The Michigan State football program held its weekly assistant coach/player media availability on Tuesday ahead of the rivalry week matchup with Michigan on Saturday night.
Spartan quarterback Payton Thorne started things off at the podium, talking about the team using last week’s bye to get as healthy as possible before heading to Ann Arbor.
The extra week was not all rest and relaxation, however, as Thorne said the team was watching film as usual preparing for the Wolverines.
“It’s a deep dive every week,” Thorne said of the team’s approach to watching opponent’s film. “We watch all that we can, catching up on as much as we can on the school down the road and seeing what they bring to the table.”
Some Michigan players have been fairly vocal about their expectations for Saturday’s matchup, with notable running back Donovan Edwards going as far as to say the Wolverines will crush the Spartans, adding that the team will have no mercy. When asked whether the team is aware of the things being said, Thorne responded in true Mel Tucker fashion.
“Yeah we are,” Thorne said. No further elaboration was offered.
This year’s game will be played in front of fans at the “Big House” for the first time since 2019, as the 2020 game was played during the COVID-19 pandemic in an empty stadium. Most of the players on the current roster therefore have never experienced that hostility at Michigan Stadium, but Thorne made it clear that the team has experience against big crowds and the Spartans will be prepared for whatever happens on Saturday.
“You get ready throughout the week...but at the same time, we’ve played in big stadiums, very big stadiums, big atmospheres, big time games over the past year or two,” Thorne said. “Some guys have experienced that and some guys haven’t, so the guys that haven’t, they’ll get ready to go and they’ll have to adapt quickly.”
When asked about the impact of the team’s victory over Wisconsin, which snapped a four-game losing streak, Thorne said it helped MSU move forward and enables the Spartans to better focus on the task ahead of them.
“It was good to get the win,” Thorne said. “It’s a new week, new opponent and so we’re getting ready for this one and we’re going to have to go and play well and we’re preparing to do that.”
The Paul Bunyan Trophy has made several appearances at team meetings and practices over the last week, when asked about the impact of having the trophy there, Thorne said it reminds the team of the job they have to do and that it is their responsibility to make sure Bunyan stays in East Lansing.
“He’s with us and our job is to keep him here,” Thorne said.
Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett spoke next, and early on Barnett made it clear he did not want to say anything that could be used as motivation by the Spartans’ opponent this week.
“No billboard material,” Barnett said. He explained that he would be careful with his words to not provide any motivation for the Wolverines ahead of the game on Saturday.
When asked about the progress the defense made in the win over Wisconsin, Barnett said the team can continue to build on it and took the opportunity to praise Spartan safety Xavier Henderson, who made his return from injury against the Badgers.
“We definitely can build upon it,” Barnett said of the progress the defense made against Wisconsin. “Getting (Henderson) back in the lineup, that makes a big difference, one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached.
“It did help getting some players back, guys communicating and building confidence so we’re feeling pretty good.”
Speaking on having to prepare for Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy as opposed to Cade McNamara, whom McCarthy replaced as starting quarterback earlier this season, Barnett said the team is taking no chances and they are fully prepared to face either quarterback if the situation should arise.
“They’re both good players, obviously, they won the Big Ten last year,” Barnett said. “You’ve got to be prepared for either one of those guys because they both can play good football and they’ve won a lot of games for them so we’re preparing for either guy.”
Defensive end/linebacker Jacoby Windmon spoke next, starting off by talking about the way Coach Tucker educated the team on the history of the rivalry this past week.
“He gave us a little history background about it, what stood out to me the most was how (Michigan) didn’t think Michigan State should be in the Big Ten,” Windmon said. “I take that as something offensive because they probably think we’re not good enough but at the end of the day, it’s still not about them or what they think, it’s about us.
“That’s what we’ve really been focusing on, is us.”
As a first-year player in the Michigan State system coming out of the transfer portal, Windmon said he was familiar with the rivalry as a football fan, but was not prepared for how intense it truly was once he got involved.
“I knew it was like a rivalry game, but I didn’t know how serious it was until I got here,” Windmon, who transferred in from UNLV this past offseason, said. “I’ve always wanted to play in one of these types of games, this is one of the games that you will want to play for, that you look forward to so I’m excited about it.”
When asked about Michigan’s tendency to get off to an early lead in games this season, Windmon said it was important for the Spartans to get off to a fast start on both sides of the ball and not allow themselves to get into a hole early.
Windmon also addressed the decision for him to play linebacker against Wisconsin in a three-linebacker set, as opposed to playing in the two-linebacker sets the team has run throughout most of the past two seasons. Windmon has also been used off of the edge for the majority of the 2022 campaign.
“Throughout the week there was a big emphasis on stopping the run, 4-3 is one of the better defenses to stop the run,” Windmon said. “We practice it a lot, we went through it a lot at practice, we’ve watched a lot of film on it.
“I think that’s something that we’re gonna harp on even more going into this week.”
When asked about the team’s attitude heading into Ann Arbor as multiple touchdown underdogs, Windmon talked about the team’s need to want it.
“Hungry, you gotta be hungry,” Windmon said. “It’s not really about the talking...It’s really about when we step between those lines and what you’re going to do when the pads are popping.”
When asked about what stuck out to him about Michigan’s offense, Windmon mentioned the Wolverines’ run game, giving credit to Michigan’s running back duo of Edwards and Blake Corum. Windmon added that he is looking forward to facing the challenge of stopping Michigan’s run game, saying he views it as an opportunity to improve his own game against a tough opponent.
Windmon said having a bye week before this game helped the team to better prepare for the Wolverines and made it clear that the team was by no means relaxing during their time off.
“I think it’s a great thing to have a bye week, especially before a big game like this because it gives you a chance to prepare even more,” Windmon said. “Over the weekend, we didn’t really take it off, some guys came in and we watched film and we used that extra day to get better.”
Henderson was the final player to come to the podium and he opened up talking about his return from injury and the way he tried to help the team off the field during his recovery time.
“It was upsetting I couldn’t be out there, but I had to do my part off the field,” Henderson said of his time recovering from injury. Henderson added that he made it his responsibility to assist Spartan defensive backs Kendell Brooks and Jaden Mangham as they filled in for his absence, talking about helping them control their mindset and watching film with them as he recovered.
When asked about his experience with the rivalry, Henderson talked about growing up as a Michigan fan and experiencing the rise of the MSU football program from that perspective, adding that he realizes now that he was a closeted Michigan State fan since he was mostly watching the Spartan teams of the mid-2010s during this time.
Henderson also said the game that sticks out the most to him from that time was the 2013 game in which Michigan State held Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing on the day, claiming that was the moment he started paying more attention to the Spartans.
Following last year’s games, Henderson went on a tear during the postgame press conference, calling out multiple notable former Wolverine players for their respective comments leading up to the game. When asked about that, Henderson said emotions may have gotten the better of him last year, but he is focusing on this year and helping the team win this week.
“It was an emotional game last year,” Henderson said. “I don’t know too much what I was thinking, but it was an emotional game. It is what it is, I’m really just trying to focus on this year and do what I can this week to put us in the best position to win.”
When asked about the impact of the night game atmosphere, Henderson said the night game makes things more intense for both players and fans, although it adds a feeling of anxiety and impatience for the players.
“It makes it an intense game for the fans for sure, and really it’s intense under the lights, too, it’s fun to play under the lights,” Henderson said. “It’s just that anxious feeling, waiting all day to play.”