MSU-UM Rivalry Promises to be Fun for Years to Come

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2001 was the last time our Michigan State Spartans defeated the Michigan Wolverines on the gridiron. The current six game losing streak that the Spartans have against the Wolverines has included some entertaining games, but has also included a couple of blowouts. For five of those six losses MSU has had a coach walking the sidelines that really weren’t comfortable in what they were in some way, shape, or form.Â

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Bobby Williams was a running backs coach. He was the interim coach for the 2000 Citrus Bowl win vs. Florida, and the players loved him, so he was made head coach. I don’t think much was taken into consideration about how he could run a program from day to day. Williams accumulated good talent in East Lansing, which included a top 15 class in 2000, but they always seemed to underachieve. In 2002, when the Spartans were projected to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten, they faltered early after home losses to Cal and Notre Dame and it all went downhill from there. Everything seemed to unravel. Jeff Smoker’s unfortunate situation and Dawan Moss’ arrest were two instances that proved that Bobby Williams did not have a firm grip on the program. That season, in Ann Arbor, it seemed as if the team had quit on the season after losing 49-3.

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John L. Smith didn’t fully understand how to be the head coach at a program like Michigan State. He brought in an aggressive spread offense, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it always seemed like the play calling was creative and effective in the first half, but in the second half if the game started getting tight, he would become a conservative coach. I always knew that the Spartans were in trouble once John L. would put a little smirk on his face, fold his arms and put his index finger over his mouth. I saw it numerous times against Michigan, and I saw it in 2006 against Notre Dame. He didn’t look confident in pressure packed situations and neither did his team. Another problem that I had with John L. Smith was his recruiting. I really don’t think that he recruited the state of Michigan enough. Trying to get the second, third and fourth tier players from Florida was not going to be effective.

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Current coach Mark Dantonio “gets it.” He has already instilled a mindset in the program that is business like. He is a stern coach that gets the most out of his players. The talent level on this year’s Spartan team was not that overwhelming, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but the Spartans managed to be competitive in virtually every ballgame that they played in this season. In the Champs Sports Bowl, the defensive play calling was a sign that the coaching staff was not fully confident in the ability of their defensive backs. There would have been a higher number blitzes utilized by the coaching staff if the DB’s could consistently cover receivers at a high level. I do think that we were fortunate that Boston College’s receivers were average at best.

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Coach Dantonio’s recruiting ideals are also extremely encouraging. He has made it a priority to recruit the Detroit area and the rest of the state hard. 11 of MSU 16 commitments for the 2008 class are from the state of Michigan, with 9 of those 11 being from the Detroit area. I’d much rather have a three star prospect from Michigan commit to the Spartans than a three star prospect from a southern state. The kids that you get from Michigan possibly have already had affection for Michigan State, while kids from other states may be fans of other team, but just look at it as an opportunity to play at a Big Ten school. Schools like USC, Michigan, and Ohio State can land top prospects nationally because of the sustained success of those programs. They are national programs, and have fans from coast to coast. Michigan State football is not at that level.

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Dantonio also understands the importance of the rivalry with Michigan. You get a sense from Dantonio that shows that he respects Michigan, but he doesn’t really like them. The little war of words that occurred after the U of M game this year was a very good sign for this program and the healthiness of the rivalry. Michigan State finally has leader that is not intimidated by the winged helmets and tradition in Ann Arbor. Dantonio does have to continue his success in recruiting a great deal in order to defeat the Wolverines more than once every few years.

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Even though Michigan is the enemy, there is no denying the talent that is stacked in Ann Arbor. The task of beating Michigan will actually become tougher starting next season because of the coaching change at Michigan. Our game this year against Michigan was one that we let slip away, but if you really think about it, we were fortunate that Lloyd Carr is a coach that doesn’t have a killer instinct, and rarely has his team play to their potential. In the first half when Michigan was leading 14-3, they had the momentum and took their foot off of the pedal.Â

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That type of thing will not happen with Rich Rodriguez at the helm for the Wolverines. A lot of people are trashing him because of West Virginia’s performance against Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez is an upgrade from Carr. Michigan will adapt to his system quicker than most think. Michigan practiced a small portion of the spread offense for a month, and implemented it for the Capital One Bowl. They were extremely effective in running it as well. Michigan will lose several key players, but there are still a load of former high school All-Americans on that roster, and a few coming in this year.

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The rivalry will be better than it has been in a long time. I just don’t see Mark Dantonio not succeeding at MSU. Another observation that I made was that Michigan took this rivalry a little more seriously than they have in recent years. Contrary to what Mike Hart said, they recognized that the MSU team that they were playing was different. For years to come we will see a competitive, hard hitting, and sometimes nasty rivalry and that’s the way it should be.

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