Michigan-Michigan State is big for both football teams, but for the Spartans, it could be their season
EAST LANSING - The anger came in every syllable flying out of Kirk Cousins’ mouth. The disgust was evident on his face, the frustration obvious in his mannerisms.
Michigan may have multiple rivals and already pocketed a rivalry victory against Notre Dame this year, but an hour northwest, at Michigan State, there is only one rival. And there is only one game.
“This game is personal,” said Cousins, the Michigan State quarterback. “And we need to win it, and we’d better win it.”
However, the reasons of importance for winning this game this season go beyond state pride and bragging rights. For one team, it could save a season. For the other, it could validate an unexpected role as a conference contender.
The roles, though, are not what people thought they might be a month ago. Entering the season, Michigan State was supposed to be the team that had a chance at being undefeated in this game and Michigan was the team with a ton of youth and more questions.
Now, Michigan State is teetering at 1-3, including last-second losses to Notre Dame and Central Michigan.
Nothing has gone right for the Spartans. Neither quarterback - Cousins or Keith Nichol - has established himself as a legitimate starter. The secondary has been questionable. The usually feisty Michigan State defense has forced three turnovers in four games.
And now it faces its biggest rival, a team it hasn’t beaten twice in a row since before 1966-67 and a team that it despises.
Most rivalries have some level of respect to them. Not this one.
“Coach (Mark Dantonio), he told us that if you haven’t played Michigan, within 30 seconds, you’ll realize why we don’t like them,” Michigan State defensive end Trevor Anderson said. “And after about 15 seconds I realized why I didn’t like them, just the total lack of respect they have for our school in general, not just the program, but just in general the lack of respect for us.”
He’s not the only one in East Lansing to feel that way.
“Yeah, I think everybody has a hatred for Michigan,” said Michigan State tackle Rocco Cironi, an Ohio native.
Which is what makes part of this game so intriguing. Michigan has to realize it has a chance to really hurt a rival. Anderson said this game can turn Michigan State’s season around.
It can also send it completely down the toilet. Michigan State appears to be putting so much energy and focus into this game that a loss could be damning. And it’s why this game is much more critical for the Spartans.
Down south, Michigan is reveling in a better season than last year and the Wolverines have confidence for the first time since Lloyd Carr left town.
Michigan is 4-0, in the Top 25 and if the Wolverines can win on the road, they’d answer perhaps their biggest question remaining - what will happen when they leave Michigan Stadium. The answer is not anything Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez can answer in practice. It isn’t something any of the players, especially the freshmen and sophomores, can honestly know.
None of them have been in this situation before, traveling to a rivalry game with the expectation of being the better team, of having the winning record, of having something, potentially, to lose.
“I don’t know if any road game is comfortable,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe if you went to a state and it wasn’t going to be packed and intense or something it would be easier to ease the young guys into it.
“But that’s not the situation we’re in.”
No, Michigan is in the exact opposite scenario. The team it is facing is desperate. It is holding on to Big Ten title hopes, even bowl hopes, with a thinning grasp, one Michigan can severely damage Saturday. How serious is Michigan State taking this?
At one of the campus bookstores in East Lansing, “Beat Michigan” was already painted on the store’s glass window front.
It is Tuesday.