Spartans, Wolverines give rivalry its due

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State can fulfill two objectives on the field Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.

The first is painfully obvious: beat Michigan.

After six straight losses, people are starting to wonder whether it can be done.

Second-year Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has taken a proactive approach to the rivalry, acknowledging its significance and embracing the emotion that goes into the game every year. It was OK to discuss this game in August. It was OK to use words like "embarrassed," the sentiment Spartans senior running back Javon Ringer will feel if he can't beat Michigan once in his college career.

"If we don't beat them in four years, that is an embarrassment," Spartans junior linebacker Adam Decker said. "It's a strong word. When you say something like that, it comes with pressure. But in a game like this, there's going to be pressure. There's going to be a lot of eyes on you."

Michigan State's second objective might be even more important. Last Saturday's 42-7 home loss to Ohio State resembled similar October clunkers of the past.

Big-game flops have previously triggered downward spirals for the Spartans , and it's critical for this team and this coach to show that this time will be different. The Michigan game provides the perfect platform to do so.

"People are going to be quick to point out that we've stumbled late in the season the last couple years," Decker said. "They're going to say that same-old-Spartans mantra. They have no reason not to say that until we give them a reason to prove them wrong.

"With the Michigan game being a week after a tough defeat, it's a great opportunity to silence all those critics."

Michigan has its own critics, most of whom have targeted first-year coach Rich Rodriguez. The 2-5 Wolverines are on the brink of their first nonwinning season since 1984, not to mention two losses away from their first losing season since 1967.

A win against the Spartans could buy Rodriguez some good will -- as well as patience -- from the Michigan faithful for the rest of the season. And like Dantonio, Rodriguez doesn't downplay the significance of the game.

"It's a longstanding natural rivalry just up the road, it's in-state," Rodriguez said. "It is important for us coaches to stress the importance of it. But I don't think I have to. Our players know it, the guys that have been here.

"We will never understate it. It's a big, big game each and every year."

Though Rodriguez doesn't have a long history with the rivalry like Dantonio, a Michigan State assistant from 1995-2000, he grasps what it means to both sides.

"I hear about it every day since I took the job," he told reporters on Wednesday. "You'd have to be completely clueless not to understand it."

Words have driven the rivalry almost as much as the play on the field.

There was the infamous "little brother" comment from Michigan running back Mike Hart after last year's win, followed by Dantonio's "The pride comes before the fall" rant. Despite a 29-point loss to Penn State last week, Wolverines defensive end Brandon Graham guaranteed a win against the Spartans.

Dantonio didn't back down from his comments this week, saying, "You know, big brother's watching." And Graham's Michigan teammates are prepared to back him up.

"For all the guys from the state of Michigan, it's naturally a huge game," said Decker, a Rochester Hills, Mich., native. "When your head coach is supporting you in those feelings and shows the emotion that you have for the game and has that same emotion, it only adds to the excitement. It only adds to the importance. It only adds to the effort and commitment you show toward it."