When hated rivals Michigan and Michigan State get together for their annual slugfest at noon Saturday in East Lansing, all bets will be off.
“It’s a dogfight,” said former Michigan standout Mario Ojemudia, a Farmington Hills native. “You know the guy across from you. You probably went to high school with the guy across from you. There’s a mutual respect between both teams, except when you put the pads on.”
Ojemudia, who spoke at Wednesday’s ninth annual Big Game Tablegate media luncheon at the Skyline Club in Southfield, never will forget last year’s finish between the Wolverines and Spartans.
Forced to watch the game on television after suffering an Achilles injury two weeks earlier, the senior linebacker was in disbelief after Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson took a Wolverines’ botched punt 38 yards for a touchdown in the closing seconds, lifting the Spartans to an improbable 27-23 victory at the Big House.
“I was sitting at home, foot on the table, thought the game was over,” Ojemudia said. “Michigan State had something up their sleeve and came out with the win. You know their identity; they play until the last zero is on the clock. There’s a lot of crazy things in college football, so hopefully it doesn’t happen this year.”
Watts-Jackson gave Spartan fans a lifelong memory and helped Michigan State win its seventh game over Michigan in the past eight years.
“We’ve all seen Hail Marys and last-second plays,” said Will Tieman of the Spartan Sports Network, “but there are only two or three finishes in the entire history of college football like that one.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines will get their shot at redemption this weekend. Second-ranked Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) enters as a heavy favorite against the struggling Spartans (2-5, 0-4), losers of five straight.
“I can’t assure a victory, but I have the utmost confidence in Michigan,” Ojemudia said. “I’m always confident, but the records get thrown out. Each team comes out like they never have before.”
Tieman refused to concede anything.
“State can win, but I’m a realist, too, and I respect what Michigan is doing,” he said. “Is there a shot in this game? Absolutely. Did anybody think Penn State was going to beat Ohio State (last week)? Of course not, but that’s why you play.”
Former Michigan State tight end Charlie Gantt, who also spoke at Wednesday’s event hosted by the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, also holds out hope for his beloved Spartans.
“You never know. Rivalry games are weird,” he said. “The adrenaline will be pumping, and the crowd will get the players into it. That’s when players, especially leaders, come through.”
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)