Michigan enters as huge favorites vs. MSU, but must stay focused

None of the current Wolverines know this feeling.

Michigan will enter Spartan Stadium today as a massive favorite, well over three touchdowns, one of the largest spreads in the modern era of the rivalry.

The spreads the past three years were far smaller, with MSU favored by five in 2013 and 17 in 2014, and U-M favored by seven last year.

The perfect storm of U-M’s 7-0 season combined with Michigan State’s sudden implosion has created this bizarre environment for today’s matchup.

In a game fueled by emotion, the Wolverines have to find a way to summon that passion, despite victory being considered a fait accompli.

As it’s new to all of them, they can lean on a few of their ancestors for advice.

“Honestly, the pressure was on the coaches, we ran the plays that they called,” said former U-M tailback Butch Woolfolk, who ran the ball in three MSU games, including a favorable spread of 161/2 in 1980 and 181/2 in 1981. “It was really up on the coaches. (The media) make it seem like the pressure’s on us, but it’s really on them to call the right plays.

“When you have a high-powered offense like we had, you have to plan and scheme accordingly and find the weaknesses in the defense and expose them.”

In the history of the series, few have done that so well. In 1980 under coach Bo Schembechler, Woolfolk rushed 29 times for 140 yards, which paired well with Stanley Edwards’ 93 yards in a 27-23 win. In 1981, Woolfolk had one of the great rushing games in U-M history, with 39 carries for 253 yards in Michigan’s 38-20 rout.

The large point spread never sapped the Wolverines’ motivation.

“The game with Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame back then were all special games, I don’t care what their record was,” Woolfolk said. “There’s bragging rights, a lot of the kids went to the same high schools together there in Detroit and Michigan. ... We had a lot of focus and bragging rights, and it didn’t matter if they were 0-6 and we were 6-0. We still tried to crush them every chance we get.”

Former U-M center Steve Everitt’s team had its guard up as much as anyone.

He watched from the sideline when the No. 1 Wolverines were upset, 28-27, in the 1990 game when Desmond Howard was tripped in the end zone. He got more involved the next two years when the Wolverines were 261/2- and 28-point favorites under coach Gary Moeller. Though U-M didn’t cover either number, Michigan controlled both games, winning by 17 and 25 points.

Overconfidence was not a concern.

“I was 17, 18 years old, I didn’t think that way back then,” Everitt said last week. “The spread didn’t come into play. Those were our red-letter games. You knew whoever was the underdog was going to play above expectations, you didn’t have to get fired up for those games.

“I’d want to go out there and put 70 points on them regardless.”

A decade later, the Wolverines were still rolling, this time under coach Lloyd Carr.

In 2000, after a 1999 comeback fell short, they were 161/2-point favorites and won, 14-0.

In 2002, the vengeful Wolverines wanted payback for the 2001 “Spartan Bob” clockgate loss and buried MSU, 49-3.

“I don’t think there’s a difficulty getting focused for Michigan State,” said former U-M tight end Bennie Joppru, who caught a pass in the 2001 game and had five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in the 2002 game when he was a captain. “If you lose to them, you’re going to hear from it the entire next year. If they beat you, that makes their season. …

“They would love to ruin your season. So when we were champs and would really put a beat on Michigan State, we would prepare for that. It’s not another game, we may even prepare even harder. You want to kick them when they’re down.”

The Michigan players aren’t likely to be overconfident. Not that it may matter.

“Our defense really doesn’t have any weaknesses, we don’t,” Woolfolk said after attending last weekend’s win over Illinois in Ann Arbor. “So, I don’t know how Michigan State is go to plan against us. With the fact that our passing game is kicking into gear and we have that running back by committee, I think it’s up to the coaches to call the right plays to keep us in the right spots.

“Because we are a very strong team this year, just like back when I played.”

Contact Mark Snyder: msnyder@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark__snyder. Download our Wolverines Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!

 


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