Local rivalries are often the best in sport. College football in a normal year has a Rivalry Weekend where in-state rivals face off. Just like in British football, where local derbies are the most intensely fought. Passionate competitive contests with little left on the pitch. A local rivalry, for a Saturday afternoon and for a few weeks before and after, can divide families and friends. It will be the hot topic around the office water cooler or factory floor the following Monday. As you either dread or delight in going to work to face the post-game banter.
Whilst contests can have a history, as we saw last week, some games are more hotly contested than others. Just because of the geography involved. Like the one we are looking at here.
Michigan vs. Michigan State is the closest version of a good old-fashioned derby. This famous rivalry boasts seventeen national titles. Eleven for the Michigan Wolverines and six for the Michigan State Spartans.
An illustrious history has deepened into an intense battle for pride and state supremacy. Competition in recent years has bubbled over. Michigan LB Devin Bush famously kicked up the turf on the Spartans’ centre field logo after a pre-game skirmish before their 2018 meeting in East Lansing.
Michigan V Michigan State the history
In 1898, in what was described as “a practice game” Michigan won the first meeting against what was then known as Michigan Agricultural College 39-0. They would subsequently send teams of freshmen to play in this meeting for the next three years.
Four years later, Fielding H. Yost had developed a high scoring “point-a-minute” offense that went into the 1902 matchup 11-0. His team annihilated MAC 119-0 and dominated the first fourteen years of the rivalry. In 1913, the then-nicknamed Aggies won their first game in the series, 12-7. And followed it up with a 24-0 win in 1915. They would not beat Michigan again until 1934.
The already natural rivalry took another step forward in 1950. Michigan refused to allow Michigan State entry to the then Big Nine Conference, fearing their dominance of football in Michigan would be diminished. They would also lose that year’s meeting in Ann Arbor.
The Paul Bunyan Trophy
Three years later, Michigan’s stance softened, and Michigan State were in the Big Ten, winning their first official conference showdown 14-6. This game also saw the unveiling of the famous Paul Bunyan Trophy, not to be confused with Paul Bunyan’s Axe, contested between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Paul Bunyan was apparently a mythical lumberjack, 7 feet tall who, legend has it, created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him as he walked.
Governor G. Mennen Williams introduced the four-foot wooden statue upon which Bunyan’s feet were standing on a map of the state of Michigan, one foot on each team’s flag. Williams wanted the trophy to commemorate the logging industry in Michigan. And the trophy has been given to the winner ever since.
The Spartans settled well into the Big Ten and would dominate the rivalry until the late Sixties, winning six national titles. Legendary Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler turned the rivalry around as Michigan won eight in a row from 1970. The coach held a 16-4 record over the Spartans, with Michigan State only winning two games in the Eighties.
1997 saw Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson dominate the secondary against their in-state rivals in his Heisman-winning year. Woodson made two interceptions en route to Michigan claiming the national championship with a 13-0 record.
The “Clockgate” game of 2001 saw the Spartans controversially beat Michigan with a hotly disputed second added on the clock. It was claimed that the Spartan’s timekeeper had missed a beat, allowing their team to make a game-winning play at the death. Michigan fans debate it to this day. Future game time would be kept by neutral officials.
The 2007 contest was a spiky encounter. Following a 28-24 Wolverines win, Michigan held a sarcastic moment of silence for Michigan State. This was in response to Spartans coach Mark Dantonio calling for a “moment of silence” following Michigan’s famous upset loss to Appalachian State earlier in the season. Wolverines running back Mike Hart exacerbated the tension by referring to Michigan State as Michigan’s “little brother” in a post-game interview. Dantonio responded: “Just remember, pride comes before the fall” and “It’s not over, it’ll never be over here, it’s just starting.”
A year later, the Spartans kept Dantonio’s promise, winning 35-21. And dominated the next decade, winning eight of ten games, including two last-minute wins.
Michigan are the current holders of the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Winning the last two, with a 44-10 thrashing of the Spartans in 2019 ensuring the lumberjack remains, for now, in Ann Arbor.
2020 Game Preview
Michigan have already lifted one famous trophy this year, capturing The Little Brown Jug in an impressive win vs. Minnesota. Joe Milton, a 6’5” dual threat quarterback with Cam Newton comparisons, looked assured in his first start. He promises to be the real deal coach Jim Harbaugh has been craving since arriving in Ann Arbor. He was protected by Michigan’s huge offensive line and a rushing attack that ran for five touchdowns and 253 yards. Zach Charbonnet set the tone with an early 30-yard score.
Their defense stifled Minnesota. Sacking QB Tanner Morgan five times and snuffed out the threat of Rashod Bateman. His 100-yard receiving game was flattered by a 38-yard reception play. He was held to six catches for 26 yards in the first half.
The Spartans’ season was thrown into disarray by head coach Mark Dantonio’s move to the back office a day before National Signing Day. Mel Tucker stepped into the hot seat in East Lansing with a shortened season, COVID-affected preseason and limited recruiting time. A shock 38-27 opening day loss to Rutgers also doesn’t bode well for the Spartans this season as they turned the ball over seven times.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns, but also two interceptions. Jayden Reed, a transfer from Western Michigan, was a bright spark against Rutgers, scoring two touchdowns on 128 receiving yards. The Spartans will need to rely on their passing attack as they only rushed for 50 yards last week. Running back Elijah Collins didn’t have the impact expected ahead of the season.
The Spartans’ defense is playing in a new scheme this year. Which will take time to bed in. They have lost four All-Big Ten players from last year. They will need Lombardi and the offense to run the clock and give them time off the field to rest and be competitive against a multi-threat Michigan offense.
In a rivalry where supremacy has ebbed and flowed in periods of dominance between both sides, Michigan look set to win their third win in a row. Michigan State will need to keep hold of the ball and defend much better against a Wolverines offense that looked explosive in their first game. The form book favours Michigan.
However, this is a rivalry. And the Spartans will be fired up. Although they will need a performance on the scale of their ancestral namesakes in the film “300” to pull off an unlikely victory.
Michigan wins 41-17.
This article was contributed by Gareth Evans who continues to enjoy sharing his passion for college football with us all.
Banner Image: Detroit Free Press