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MSU-OSU is now the big-stakes game in Big Ten

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Michigan State players crunch Ohio State's J.T. Barrett during last year's game in East Lansing.

Once this was Ann Arbor’s domain, solely. The “Oh How I Hate Ohio State” bumper stickers. The delicious contempt for an Ohio town called Columbus.

The blood-boil, the vitriol, the sport of making Ohio State’s football team the vilest of enemies was a birthright owned by those attached to the University of Michigan.

Michigan State? Well, you’ve got Notre Dame, kind of. And always the Wolverines.

Until recent years, anyway.

Now the Spartans can likewise look across the border and snort and spit at a Buckeyes team MSU seems frequently to be meeting in its own toothy rivalry that, again Saturday, will shape the Big Ten championship when the lads lock up in a noon kickoff at Ohio Stadium.

Las Vegas is thinking this tussle between schools with 7-2 records won’t be overly flush with drama as the Buckeyes are a 16-point pick to destroy Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. But fat point-spreads haven’t much mattered of late. MSU and Urban Meyer’s guys four times in the past five years have played either for a Big Ten championship or for a spot in the title game at Indianapolis, with MSU winning two of those games.

More: Containing Ohio State’s Barrett is focus for MSU

Stakes that once were the province of UM-Ohio State haven’t exactly dissolved. There could again be a title-game ticket decided when the Wolverines and Buckeyes spill blood in their customary regular-season bout, Nov. 25, at Ann Arbor as part of a 120-year football feud loaded with lore and mutual loathing.

Nothing about Ohio State and Michigan State matches the sheer scope of OSU-Michigan, not in terms of heritage and, really, not with respect to animus. But in their recent sorties, even last year when the Spartans otherwise seemed to sit out the 2016 season, these games have been akin to tribal fights for football supremacy.

“It’s escalated of late,” said Glen Mason, the one-time head coach at Minnesota, Kansas and Kent State who for the past decade has been a Big Ten Network fixture. “I think, when you look at it from Ohio State’s perspective, if there’s one team that’s been a thorn in Ohio State’s side and as a spoiler, it’s been Michigan State and Mark Dantonio.”

Mark Dantonio is a couple of touchdowns and two-point conversions, cumulatively, from owning a perfect record against one of the towering names in college coaching, Urban Meyer.

Mason’s professional fraternity brother is Gerry DiNardo, who coached at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana before he, too, came to the Big Ten Network.

“I said on our summer show two things about this season,” DiNardo recalled this week. “I said I think Ohio State is too heavily favored to win the conference, and that Michigan State will have a say in who wins the East Division.

“I thought they’d beat one or two of the top teams there,” DiNardo said, referring to OSU, Michigan and Penn State. “I didn’t think it would be three. But because of the resurgence of Michigan State under Mark Dantonio, he has somehow — somehow — elevated the Michigan rivalry, and at the same time has done it with Ohio State.”

Meyer’s teams have lost only eight games in his six seasons at OSU, two of them to Dantonio’s Spartans. The Buckeyes strafed MSU, 49-37, in 2014, but in 2012 and 2016 they survived by the same bare score: 17-16. Dantonio is a couple of touchdowns and two-point conversions, cumulatively, from owning a perfect record against one of the towering names in college coaching.

Behind this week’s outlandish spread are various elements peculiar to Las Vegas. Psychology is one factor. The Buckeyes are simmering following a shockingly bad road loss last week at Iowa and figure to play at full-thermostat Saturday in a bid to calm home fans unsettled by blowout losses against the Hawkeyes and, early this season, Oklahoma.

But history suggests bettors might put their shekels on MSU.

Two years ago, the last time MSU slipped into Columbus, the Spartans were geared for misery. The Buckeyes were unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the land. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook had a sore shoulder and wasn’t slinging the ball in a fashion necessary, it seemed, to beat a possible national championship gang on its home sod.

More: Wojo’s Pigskin Picks: Dantonio in Buckeyes’ way again

The Spartans hung around on a rainy, breezy afternoon. Meyer played it cozy in what might have been his worst tactical game as a head coach — just ask former Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott, who pretty much said the same afterward — and Michael Geiger nailed a 41-yard field goal as the clock died. It wrapped up a 10-point fourth quarter for the Spartans, a 17-14 knockout of the Buckeyes, and helped throw MSU into the Big Ten championship game it won against Iowa.

“The first thing I thought about when I saw that 16-point spread was that Dantonio and the Spartans play that underdog card as well as any team I’ve ever seen,” Mason said of this week’s skirmish. “Secondly, this series has turned into a real rivalry. In bygone years we never thought of Michigan State and Ohio State as a big rivalry, but now it is, and you know what they say about those kinds of games: throw records to the wind and the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.”

DiNardo says Michigan State is wired to love, and thrive, on disrespect. It plays into the minds and souls of players and coaches who are masters at football guerrilla war.

DiNardo would agree with anyone who might say Dantonio prefers the outsider’s, rather than the insider’s, perch. Seat him in a church’s back pew. Stick his hotel room next to the bell-ringing elevator. Tuck him into a flight’s middle coach seat.

He loves slights. And so does his hardscrabble team, which is loaded with freshmen, sophomores and juniors, with scarcely a senior to be found on either side of the ball.

“He’s got this personality that’s really perfect for Michigan State,” DiNardo said. “Talk about a perfect fit as a coach. My lord, he takes a historically inconsistent program and makes it consistent. He revs up the Michigan rivalry and he’s competing regularly with Ohio State. He’s really good.”

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Mason says Dantonio’s psyche and wry ways are a match for Michigan State’s roster DNA.

The Spartans don’t match OSU’s celebrity recruiting classes. They don’t regularly feature as many NFL first-rounders. They are not considered equals, ever, in terms of personnel.

But notice who often wins. Or nearly wins.

“I’ve always thought football is the greatest team game ever invented,” Mason said. “If you take a group of guys with less talent, and put them together collectively and they come together as a team, they normally can beat a guy with more talent that isn’t as cohesive as a team. And that becomes the intangible.”

DiNardo agrees. It’s why in his opinion MSU benefits from its youth. “The innocent climb,” he calls it.

“The young kids, these are the most fun teams to coach,” DiNardo said. “You’ve got a bunch of youngsters, not feeling entitled, not talking to agents, not thinking about the NFL draft. Football for them is just fun.”

Mason coached in Ohio and has seen another trait common to kids recruited from one of the land’s top football assembly lines.

“The X-factor, again using this rivalry thing, is that a number of Michigan State’s good player come from Ohio,” he said, ticking off names like linebackers Joe Bachie and Chris Frey, as well as running back LJ Scott. “Coaches always talk about focus. These kids come home and they’re focused.”

So, who wins? Las Vegas says it will be a wipe-out. And notice how often Vegas is right. Casinos are in business for one reason: percentages in their favor.

“I don’t know,” DiNardo said. “I’m glad I don’t have to pick that game today. I go back and forth. Every time I think of Saturday’s game, prepping for my show, I just don’t know who to pick.”

So often that’s the case in a game more like a World War I aerial dog fight. Games are tough calls. Vegas aside, the feeling Saturday, at least on the part of two one-time Big Ten coaches, is this will be a hand-to-hand infantry warfare. Befitting, so very justly, a fresh and furious rivalry.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning