EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Max Bullough was growing up, he’d occasionally ask his grandfather about Michigan State’s decades-old rivalry with Michigan.
Hank Bullough never seemed all that willing to play along.
“He’s always said the same thing, and he’s always been very calm about it,” Max Bullough said. “This is another game. We’ve got to go play and we want to win it, and it means the same thing as every other game does. And I always expected a different answer.”
Now, the younger Bullough can offer his own answer, and like the rest of the Spartans, he isn’t about to downplay today’s clash between No. 24 Michigan State and No. 23 Michigan (3:30 p.m., Ch. 7).
Perhaps times have changed a bit – it’s easier for fans of both teams to antagonize each other than it was 60 years ago – and Max Bullough learned at an early age that this is no ordinary game.
“I’d go to school and other kids liked Michigan, and we’d start talking back and forth even when we were little,” said Bullough, now a senior linebacker for Michigan State’s top-ranked defense.
“When you’re a kid in middle school, guys are rooting for each of their teams, and in elementary school, I think that’s kind of where it starts to grow, at least it did for me.”
Hank Bullough, who was the Buffalo Bills’ head coach in 1985-86, played for Michigan State during the early 1950s, and Max’s father Shane followed suit in the mid-’80s. Two of Max Bullough’s uncles, including former Orchard Park All-WNYer Chuck Bullough, also played for the Spartans.
The family legacy is ongoing. Max’s younger brother Riley is a redshirt freshman this season.
Hank Bullough is well aware of how important this game has become for both Michigan State and Michigan, but there is an air of matter-of-factness in his voice when he talks about his own playing days.
“When I played here, we’d won 28 straight games, so we beat everybody,” Hank Bullough said.
From 1950-67, Michigan State went 13-3-2 against Michigan, but the Wolverines had the upper hand for the next four decades.
In 2001, Michigan State pulled off a 26-24 win in East Lansing when Jeff Smoker threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Duckett on the final play.
Max Bullough was 9 years old at the time.
“I was right here, fifth or whatever row down on the 50-yard line watching,” he said. “That was one of the craziest things ever.”
Michigan won the next six games in the series, and after the 2007 meeting, Wolverines running back Mike Hart referred to the Spartans as a little brother.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio famously warned that “pride comes before the fall” – and Michigan State beat Michigan four straight times after that.
The Wolverines snapped that streak with a 12-10 victory in Ann Arbor last year, and both teams still have Rose Bowl aspirations.
There is still an element of respect between the schools. Michigan State announced this week it plans to give an honorary degree to Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman — after Michigan had announced plans to give an honorary degree to Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon.
Don’t expect those warm feelings to carry over to the field, though, in the 106th meeting between the schools.
Michigan State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) leads the nation in total defense, while Michigan (6-1, 2-1) is averaging 42 points per game.
Bullough was selected Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week earlier this month, after he had 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in a 14-0 win over Purdue.
“Bullough gets them lined up,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “He’s intelligent, a coach on the field.”
Dantonio said he likes Hoke, but added a qualifier: “You guys can print all this: Just because you like somebody in the family doesn’t mean you like the whole family.”
Bullough was last to speak, and he was asked about Dantonio’s role in fanning the flames of this annual matchup.
“I think if you come to a school like Michigan State and you don’t admit that Michigan is our rivalry, if you don’t emphasize it and obviously say we want to win that game maybe a little bit more than all the others, then you’re lying to yourself and you’re lying to your team,” Bullough said.