By Ashley Dunkak
The first time the question comes across, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke wants it repeated. Essentially, the query is how Hoke responds to the fact that Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio makes no secret that he does not like Michigan.
“We don’t necessarily like them either,” Hoke said with a bit of a chuckle. “This isn’t an admiration society. It’s a great rivalry. You’ve got two teams that, I don’t know, 45 miles apart. It might be not enough. That’s what it is.”
Just about an hour drive apart, Michigan and Michigan State meet Saturday in East Lansing for a game that could decide which goes to the Big Ten championship game, likely to face the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes. With an overall record of 7-1, the Spartans sit atop the Legends division with a 4-0 league record. Michigan is 6-1 with a 2-1 mark in Big Ten play.
Sure, the game is big because it is a rivalry game, but it also has significant postseason implications, and Hoke expects the atmosphere in the coming days and particularly on Saturday to reflect the game’s importance.
“It’s always an exciting week, believe me, on both campuses, both schools, both programs, the opportunity to play in a rivalry game that has a lot at stake, obviously, with us both being in the same division,” Hoke said. “Their defense is as good as any. That’s going to be a big challenge for us. Playing up in East Lansing is always a little bit of a challenge. I think any time you play away from home that just is part of it with making sure as a team that our focus, our discipline, and all those things have to be spot-on for us to go out there and compete at our highest level. That’s what we need to do.”
“The passion for this football game by Spartans and Wolverines is something that as a coach or a competitor, you understand that, and you look forward to it,” Hoke added. “The other part of it, piece of the puzzle, is that it is an important football game when you look at where we want to be and where they want to be at the end of November.”
With a defense that ranks among the nation’s best, Michigan State is known for its punishingly physical style of play. Michigan has to match that intensity and toughness, and it could be difficult.
“We’ve been inconsistent in that department,” Hoke said. “”There’s some new guys, a couple true freshmen, that haven’t played in this magnitude of a game … From that standpoint, yeah, there are some guys who don’t know it yet. I think they’re learning. I think they’ve learned in the last couple practices.”
“How we handle their defense, their front, their front seven, how we get off bump coverage and those things, as tight as they play, those are all things we’re going to learn,” Hoke added. “I’d like to know a little bit more before, but that’s not going to be the case.”
The defense of Michigan State is incredible, but early in the year the offense limited the team dramatically. Hoke said the Spartans’ offense looks much improved since the beginning of the season, with the run game helping open up the play action and the situation at quarterback finally settled with Connor Cook as the undisputed starter.
For both Michigan State and Michigan, establishing the run will be key, Hoke said. He also identified special teams, particularly punting and coverage, as areas the Wolverines need to shore up. Giving up big plays is another area of concern. How Michigan fares against its in-state rival could answer many questions about the mettle of the Wolverines, who have recently been referred to often as an exceedingly mediocre one-loss team, and reveal their identity as a team.
“It gives you a little bit of an idea,” Hoke said. “Will we know it for sure? I’m not sure. There’s no doubt that I think every part of this game, from the offense and defense, every fabric, whatever it is, you’re going to find something out about your team.”