Michigan Hate Week has arrived for Michigan State fans everywhere, as the Spartans prepare for their upcoming annual clash with the rival Michigan Wolverines for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. In the team’s weekly press conference on Monday, head coach Mel Tucker wasted no time outlining the importance of this game to the team and the program as a whole.
“It’s a big game for our players, for our university, for our fans, our alumni, all of our former Spartan Dawgs,” Tucker said. “We understand this is not just another game.”
The matchup will see both teams come into the game with a perfect 7-0 record and a top-10 ranking, making it one of the biggest games in recent memory for either team, rivalry aside. When asked about Michigan remaining unbeaten following a victory over Northwestern, Tucker made it clear his focus is on the game itself, not the records.
“Obviously I watched the (Northwestern versus Michigan) game…in a game like this (weekend’s), records don’t matter and that’s not something that’s within our control,” Tucker said. “The records are the records, it’s all about the preparation at this point.”
Blocking out the noise has been a major focusing point for Coach Tucker and the Spartans this season as their surprising undefeated record has generated much talk in the media. With the big-time rivalry matchup looming, that noise has never been louder, but redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward said while the players see and hear everything, the team is remaining focused on what it need to do.
“Obviously we love the hype, we see it all over social media,” Heyward said. “We listen to what the coaches say and what our peers and the other support people have to say, (but) we don’t really care about what’s going on outside the building…we’re 7-0, but we got to go 1-0 this week.”
Aside from the upcoming rivalry game, there has been much talk surrounding Michigan State football concerning rumors of Coach Tucker being a prime candidate for the soon-to-be available head coaching position at LSU. When asked about these rumors, Tucker emphasized where his focus is at this time.
“My focus is on the upcoming game versus the school down the road (Michigan),” Tucker said. “That’s where my concentration, all my focus is.”
Senior safety Xavier Henderson was also asked about the rumors, and he said Tucker has not addressed the team concerning the rumors and that nobody in the locker room is thinking about that at this time.
The Spartans head into the matchup with Michigan coming off a bye week, giving the team an opportunity to rest up and work out any problems before the rivalry game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said the bye week gave the team a chance to rest both physically and mentally, as well as reflect on the season thus far.
“Bye weeks are always nice to get guys’ bodies back…it’s a good little rest mentally as well,” Thorne said. “You’re able to kind of take a step back, you’re able to look at a couple other things and kind of look at the season so far.”
Heyward echoed Thorne’s sentiments, adding that having the bye week in the middle of the season gives the team a chance to add depth at certain positions.
“It’s obviously good to have the bye week in the middle of the season,” Heyward said. “Get those younger guys some more reps, take a load off the older guys and the guys playing a lot. Obviously, the more guys that can go out there and produce, the better the team will ultimately be.”
When asked about Michigan senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, Heyward compared him to a former Spartan defensive talent, adding that the Spartans will have to keep an eye on him on the field.
“I think he does a really good job of using his hands, he has a motor like Kenny Willekes,” Heyward said. “He’s a player you just have to be alert for.”
Other questions were asked about the talent of the Wolverine defense, and redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed discussed the improvements the Wolverines have made since they last met the Spartans on the field.
“They got ball players all over the place, a very good front four, they got playmakers on the back end,” Reed said. “We just got to prepare for that stuff during the week and we’ll see what happens in the game.”
The rivalry game always means more than the other games on the schedule, even when it isn’t between two of the top-10 teams in the country. When asked about the difficulty of continuing to block out the noise when that rivalry is broadcast on a national level — and several national pregame shows will also air live from the East Lansing campus — Coach Tucker maintained that the coaching staff continues to remind the players the importance of remaining focused on what needs to be done.
“We lay out to the players every day…how to handle the distractions,” Tucker said. “We give them the answers to the test every single day. It’s just follow the plan and stick with the process and listen to us — the voices inside our building — and our voices, have to be louder than the voices outside.”