"At least we have basketball." That was a common phrase uttered by Michigan State Spartans fans after a loss on the gridiron to their bitter rivals, the Michigan Wolverines. There was always a feeling of consolation achieved by watching MSU dominate Michigan on the basketball court each season.
In the past couple of years, however, Spartans fans have been getting the best of both worlds. For the first time since the Lyndon Johnson presidency in the 1960s, Michigan State football has beaten Michigan in consecutive seasons.
In 2008, Michigan State went into Ann Arbor to face a Wolverines team in the midst of its worst season ever. If there was ever a time for the Spartans to get their first win in the Big House since 1990, this was it. As it happened, MSU won the game, 35-21, and possibly tilted the landscape of football in the state toward them.
This past season, MSU pulled off a 26-20 win in overtime at Spartan Stadium. The team nearly blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter but was able to battle back and get the victory. The game represented how things have been going for Wolverines football since the arrival of head coach Rich Rodriguez: close, but no cigar.
It is becoming clear that the style of football brought to Ann Arbor by Rodriguez does not work in the Big Ten. He is a disciple of the spread offense and has a hard time passing on quick, athletic recruits that fit his system.
Michigan is 8-16 in two seasons under Rodriguez, and, more importantly, sports a 3-13 record in the Big Ten. The Wolverines also snapped a 33-year bowl game streak and a 40-year winning record streak.
At West Virginia, Rodriguez went 3-8 in his first season then turned it around to go 9-4 in his second season. There was no such luck at Michigan last year, and fans are losing patience.
Michigan State has significantly closed the football gap since the arrival of head coach Mark Dantonio. He has brought in some excellent recruiting classes, and, perhaps most importantly, seems to have gained control over recruiting in Michigan. Nine of the 20—or 45 percent—of this year's incoming class hail from Michigan, and all nine are rated three stars or higher by scout.com.
Of course, Spartan dominance on the court continues as well. With the Spartans' narrow victory in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night, they have now won 17 out of 20 against the Wolverines. Even with Michigan's recent improvements under head coach John Beilein, they cannot figure out how to beat MSU.
Don't be fooled by the gaudy record, though; every time the teams meet, there is an added intensity in the air. This was evidenced by the rare show of emotion by Kalin Lucas after hitting the game-winner on Tuesday and the sheer disappointment on the faces of the Wolverines players, coaches, and fans.
Has there been a changing of the guard between Michigan State and Michigan? It may be too early to say anything for sure, but Spartans fans are definitely saying “at least we have basketball” a little less often these days.