EAST LANSING, Mich. – The homecoming Michigan fans had longed for ended exactly the way any Wolverine would have drawn it up: A Big Blue blowout sent Michigan fans home happy and high on Jim Harbaugh.
The undercard over, it was time to trek 64 miles west for the main event in the Great Lakes State on Saturday. Michigan may be optimistic about restoring Ann Arbor's esteemed place in college football. But its in-state rival wants to make clear the Spartans are living in the present and playing for championships.
"I just think this was the place to be in this state today," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after the fifth-ranked Spartans beat No. 7 Oregon 31-28. "Very exciting atmosphere. Spartan Stadium was rocking."
For years the Big House was the place to be, and now that Harbaugh has come home to coach Michigan it could be again. First, though, the Wolverines have to reclaim the state title.
Rebalancing the power in Michigan's two Big Ten programs will depend, in part, on which team is more attractive to recruits.
Before the Oregon game, Michigan State's sideline was packed tight with more than 100 recruits in what spokesman John Lewandowski called the biggest recruiting event of the year for Spartans sports.
Still, Michigan often has the edge because it recruits nationally and lures in four- and five-star prospects.
"[Michigan State] doesn't have the ability to do that, but Michigan State has been at least five times better in developing talent. Maybe 10 times better," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
The Spartans' foundation is built as much on Ohio players as it is Michigan players.
Connor Cook, a former three-star recruit from Ohio, threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks and looks like a future first-round NFL draft pick. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a former three-star from New Jersey, had one of four sacks of Oregon's Vernon Adams. Calhoun, too, could be a first-rounder.
For all the Spartans' recent success — they have won at least 11 games four times in the past five years — they still play as if they have something to prove. At Michigan, they expect success. At Michigan State, they feel they have to grind for everything they get.
Dantonio knows Michigan State is considered the "other team" in the state, and he has conditioned his team to thrive on every slight, both real and perceived.
"A win over Oregon at home, season opener and [ESPN's] GameDay here, it feels like back in 2013 when we won the Rose Bowl, we won the Big Ten Championship Game," Cook said. "I'd rank it right up there with those games for sure."