Michigan expects ‘dog fight’ from revitalized Michigan State

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan’s football team is cognizant that Michigan State is back to being, well, Michigan State.

This time a year ago, Michigan State, depleted by injuries, was en route to an uncharacteristic 3-9 season. The No. 7 Wolverines won’t let last year dictate how they play at home Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Spartans.

Michigan players also know winning the Paul Bunyan Trophy isn’t a given. The Wolverines have defeated Michigan State only twice since 2008, including the 32-23 win in East Lansing, Mich., a year ago.

“Obviously there’s more energy this week,” Michigan left tackle Mason Cole said. “It’s a rivalry game, a trophy game, but the preparation is the same. Just go out there and play ball. A lot of people like to overcomplicate it or overthink it. We’ll get their best, but it’s just another game.

“We’ll get their best, they’ll get our best. It’ll be physical, it’ll be a dog fight and it’ll be fun.”

Michigan State will give Michigan a charge with reinvigorated quarterback Brian Lewerke and a sturdy defense that could present Michigan’s offense its toughest challenge this season.

Tale of the tape on defenses

Statistical category Michigan Michigan State
Rush defense (ypg) 69.25  96.0
Pass defense (ypg) 134.0 152.3
Total defense (ypg)  203.3 248.3
Scoring defense (ppg) 13.5 18.0
Sacks 18 9
Interceptions 2 1

Some don’t regard the Spartans and Wolverines as the same kind of national-brand rivalry as Michigan-Ohio State  or Michigan-Notre Dame, the latter which is on a three-year hiatus.

“That’s the order, no doubt about it,” ESPN analyst Desmond Howard said in 2013. “[Michigan State] is an in-state rival. You don’t really judge yourself, no disrespect to Michigan State, but they don’t have the national appeal that Notre Dame has.”

Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner at Michigan, reiterated that in 2015:

“This rivalry [with Michigan State] is just not in the stratosphere as that one, as much as people in the media like to talk about it. It’s a great in-state rivalry. That’s probably the extent of it.”

But it remains a rivalry, and Michigan has to find a balance in a game that’s charged with emotions.

The personnel and the quality of football are different from 2016, but the emotions remain the same — and might be heightened this season because of Michigan State’s early success.

The emotions rise in the people who take part in the game, from the fans to the players. Michigan State has a different team than it had last year, but the same fire is there for the Wolverines.

“On defense, we’re going to do what we do, and you just can’t get over-hyped and lose focus on our goal, and that’s to win,” Wolverines captain Mike McCray said. “That’s the biggest challenge.”

Throw that all into a cauldron Saturday night in Ann Arbor, and it could be a recipe for disaster or for success. Either way, maintaining composure will be key for the Wolverines when they host a heated — and revived — rival.

“I’ve been in games where it’s crazy,” fullback Khalid Hill said. “Games where things felt like they were out of control. I’ve had to deal with that hype and getting [too hyped] with the, ‘OK, we’re about to do this’ playing at night. You just have to learn it.”

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