Michigan vs. Michigan State: Wolverines vs. Spartans always makes for good content
It was in 2016 when Michigan safety Delano Hill told me he wanted to put Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke “on his back.”
Shocked by the brutal honesty, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. Not many players were that open prior to playing Michigan State. Hill’s comment epitomized the pure hatred between the schools and was a breath of fresh air.
You know what I mean, right?
The “focused on the game, regardless of opponent,” or some other bland coach-speak; something PC and allergic to bulletin boards in locker rooms — all that stuff gets old, and fast.
A Michigan player hadn’t been that blunt since Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” jab. Hill took it one step further, though. He actually identified an opposing player and expressed his plans on how he’d like to play that Saturday. Hart’s comment was after Michigan almost blew a lead but beat the Spartans in 2007.
Michael Jordan — not that MJ — used to call Michigan “that little blue school.” The former Spartans DT held nothing back when speaking of his mortal enemy. He, like several other players on both sides, also offered more colorful commentary — but that was all off-the-record, and I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus.
But between 2012-2019, I heard all kinds of trash talk from Wolverines and Spartans. I was a UM beat writer for a few outlets, so I was always in the thick of things, especially during rivalry week. Most of the general public only hears what’s said at press conferences and other media availabilities. They don’t usually hear the side stuff — the juicier stuff that would really work well for a headline.
I’ve heard players get to the most personal of levels. Back in 2016, there were players on both sides who were former high school teammates. I had solid relationships with that group, so they’d tell me things and ask me not to repeat — at least not with their names mentioned.
Let’s just say nothing was off limits. They’d talk about stuff that happened years prior to college. Some of them weren’t friends, they just went to the same high school or grew up playing each other. I remember hearing one MSU player say that he was going to “whoop that ass,” referring to a UM standout defensive player.
And it wasn’t meant to be tongue-in-cheek, either. He meant it.
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The antics were always top-notch. Part of the fun of watching the game is seeing what players will do to irk the other side. In 2018, something big was laid out for that Saturday against the Spartans.
Days before the game, I was told that Donovan Peoples-Jones planned to strike the PB-pose when he scored. It wasn’t an impromptu act. It was 100 percent premeditated and a way to basically tell MSU to go piss in the wind.
Back in 2016, and this was following Michigan’s 32-23 win in East Lansing, I asked former Spartans coach Mark Dantonio about the status of Lewerke, who suffered a shoulder injury while playing Michigan just days earlier. It was a Tuesday. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had his pressers on Mondays, so Lewerke was mentioned that day.
The next day, I got Dantonio on the phone, via Big Ten coach call, and apologized in advance for what I was about to ask.
I knew Dantonio had just finished his in-person media availability, and I wasn’t sure if he had covered my question. But I let it rip anyway.
“Read the notes … I already talked about it … read the notes,” Dantonio said, lashing out at me. I hadn’t been talked to like that since former UM coach Brady Hoke made a smart comment to me about an OSU-UM question in 2014 — but that’s another story.
Back to Dantonio, though.
“I’m sorry Mark, I wasn’t there, that’s why I apologized in advance,” I replied.
He was pissed. Not only because he was in the midst of a 3-9 season and his quarterback was injured, but because Harbaugh was talking about it to media the day before. Dantonio hated Harbaugh. Probably still does. They were not friendly, by any means. Forget all that mutual respect amongst coaches. Dantonio had no love for Harbaugh in any shape or form.
Smug and callous, Dantonio always had a way about him. He was usually cocky and a bit rude, to an extent, during rivalry week. Then his program started falling apart, so he grew more and more defensive until he left after the 2019 season.
For reasons we won’t go into, I cannot and will not name players. Also, I’m not going to get into the really controversial stuff — and there was a lot — because I don’t want to get sued for something stupid. There were no better weeks in any season than UM vs. MSU football week.
For a lot of UM and MSU players, the rivalry hits home — because they’re from the state of Michigan. But that didn’t stop the rest from embracing the hatred. I remember Devin Bush being very vocal, yet composed, during rivalry weeks. He never said anything that would get him in trouble.
But he did do this in 2018 … since then, nobody has shown so much blatant disrespect for either side.
And I loved it.
The players all played nice on camera, for the most part.
But when you got them engaged in off-the-record conversations, very little was held back. So next time you hear a player say something like “we respect them and look forward to competing,” remember this: They really mean that they want to wipe the floor with their opponent, literally.
There are other rivalries in college football worthy of such attention. But Michigan vs. Michigan State is certainly one of the best. Especially this year, because of the historical significance and stakes involved. The winner remains unbeaten and in the hunt for a Big Ten title and maybe even a College Football Playoff berth; the loser will be forced to think about what could have been and start planning for next season.