Michigan linebacker Obi Ezeh has seen it all, heard it all when it comes to rivalry with Michigan State
The past 12 months haven't been the easiest for Michigan linebacker Obi Ezeh.
Having to endure last year's 3-9 season was tough enough. But a 35-21 loss to in-state rival Michigan State last fall brought its own share of headaches for the Wolverines' active career leader in tackles.From dealing with those who are convinced the title of the state's top program has shifted from Ann Arbor to East Lansing to his neighbors back in Grand Rapids who hung Michigan State flags outside their doors for Ezeh to see, the junior linebacker isn't shy about discussing all things rivalry before Saturday's game (noon, Big Ten Network).
Q: As someone who grew up in Michigan, what does this rivalry mean to you?
A: Whoever wins this game, it's bragging rights for the state for the whole year. Obviously (Michigan State) got that last year, but they also got the Paul Bunyan Trophy, and that's something we want to get back. We also want those bragging rights back. But people I know (who root for Michigan State) will be on me for 365 days, and so it's a huge game, and you want Michigan to win and you want to win big.
Q: How do you compare this rivalry games with the ones you've got with Notre Dame and Ohio State?
A: I'm from Michigan, and so I've got a lot riding on this game. From where I'm from (in Grand Rapids the rooting interest) is right down the middle - Michigan State and Michigan. I can pretty much close my eyes and point, and there's a Michigan State fan. I've probably got five Michigan State fans living right around me and they've always got their flags out. I get back from a two-hour drive and that's the first thing I see in front of my house is Michigan State flags flying.
Q: Does it bug you enough to do anything about the flags?
A: What - like sneak out in the middle of the night and take them all down? If we win, I know there's not too much behind it.
Q: So when you went back to Grand Rapids over the summer, did your friends that lean toward Michigan State really give it to you?
A: Yeah, I heard it all summer, and I got a chance to go home this summer more than I have since I've been here. There were a lot of Michigan fans who were disappointed and a lot of Michigan State fans who were overjoyed and you don't want to hear it. The neighbors are always supportive, but they're always (saying) 'Go State' at the end.
Q: How would you describe the Paul Bunyan Trophy?
A: It's big. I know our equipment manager Jon Falk is nuts about that trophy, and it just rubs off on us. I wanted that trophy back before I even saw it (was gone). It's like, Paul Bunyan Trophy - (Michigan State) is coming up and we have to get that thing back and all week, (Falk) is just pacing around, 'Gotta get the Paul Bunyan Trophy back,' so it may not seem like a big deal, but you remember it and during games, you're not just playing for yourself, you're playing for everybody else."
Q: Do you think you're more focused as a team because it is a rivalry week or do you think there's been more focus as a whole this season?
A: This year, every week has been treated like we've got blinders on - one team, one game at a time. All last week, if I didn't know our schedule before-hand, I wouldn't have even known we were playing Michigan State this week. There was really no talk about it until after the (Indiana) game and then it was like, 'All right, now we have to put all of our attention on the next task at hand,' and I think that's the way it will be all year because it just allows everyone to be focused on just one thing.
Q: Is it difficult to look at this week as just another week?
A: It's just not another week, obviously. There's a lot riding on it. The media will put a lot of stuff into it, the fans will put a lot of stuff into it and just the rivalry itself puts a lot of stuff into it. So it's just not another week, but you kind of treat it like that just to keep yourself the same - you really don't want to explode with all of your anxiousness. So you just try and keep calm and collected and focused. You want to have good practices and when it's time to let loose, then we'll let loose.
Q: Is there anything your coaches do in practice to get your juices flowing this week?
A: With the scout team, they'll give them little green beanies to wear and some of the guys will decorate them with the (Spartan) or a Big S - that's kind of cool.
Q: There have been some who believe Saturday's game will be a high-scoring shootout just because both defenses have given up their share of big plays this year. As a defensive player, how do you take that?
A: We've got some young guys and we know there's been some big plays. The thing (Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson) has said about this defense is that we're going to grow as the year went on. That's what we're still trying to do. Something that may have happened on Saturday, we'll take it, chew on it and let it digest. You want to be able to learn from it and get better and so if that happens, we're going to get better.
Q: Does that make this a potential statement week for the defense?
A: Every week we go out is a potential statement week. We're still waiting for that one good defensive game. We wanted it last week, obviously, we want it this week and if we don't get it this week, we want it next week. Even if we do get it this week, we still want one next week."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or email@example.com