Michigan game won’t define Michigan State’s season, but history shows it’s a great predictor

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan State players won’t soon forget where they were on Oct. 17, 2015.

Some stood on the sideline; some were lucky enough to be on the field as the Spartans won in epic fashion via a touchdown return off of a fumbled snap by Michigan punter Blake O’Neill as time expired. Just in case you needed a reminder of what happened.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke, then a freshman, didn’t make the trip. He watched on a projector in a friend’s basement with 20 to 30 people around him. They all had been getting ready to leave, but upon seeing the final play, Lewerke jumped on the couch and then fell over, screaming and yelling with glee.

For those who did travel, the bus ride home was electric. And yet, once Monday rolled around, the Spartans began to prepare for Indiana. The extent of the rivalry might make Michigan-Michigan State more than just another game, but it’s no finale, and it’s no championship. The Spartans had to play six more games that season to seize a Big Ten title that season.

This year will be no different.

“I think as a rivalry game, you’ve got to be especially sharp,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s down there. It’s our first road game. All those different things. But to say this is the end all or the defining moment of our season I don’t think would be accurate to say. I think there’s other opportunities and other challenges that are waiting for us that will further define us one way or the other.”

But it will define Michigan State as well as the Sparatans have been defined so far. The Spartans opened the year by beating two MAC teams, then out-gaining but falling by 20 points to Notre Dame, then holding on at home against an Iowa team that stands at 3-2 and has much left to prove.

Saturday at Michigan Stadium will mark the earliest meeting between these two bitter in-state rivals since 2009, and it will be the first time the game kicks off at night. Each team will bring its best effort, allowing viewers a chance to see just how good both of these teams are.

“Every week the stakes are higher,” senior center and captain Brian Allen said. “Usually we play Michigan the seventh or eighth week of the year. It’s kind of weird having them this early in the season. It’s a huge game, and I think it’ll let us learn a lot about ourselves coming out on Saturday night and seeing what we can do.”

And though the game might not define Michigan State’s season, it can help predict it. Save for an aberration in 2009, the Spartans under Dantonio have finished the year ranked in the AP Top 25 in years they have beaten Michigan and unranked in years they have lost to the Wolverines. (In 2009, by the way, Michigan finished 1-7 in Big Ten play, its worst conference record since 1936.) The Spartans lost the rivalry game 32-23 in 2016 and ultimately stumbled to 3-9 on the season.

Year Michigan State-Michigan winner Michigan State final AP ranking
2007 Michigan, 28-24 NR
2008 Michigan State, 35-21 24
2009 Michigan State, 26-20 (OT) NR
2010 Michigan State, 34-17 14
2011 Michigan State, 28-14 11
2012 Michigan, 12-10 NR
2013 Michigan State, 29-6 3
2014 Michigan State, 35-11 5
2015 Michigan State, 27-23 6
2016 Michigan, 32-23 NR

Understandably, the Spartans will choose not to consider the idea that this game might indicate how the rest of the year will go. They’ll have at least seven more games to play afterward, win or lose.

“No matter how this game goes, I don’t think it’ll necessarily define our season,” Lewerke said. “But obviously we want to win, so we’re going to try as hard as we can.”

Facing the undefeated No. 7 Wolverines offers the struggling Michigan State offense a chance to prove itself against the nation’s leader in total defense. Winning would, presumably, thrust Michigan State back into the national spotlight and show that this is more than a rebuilding year.

And Chris Frey, a senior linebacker and captain, won’t be listening to any “rebuilding” talk anyway. He’ll prepare for Minnesota come Monday, but years from now, he’ll think of his final Michigan game.

“Obviously Monday and Tuesday, you start looking forward to the next game, but it’s not just Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Frey said. “It’s 365 days, that feeling that have in your heart. And for me, if we win this game, it’s gonna be a feeling I have for the rest of my life because it’s my last time playing them.”

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