Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, left, and MSU coach Mark Dantonio talk near the Hawkeyes bench before a 2011 game. (Todd McInturf / Detroit News)
East Lansing — When Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State before the 2007 season, he looked at where he wanted to take the program.
Becoming a national championship contender certainly wasn’t going to happen overnight, but getting back into a yearly fight for the Big Ten title and having a team that could play with anyone definitely was attainable.
Dantonio saw that model when he looked at Iowa and what Kirk Ferentz had built in a relatively short amount of time.
“There are some similarities when (we) came into the Big Ten in 2007 and I looked across and saw Iowa and said, ‘That’s who we can be,’ ” Dantonio said. “They can play with anybody, anytime, at any place, and that’s who we can be. I think that’s what we tried to emulate somewhat.”
Now in his 15th season at Iowa, Ferentz has built a program that can compete over the long haul. The Hawkeyes struggled to a 4-8 mark last year, but that was after reaching a bowl in 10 of the previous 11 seasons, including an Orange Bowl appearance in 2003.
Five games into this season, it appears last year’s mark was merely an aberration as the Hawkeyes have won four straight after a season-opening loss to Northern Illinois.
Dantonio is building much the same thing at Michigan State. The Spartans are still trying to reach the elusive BCS game, but they have been to six straight bowls, shared a Big Ten title in 2010 and won the Legends Division and played in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in 2011.
They have done so with some of the same qualities the Hawkeyes have — strong defense and a solid running game at the top of that list.
“They’ve always been a very strong program,” Dantonio said, “a program that’s been built on toughness and built on a scheme, a concept, and they continue to work those concepts and they’re very, very good at them.”
The only step left — for both teams — is a trip to the Rose Bowl. Michigan State last played in Pasadena, Calif., in 1988 while Iowa last reached the game in 1991.
For Michigan State, getting a victory this week against a team it feels it mirrors will be another validation of how for the program has come since Dantonio took over.
“Other than Nebraska we’ve won away from home at every venue in this conference,” Dantonio said. “We’ve proven ourselves in that capacity and want to continue to try to raise the bar. We’ve set the tone, set the standards for championships, and that’s what we’re chasing. It goes through Iowa City at this point.”
The byproduct of Michigan State and Iowa being so similar has been some of the most exciting games in the Big Ten. While other rivalries gain more attention, the series between the Spartans and Hawkeyes takes no back seat in terms of intriguing games.
Since 2007, four of the six games have been decided by seven points or less. The first one went to overtime, and last year’s took double overtime before Iowa pulled out a 19-16 victory. Only the games in 2010 and 2011 — a blowout victory for each team — are the exceptions.
But the tight games go back even further in a series Iowa leads 23-19-2. Michigan State played Iowa in its Big Ten opener every season from 1985-90 and all six games were decided by a total of 20 points.
“Not to sound like Pop Warner, but I can go back to the ’80s and think about how many just really close games we had then,” Ferentz said. “It seems like it’s been more of the same since Mark came back to Michigan State.
“I don’t know if I can tell you why that is, but we’ve had some fantastic games. And in close games like that, it usually does come back to always a handful of things that take place that really impact the game. My guess is we’re probably looking at another one of those games this week.”
Dantonio didn’t have an exact reason why there have been so many close games, but did agree it could likely happen again.
“I just think that we probably value some of the same things collectively as football coaches,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot of close games with them. … That is the nature of it. So that’s what you’d expect, attention to detail in the inches make the difference.”