The first Michigan-Michigan State matchup of the 20th century could have been worse, which is a strange thing to say about a game that ended with a 119-0 final score.
Fielding Yost took mercy on his hapless in-state opponent, one that could not yet actually be called a rival. The game was cut from 45 minutes to 38 so Michigan State -- then called Michigan Agricultural College -- could catch a train and get away from Ann Arbor as quickly as possible. Michigan scored 71 points in the first 20-minute "half." Then it scored a mere 48 points in the 18-minute second period, using backups.
Yost's Wolverines, in the midst of a 29-game winning streak in which they gave up a total of 12 points in two and a half seasons, unleashed hell on their neighbors from East Lansing, partly to make up for the ghastly act of giving up one touchdown in a game four days earlier. Playing Michigan State on a Wednesday proved to be a good way to take out frustration and give the second-teamers a chance to play.
"Michigan has not yet recovered from the shock it suffered last Saturday when its goal line was crossed by the Case Scientific school team," wrote the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper of a game won 48-6, before delivering a spot-on prediction for how the day against Michigan State would go. "In the game against the Michigan Agricultural college at Ann Arbor today, it is certain that Coach Yost's players will go in with the idea of wiping out, so far as possible, the memory of the score made against them last Saturday. There seems to be no reason or expecting the Aggies to give Michigan a hard game. In fact, just the reverse is the situation, and another enormous score is likely to be recorded."
This, presumably, has been the attitude of Michigan toward Michigan State ever since. And so, in only the second meeting of Michigan and Michigan State ever, the precedent for the next century was set: Michigan would see this series as a way to re-assert its dominance and exorcise demons as a warm-up before moving on to more important matters.
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The first time quarterback Jim Harbaugh started against Michigan State, he broke his arm. In 1984, the No. 13 Wolverines lost 19-7 to a Michigan State squad that went on to finish .500. Without Harbaugh, Michigan limped to a 6-6 final record too, the only time Bo Schembechler didn't finish with a winning record.
The next two seasons, the Harbaugh-led Wolverines throttled Michigan State 31-0 and 27-6 en route to a Fiesta Bowl and a Rose Bowl, re-asserting their dominance. Schembechler had lost his first ever game against Michigan State too, 23-12 in 1969. He would go on to win 17 of the next 20 against the Spartans, holding them under 10 points 10 times.
This year's matchup was supposed to be the equivalent of Harbaugh fighting Michigan State with a broken arm, or Bo losing his first game in the rivalry. The Spartans entered the 2015 season ranked No. 5. They have finished in the top five two years in a row, winning major bowl games. They have a senior All-Big Ten quarterback, Connor Cook. They have one of the nation's best offensive lines and one of the nation's best defensive lines. They have a widely respected coach, Mark Dantonio, who has led the Spartans to their most consistent success since the 1960s, before Bo arrived at Michigan to re-take the state.
Michigan State has defeated Michigan in six of seven years since Lloyd Carr stepped down. The last seven meetings have been Michigan State's best run against Michigan since the 1950s and '60s, when Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty led the Spartans to big things while the Wolverines muddled through mixed results for two decades until they found Bo. Ever since former running back Mike Hart made his "Little Brother" comment in the wake of Michigan's 2007 win over Michigan State, the series has belonged to Dantonio and the Spartans.
All of which drew an unexpected reaction from Harbaugh.
"You think about The Lion King," Harbaugh said earlier this week. "Simba gets hit over the head, and he tells him, yeah, the past can hurt. You can either run from it or embrace it and learn from it,' I think is exactly what he said. So, those seem like very wise words. We'll go about that."
Harbaugh has gotten the hype this season, but this season's rivalry game was widely expected to be more of the same. Harbaugh inherited a Michigan team coming off back-to-back mediocre seasons. Brady Hoke recruited fairly well, but Michigan still had just one or two preseason All-Big Ten players, depending on whom you asked. The Wolverines hadn't had much of a running game in a while, lacked explosive playmakers and were relying on Jake Rudock, who lost the Iowa starting quarterback job, to lead the offense. Harbaugh is one of the nation's best coaches, but even he appeared to need a year or two to mold the Wolverines as he saw fit and contend with Michigan State and Ohio State for a Big Ten title.
There's still half a season left, but so far none of that is appearing to be true. After losing 24-17 to a good Utah team on the road on the opening Thursday, Michigan has out-scored five opponents 160-14. It has shut out three teams in a row, establishing itself as the nation's best defense so far this season. Rudock isn't making mistakes, the running game has found some life and Michigan is making big plays on both special teams and defense.
Suddenly, it is a classic Michigan team. In other words, it's the type of Michigan team that has historically dominated the Spartans. It's the type of team capable of flipping the script back in favor of the Wolverines after the Spartans have been the more physically imposing team for several years now, including that time in 2013 when they held Michigan to -45 rushing yards. It's a time for Michigan to usher in a new era. But Michigan State is not prepared to go quietly.
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Like every team, Michigan State frequently tries to play the "nobody believes in us" card. At least in the case of the Spartans, it's often true.
Even in a season in which Michigan State opened at No. 5 and has a perfect 6-0 record, and Michigan began the year unranked and lost its first game, Michigan enters Saturday afternoon's game in Ann Arbor as a touchdown-favorite. Michigan's defense has stifled the competition; an injury-riddled Michigan State has underperformed, hanging on to beat Oregon and winning close games against Purdue and Rutgers. Michigan, even with its one loss, has been the better team this season, something that approximately zero neutral observers predicted in August.
Saturday, then, is an enormous measuring stick for both.
For most of history, it is has been difficult for both to be dominant at the same time. The rivalry has reflected that, with one team going on long runs in which it wins the overwhelming majority of the games. Michigan leads the all-time series 68-34-5. From the beginning of the rivalry in 1898 through 1933, Michigan State never won two games in a row. The same was true from 1968 through 2007. Michigan State has defeated Michigan 34 times, but many of those wins have come in a burst of success (particularly in the '50s and '60s) followed by a long moribund period in which Michigan has mostly had the upper hand, with the occasional upset mixed in. It makes Michigan-Michigan State a very specific type of rivalry.
The top tier of rivalries features the obvious choices: Ohio State-Michigan. Oklahoma-Texas. Alabama-Auburn. These are massive events that are all-consuming locally but also capture national attention on a yearly basis. They are the games of the year for those respective schools every year.
Another tier features local rivalries that often tilt one direction, and feature different types of angst between two in-state teams: Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Michigan-Michigan State are among the most prominent examples. For Oklahoma, the Red River Showdown is No. 1, and Bedlam is seen as an opportunity to embarrass an in-state foe. For Oklahoma State, Bedlam is No. 1. The same is true for Michigan-Michigan State. Beating the Spartans is important for Michigan -- really, not losing is important -- but everything ultimately leads to the Buckeyes. For Michigan State, the Michigan game is its barometer. It wants to be seen as the Wolverines' top rival, as equals, a status it's been trying to sustain for over a hundred years, dating back to the 119-0 bombardment at the turn of the last century.
Michigan will ultimately measure the Harbaugh era by how the Wolverines stack up with Urban Meyer and Ohio State. But before they can do that, there's the matter of a test against the Spartans. The Dantonio era has been defined, in part, by his response to being called Little Brother. History says that if Michigan starts rising, Michigan State is going to fall.
Thus, Saturday is not simply one important game that will have an impact on the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff races. It's much more than that. It's Michigan trying to prove that it is Michigan again, and part of being Michigan is owning this rivalry, to the point where winning is supposed to be a foregone conclusion. How the Spartans respond will define the rivalry's new era.