Pressure is all on Michigan, Rodriguez

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In 2007, then-Michigan running back Mike Hart mocked Michigan State as “little brother.” While the Spartans, led by coach Mark Dantonio, voiced their displeasure at Hart’s crack, what it lacked in magnanimity it made up for in historical fact.

At the time the Wolverines had won six consecutives games in the series, 10 of the previous 12 and 31 of 38 dating back to 1970.

The Spartans were the “little brother.”

And now they aren’t.

You weren’t getting any condescending trash talk here on Monday as Michigan prepared to play host to the Spartans on Saturday. Part of it comes from the rise of State, winners of both games against Michigan since Hart’s comment and sitting at 5-0 and No. 16 nationally this year.

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez can't get comfortable despite a 5-0 start.
(Don McPeak/US Presswire)

Part of it comes from the depths of the Wolverines’ fall during that stretch, eight wins over the disastrous 2008-09 seasons.

And part of it comes from the fact that even at 5-0 and ranked 17th in the country (one behind MSU), the rebuilding of Michigan remains a precarious work in progress. Where State may have once been a “rivalry game” to pay lip service to, now it may determine which way the season, and coach Rich Rodriguez’s entire tenure, turns.

“Trust me, we talk about [the game] quite a bit and not just because they won the last two years,” Rodriguez said. “It’s no less important to us as it is to them.”

This year, it is actually even more important to Michigan than Michigan State.

The season-ending game with Ohio State is always the biggest rivalry game on the Wolverines’ schedule. Yet this year that contest comes with various caveats. The Buckeyes are a powerhouse, ranked second nationally and will be playing at home.

Few Michigan fans expect a victory. While continuing the struggles against Ohio State isn’t particularly enjoyable, expectations for Columbus are tempered by reason.

A third consecutive loss to Michigan State – which hasn’t occurred since Bo Schembechler arrived – is another thing.

It’s the lingering, deep-seated “little brother” mentality and the belief (hope) among the Michigan faithful that order should (can) be restored in a single Saturday.

Rodriguez entered the season on all the various “coaching hot seat” lists, which is what happens when you take over the winningest program in college football and put together two losing seasons while getting hit with NCAA infractions. His 5-0 start has calmed the talk, but since the best win is over Notre Dame, the defense is ranked 102nd in the country (120th in pass defense) and the entire program seems to hang on Denard Robinson (not a bad guy for the job, of course), it’s not like he’s about to ink a new contract extension.

Beat MSU, however, and the Wolverines are 6-0 and bowl eligible, which, in a sign of the times here, is actually something they’d celebrate. The Michigan schedule still includes six games but three of them (at Penn State, Illinois and at Purdue) are reasonable victories. Then there are home games with Iowa and Wisconsin before that finale in Columbus.

Suddenly 9-3 – or (gasp) even better – is a real possibility. That means a decent-sounding bowl and enough team success to get Shoelace Robinson the Heisman Trophy. Do that and Rich Rod is back next season and the program is pumping along.

Lose to Michigan State and while the season certainly isn’t lost, it isn’t sitting quite as pretty. And that’s before Rodriguez has to listen to outraged alums who are tired of the “pride-comes-before-the-fall” heckling from the State fan down the block.

In East Lansing they count the days since Hart’s quote (1,067 as of Monday) because it also represents the last time Michigan defeated Michigan State in either football or men’s basketball. No one in Maize and Blue wants another 365 tacked onto that.

“We know what’s at stake,” receiver Roy Roundtree said. “What they’ve been doing to us the past two years has not been fun for us.”

So Rodriguez needs this one, big time. This is his third season, but he talks about it being his second in “recruiting” – i.e., having his kind of guys, such as Shoelace and his fellow sophomores. Michigan is getting better. So too is State, though. While Rodriguez dismissed the importance of a single game in recruiting, the fact remains that Dantonio has made tremendous inroads on in-state talent, particularly in the city of Detroit, a longtime Wolverine stronghold.

Win or lose on Saturday, Michigan State isn’t going away. That’s the reality Michigan has to deal with, albeit one that’s more palpable after a victory.

Rodriguez was relaxed on Monday. He respects the fans’ interest in certain games but he takes them all seriously. “I don’t count the days and count the hours,” he said. Besides, he’s got Shoelace, the one-man offensive machine whom no one has been able to contain. Up this week, Spartan man-eating linebacker Greg Jones. Good luck.

Michigan’s season seems promising unless Robinson gets injured – he got banged up again Saturday before pulling off another late game-winning drive at Indiana. Monday, Robinson said he’s healthy. He’s been getting treatment, lifting weights to aid durability and listening to lectures from coaches, teammates, sociology professors, janitors, bus drivers and random kids on campus that he ought to run out of bounds more often and avoid taking so many hits.

“It’s all right,” Robinson said. “I love people.”

He also remembers it wasn’t so lovable around Ann Arbor last year after a loss to the Spartans. Losing to little brother is never fun. Realizing they’ve grown into something that is no longer so little is even worse. Fortunes change. Futures swing. Saturday, they play – one fan base still desperate for a sign that the good old days can return.

“I know it’s going to be very intense,” Rodriguez said.

So will the postgame reaction – win or lose.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 4, 2010