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MSU-Michigan rivalry heats up

Michigan and Michigan State don't need any extra spice. Even when their game
is just another game, they still get pretty intense.

The Spartans, who are generally overshadowed by the Wolverines, tend to
resent their little-brother status. And the Wolverines, despite a schedule filled
with juicy rivalries, can always muster an interest in tormenting the crew from
East Lansing because, well, they know what happens when they don't.

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    This year, though, there's a whole seasoning rack of issues giving this
    game a chance to be a classic chapter in a classic rivalry.

    Start with the Big Ten race. No. 10 Michigan State (4-0) is
    the last unbeaten team in Big Ten play, while 12th-ranked Michigan (4-1), like
    the Spartans, can lock up the Big Ten championship if it wins its
    remaining games.

    Then there's the recent history.

    The Spartans' humiliating 49-3 loss in Ann Arbor last year was the last straw
    for coach Bobby Williams, who was fired before a tail-spinning Michigan State
    played another game. Asked after that game if he had lost control of his
    team, Williams said, "I don't know," prompting athletic director Ron Mason to
    begin his search for someone who would know.

    Meanwhile, Michigan is still outraged by its 26-24 loss two years ago. In
    that controversial game, the Wolverines thought time had run out before the play in
    which Jeff Smoker found T.J. Duckett for the winning touchdown pass. As far
    as Michigan is concerned, the timekeeper was guilty of illegal use of the hands.

    "We won last year," Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "But
    we're thinking about what happened two years ago. That's all that's on our
    minds."

    What's embedded in the Spartans is the anguished memory of last year's rout.

    "You don't want to feel that again," junior defensive tackle Matthias
    Askew. "Revenge is a good thing. That's all I can say. I'm trying to stay humble
    right now -- but revenge."

    Junior linebacker Ronald Stanley also is hungry for retribution.

    "That was a sick feeling," he said, "something a football player never
    wants to go through. We're ready to redeem ourselves. We're ready to get after it
    and make things right."

    From a personnel standpoint, the pregame focus will be on the quarterbacks.
    Michigan's John Navarre, who's silencing his legion of critics, and Spartans QB
    Jeff Smoker, who's back from a substance-abuse problem that left his career in
    doubt last fall, are the cream of the Big Ten. If there's a better candidate
    for league MVP honors, he'll have to prove it.

    But the game will be decided by the lower-profile defensive units that will
    try to put a lid on the Big Ten's best two quarterbacks.

    John L. Smith, the new Michigan State coach, is best known for his wide-open
    offense. The Spartans wouldn't be where they are, though, if they weren't also
    playing buttoned-down defense. They are allowing 18.8 points a game, and
    their run defense is allowing just 86.9 yards a game, 14th in the nation.

    No group on the field at Spartan Stadium on Saturday will have more to prove
    than the Michigan defense, which has reasserted itself after some shaky early
    performances.

    Since Michigan fell behind 28-7 at Minnesota, the defense has dug in,
    allowing the Wolverines to outscore the Gophers, Illinois and Purdue 118-24.

    Michigan safety Ernest Shazor, who had two of Michigan's seven sacks against
    Purdue, said the revived Michigan defense has sent a message, particularly
    with its throttling of a solid Purdue offense in a surprisingly easy 31-3 victory
    over the Boilermakers.

    "We showed that we are not going anywhere," Shazor said. "We're still
    here, and we're still in the running, and we are going to come out on top."

    Ah, just the kind of thing a classic rivalry always needs -- a little bulletin board material to add a little more spice.

    Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.