ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Eight customers were sitting in a popular local restaurant Tuesday afternoon, presumably enjoying their food but not paying attention to the television in the corner of the room.
The volume was high enough to hear it, but not loud enough to intrude on conversations. Then ESPN’s promo for the Michigan-Michigan State game this coming weekend happened.
Sean McDonough’s voice filled the small establishment. “… trouble with the snap!” he belted. Sure enough, six of the eight heads cocked and turned toward the television in almost robotic fashion.
As Jalen Watts-Jackson fell into the end zone in the middle of his Michigan State convoy, other highlights of Wolverines and Spartans followed. One customer adjusted his seat and returned to his lunch. Two looked at each other and shook their heads. One muttered a profanity.
If anyone in this town had tried to forget Michigan’s emotionally crushing defeat by nemesis Michigan State last season, there will likely be plenty of reminders this week like that one.
Before the 2016 season began, this game Saturday in East Lansing was expected to be a Big One. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State were projected to be a three-headed monster at the top of the Big Ten, but the Spartans have crumbled with five straight losses.
While Michigan went 10-2 last season and then romped past Florida in the bowl game in Year One of Jim Harbaugh’s glory restoration project, the Wolverines did not beat the Spartans or the Buckeyes. A popular sentiment in August was, ‘Harbaugh’s team won’t truly arrive as an elite one this fall if it can’t topple the two biggest rivals.’
Now the national narrative will be different. Should the Wolverines invade East Lansing and annihilate the Spartans, there will be no proclamations about the Michigan program, no acknowledgement that Harbaugh’s crew is ready to contend for a national title.
People around the country will meet a lopsided score with a shrug, because given the Spartans’ struggles, a convincing Wolverines win is expected.
A group of Wolverines players spoke with the media Monday, and did a good job of conveying Harbaugh’s message. “Every game is a championship game.” “To win a championship, you have to win a championship each week.” “This is the most important game because it is the next game.” And on and on.
More players met with the media Tuesday. Quarterback Wilton Speight stayed on message. A few others strayed a little.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the botched punt from last season that became a popular topic of discussion. For offensive tackle Erik Magnuson, defensive tackle Matt Godin and wide receiver Jehu Chesson, the bad memories from two previous trips to East Lansing, in 2013 and 2014, were fresh on their minds.
The final score in those two games was a combined 64-17. Last season was a gut-wrenching defeat. In describing the 2013 and 2014 games, “embarrassment,” “embarrassing” and “embarrassed” were all variations of the lingering feelings.
Sure, they are going to treat this like a championship game. They also have some atonement in mind, and they don’t really care if Michigan State is 2-5 or 5-2 or 7-0.
All three of those players are fifth-year seniors. They were redshirting the last time Michigan beat Michigan State. That’s the Wolverines’ lone win against the Spartans in the past eight meetings.
The players who spoke Monday had a chance to poke fun at the other epic rival, Ohio State, for losing to an unranked Penn State team this past weekend. They did not, but senior tight end/captain Jake Butt did say “That game tells us what we kind of already knew. It is that anything can happen in football. We understand that you can’t any team lightly, you can’t take any week different.”
Maybe he didn’t intend it to be, but that felt like a subtle jab instead of a direct poke. This is an experienced Michigan team. Its dedication to Harbaugh’s message about focus and preparation each week might be the thing that separates it from an insanely talented but distinctly younger team in Columbus.
Michigan State will be desperate to salvage its season Saturday, and coach Mark Dantonio is certain to try to summon every ounce of underdog, no-respect fueled emotion he can from his players. The Spartans are probably going to need a lot more than that to topple the No. 2-ranked Wolverines.
If the Michigan machine keeps rolling Saturday, it’s not going to resonate on the scale that it might have if this Michigan State team hadn’t flopped against teams like Northwestern, BYU and Maryland.
The kids who were interrupted from their lunches by that ESPN promo Tuesday afternoon won’t care. The Michigan players who have experienced several losses to Michigan State and a wide range of negative emotions after them won’t, either.