There are few, if any at all, who have viewed — while on the roster — the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry more often than former Spartans defensive back Amp Campbell.
He had six of them during his career in East Lansing.
In 1994, he was redshirted, so he didn’t play. In 1995, he was a redshirt freshman, witnessing MSU’s 28-25 come-from-behind victory over the Wolverines. Due to a neck injury, he was unable to play in 1998.
However, he saw action as a sixth-year senior in 1999. Both teams were high in the polls — UM was No. 3 and MSU was No. 11. UM had quarterback Tom Brady, who was co player of the game.
Michigan was the slight favorite in ’99, but it needed a 21-point fourth-quarter to even attempt to compete during that 34-31 loss in East Lansing.
Bill Burke threw for 400 yards. Plaxico Burress, also co-player of the game, had 10 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown. Michigan’s hopes for a national title were immediately squashed, and Michigan State went on to have a storybook finish.
“Those guys ended up giving us a fight toward the end, but we ended up pulling it off,” said Campbell, a defensive coach at Alabama State University. “That’s the game I’ll remember for the rest of my life. We ended up going 10-2. We beat Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State — we beat those guys in the same year. That was a big year for us.”
The past six years have been similar for the Spartans, who had won at least 10 games in five of the previous six heading into 2016. They’re 2-5 right now. They may not qualify for a bowl game.
And the defending Big Ten-champions are 24-point underdogs to the No. 2-ranked Wolverines, who have shot out to 7-0 thanks to a dominant, all-three-phases arsenal — led, of course, by the No. 1-ranked defense in the land.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought that, right now, that they would be 2-5,” Campbell said of MSU. “I don’t think a lot of people around the country would have thought they’d be 2-5. Being a former player, you always want to see your alma mater do well. But right now, they kind of have struggled a little bit this year — and they’re trying to find a way to get back on track.
“It’s been a tough year for them.”
In years past, the Spartans have boasted top-ranked defenses with smothering secondaries. This year, the tables have turned in Michigan’s favor. Jim Harbaugh has Jourdan Lewis, one of the best — if not the best — cover corners in the nation. A Thorpe Award semifinalist, Lewis has the potential to shut down the aerial game with relative ease.
MSU has the No. 10-ranked total defense in the Big Ten, hindered by a No. 13-ranked passing defense. The Spartans have switched parts. They have talent. It’s not like Montae Nicholson, Vayante Copeland and the rest can’t play the game. They’ve just had issues, like the rest.
It’s more mental than physical, and it’s not about coaching, either, says Campbell.
“I don’t think it’s a schematic problem. I think that the guys who are playing in the secondary had the opportunity to go through spring ball, go through camp and have those practices up under their belt,” Campbell said. “I think it’s more so of just… I think believing… believing in themselves and having the confidence of going out there and doing…
“With me knowing Coach (Mark) Dantonio and (defensive coordinator) Coach (Harlon) Barnett, and (co-DC/LB) Coach (Mike) Tress(el), I’ve known those guys (for some time) and I know they put the time in and make sure those guys understand scheme, what they’re doing,” Campbell continued.
For the players, “it’s just about them going out there and doing it, and playing with proper technique and fundamentals,” he said. “And trusting their abilities. I don’ think the scheme is the issue. It’s just the technique and fundamentals that are lacking a little bit in their play.”
Campbell would never cheer on Michigan. He could never do such a thing. However, as a coach and former high school player with big goals, he can appreciate youngsters who achieve their dreams.
That’s why he’ll be excited to see Wolverines sophomore Karan Higdon get a few carries Saturday.
“He’s from my hometown and we went to the same high school, so I have been watching a little bit of his highlights,” said Campbell, who also attended Riverview in Sarasota, Fla. “Just tracking and seeing how he’s doing, and seeing how well he’s playing. I will definitely watch a little bit of the game before we (Alabama State) play on Saturday…”
Two years ago, Campbell bumped into Higdon at a track meet. They talked for a few minutes. Campbell wished him good luck.
Today, Higdon is one of the shiftiest backs in the Big Ten. He’s coming off back-to-back 100-yard games (108, 106) and appears to be on track for a great finish to the season.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It’s awesome to see a kid like that who’s mild-mannered, a great kid, a hard worker and also an excellent student,” Campbell said. “I went to school with his mom… he’s a real good football player.
“I wish he was over at Michigan State, but they (UM) swooped him up — and actually, the times he’s gotten in — that I’ve seen — he’s played pretty well. I’m very excited to see him do well when his number’s called.”