The cliché bingo card was entirely checked off in Schembechler Hall on Monday when Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and select players spoke about the upcoming rivalry game against Michigan State.
“It’s a red letter game,” said Harbaugh, who added it’s been that way since he suited up for Bo Schembechler in the 1980s.
“We focus on them every year,” said senior offensive lineman Ryan Hayes. “We don’t look at the records.”
Jaylen Harrell, a Florida native, discussed finally understanding the importance of the rivalry last year. As a freshman in 2020, there were no fans in the stands due to the pandemic, so he couldn’t get a true sense of the atmosphere. The top-10 matchup a season ago changed that.
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“I really didn’t get the understanding of it, but last year it really hit me,” Harrell said. “That bus ride back (from East Lansing) really hit me, so I definitely understand it now. “
For Mazi Smith, who grew up in Grand Rapids, the rivalry has been in the air since he could remember college football.
“It’s a championship game we get to play in the regular season,” he said. “I mean, who doesn’t want that?”
Once the platitudes were out of the way, those who spoke did detail what they believe to be the points of emphasis in order to win this rivalry game for the first time in three years.
‘If we stop the run we’ll be good’
A season ago, Kenneth Walker III stole the show in MSU’s 37-33 win with 197 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He was the No. 1 factor in keeping a significant trend alive; the team who has rushed for more yards in the game has won 46 of the past 52 meetings.
“Stopping the run is key in every game,” he said. “We see teams who get pass heavy, but when a team can keep a balanced rushing attack, they’re usually able to keep a defense on its toes and surprise the defense with certain plays and be explosive.
“Last year, they did a great job of that. They had a special back back there and them boys play hard no matter what, so it’s always important to stop the run … if we stop the run we’ll be good. “
So far this season, the numbers show that the Wolverines should have an edge in that matchup; the Spartans have struggled on the ground ranking 116th out of 131 teams in rushing offense (106.1 yards per game) while Michigan’s run defense is fifth in the nation (85.9 yards per game) in yards allowed.
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Michigan’s defensive front four, Smith, Jaylen Harrell, Kris Jenkins – who the team affectionately refers to as “the mutant” – and Mike Morris, have all had standout moments at different points this season, but it’s the tackles Smith and Jenkins who set the tone on the ground.
“It’s really easy when it’s them in the middle,” Harrell said. “All we have to do (on the outside) is set the edge and let the ball come to us to make the play.”
‘It starts with Thorne’
As for Michigan, Blake Corum is at or near the top of the country in rushing yards (901), touchdowns (13) yards per carry (6.2) and first downs (57). MSU doesn’t have that. The Spartans have three players (Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard and Elijah Collins) who average between 4.3-4.9 yards per carry. The trio have combined for fewer yards (704) and touchdowns (11) than Corum alone.
Which is why UM’s game plan begins elsewhere.
“It starts with the quarterback, Payton Thorne, he can extend plays with his feet,” Harrell said. “He has a pretty good arm and he can throw it up to (Jayden) Reed and (Keon) Coleman so we are just trying to get to him, get pressure and keep our rush lanes so he can’t get out to extend and make plays. “
Reed (32 catches, 373 yards, three touchdown) and Coleman (31 catches, 392 yards, five touchdowns) have had nearly equal production. Harbaugh emphasized stopping that part of the attack as well, praising both the Spartans signal caller as well as play makers on the outside.
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“It’s a really good team, dangerous in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh said. “I think the quarterback is really good. Physical team that runs the ball well, really good off the play action pass, probably the best receiving core we’ve played. Defense is very opportunistic. They have guys who have a knack for getting the ball out and making big plays Special teams, more of the same.
“The returner (Reed) is outstanding. It’s a big challenge, our team knows that and we’ve all been preparing.”
‘We truly hate each other’
Last week, Roman Wilson said “we know we’re the better team.” But the Wolverines on Monday made sure not to give any extra bulletin board material.
Harrell praised MSU’s offense. Smith discussed the humbling nature of the 2021 loss and the culture change it sparked.
“Bend don’t break,” he said when talking about the difference in a loss to MSU in 2020 derailing the season while in 2021 in brought the group together. “Adversity shows you, you. And when we look in the mirror we have got to like what we see.”
While Michigan avoided any smack talk, the importance of this game was not lost in translation. Ryan Hayes said this game gets nasty because “we truly hate each other.” Smith elaborated on the importance of each rep in a practice week of this magnitude and only by thinking the next rep is the most important will you be ready for what happens between the white lines on Saturday.
Harbaugh said he didn’t need extra motivation for winning this game, losses in recent years stung enough for him as well as his players. And they had an entire bye week to think about it.
“Everybody wants it so bad,” he said. “Everybody wants to win; players, coaches, fan bases, it’s about as high level as it can be.
“Our guys really want to win this, I’m not going to lie to you.”