NCF Nation: Mike Hart
Michigan State was getting casual.
The Spartans were winning Big Ten games, just as they had in 2013, but not with their standard precision and 60-minute focus. A near blown lead against Nebraska. Poor decisions from players and coaches against Purdue. A sloppy first half at Indiana.
Other than a fleeting moment against Nebraska -- when Huskers receiver Alonzo Moore nearly corralled a touchdown in the final minute -- the Spartans never looked like they actually might lose. But they didn't look right, either. They seemed to be losing their edge.
Well, it's back. MSU can thank in-state rival Michigan for restoring it just in time.
The decision by Wolverines players -- I believe coach Brady Hoke when he says he had no involvement -- to drive a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before Saturday's game lit the fuse for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and his team. After all they had done since Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment in 2007 -- a 5-1 mark against Michigan, a 63-24 record overall, an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship, and another shared Big Ten title -- the Spartans were still being shown up on their home field.
Maybe Michigan's act was more about itself than its opponent. Pardon the pun, but the Wolverines' disintegrating season was at stake Saturday. Michigan's recent losses to MSU stem from inferior talent development, coaching and execution, but the Wolverines also haven't matched the Spartans' intensity. The staking was intended to stoke the Maize and Blue.
Despite a few errors, MSU bullied Michigan again. And with a chance to kneel on the ball or score another touchdown in the closing seconds, MSU left its starters in and rubbed Michigan's nose in the end zone dirt.
"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the 35-11 win.
The line was vintage Dantonio: premeditated and purposeful, smart and succinct, delivered with the trademark scowl on the outside but probably a small smile within. He paused for effect, then moments later addressed "the little brother stuff, all the disrespect" in a candid post-game session with reporters.
"Throwing the stake down in our back yard out here and coming out there like they're all that," he said. "It got shoved up ..."
Dantonio trailed off, but he made his point. We all know exactly where it got shoved.
Some teams are at their best when calm and cool. Dantonio and the Spartans are at their best when PO'd. Michigan's stake-and-shake sharpened Michigan State's focus.
The Spartans were supposed to beat Michigan. They have superior talent and coaching. But another watered-down win would have left an empty feeling before a two-week prep for the Ohio State showdown.
Instead, they recorded their most lopsided win against Michigan since 1967.
"We had enough emotion to carry us, but we also need to stay fresh and always need to bring our emotions to a football game," Dantonio said Sunday night. "That's sort of been a trademark of who we've become."
They had veered from their trademarks early in Big Ten play. Too many technical breakdowns on defense, too many risky throws by Connor Cook and even a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt by Dantonio. And a casual attitude.
While MSU hiccuped, Ohio State had been punishing its opponents behind blossoming quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Nov. 8 narrative subtly shifted. An Ohio State win in Spartan Stadium, where the home side hasn't lost since 2012, began to look more plausible.
Then Saturday happened. The Spartans regained their swagger. Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead at Penn State and was extremely fortunate to win in two overtimes. Some who might have been leaning OSU might now be leaning MSU.
The Spartans shouldn't expect Ohio State to pull a similar pre-game stunt Nov. 8, nor should they expect the emotion from Saturday to carry them through the next 12 days. But the Michigan game reminded the Spartans of who they are and how they must play as the stakes get much, much higher.
"November ... defines you," Dantonio said Sunday. "We've got an off week, so we should be able to get fresh emotionally and fresh physically and have some additional time to work on Ohio State.
"There will be no excuses. We'll be ready to play."
Remember when MSU used to pull silly stunts like Michigan did? It used to be a silly program with a silly coach.
MSU is now an elite program with an elite coach. But this Spartans team hadn't looked elite until Saturday.
They needed a spark. Linebacker Joe Bolden and his Michigan teammates provided it.
MSU now can get back to its high-stakes mission: winning another championship.
Last month, we asked you to weigh in on the most disliked Big Ten coach. Not surprisingly, the three highest vote-getters also earned our nod for their villainous traits. Remember, this is all in fun, and it's important to note that it's hard to be a coaching villain if you don't win a lot of games or tick off multiple fan bases.
Let's take a look.
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (six seasons, 60-19 overall and at Wisconsin)
Any coach who plays college ball, has his team's logo tattooed on his leg, and then ends up coaching a major rival is predisposed to be a villain. Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman, still sports the Tigerhawk stamp on his leg, but he's very much a Badger these days. While Bielema might not be a favorite son in Iowa, he has ticked off others around the league a little more.
In 2010, Bielema ignited a flap with Minnesota when he called for a 2-point conversion attempt with Wisconsin ahead by 25 points in the fourth quarter. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster confronted Bielema after the game and later said Bielema made "a poor decision for a head football coach." Bielema claimed he was following the coaches' card of when to go for two or not, but given tension with Brewster and the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, few bought his explanation. The Wisconsin coach didn't help his rep a few weeks later when the Badgers' record-setting offense put up 83 points against Indiana, although the sportsmanship complaints seemed hollow as Indiana totally packed it in that day.
Then came national signing day in February, when Bielema at a news conference referred to "illegal" recruiting tactics by new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Many incorrectly interpreted Bielema's comments as sour grapes about losing a recruit (Kyle Dodson) to Meyer, but Bielema didn't publicly specify what he meant or why he contacted Meyer to discuss the situation. The allegations didn't sit well with Meyer or Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, although the situation put to rest the ridiculous belief about a "gentleman's agreement" among Big Ten coaches.
Bielema is relatively young, highly successful and never short on confidence. He's very media savvy and knows how to get his message across. He may fill the villain role for several fan bases, but he's the one going to Pasadena every year.
Urban Meyer, Ohio State (first season, 104-23 overall in 10 seasons)
Meyer hasn't coached a single game as Ohio State's head man, but he still received the most votes as the league's most disliked coach. Unlike the others in the Big Ten villain mix, Meyer sparks ire in other parts of the country, particularly in a little place they call Gator Country.
He left Florida after the 2010 season -- after nearly stepping away the previous year -- citing health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family. Some saw him taking the Ohio State job, undoubtedly another pressure cooker, just a year after leaving Florida, as disingenuous. More Florida fallout arrived this spring in a Sporting News story that showed Meyer as the overseer and enabler of a mess in Gainesville.
Meyer's Big Ten villainy stems mostly from his immediate success on the recruiting trail after being hired in late November. In two months he put together the Big Ten's top-rated recruiting class, which included several players who had flipped from other programs to the Buckeyes. His surge drew comments from Bielema and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and the perception that Meyer has rocked the boat in the Big Ten remains very much alive.
Although Meyer and Michigan coach Brady Hoke have been cordial to this point -- they have the same agent, Trace Armstrong -- it's only a matter of time before things get spicy. Ohio State set off a mini blaze by displaying a sign in the football complex comparing its players' academic majors with those of Michigan's.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (five seasons, 44-22 at MSU, 62-39 in eight seasons overall)
The seemingly permanent scowl. The deep, borderline monotone voice. The willingness to stick up for players who make mistakes and fuel rivalries. In many ways, Dantonio looks and sounds more like a villain than any of his Big Ten coaching brethren. Warm and fuzzy he is not, and while he has a unique sense of humor and can be charming, he comes off serious, intense and, some would say, confrontational.
Dantonio has made some notable statements about archrival Michigan in his five seasons in East Lansing. Who can forget his "pride comes before the fall" response to Mike Hart after the 2007 Michigan State-Michigan game? After last season's personal-foul fest against Michigan, a game Michigan State won 28-14, Dantonio drew criticism for not suspending defensive end William Gholston, who had punched a Wolverines player and twisted the helmet of another (the Big Ten later suspended Gholston for a game). In January, he interrupted Michigan assistant Jeff Hecklinski during a presentation to state high school coaches. And this spring, he set off some fireworks by telling Brian Bennett, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"
Some Michigan fans still dismiss Michigan State as not a real rival, but Dantonio has certainly gotten under the skin of Wolverines backers, especially because he keeps beating the Maize and Blue.
Dantonio also was looped into the Meyer/Bielema flap in February, although his general comments about recruiting were misinterpreted by a reporter.
The hyper intense Dantonio has some villain in him. And if he keeps winning at Michigan State, the image will continue to grow.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Fitz Toussaint ran for 1,041 yards last season, becoming the first Michigan running back since Mike Hart in 2007 to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier.
It was an especially impressive feat since Toussaint didn't really take over as the lead, undisputed rusher for the Wolverines until the eighth game of the year. So it's no wonder that people are expecting even bigger things this season. Including Toussaint's head coach.
Brady Hoke told ESPN.com that he pulled Toussaint aside during the Allstate Sugar Bowl and pointed out that Virginia Tech had a 1,600-yard tailback in David Wilson.
"We'd sure like to have one of those," he said.
Say no more. A new Toussaint touchstone has been established for 2012.
"The goal is to try to go beyond that," Toussaint said. "I want 1,600 yards to be the minimum."
Wolverines coaches liked his talent but weren't sure how tough he was early last year. Toussaint sat out the Notre Dame game in Week 2 with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. He had also missed some games as a freshman and was gaining a reputation for being injury-prone.
After the Notre Dame game, running backs coach Fred Jackson pulled Toussaint into his office and talked about past great Michigan backs like Hart, Tyrone Wheatley and Chris Perry. Those guys, he said, played through nagging ankle pains, hamstring injuries and other aches.
"He was saying you've got to be tough to play this game at a different level," Toussaint said. "That talk really motivated me."
Toussaint played pretty well with limited carries the next four games but had just 7 yards on two attempts in the loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines then went into a bye week and decided to change their philosophy in the running attack, which until then had involved using Denard Robinson and spreading the carries out among the tailbacks.
"We just decided we were going to let him carry the ball," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "We weren't going to take him out."
He responded with a 170-yard, two-touchdown game against Purdue the next game. Toussaint averaged 135 rushing yards over the final five regular-season games, including a 192-yard effort at Illinois. Nobody was happier about this development than Robinson, who finally had a star running back to take some heat off him.
"It was a relief," Robinson said of Toussaint's emergence. "Running the ball that much, it's a hassle. I knew he was a big-time back, and once he got going he would do well."
Michigan limited Toussaint's reps this spring, knowing what they had in the junior and wanting to get a look at youngsters like Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes. When the season starts, though, they will likely give Toussaint all the work he can handle. And if he could replicate his 135-yard average from last year's stretch drive, that equates to just over 1,600 yards for a full 12-game season.
Those kinds of numbers could potentially get Toussaint into the Heisman Trophy discussion along with Robinson. Might we have a Russell Wilson-Montee Ball situation developing?
"That hasn't really crossed my mind," Toussaint said. "It's going to take a lot for me to get there. I'm still lacking a couple of things."
Becoming better in pass protection is something he's striving toward this offseason. That goal is a lot less visible than 1,600 yards, but it may be just as important to Michigan's success.
Ohio State held a team meeting Monday morning to announce the change, but several current and former players have tweeted about Tressel's departure. Most of the reaction is very positive.
Here's a look at some of the comments:
- Center Mike Brewster: Coach Tressel was one of the most honorable men I ever had the chance of being around..he taught me endless life lessons
- Tight end Jake Stoneburner: Tress taught me life lessons and how to become a man. I will forever be grateful that I played for such a great man. He is irreplaceable.
- Left tackle Mike Adams: #coachtress is what young people everywhere should strive to be! What don't break us will make us!
- Linebacker Andrew Sweat: You have done a tremendous amount for us as football players but more importantly developing us as men. Thanks
- Linebacker Etienne Sabino: I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Coach Tressel ..Hate to see this happen
- Running back Jordan Hall: So much love for coach tress. Promise no team wanna play us .#onamission
- Running back Jaamal Berry: Still love you coach Tress were going to win it all for you and #BuckeyeNation
- Wide receiver Chris Fields: This is definitely somethin I did not wanna wake up too!
- Cornerback Travis Howard: This will make us stronger as a team aNd tougher as individuals we gone pull this together and make it happen #beastmode
- Former cornerback Donald Washington: #CoachTress deserves a statue ... I would love to be suiting up for the #bucks with all the bs going on! I gotta feeling the Buckeyes are gon be untamed this fall!
- Former defensive end Cameron Heyward: Sad day to be a buckeye. #coach tressel you will be missed. No one understands what that man has taught me and done for me
- Former tight end Jake Ballard: Jim Tressel is one of the best human beings I have ever met. All he ever did was care and help people. #BuckeyeNation lost a great coach!!
- Former punter Jon Thoma: TRY to find a team who is gonna play harder than the Bucks this year. No mercy. Everybody dies.
- Former running back Chris Wells: say it aint sooo!
There are also these notable tweets:
- Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin: The head of the scarlet and grey Demon has been cut off!
- Michigan cornerback Troy Woolfolk: Tressel resigned, well I guess it got too hot in the kitchen. Lol
- Former Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga: @OfficialAJHawk are you going to help select the new coach at OSU. I am sure they will be askig for your professional opinion.
- Former Michigan running back Mike Hart: Great day for America! Sad day 4 Big 10, Hate OSU but tressel was a great coach! Would rather beat them when he's the coach than some1 else
- Former Ohio State receiver Ray Small: Lol what y'all gone do 2 me that man resigned his self if u don't like me [bleep] u!!
Again, much more to come on Tressel's resignation.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was on the field during warm-ups and seemed to be moving around a little gingerly, but not too bad considering his recent health issues. Dantonio will coach from the booth today.
If this year's matchup needed any more spice, former Michigan running back Mike Hart provided it with a note to the team this week and displayed near the Wolverines' locker room.
"Nothing needs to be said to get you guys fired up -- after what you guys have dealt with the last two years and the disrespect throughout the country. You get four chances in your life to play this team. What does each and every player want their legacy to be because it starts tomorrow -- tomorrow we put little brother in his place."
Let's get it on.
What about Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell? Both Spartans backs are capable of gashing a weak Michigan defense.
If Robinson, Baker or Bell have a big day on the ground Saturday, it wouldn't be the first time in the Michigan-Michigan State series. In fact, most of the recent meetings have featured impressive performances by ball carriers.
Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information for this list ...
2008 -- Javon Ringer (MSU): 37 rush, 194 yards, 2 TD in 35-21 win
2005 -- Mike Hart (MICH): 36 rush, 218 yards, TD in 34-31 (OT) win
2004 -- Mike Hart (MICH): 33 rush, 224 yards, TD in 45-37 (3OT) win
2004 -- DeAndra Cobb (MSU): 22 rush, 205 yards, 2 TD in 45-37 (3OT) loss
2003 -- Chris Perry (MICH): 51 rush, 219 yards, TD in 27-20 win
2001 -- T.J. Duckett (MSU): 27 rush, 211 yards, TD in 26-24 win
But we're looking for 2010 games that have a little something extra. Think Texas-Nebraska this fall at Memorial Stadium. There's bad blood there, especially after recent events. In Lincoln, they're already getting ready for the Longhorns.
Maybe the Big Ten is too damn civil these days, but the key figures in this league seem to like each other too much. We need a good coaching spat -- the Danny Hope-Rich Rodriguez exchange last season was entertaining, albeit not overly memorable -- or some trash talk between players. Could we get a coach running up the score on a rival, please? The SEC and Big 12 can't have all the fun.
One game this season certain to have some added fuel pairs Michigan and Michigan State on Oct. 9 at the Big(ger) House. The in-state rivalry always has some juice, but this year's matchup brings a little extra. Since Mike Hart's "little brother" comment after Michigan's 2007 win at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State has grown up a bit on the field.
The Spartans have won back-to-back games against Michigan for the first time since winning three straight from 1965 to 67. They claimed last year's contest in dramatic fashion, prevailing in overtime after squandering a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead in all too familiar fashion.
Suddenly, Michigan State is the team that has gone bowling in each of the last three seasons, while Michigan has spent back-to-back winters at home after making 33 consecutive bowl appearances. Spartans seniors like Greg Jones can finish their careers 3-1 against Michigan with a win this fall.
Like any in-state rivalry, Michigan-Michigan State affects the local recruiting scene. By any measure, Michigan State has upgraded its in-state recruiting efforts under Mark Dantonio, landing prospects like Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, William Gholston and Lawrence Thomas (2011 verbal). There's a perception held by some that the Spartans have surpassed Michigan in local recruiting, although Michigan has focused much of its efforts on other areas while still bringing in elite local prospects like William Campbell, Devin Gardner and Brennen Beyer (2011 verbal).
But to be considered the state's elite program, Michigan can't keep losing to the Spartans. Rodriguez needs to win this fall to keep his job, and this is the type of game that can build some much-needed goodwill from the Michigan brass. He doesn't want to be the first coach to drop consecutive home games to Michigan State since Bump Elliott in 1965 and 1967. Michigan's small senior class doesn't want to finish with a losing record against the Spartans.
Bottom line: there's plenty at stake Oct. 9. Regardless of the temperature, things will be hot inside the Big House. This game doesn't need trash talk or billboards, although I wouldn't be opposed to either.
Paging Mike Hart ...
OK, moving on to less depressing topics, like the Big Ten and Super Bowl XLIV.
Once again, the Big Ten has plenty of connections to the game, including 20 former players on the two teams, more than any other conference.
All 11 member schools will be represented by a player and/or coach participating in the game. Michigan has the highest number of former players (four), followed by Ohio State (three) and then six teams -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin -- each with two former players. Penn State and Minnesota will have former coaches on the sideline Sunday.
Both head coaches have Big Ten roots, as the Colts' Jim Caldwell played at Iowa and served as an assistant at Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. The Saints' Sean Payton had a one-year stint as an Illinois assistant in 1996.
Here's the full lineup of Big Ten links to Super Bowl XLIV, courtesy of the league office:
Kelvin Hayden, DB, Illinois
Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa
Bob Sanders*, DB, Iowa
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Marlin Jackson*, DB, Michigan
Ervin Baldwin, DE, Michigan State
John Gill, DL, Northwestern
Anthony Gonzalez*, WR, Ohio State
Curtis Painter, QB, Purdue
Jim Sorgi*, QB, Wisconsin
Jim Caldwell, Head Coach (Played at Iowa from 1973-76; Assistant at Iowa in 1977, Northwestern in 1981 and Penn State from 1986-92)
Larry Coyer, Defensive Coordinator (Assistant at Iowa from 1974-77 and Ohio State from 1991-92)
Gene Huey, Running Backs (Assistant at Ohio State from 1988-91)
Tom Moore, Offensive Coordinator (Played at Iowa from 1957-60; Assistant at Iowa from 1961-62 and Minnesota from 1972-73 and 1975-76)
Ray Rychleski, Special Teams (Assistant at Penn State in 1991)
Bill Teerlinck, Defensive Assistant (Assistant at Indiana from 2003-04)
John Teerlinck, Defensive Line (Assistant at Illinois from 1980-82)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Pierre Thomas, RB, Illinois
Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana
Courtney Roby, WR, Indiana
Adrian Arrington, WR, Michigan
Jonathan Goodwin, C, Michigan
Zach Strief, OT, Northwestern
Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
Will Smith, DE, Ohio State
Drew Brees, QB, Purdue
Jonathan Casillas, LB, Wisconsin
Sean Payton, Head Coach (Assistant at Illinois in 1996)
Greg McMahon, Special Teams (Assistant at Minnesota from 1983-84 and Illinois from 1992-2004)
Bret Ingalls, Running Backs (Assistant at Northwestern from 2006-08)
Aaron Kromer, Offensive Line/Running Game (Assistant at Northwestern from 1999-2000)
Mike Mallory, Assistant Special Teams (Played at Michigan from 1982-85; Assistant at Indiana from 1986-87 and Illinois from 2001-05)
Terry Malone, Tight Ends (Assistant at Michigan from 1997-2005)
We saw outstanding one-year performances from players like Brad Banks (2002), Larry Johnson (2002), James Hardy (2007) and Shonn Greene (2008), and impressive four-year career efforts from Paul Posluszny, James Laurinaitis, Mike Hart, Javon Ringer, Taylor Stubblefield and others.
Believe me, it wasn't easy to get this list down to 10 players, but here goes.
I put more weight on players who had multiple outstanding seasons. Also, players who had most of their production in the 1990s didn't make the cut.
1. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State: The league's lone Heisman Trophy winner tops the list. Smith took home the Heisman, the Walter Camp and the Big Ten MVP awards in 2006. He also led Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl championship following the 2005 season.
2. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan: The 2004 Biletnikoff Award winner earned consensus All-America honors that year, completing a terrific four-year run in Ann Arbor. Edwards still holds the Big Ten record for career touchdown receptions with 39, two more than fellow Wolverine Anthony Carter.
3. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State: Hawk was the face of a ferocious Buckeyes defense during the mid part of the decade. The two-time All-American (unanimous in 2005) won the Rotary Lombardi Award and helped Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl victory.
4. Joe Thomas, T, Wisconsin: The Thomas-Jake Long debate is a good one, but I'm giving the edge to Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner. Thomas anchored several powerful Wisconsin offensive lines, earned consensus All-America honors in 2006 and twice made the All-Big Ten squad.
5. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State: Posluszny is one of only two Big Ten players to win the Bednarik Award two times. He also took home the Butkus Award in 2005 and helped restore Penn State after the program had slipped from 2000-04.
6. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State: Laurinaitis was quite possibly the most decorated Big Ten player of the decade on either side of the ball. He joined select company at Ohio State in earning All-America honors three times (unanimous in 2007). Laurinaitis won the Butkus and Nagurski awards and twice earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
7. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota: Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III shared the rushing load, but Eslinger was the mainstay who created rushing lanes no matter who had the ball. The 2005 Rimington Trophy winner was Minnesota's only three-time All-Big Ten selection this decade.
8. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa: No player meant more to Iowa's renaissance this decade than Sanders, the team's only three-time All-Big Ten selection in the aughts. Nicknamed "The Hitman," Sanders epitomized a program that got the most from its players for the majority of the decade.
9. Mike Hart, RB, Michigan: We witnessed lot of great one-year performances from Big Ten running backs, but Hart was one of the league's few mainstays this decade. Despite being plagued by injuries as a sophomore, Hart finished fourth on the Big Ten's all-time rushing list (5,040 yards) and had 28 career 100-yard rushing games.
10. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana: Randle El brought a new brand of football to the Big Ten and had a record-setting career despite never reaching a bowl game. The dual-threat star won Big Ten MVP honors in 2001 and ranks fourth on the league's career total offense list with 11,364 yards.
Also considered: Michigan T Jake Long, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers, Michigan State RB Javon Ringer, Iowa QB Brad Banks, Iowa T Robert Gallery, Purdue WR Taylor Stubblefield, Ohio State WR Ted Ginn Jr., Michigan DE LaMarr Woodley, Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall, Penn State QB Michael Robinson, Penn State RB Larry Johnson, Purdue WR Dorien Bryant, Purdue WR John Standeford, Ohio State S Mike Doss, Wisconsin DE Erasmus James, Iowa RB Shonn Greene, Northwestern QB Brett Basanez, Illinois LB J Leman, Penn State LB Dan Connor.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
One of the top offseason storylines in the Big Ten pointed to a potential power shift in the Great Lake State.
Had Michigan State replaced its famous rival in Ann Arbor as the state's premier program?
|Rich Rodriguez has the Michigan Wolverines off to a 4-0 start.|
The Spartans, after all, were coming off back-to-back postseason appearances. They had finally found their long-term answer in head coach Mark Dantonio. They had finally beat Michigan, in Ann Arbor no less, after six consecutive losses. They had made a strong move in local recruiting, landing loads of top prospects from Detroit and other fertile areas.
Michigan, meanwhile, looked like a mess. The stench of the worst season in team history lingered around Schembechler Hall. The Wolverines appeared to be starting over at quarterback again. The team endured more transfers and an embarrassing dismissal. Then came the allegations of NCAA rule violations and head coach Rich Rodriguez's legal issues. There was Rodriguez's emotional news conference and questions about locker-room friction.
A month later, you could say order has been restored.
Michigan is 4-0 and back in the Top 25. Michigan State is 1-3, falling short of expectations and driving its fans crazy.
The teams' fortunes have changed heading into Saturday's matchup at Spartan Stadium (Big Ten Network, noon ET).
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
There's enough hero worship in college football these days. Let's talk about the villains.
Which player, coach or opponent haunts your favorite Big Ten team like none other? Some Penn State fans might still have Richard Nixon dartboards in their homes. Jim Tressel has become a modern-day villain for Michigan fans, but who holds the all-time title?
Here are my picks for Big Ten villains, current and all-time. But as always, I want to hear from you as well. Send me your top villains, current and all-time, and I'll have a post Tuesday with the responses.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Current villain: Iowa. Until last year, the Hawkeyes had won five straight against the Illini, and even though Iowa is off the schedule until 2011, Illinois star wideout Arrelious Benn still hates the black and gold.
All-time villain: Missouri. The rivalry might be bigger in hoops, but Missouri accounted for Illinois' only regular-season loss in 1983. Illinois began its 2007 Rose Bowl run with a loss to Mizzou and has dropped 10 of the last 13 meetings.
Current villain: Purdue. The hate for the Boilers always runs deep, and Indiana still seethes from the 62-10 loss at Ross-Ade Stadium that ended the 2008 season and the coaching career of Purdue's Joe Tiller, who went 10-2 against IU.
All-time villain: Basketball. The sport is king in the state and especially in Bloomington, thanks to Bob Knight. Football always will play second fiddle to hoops, which makes things tough to compete in the Big Ten.
Current villain: Bret Bielema. The former Iowa defensive lineman now coaches at rival Wisconsin, despite still having a Hawkeye logo tattooed on his leg. Bielema has won two of his first three games against his alma mater.
All-time villain: Eric Ball. The UCLA freshman rushed for 227 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa in the 1986 Rose Bowl, leading the Bruins to a 45-28 victory and preventing Iowa from a No. 2 finish behind Oklahoma.
Current villain: Jim Tressel. The Vest has dominated Michigan since his arrival as Ohio State coach, going 7-1 and claiming the last five games.
All-time villain: Woody Hayes. The legendary Ohio State coach stoked the rivalry against "That school up North" whenever he could and dominated the series with Michigan in the 1960s, going 7-3.
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Current villain: Mike Hart. Hart no longer plays for Michigan, but his "little brother" reference after the Wolverines' 2007 win at Michigan State still angers Spartans fans, who point to head coach Mark Dantonio's comeback: "Pride comes before the fall."
All-time villain: Ara Parseghian. The Notre Dame coach went for the tie in the 1966 "Game of the Century," and the Fighting Irish finished ahead of Michigan State in the final polls (the schools shared the national title).
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Current villain: The Little Brown Jug. Minnesota should implode this thing after losing 39 of its last 42 games against Michigan.
All-time villain: The Metrodome. A former national powerhouse, Minnesota became largely irrelevant after moving inside the dome in 1982. The Gophers won more than eight games just once in 27 years indoors, endured 15 losing seasons, never beat Michigan at the dome and ended things with a 55-0 loss to archrival Iowa.
Current villain: Ohio State. Northwestern has beaten the Buckeyes just once since 1971 and dropped its last four meetings by a combined score of 205-34. Ouch.
All-time villain: The streak. Northwestern's NCAA-record 34-game losing streak still haunts the program as it strives for national respect.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Current villain: The SEC. Whether it's Urban Meyer, Les Miles or Albert E. Gator, the Buckeyes can't stand anyone or anything associated with the SEC, which handed Ohio State losses in consecutive national title games.
All-time villain: Bo Schembechler. Buckeyes fans have no love lost for Bo, who worked for Hayes at Ohio State and earned his Master's degree in Columbus before coaching archrival Michigan. Schembechler's Wolverines upset Ohio State in 1969, and he held a 5-4-1 edge in the Ten-Year War.
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Current villain: Terrelle Pryor. The nation's No. 1 recruit spurned his home-state school for Ohio State and didn't make many friends in State College by calling it "too country" for him. Penn State won Round 1 against Pryor last year and will face him at least two more times.
All-time villain: Richard Nixon. The president declared Texas the national champion in 1969 before the poll voters had cast their final ballots, depriving an undefeated Penn State team of the crown.
Current villain: The Top 25. Purdue simply can't get over the hump against ranked opponents, failing to beat a Top 25 team since Nov. 8, 2003. Longtime coach Joe Tiller went just 12-38 against ranked teams.
All-time villains: Ted Provost and Jack Tatum. The Ohio State defensive backs starred in a win against No. 1 Purdue in 1968, and the Buckeyes went on to the national title while Purdue didn't make a bowl game with one of its best teams ever.
Current villain: Michigan. Despite Wisconsin's renaissance since 1990, the Badgers have struggled against the Maize and Blue, dropping 31 of their last 36 meetings. Michigan handed Wisconsin its only loss in 2006 and started the Badgers' four-game losing streak last season with an upset in Ann Arbor.
All-time villain: John Coatta and Don Morton. The former Badgers coaches share the tag after combining to go 9-53-1 as Wisconsin became largely irrelevant from 1967, Coatta's first year, until program savior Barry Alvarez took over.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam RittenbergYou'll have to excuse Rich Rodriguez for not being full of good cheer around Christmas this year.
Rodriguez isn't used to spending the holidays like most Americans, hanging out at home. From 2002-2006, he devoted those days to preparing West Virginia for various bowl appearances. Last December, he was slightly preoccupied, as you might have heard.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|It's been a tough first season at Michigan for head coach Rich Rodriguez.|
But Rodriguez doesn't have a bowl game in his future this year, and for the first time since 1974, neither does Michigan.
"It's not going to be any fun, but we'll have a little bit of time over Christmas," Rodriguez said. "I've talked to the wife, like, 'What are we gonna do? We've got three or four days here. I don't want to sit around because I'll be mad watching everybody else play in a bowl game.' I've got to figure out something."
Rodriguez's Christmas confinement will end a tumultuous year for the Michigan coach.
There was the controversy and sour sentiment following his departure from West Virginia, and the cautious curiosity about his arrival at Michigan. There was the lawsuit and the settlement. There was spring ball, Justin Boren and questions about the program's values. There was installing a proven offensive system with mostly unproven players.
And then there was the season. Despite major personnel losses and a surplus of inexperienced players thrust into major roles, the transition proved to be tougher than many could have ever imagined. Michigan started 2-7, ensuring the program's first losing season since 1967, before rebounding with a nice road win last Saturday at Minnesota.
Rodriguez's team mounted the greatest comeback in Michigan Stadium history against Wisconsin and also became the first Michigan squad to fall to a MAC school (Toledo). The offense ranks 104th nationally in yards and 86th in scoring, but it has shown flashes.
Trying times, for sure, but there are reasons for hope.
Rodriguez spent some time Monday afternoon discussing the season, his own performance and the work that lies ahead.
Are you at the point where you can go back and evaluate yourself, what worked, what didn't work, or is it something you do at the end of the season?
RR: I do it all the time anyway. The last 27 years of coaching, not just the 16 years as a head coach, every year I'm always constantly doing that. Obviously, having a tough year, it makes it even more of a sense of urgency to do that. So not only evaluating everything that we're doing individually as coaches, but also everything in the program. Some of the progress we're making Sunday through Friday isn't showing up on Saturday. It did a little bit last Saturday. So some of the progress is already in place, but more of it is going to take a little more time. We know the major things we've got to do to make this program a top 10, 15, 20 program, but it's just now implementing it and getting it in place.
When you evaluate, do you look back at the summer and see things you missed or didn't emphasize enough?
RR: I usually do that right after camp, evaluate how camp was, and then after the first game, how that first game week went. And the system and putting the program in place, it's not like it's the first time. Even this season, having gone through something similar seven or eight years ago at West Virginia, I was able to draw on some things from that. Some of the problems didn't happen overnight, won't be solved overnight. But some of the issues are similar to things I've dealt with before, and it's just a matter of getting it in place and hopefully having a little bit better success on game days. As a coach, you always have to reevaluate yourself every week, every month and certainly every year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Michigan State can fulfill two objectives on the field Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.
The first is painfully obvious: beat Michigan.
After six straight losses, people are starting to wonder whether it can be done.
Second-year Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has taken a proactive approach to the rivalry, acknowledging its significance and embracing the emotion that goes into the game every year. It was OK to discuss this game in August. It was OK to use words like "embarrassed," the sentiment Spartans senior running back Javon Ringer will feel if he can't beat Michigan once in his college career.
"If we don't beat them in four years, that is an embarrassment," Spartans junior linebacker Adam Decker said. "It's a strong word. When you say something like that, it comes with pressure. But in a game like this, there's going to be pressure. There's going to be a lot of eyes on you."
Michigan State's second objective might be even more important. Last Saturday's 42-7 home loss to Ohio State resembled similar October clunkers of the past.
Big-game flops have previously triggered downward spirals for the Spartans , and it's critical for this team and this coach to show that this time will be different. The Michigan game provides the perfect platform to do so.
"People are going to be quick to point out that we've stumbled late in the season the last couple years," Decker said. "They're going to say that same-old-Spartans mantra. They have no reason not to say that until we give them a reason to prove them wrong.
"With the Michigan game being a week after a tough defeat, it's a great opportunity to silence all those critics."
Michigan has its own critics, most of whom have targeted first-year coach Rich Rodriguez. The 2-5 Wolverines are on the brink of their first nonwinning season since 1984, not to mention two losses away from their first losing season since 1967.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Michigan safety Stevie Brown tries to block negativity from his life whenever he can. The problem is he also owns a TV.
|Leon Halip/Getty Images|
|Stevie Brown and Michigan still remember last year's season-opening loss to Appalachian State.|
When Brown flips through the channels, he's often comes across those unsightly images, the ones showing the little team with the funny name stunning the big team with the famous name. There might as well be a station called WLAS -- Wolverines lose to Appalachian State.
"It was hard to get over because every week, we saw the clips being played," Brown said. "It's still being played right now. So it's always something that stays in the back of your mind."
Does Brown relive Michigan's 34-32 loss, considered by many to be the biggest upset in college football history?
"Nah, I change the channel right then and there," he said.
Brown might want to unplug his set this week. The Wolverines enter a new era with head coach Rich Rodriguez and dramatically different schemes and personnel, but the Appalachian State loss will undoubtedly be rehashed as another season dawns Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Rodriguez and most of his assistants weren't in Ann Arbor for Michigan's historic setback last fall, and though they focused on installing new systems with mostly unproven players this summer, there have been some not-so subtle hints about the game. Brown remembers a particular conversation he had with one of Michigan's graduate assistants.
"The one thing the GA told me was, he didn't believe it and the coaching staff didn't believe it, but when they came in, they heard that No. 3 would just have mental mistakes and blow coverages every now and then," Brown said. "I didn't ask where it came from, they didn't tell me where it came from."
It doesn't take much detective work to find the likely source. Brown started the Appalachian State game, got burned on a 68-yard touchdown and several other plays, and began the second half on the bench.
Don't expect a re-run Saturday against Utah.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
If you haven't caught on already, we're giving you heaping helpings of hate today. There's already some debate as to the Big Ten's most hated team. Is it Ohio State hands down, or do Michigan and Penn State enter the discussion? You can weigh in.
Let's take a look at the league's top 5 rivalries:
1. Michigan vs. Ohio State -- Nothing else comes close. From the Snow Bowl to the Ten-Year War to John Cooper's struggles to Lloyd Carr's struggles, this rivalry has had it all. The 2006 meeting that paired the nation's top two teams was arguably the most anticipated regular-season contest ever, certainly in the last decade. Most Ohio State fans think Michigan fans are arrogant; most Michigan fans think Ohio State fans are classless. It makes for one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.
2. Michigan-Michigan State -- Both teams have other rivals (Ohio State and Notre Dame, respectively), but the intra-state matchup has become increasingly more intense. Though Michigan has won six straight in the series, six of the last nine meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer. Last year's game further fueled the rivalry, as Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as Michigan's "little brother," prompting an angry response from Spartans coach Mark Dantonio.
3. Wisconsin-Iowa -- One of the league's most competitive rivalries has some bitterness as well, especially after Bret Bielema, a former Iowa player with a Hawkeye tattoo on his ankle, became Wisconsin's coach. The Badgers hold a 41-40-2 edge in the series, which is strikingly close despite Iowa's string of 18 straight games without a loss between 1977-96.
4. Illinois-Ohio State -- Buckeye dominance has marked most of the series, but the bitterness is building. Illinois nearly stunned Ohio State two years ago and then completed the upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes last year in Columbus. If the Illini continue to recruit like a powerhouse, they'll continue to fuel this rivalry.
5. Minnesota vs. Wisconsin -- It might not reek of bitterness, but in terms of longevity, this game stands alone. The Golden Gophers and Badgers have played since 1890, making it the most played rivalry in Division I-A. The teams originally played for a slab of bacon and now try to claim Paul Bunyan's Axe. Hailing from bordering states, the two programs are always competing for talent, giving the game some added spice.