ANN ARBOR - Michigan expects to find out Saturday that there is indeed more fight in a wounded animal.
Cornered and hurt after back-to-back stunning losses, Michigan State comes here to play its bitter rival, and the Spartans' early season strut has been replaced with desperation. The time to stop the bleeding is now, against No. 6 Michigan, the Spartans contend.
Michigan State, expected to challenge for a place among the top teams in the Big Ten this season, is instead out on the ledge, hanging on by its fingernails. An Illinois field goal with six seconds left shocked the Spartans 23-20 this past weekend as the Illini won a conference game for the first time since 2004.
The week before, Michigan State had Notre Dame neatly bundled up and ready for defeat, leading 31-14 in the third quarter, but the Spartans allowed an interception return for a touchdown in the final minutes and lost 40-37.
The Spartans' season is playing out as a frightening mirror image of a disastrous 2005 campaign when Michigan State won its first four games, then lost six of the last seven, including an overtime thriller to Michigan. Wolverines tight end/fullback Brian Thompson said Michigan State's back-to-back losses in a somewhat humiliating fashion will make the Spartans more tenacious and more dangerous.
"I feel that way. That's a team that has nothing to lose right now. They're just going to come after it," Thompson said. "No matter what the records are, this is a rivalry game, and it's going to be a fist fight. I'm going to expect everything from Michigan State."
Michigan defensive end Rondell Biggs said the unbeaten Wolverines can't read anything into Michigan State's recent struggles or assume that trend will continue. Too much is riding on this trip to Michigan Stadium for the Spartans to come out flat.
"Michigan State is always dangerous," Biggs said. "I've watched them on film, and they have great athletes. They're a dangerous team. It's an instate rivalry - and they're going to come in here fired up."
The Wolverines are coming off a dominant performance over Minnesota that translated to a 28-14 victory and the return of the Little Brown Jug to Ann Arbor. Michigan piled up a season-high 518 yards of offense against the Golden Gophers. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said given Michigan State's situation, and the rivalry, he has little doubt concerning the Spartans' approach.
"All I know is that they are an extremely explosive football team, they have a sound kicking game, and they have a good defensive football team," Carr said. "You look at the Illinois film, and they did a lot of good things there. I know what team will show up here."
Carr said despite Michigan State's 3-2 record, he won't listen to those who expect there to be motivational issues for the Wolverines.
"Those people [who say that] haven't watched the film I've watched," Carr said. "So when our players see the Notre Dame film, they know what team will show up."
Carr said he seeks a balance so his team can play this rivalry with passion and intensity, but not let those emotions detract from their focus on completing their assignments on each play.
"You want to be emotional," Carr said. "I think emotion can take you to a higher level, but I think emotion can also take you to a lower level. So it's about being able to play with great emotion and yet with control, because if you allow it to gain complete control, then you've got other issues."
Michigan State coach John L. Smith said Michigan is just the second of eight straight Big Ten games for the Spartans, so nobody in his camp is panicking.
"There's a lot to play for, tons to play for," Smith said. "I try to tell the guys on the field that all the losers in the world are the ones that sit out there and blame each other. You can point the finger at the guy next to you, but that's not going to help. What we have to do is go out to the field and point the finger at ourselves and work hard to see if we can't get better. We've got a long way to go."
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