s struggles surprised him.
“I expect our team to be competitive,” Braden said. “It’s going to be an intense game, regardless.”
When asked if they were surprised by Sparty’s struggles, Braden’s teammates chose their words cautiously, almost neutrally. Jake Butt even went so far as to be complimentary.
“They’re a great team, and whatever their record shows, we’re not caught up in it,” the All-America tight end said. “We knew very well they’re going to be ready to go Saturday. “
Then, Lewis weighed the value of an already one-sided matchup — Michigan enters as a 21½-point favorite — as it relates to Michigan’s championship goals.
“We can’t look at Michigan State as the end-all, be-all,” Lewis said. “If we win the Michigan State game and lose the other games, it really doesn’t matter, as far as tradition or losing.”