Macgarrett Kings Jr. and the Spartans offense have done enough to win, but the nation's top-ranked defense is the key to their success. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — On Sunday evenings throughout the football season, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio holds a weekly teleconference to recap the previous day’s matchup.
To no one’s surprise this week, rehashing the Spartans’ 42-3 victory over Illinois on Saturday was hardly the hot topic. No, this is officially Michigan week, and try as he might, Dantonio couldn’t completely avoid discussing the next game on the schedule, which just happens to be Saturday in Spartan Stadium against Michigan State’s archrival.
“It’s pretty much the way it is at all times,” Dantonio said of his team’s routine on Sunday. “Obviously we’re going to get more involved here as the day goes on (Sunday), then beginning (today). But there’s no question it’s a different type of week. We’re going to try to keep it as normal as we can at this point.”
That might be more difficult than most seasons.
The intensity level in this series is never in question, but much like they did two years ago, the Spartans and Wolverines find themselves playing for not only bragging rights and possibly the hearts of potential recruits, but firm control of the Legends Division race. The winner will be in the driver’s seat and in prime position to reach the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis at the end of the season.
That wasn’t the case last season as Michigan State came in reeling, having lost two of its first three conference games, including a double-overtime loss to Iowa the week before. But with Michigan State at 4-0 in conference play and Michigan right behind at 2-1, the stakes will be plenty high.
The little love lost between the teams just amps the rivalry up, Dantonio says.
“I’ve always just believed as a coach that you embrace your rivalries,” he said. “You know who your rivals are. I’ve always chosen to embrace it. It’s there. Why ignore it? It’s important. Why ignore it? It’s important to your program and everybody surrounding your program. I’ve always embraced it and I’ve always challenged our players to do the same. We’ve done that. We’ve done that here and other places that I’ve been.”
Dantonio has never shied away from what the rivalry means to Michigan State, even as some at Michigan have tried to diminish it. It’s an approach that has often led the close-to-the-vest coach to stir the fire with some of the things he’s said.
But that’s the way he’s approached every rivalry he’s been a part of.
“I think I’ve basically gotten that from the people I worked for,” Dantonio said. “Jim Young, when I was a graduate assistant at Purdue, did an outstanding job in that. Obviously I lived it here before when I was at Michigan State. I also experienced it when I was at Ohio State, not just necessarily with U-M, but with other football teams, as well, regardless of where I have been. When I was playing, the Clemson-South Carolina game (was big). I’ve just been involved with them.
“I think most people approach it the way we do, maybe not as much publicly. But I think times have changed. Everything is so media frenzied more, so it just gets more ink.”
There’s no doubt this one will get plenty of ink as Michigan enters the game No. 23 in the Associated Press poll and Michigan State No. 24.
It will also pit Michigan State’s defense, rated No. 1 in the nation, against the explosive Michigan offense, led by quarterback Devin Gardner.
Michigan State has fared well, for the most part, in stopping mobile quarterbacks over the past few seasons and did so Saturday against Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase.
Dantonio knows his defense will need to pay special attention to the Michigan quarterback.
“Scheelhaase is a guy that can make things happen, just as much as when we see the next opponent here,” he said. “We’ll look at that aspect of it. Certainly Gardner has shown the ability to take it upon himself to win a football game. He’s an outstanding player.”
However, the Michigan State defense is outstanding, as well, allowing 215 yards and 12.2 points per game. And Dantonio feels the unit is playing even better than the one that held Michigan to 12 points in last season’s showdown when the Wolverines ended a four-game skid.
“I think that our confidence level has risen up even more so than last year,” Dantonio said. “Last year we had an outstanding defense, very tough to score on. But I think we’ve become even stingier this year. But that remains to be seen because you have to play this out over the course of the year.”
And with that, the talk about Michigan will have to wait until Dantonio meets with the media again on Tuesday. By then, even he won’t be able to avoid the hype.