Saturdays with Izzo: Michigan St.-Michigan Rivalry

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By Jeff Ghiringhelli and Paul M. Banks

Welcome to a new quasi-weekly feature where we discuss some of the biggest topics in the Michigan State Spartan world, including the insight and observations of legendary MSU coach Tom Izzo. In our first installment, we discuss the rivalry with Michigan.

Michigan State vs. Michigan: Changing of the Guard?

“At least we have basketball.” That was a common phrase uttered by Michigan State Spartans fans after a loss on the gridiron to their bitter rivals, the Michigan Wolverines. There was always a feeling of consolation achieved by watching MSU dominate Michigan on the basketball court each season.

In the past couple of years, however, Spartans fans have been getting the best of both worlds. For the first time since the Lyndon Johnson presidency in the 1960s, Michigan State football has beaten Michigan in consecutive seasons.

In 2008, Michigan State went into Ann Arbor to face a Wolverines team in the midst of its worst season ever. If there was ever a time for the Spartans to get their first win in the Big House since 1990, this was it. As it happened, MSU won the game, 35-21, and possibly tilted the landscape of football in the state toward them.

This past season, MSU pulled off a 26-20 win in overtime at Spartan Stadium. The team nearly blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter but was able to battle back and get the victory. The game represented how things have been going for Wolverines football since the arrival of head coach Rich Rodriguez: close, but no cigar.

It is becoming clear that the style of football brought to Ann Arbor by Rodriguez does not work in the Big Ten. He is a disciple of the spread offense and has a hard time passing on quick, athletic recruits that fit his system.

Michigan is 8-16 in two seasons under Rodriguez, and, more importantly, sports a 3-13 record in the Big Ten. The Wolverines also snapped a 33-year bowl game streak and a 40-year winning record streak.

At West Virginia, Rodriguez went 3-8 in his first season then turned it around to go 9-4 in his second. There was no such luck at Michigan last year, and fans are losing patience. Michigan State has significantly closed the football gap since the arrival of head coach Mark Dantonio. He has brought in some excellent recruiting classes, and, perhaps most importantly, seems to have gained control over recruiting in Michigan. Nine of the 20—or 45 percent—of this year’s incoming class hail from Michigan, and all nine are rated three stars or higher by scout.com.

The Sports Bank spoke with a man very familiar with the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry, MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, and the rivalry was one of the many topics that came up. “There’s no reason Michigan State can’t have great football and great basketball. There’s no reason the state of Michigan can’t have two teams to the point that someday it becomes like North Carolina. There are not a lot of places where your rival is 60 miles away: Duke-Carolina, UCLA-USC, Indiana-Purdue. Florida-Florida St, Oklahoma-Oklahoma St. We can name ten or twelve, but we can’t name a hundred,” Izzo stated.

Of course, Izzo’s Spartans continue dominating the Wolverines on the hardwood. With State’s narrow victory in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night, they have now won 17 out of 20 against the Wolverines. Even with Michigan’s recent improvements under head coach John Beilein, they cannot figure out how to beat MSU.

“I think John has done a hell of a job and they’re getting that program to where it belongs…I’ll be honest with you, I saw it when Tommy Amaker was there. I thought he was unlucky. Tommy was dealt a tough deck of cards, with call it what you want, call it a scandal, call it a problem, when you come in under those circumstances, it’s tough, and I thought he made some strides. The year they won the NIT I think it was his last year, second to last year, he brought in some great recruits, so I saw it emerging the last four or five years, they won 20 some games a couple times when he was there and I think John has elevated it one more level,” Izzo explained.

Don’t be fooled by the gaudy 17-3 record, though; every time the teams meet, there is an added intensity in the air. This was evidenced by the rare show of emotion by Kalin Lucas after hitting the game-winner on Tuesday and the sheer disappointment on the faces of the Wolverines players, coaches, and fans.

“The Fab 5 era wasn’t great for us, there hasn’t been many times when we’ve both been good together, which is where it is now, and that creates a whole new dynamic. And that’s a good one, for the state of Michigan and for the Big Ten. You’re rivals, it should be competitive,” Izzo said.

Has there been a changing of the guard between Michigan State and Michigan? It may be too early to say anything for sure, but Spartans fans are definitely saying “at least we have basketball” a little less often these days.

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  1. paulmbanks says

    H to the Izzo was very diplomatic in the way he described Michigan’s program…but seriously the gap is wider than he says there, and probably wider than most people think. I have a feeling they’re going to destroy them at Breslin this year

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