Xavier Henderson burst through the doors of the Spartan Stadium media room last October locked and loaded. Clapping loudly, the senior safety began firing back at perceived digs at MSU levied by former Michigan players before he even sat down to begin his post-game press conference following the Spartans’ 37-33 comeback victory over the then-unbeaten Wolverines in one of the most anticipated chapters the rivalry has ever seen.
As Henderson called out former Wolverines Mike Hart, Chase Winovich and Taylor Lewan by name, he did so with the bravado of someone who was making his final mark on the heated in-state series that dates back to 1898. That was Henderson’s expectation at the time, as, during the summer prior to the 2021 season, he expressed his desire to make it his last season in green and white, with an eye toward making a run at the NFL after four years of college.
Things changed, though, and Henderson came back to MSU for a fifth season, giving him one more clash against the Spartans’ hated rival. Anyone hoping for a passionate follow-up to last year’s rant, at least ahead of Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor — where the Spartans currently are more than three-touchdown underdogs — was left bitterly disappointed.
“Yeah, it was an emotional game last year,” Henderson said after Tuesday’s practice. “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 ourselves in the best position to win.”
There’s a gag order on trash talk this week, at least publicly, in MSU’s facility. The directive comes from the very top.
“I made it clear to the players, like in terms of talking to the media and things like that, we’re talking about our preparation, things that we can control and we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” head coach Mel Tucker said. “… It’s gonna be enough hype before the game with the game itself. There’s no reason to add more to it than need be.”
It’s something even Henderson’s position coach, Harlon Barnetta former Spartan All-American for George Perles in the 1980s, has to remind himself this week.
“What keeps running through my head is ‘no billboard material,’” Barnett said. “That’s just what keeps running through – that’s just me to myself.”
Barnett’s facial expressions, inflection, long pauses and exaggerated throat-clearing suggested there was more on his mind than the muted thoughts he verbalized Tuesday. As someone who played in the rivalry and has coached in it more than a dozen times, those feelings obviously run deep.
“I’ve been a Spartan a long time, since 1985. The first time that I can remember – I tell people this – I heard us mentioned this summer about gotta beat us. First time,” Barnett said, referencing Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s Big Ten Media Days comment about his program’s four goals for 2022, one of which was a head-to-head win over the Spartans.
“Unless you all know another time, first time. I thought that was pretty interesting.”
The dialogue coming out of Ann Arbor has had a decidedly different tone. Below is a sampling of some of the jabs thrown by Michigan players since the end of their win over Penn State two weeks ago:
running back Donovan Edwardsper Sports Illustrated: “This year, we have an edge on those guys. Coach Harbaugh is 0-2 against Mel Tucker. We want to bring Paul back to Michigan. We’re going to do whatever it takes. We’re going to win. We’re going to win, and we’re going to, like, leave them no mercy kind of deal. That’s what we want to do. We want to bring Paul back.”
wide receiver Roman Wilsonper the Detroit FreePress: “We know we’re the better team, we’ve just got to go out there and prove it. We just can’t let (expletive) happen. Excuse my language, but that’s what be happening, we know we can play better.”
Quarterback JJ McCarthy, per The Michigan Insider: “All I gotta say is it’s gonna be pretty quick because we want Paul back. We want him back. They’re coming to our house, I don’t know if it’s gonna be under the lights but it might be, and yeah, we’re ready for that one. We’re going to be turning the page really quick.”
Asked if MSU players are aware of what has been said by the Wolverines, quarterback Payton Thorne Concisely replied: “Yeah, we are.”
While MSU was able to get some advanced prep done over last week’s bye with a handful of Michigan-focused practices – ditto for the Wolverines, who were also on a bye – Tucker waited to dive into the roots of this venomous rivalry and present the latest smack talk until Monday’s team meeting.
“Obviously we have to educate our players on the history of the rivalry, on the history of the trophy,” Tucker said. “The players are gonna get the information from somewhere, right? So we’d rather they get it from us in the proper context so that they can put it in perspective and be educated and know and then move forward and not let it be a distraction.”
The history lesson was primarily for the benefit of first-year Spartans like linebacker Jacoby Windmon, who have yet to experience a Saturday where this state splits down the middle and neighbors, co-workers and family members temporarily become sworn enemies. While much of the material related to the series was new, the accompanying order for the Spartans to keep their lips zipped was not.
“It wasn’t really too much (Tucker) had to tell us, because we already know how to conduct ourselves when we’re on the stage, or conduct ourselves in front of a camera,” Windmon said. “It’s a difference between playing with emotion and being emotional while playing. I feel like you gotta represent yourself a certain way, because it’s bigger than football, it’s really how you represent yourself. You can talk as much as you want, but you might just be representing yourself in a negative way because you’re all talk, but when you’re between the lines, it’s a whole different story.”
Bulletin board, billboard, chalkboard, whiteboard – the only message MSU wants to send will be delivered via the scoreboard.
“That’s part of coaching and leading is making sure that everybody is pointing in the same direction and focused and keeping the main thing the main thing and not getting caught up in some of the other things that are not gonna be beneficial to us in our preparation or help us play better,” Tucker said.
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