Michigan and Michigan State both faced highly ranked opponents last weekend.
The unranked Spartans suffered a couple bad losses, and entered last week’s game looking for a miracle against eighth-ranked Penn State at Penn State, no less, one of the toughest places to play. But the Spartans pulled the upset, earning them a 4-2 record and a return to the top 25.
Meanwhile, Michigan started its three game “gauntlet,” a brutal stretch consisting of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State. All three beat Michigan last year, and all three were ranked in the top 12 when this season started. If the Wolverines were going to prove they were ready to jump back into the top echelon, this would be the time to do it.
Under the lights on a big national stage, the Wolverines thrashed Wisconsin like old times, 38-13. It was Michigan’s biggest win in two years, catapulting the Wolverines from 12th to 6th in the national rankings.
But both teams’ success will be eclipsed by whatever happens this weekend. Why? Because, for the 111th time, they’re playing each other.
Michigan has three main rivals, and they’re all different. With Notre Dame, the fans are respectful, and so are the players. With Ohio State, the players are respectful, while a lot of their fans aren’t.
With Michigan State, the fans are generally respectful. Everyone in the state has friends who went to both schools, creating a fun week of ribbing between them. But the respect stops there. The players have harbored a genuine hate for each other going back decades.
Michigan players, past and present, will tell you no one hits them harder, or later, or cheaper. The trash talk is constant, and when the whistle blows, the extracurriculars start, including spitting, scratching, and even punching to the groin.
For all these reasons, it’s been a painful decade for the Wolverines. Although the Spartans have been the underdog in six of the past ten games against Michigan, the Spartans have won eight of them. Even Michigan State’s national championship coaches, Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty, never had a better decade against Michigan than current coach Mark Dantonio.
While a victory over Ohio State is always the crown jewel for a successful Michigan season, you get the feeling beating the Spartans might be more important to the current Wolverines, for the simple reason that losing to them is so painful.
And that’s why, minutes after Michigan finished whopping up on Wisconsin, Wolverine star Chase Winovich said, “The revenge tour has officially commenced.”
And there’s probably no one the Wolverines want revenge against more than their neighbors in East Lansing – mainly because it’s proven so hard to get.
John U. Bacon is the author of ten books, six of them national bestsellers. His latest, Best of Bacon: Select Cuts, is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.