All week, there has been a unique aura around Schembechler Hall. Last week, there also was a buzz in the air — it was the start of the proclaimed ‘gauntlet’ and College Gameday was coming to town for a night game with a highly ranked opponent.
But this is different. This is State.
“This is a big deal for me personally and for our team,” sophomore linebacker Josh Ross said. “We have so much history going against this team.”
The transformation was apparent Monday when Jim Harbaugh’s clichés and refusals to answer questions were a caricature of his already-caricaturized self. And it was apparent when a half dozen local news agencies swarmed every available player.
At its core, the reason State is different than any other dangerous Big Ten opponent is personal connections. For players and fans alike, rivalry lines intersect friends, family, and coworkers.
Nobody on the Michigan side exemplifies that better than sophomore cornerback Ambry Thomas. As a highly-touted four-star recruit out of Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School, he was heavily recruited by Michigan State before committing to the Wolverines late.
“It was kinda tough (at first), knowing all my buddies went there and at the time, I only knew (cornerback) Lavert (Hill) here,” Thomas said. “But I think — I know I made the best choice for me.”
It’s been a bitter rivalry for most on the Michigan side in recent years.
Of course, the Wolverines’ seniors who have been here throughout Harbaugh’s tenure suffered through the ‘punt game’ but even Thomas — who is two years removed from that — has only ever experienced a painful, upset loss at home to the Spartans.
And while his out-of-state teammates might be able to forget that game in favor of Michigan’s current six-game win streak, Thomas doesn’t have that luxury.
“Every time I go to Detroit, every time,” Thomas said when asked how often he hears about the game. “So, often.”
Despite the crushing ending, he enjoyed the experience and the intensity that comes with a game of its importance against so many people he knew.
“I hope we get a lot of that this week,” Thomas said, referring to the intensity.
Then, he paused, before adding the clause that really matters.
“And I just hope we come out on top.”
All the talk about the rivalry and what it means is nice. But the reason Harbaugh has refused to say anything of consequence and that dozens of reporters who never come to availabilities have swarmed them this week is because Michigan needs to win.
It needs to win to continue its momentum and it needs to win to keep it playoff hopes alive. But it also needs to win because it needs to reverse a year’s worth of bragging rights going the wrong direction.
“I’m feeling like the hate is more, I just wanna get after it,” Thomas said. “We got disrespected last year.
“… I don’t really think about that school (anymore). I just think about beating them.”
Come Saturday, beating them will be all that matters — beyond standings and rankings, into the homes of players and fans on both sides.