Michigan was seconds away from ending its losing streak to Michigan State last year before the Spartans pulled off a miracle. The Wolverines don’t plan on it being that close this season.
Michigan fans have to be thinking, “This is more like it.”
The Wolverines are undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Michigan State enters Saturday’s matchup in East Lansing as a 24.5-point underdog, a 2-5 record and pinning its hopes of salvaging a disappointing season with an unlikely victory over its bitter rival.
None of that would seem out of the ordinary 10 years ago, when Lloyd Carr was still manning the Michigan sideline and John L. Smith was running the Michigan State program deeper into the ground. Then, Mark Dantonio came along and changed the narrative, going 7-2 against Michigan since arriving in East Lansing.
Neither Dantonio nor Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh have fond memories of their first experiences in the rivalry, though. Dantonio listened to former Michigan running back Mike Hart call the Spartans “little brother” after a loss in 2007, and Harbaugh watched Michigan State celebrate one of the most improbable victories in college football history last year.
Jalen Watts-Jackson’s touchdown delayed the Wolverines’ hopes of regaining control of the rivalry and helped the Spartans win at least 11 games for the fifth time in six years on their way to a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“He’s done a great job,” Harbaugh said of Dantonio earlier this week. “One of the best college football coaching jobs in the history of the game. At the highest level.”
Things are far from the same this year, though, as Michigan is back to being the big dog in the state. Harbaugh has the Wolverines in control of reaching of their own destiny to reach the Playoff. He’s pulled off his own turnaround of a Michigan team that won five games just two years ago.
And Dantonio has similar respect for what Harbaugh’s done.
“Probably truly one of the best coaches maybe that have come through – whether it’s college coaching, or in the NFL in past years, obviously, very well established, and he’s got things going down there,” Dantonio said. “They’ve been very, very impressive offensively, defensively and special teams.”
Michigan’s rise isn’t as surprising as Michigan State’s rapid fall, though. Maybe it’s all a fluke, and it’s simply a down year in an otherwise wildly successful career for Dantonio. No matter the circstances, though, the Wolverines are ready to pounce.
No Michigan player on the roster has beaten Michigan State. And similarly, no Spartan has ever lost to the Wolverines, who certainly haven’t forgotten what happened last year.
“Obviously, it’s a devastating play. It’s a shock,” said Chris Wormely, who was on that punt unit. “At the end of the day, we’re a new team and it’s a new season and we’ve fixed some mistakes.”
And then some. The Wolverines have the nation’s top defense, one featuring Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis, who plan to raise hell against the Spartans’ struggling offense that has started redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke at quarterback the last two weeks.
To put it simply, it’s Michigan that’s been feeling like the “little brother.”
“You get kind of sick of getting beat up, you know? Like the kid on the playground gets beat up all the time,” tackle Erik Magnuson said. “Eventually, you’re going to get sick of it and you gotta get personal sometimes and stick up for yourself.”