ANN ARBOR — In the days leading up to one of the most noteworthy games on its schedule, the Michigan football team has maintained a certain sense of professionalism.
The Wolverines have spoken respectfully in regards to their opponents. They’ve emphasized the importance of breaking a four-game losing streak against an in-state opponent.
And they haven’t given away any secrets, though a few have gotten uncovered, including a photo of a green-and-white helmet that the Wolverines scout team has been wearing this week in practice.
Yet if the Wolverines regarded their season opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, as a business trip, then today’s game against Michigan State is akin to unfinished business.
“We’ve been motivated for it, regardless of the circumstances,” Michigan offensive guard Patrick Omameh said. “It’s a Big Ten game, it’s a division game, and it’s a big game in every way you look at it, so everybody wants to be on top of everything they need to be on top of and really prepare for this game.”
The No. 23 Wolverines host the Spartans in not just a Legends Division game but one of the more hyped in-state rivalry games in college football. Michigan looks to erase the goose egg that’s nagged at them for the last four years; the Wolverines haven’t won a game against the Spartans since 2007, a 28-24 win in East Lansing, Mich. (After that win, Wolverines running back Mike Hart termed the Spartans as “little brother,” further fanning the flames of the rivalry.)
But in the last month, the two programs have gone in opposite directions.
Michigan State was considered one of the top contenders in what appeared to be a watered-down Big Ten Conference. Michigan simply hoped to find its footing after a 41-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama and a shaky showing in a 31-25 win over Air Force.
The Spartans have lost three of their last five games and a loss today could further hamper any Michigan State contention hopes. A win, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said, could right the course for his team.
But in pursuit of its third consecutive win, Michigan’s biggest area of emphasis will need to be the run game behind quarterback Denard Robinson. Last week against Illinois, Michigan finished with 225 yards on 40 carries outside of Robinson, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week that if the run game continued to struggle, opting to switch out Fitzgerald Toussaint (71 carries for 231 yards) for either Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes, would be “a fair assessment.”
"Both of them have a better grasp of the offense," Hoke said. "If you understand it better and you're not just throwing a guy in there on runs and that kind of stuff, that helps."
Michigan will need to exercise its depth on the run — and quickly, as Michigan State has had Robinson’s number.
In last season’s 28-14 loss to the Spartans, Michigan accrued just 82 rushing yards; Robinson had 18 carries for 42 yards and a touchdown and was sacked four times, and left the game in the fourth quarter after taking a hit from Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush.
Two years ago, in a 34-17 loss to the Spartans, Robinson fared a little better on the run, finishing with 86 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
Defending Robinson, Dantonio said, requires a little more tinkering.
“We need to make sure we know where he's at at all times, where 16 is on the playing field,” Dantonio said. “He can make a play at any given moment and turn a game around. He's been a great football player at Michigan, and he'll always be remembered as that.”
Still, the fact is that Michigan has lost four straight games in four straight years to the Spartans, a talking point that simply can’t be avoided.
“We didn’t come out victorious [in 2011], and that’s something we have to expect,” Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd said. “It’s something that, this year, we have to change.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.