ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan coach stood before an expectant audience, discussing the difficult task ahead, and then he invoked a cartoon mandrill with a cane. It’s like the movie The Lion King, Jim Harbaugh said Monday to underscore a point about moving on from what’s behind you. The monkey smacks Simba the lion on the noggin with his cane, and it hurts. But it doesn’t matter, the monkey says, because it’s in the past. And you can either run from it or learn from it.
This was the highlight of another purposefully banal Harbaugh media session, the fleck of light in the void. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t particularly original, even in the very specific pantheon of Wolverines football coaches’ analogies—Rich Rodriguez dropped the same Lion King reference eight years earlier in his introductory news conference. In the moment, Jim Harbaugh’s view of Michigan State’s recent dominance was perceived to be the mad genius at work. So it fit neatly into the context of a rivalry that has grown to be so much about perceptions.
“It’s in the past,” Harbaugh said of his own experiences in the series, though it applies to the Spartans’ six wins in the last seven meetings as well. “Sometimes it hurts. You can run from it or embrace it.”
The coach then paused for a fact-check. “Who said that?” Harbaugh asked. “Rafiki?” Yes, Rafiki, he was told. Another half-pause. “Wise words,” he said.
On Saturday, for just the 17th time in history, Michigan and Michigan State play while both occupy spots in the national polls. They have met still fewer times when the Wolverines had so much more to gain. The material stakes are essentially the same for either side, with the loser facing a very cluttered path back to a Big Ten title or the College Football Playoff. Less tangibly, but no less important in the context of this rivalry, Michigan is where Michigan State was not long ago: on a mission to recalibrate perceptions. The Wolverines just arrived at a chance to do so sooner than expected.
Maybe that’s making too much out of it. But then the Spartans don’t have poker chip decals on the shoulders of their workout shirts because they’re fans of the movie Rounders. It has been important to the team in East Lansing to be recognized as equal or even superior to the team down the road in Ann Arbor. Now it is important to the team in Ann Arbor to reoccupy their former position of preeminence, though they’re a little more opaque about their intentions.
“What we’ve talked about is the past is the past, but you also have to recognize that they’ve beaten us,” Wolverines fullback Joe Kerridge said. “That’s something that we see. Like I’ve said many times, we’re going to take it day by day and we’re going to do whatever we can to be the best Michigan team for this game come Saturday.”
Again, Michigan State has won six of the last seven meetings with Michigan and has four seasons of 11 or more wins since 2010. The Wolverines have one such season in that span, but they also have twice as many wins in this series overall (68 to 34). The arc of the rivalry is clear. By any measure, the Spartans have been better lately. But if it’s been important to them to be viewed a certain way beyond wins and losses, then it’s fair to note that they face the prospect of that view getting blurred way quicker than anyone imagined.
In Harbaugh, Michigan has a coach who understands the weight of perception and recognizes the correct way to change it. To say he’s consumed with rivalries and the conclusions drawn from them isn’t accurate. But neither is it accurate to say he’s oblivious to that. Harbaugh removed the countdown clocks to the Michigan State and Ohio State games from the premises soon after his arrival, and he made sure players grasped the meaning behind the redecoration. “That’s what he said in one of our first meetings—we’re not worried about beating Ohio, we’re worried about beating Utah, at the time,” tight end Jake Butt said. “The biggest game is the next one.”
Every coach everywhere champions that idea. It’s public domain, basically. But you don’t remove countdown clocks if you don’t believe the general approach to rivalry games has done more harm than good. You don’t cite that specific scene from The Lion King in this week if you don’t believe the pain inflicted by an opponent over the years could have a cumulatively adverse affect on your team’s chances to win in 2015.
One game at a time. Be the best at what you do. No contrived bluster, no theatrics. If there’s a genius to it, this is it: Harbaugh has primed a team to affect a paradigm shift in its own state by pretending that the preparation is about everything else.
“We’ve been going about our business down at Schembechler Hall,” Harbaugh said. “The game is big enough. Fair, healthy, honest competition with a heck of an opponent. That’s enough.”
It must be mentioned that the Michigan staff has done a pretty fine job of coaching its way into this position as well.
After three consecutive shutouts, the Wolverines have the nation’s No. 1 statistical defense. The run game churns out 201.3 yards per game, ranking third in the Big Ten, while the offensive line has allowed a manageable eight sacks in six games. The four-hour practices, the endless gassers after the second of two-a-day workouts on a searing hot August day—“He just kept lining us up, lining us up,” Butt said—they all served the purpose of forging the sort of unit capable of taking back whatever it had lost in recent years. The mental gymnastics are only a complement to the foundation laid back then.
So what does it mean for the Spartans, who have been after so much more than wins in this series, if Michigan is here already, and with players Jim Harbaugh didn’t hand-pick? Maybe Michigan State has proven its point already. Maybe it will re-prove that point Saturday, despite its epic plague of injuries.
Even if it doesn’t, maybe there is room for both teams to be very good at the same time and to rule their own fiefdoms within the Great Lakes State.
Or maybe that’s not enough for anybody involved. It surely doesn’t seem to be.
“It’s a real personal thing, there’s no question about it,” Wolverines linebacker Desmond Morgan said. “Growing up on the west side of Michigan, I have a lot of former high school classmates, guys I played high school football with, that now attend Michigan State as students. Whichever way this game ends up going, I usually hear quite a bit about it.”
Whichever way this game ends up going will say as much as it ever has about the teams involved and how we think of them. It won’t fade into the past like a cane upside the head.
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 7, it’s Utah State and its top 20 defense hosting true freshman quarterback Brett Rypien and Boise State’s top 20 offense.
John Clune, Utah State defensive coordinator: “The defensive line has matured very nicely. The guys have come off of injuries and tragedies (four of them were in a car wreck this summer) and have come together. First of all, thank God they all lived. That could’ve gone a different way. That’s the main thing. You can’t lose four D-linemen off any team in the nation and not be the same. It all starts right there, and this week it’s going to be so important because their run game is so good.
Everything (Rypien) does doesn’t look like a freshman, everything he does looks like a seasoned guy. I don’t see anything like, oh, we’re going to rattle him here, we’re going to rattle him there. He’s a cool cat. Their O-linemen know where to target—they don’t waste double-teams unless they need to double-team. Their five guys will block five guys and block them well. (Our goal is) controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping the run game, trying to put pressure on the quarterback. Nothing for free, whether it’s a blown assignment in the run game or a blown gap or a missed tackle. And nothing for free in the pass game; we can’t blow any coverages back there. You have to make them earn it the whole way through. They’re good enough to do that, but at the same time you have to make them earn it the whole 60 minutes.
Eliah Drinkwitz, Boise State offensive coordinator: “(Rypien) does a great job preparing each week for the looks he’s going to get and knowing what his answers are and how he’s going to attack what he’s gong to face that day. We’ve done a good job of establishing the run game early, but then we’ve been able to throw the ball down the field. And anytime you can do that, that puts a defensive coordinator in a tough spot. (Leading rusher) Jeremy (McNichols) is more of a slasher, he can do different things. Kelsey (Young) is more of a downhill guy. Devan Demas can really get on the edge. It just gives us a variety of different ways to attack. (Utah State) runs a very multiple scheme and does a lot of different things, but they’re not out of position, and they’re very consistent at making the plays they need to make. The experience they have in that scheme allows them to do a lot of different things. They know what they’re trying to accomplish with each call that they’re making.
We have to get into a rhythm early. They’re not a bend-but-don’t-break defense. They’re an attacking style defense, so they’re trying to keep you off balance all the time. It’s not like they’re jab, jab, jab—every swing is, ‘We’re trying to knock you out.’ We’ve got to be able to fight that off and still find a rhythm offensively and move the ball.”
• Auburn at Kentucky: The Wildcats are 4–1 but have beaten essentially no one, which sort of undermines the idea of the program making a jump this year. Though the Tigers have struggled—a lot—this seems more of a toss-up.
• UCLA at Stanford: Call it the Reality Check game: The Bruins’ defeat of BYU is about the only victory either side has over a half-decent or non-injury-riddled team. This result should dictate which one is a true conference title contender.
• Boise State at Utah State: Keep in mind that Utah State lost by a combined 24 points at Utah and at Washington. That is not extremely close, but the Aggies have a top 20 defense despite facing two Pac-12 teams in addition to Colorado State and Fresno State.
• West Virginia at Baylor: Consecutive losses to the Big 12’s Oklahoma schools undermined the Mountaineers’ momentum. It’s also unlikely that Baylor has forgotten its playoff-killing loss in Morgantown a year ago.
• Iowa at Northwestern: Getting drummed at Michigan doesn’t totally eliminate the Wildcats’ Big Ten West title hopes. But losing to the Hawkeyes—who drummed Northwestern 48–7 at home last year—might.
• Ole Miss at Memphis: This feels a lot like the big game that the Upstart Home Team invests everything into, only to have the more-than-respectable Big Conference Team somehow pull it out.
• Louisville at Florida State: It’s difficult to dismiss the Seminoles’ success when it’s rooted in something as solid as Dalvin Cook’s ability to run the ball (792 yards). But has Bobby Petrino cooked up something special in the bye week?
• Alabama at Texas A&M: This was a prime opportunity for a Nick Saban better get his shots in at the Aggies because Texas won’t play A&M joke, but then the Longhorns spoiled that last weekend. A 59–0 loss to the Crimson Tide last year should give Texas A&M juice at the start, but you wonder if the memory will erode the Aggies’ confidence if Alabama gains firm control early.
• Oklahoma at Kansas State: The visitors got embarrassed last week while the home team suffered a gutting loss in a game it controlled. The emotions favor the angry, mortified crew.
• Michigan State at Michigan: It’s almost too bad injuries seem to be unspooling what could have been a playoff run for the Spartans. Not that they will find sympathy in Ann Arbor.
• Florida at LSU: Jim McElwain couldn’t say which substance prompted Will Grier’s suspension because, the Gators coach said, he couldn’t pronounce it. Luckily it’s much easier to pronounce the word for facing Leonard Fournette on the road without your starting quarterback. It rhymes with duck.
• USC at Notre Dame: Everything is lining up for the Fighting Irish to be a one-loss team heading into a season finale at Stanford with a schedule that looks far tougher than it actually is. Oh, the yelling. Just imagine the yelling.
• Penn State at Ohio State: Carl Nassib (10 sacks) and Anthony Zettel (six tackles for loss) can be disruptive enough to exacerbate the Buckeyes’ offensive uncertainty. But this has the feel of an unexpected breakout scoring day behind J.T. Barrett.
• Arizona State at Utah: It would be so very Pac-12 if the Sun Devils, having already ruined their own playoff hopes, then figure things out and ruin everyone else’s.
The hair-raising end
Coaches fired by early October, legends abruptly retiring, starters on top 10 teams offering tearful apologies for year-long banned substance suspensions… remember when season-crushing injuries were a big deal in college football?
Yes, it’s gonna take a little time to mend that broken heart. But don’t you even worry. It’s Week 7. Love is knocking, outside your door.