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Spartans, Wolverines bring balance to rivalry

10/6/2010

There's little doubt Michigan-Michigan State is a bona fide rivalry, but it typically has been an unbalanced rivalry.

Start with the fundamental difference in significance: Michigan State considers Michigan its top rival, while the Wolverines always reserve that label for Ohio State.

Michigan holds a sizable edge in the all-time series (67-30-5), and the rivalry has been defined by pockets of dominance: Michigan went 16-0-2 between 1916-33; Michigan State went 9-1-2 between 1956-67; Michigan went 13-1 between 1970-83. Even after a rare competitive stretch between 1990-95 where the teams split six meetings, Michigan reclaimed control with an 11-2 spurt.

Michigan State has claimed each of the past two games, taking home the Paul Bunyan Trophy and, in the minds of many, control in the state.

It's often easy to identify the gap between the two teams heading into their annual matchup. And that gap might show up Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.

But heading into the game, Michigan and Michigan State have achieved balance, which only enhances the rivalry.

The teams bring identical 5-0 records into the Big House. Michigan State is just one spot ahead of Michigan in both polls (No. 17 in AP, No. 16 in the coaches'). Both teams recorded dramatic victories against Notre Dame. Michigan State has a signature win against Wisconsin, while Michigan opened the season with a convincing win against Connecticut, a team many had pegged to win the Big East. The Spartans boast the Big Ten's most accomplished defender in senior linebacker Greg Jones, while the Wolverines are led by the nation's most dynamic offensive player this season in quarterback Denard Robinson.

"Two teams 5-0, bragging rights, playing in front of your hometown," Spartans running back Edwin Baker said. "It hasn't been a big game like this in a long time. We're going to bring that tradition back. Hopefully, we'll bring Paul Bunyan back."

Jones took it a step further moments after the Wisconsin win.

"That's like the biggest game of the year," he said. "Bottom line. It just is. There's nothing more to say. It's the biggest game of the year."

Michigan's biggest game always comes against Ohio State, but the significance of beating Michigan State has been ratcheted up this year. The Wolverines haven't dropped three straight to Michigan State since 1965-67. Third-year coach Rich Rodriguez is 2-1 against Notre Dame but a combined 0-4 against Michigan State and Ohio State.

While the Wolverines' drought against Ohio State is always thrown in their faces -- 2,509 days and counting -- players also hear about the 1,068 days that have passed since their last win against the Spartans.

"It’s there," Michigan guard Stephen Schilling said. "Obviously, the Ohio State one has been going on a little bit longer, but you don't want to lose to Michigan State at all, let alone two or three times in a row. That's a streak we’re looking to stop before it gets too big."

Schilling, a fifth-year senior, remembers what it's like to beat Michigan State. But his teammates like junior receiver Roy Roundtree have never experienced the feeling.

"We hear it a lot, definitely from the students," Roundtree said. "They're like, 'Aw, you got Michigan State this week. I hope it's not like the last two years.' I just laugh and I'm like, 'New year, new team.'

"There's a lot at stake. Both teams are undefeated, in-state rivals, Paul Bunyan on the line. We miss Paul Bunyan."

The Spartans, who see the trophy displayed daily in the Skandalaris Football Center, have no intention of giving it back. Michigan State also eyes another goal in Ann Arbor: national respect.

The R-word was thrown around the media trailer after the Wisconsin win. Some Spartans felt they'd gained respect by beating the Badgers, while Baker said they'll need to do more.

Despite Michigan State's 5-0 record, Michigan and Robinson continue to dominate the headlines.

"Always," Baker said of the attention Michigan receives. "U of M is supposed to be the team of the state, but we’re going to come out, play hard and we’ll see who comes out on top."