Michigan-Michigan State rivalry lives up to every cliché

MSU looking to build off of PSU win (2:21)

Kirk Herbstreit takes an in depth look at the Michigan-Michigan State game as well as the Mississippi State-LSU showdown. (2:21)

No. 6 Michigan has a full head of steam and a chance to launch toward a shot at a championship if it can take care of business at No. 24 Michigan State, the Wolverines' hated in-state rival.

Sound familiar?

They've been playing this same tune up-and-down Interstate 96 for more than a decade now, and it usually ends on a sour note for Michigan.

This year's game will mark the eighth time in the past 10 years that the Wolverines (6-1) enter their annual meeting with Mark Dantonio & Co. with one or zero losses. The 8-of-10 number that most people remember in this series -- especially those from East Lansing -- is the number of times Michigan State has won in the past decade.

Since 2009, Michigan has a 45-8 (.849 winning percentage) record in games played prior to its regular date with the Spartans. In games played A.D. (After Dantonio) in each year, the Wolverines record falls below .500 to 25-29.

"If you can play well in October, then you're going to be in the hunt for things in November," Dantonio said this week when asked about the added juice of both teams being ranked in this year's game. "I think it intensifies things."

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to explain that drop-off: Fatigue can lead to a team fading in November. These two teams typically meet toward the early part of the Big Ten schedule, when competition gets tougher. However, with Michigan entering this year's game on the heels of arguably the most impressive win in Jim Harbaugh's tenure as head coach, it bears mentioning that hope is often at its peak in Ann Arbor right before the Spartans come along. Hope is right on schedule this year.

The whole week seems to arrive on a schedule recently. The annual ritual played out between the two campuses separated by less than an hour of drive time can start to feel a bit like a broken record.

Coaches confirm the game is intense. Players confirm they are not fond of the opponent. Spartans fans try to protect their campus statue from spray-painting vandals and wonder why they are once again a disrespected underdog. Wolverines fans try to protect their campus center from spray-painting vandals and swear this is finally the year "little brother" stops taking advantage of a down period in their football program's history. Banter bounces back and forth. Rinse. Repeat.

"I think we could all use a break from the clichés that have been plowed so thoroughly on both sides," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.

That broken record, though, can sound a lot better when it keeps playing your song.

Dantonio established this annual game as a priority early in his tenure as head coach that began in 2006. His team has now been winning the matchup for so long that he can hardly remember the details from the first time -- although he'll admit with a smile that some of that foggy memory might have to do with the head-butt he gave to freshman wide receiver Keshawn Martin on the sideline. The head-butt came after a first down run in the first half of a tie game; as previously stated, this game is important to Dantonio and the Spartans.

"I can't even tell you the score of the game, really," Dantonio said this week. "I just remember it was a big moment for us."

Michigan State has kept winning on the strength of a defense that is usually one of the nation's best at stopping the run and a head coach that doesn't shy away from the risk of a trick play. And it has kept winning on the strength of those clichés.

A week ago, after an ugly loss at home to Northwestern, Michigan State captain and junior linebacker Joe Bachie said the defense dusted off its old "chip on your shoulder" trope during a soul-searching week of practice. Then the Spartans went to Happy Valley and upset Penn State by holding the Nittany Lions' offense to its lowest output in more than two years.

"Last week we brought the chip back," Bachie said. "And that's just something you can never lose."

Silly as they might seem, the tired clichés and coachisms serve a purpose. Harbaugh knows this well. He attacks them with as much enthusiasm as any of his peers. They lay the groundwork for a team's attitude under pressure.

No matter how many months of preparation -- the recruiting, scouting, working and scheming -- go into a game, no coach can fully squeeze the unpredictable, irrational chaos out of a college football game. In those times (and there have been too many to name in this series), players fall back on the nearly brainwashed messaging that gives them an identity.

Saturday afternoon's game in East Lansing might be decided by the run game. Michigan State's nearly impenetrable rushing defense (62.33 yards per game) will face a stiff challenge against senior running back Karan Higdon and an offensive line playing as well as any Michigan unit in years.

Or it might be decided by a gutsy coaching decision. Dantonio has ripped wide his bag of tricks in recent weeks, scoring on a double reverse against Northwestern, before faking both a punt and a field goal and throwing a halfback pass against Penn State. He will need to be creative against Michigan's stingy defense.

If neither of those provide enough separation for one side or the other, the game might hinge on each team's reaction to the chaos that so frequently comes in a rivalry game. Dantonio has sewn a little extra attitude into the fabric of his program for more than a decade. Until proven otherwise, the Spartans have the edge in that department. After a decade of dashed hopes, it's no wonder Michigan would rather not hear the same old clichés.