East Lansing — As No. 11 Michigan State prepares to get back to the business of playing games following last week’s bye, it’s not exactly getting ready for a showdown with a college football giant.
Just two weeks after traveling to take on No. 2 Oregon, the Spartans host Eastern Michigan on Saturday, a team that brings futility to a new level. Just don’t try and convince Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio the Spartans won’t be in for a tough test.
“They have a lot of guys from the state of Michigan,” Dantonio said. “Usually when you play in-state, you’re going to up your game a little bit. I think they have put a premium on toughness in their program. I think Coach (Chris) Creighton has done a nice job in terms of coming back and trying to restructure exactly who they are and build a reputation and build an identity.”
That reputation and identity haven’t been very good in recent decades.
Since 1996, the Eagles have managed to avoid a losing record just once — a 6-6 season in 2011. Going further back, it is just as ugly. Since 1975, Eastern Michigan has had just seven winning seasons, with four straight coming from 1986-89.
In 1987, the Eagles won their only Mid-American Conference title and went to the California Bowl. Other than that, things have been pretty ugly in Ypsilanti.
“I know that they are going to play hard,” Dantonio said. “I understand the situation completely, but I know that they will play hard. When you turn on the film, that’s when you see guys playing hard. They make some mistakes but they play hard. Any time you do that, you always have a chance.”
That was certainly the case when Eastern Michigan played at Spartan Stadium in 2012 under former coach Ron English. The Eagles led 7-3 at halftime and had the Spartans reeling before Michigan State rallied for a 23-7 victory.
It’s that memory that Dantonio says will push his players throughout this week.
“We were, I think, 30-point favorites (in 2012),” Dantonio said. “Our guys need to come ready to play. If there was a message out of this press conference, that would be the message — we need to come ready to play. We need to be able to perform. And every time you step on the field, you’re competing against not just the opposing team, but you’re competing against yourself, your attention to detail, your excellence, your ability to go take the next step as a player.”
Senior linebacker Taiwan Jones played extensively in that game in 2012, but he doesn’t see too many similarities this time around.
“It’s a completely different program,” Jones said. “In the back of our heads we know we can’t come out flat. We’ve got to come out and play Michigan State football. We can’t overlook Eastern Michigan and have to play our game.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Spartans (1-1) are coming off a loss in a game they feel they should have won.
Just another game in any other week might have led to a possible letdown. But the Michigan State players are convinced the fact they are itching to get back on the field will negate any chance of overlooking the Eagles (1-2).
“I think after a loss it kind of boosts your focus,” senior guard Travis Jackson said. “We want to get back out on the field, and you just want to play such a better game and want to show what you’re really capable of. Eastern Michigan is no team to overlook. When you battle an in-state team you’re playing for Michigan and that’s a big deal.”
While Eastern Michigan might not be bringing a roster loaded with blue-chip talent, it does have a coach who came to Ypsilanti with a 139-46 record, including a 42-22 mark in the previous six seasons at Drake.
Creighton has already impressed many in his short time at Eastern Michigan, including Dantonio, who recounted listening to Creighton speak at this summer’s Sound Mind and Body camp.
Dantonio believes that showed the foundation Creighton is trying to build.
“He’s not going to back down from anything, and he’s going to challenge his players to play with great effort, great toughness and know what to do, and that’s where it all starts,” Dantonio said. “You start by building your program that way, by instilling toughness in them, not trying to get the fast ticket, not trying to get the fast track to a win. It’s got to start with building a foundation and I think that’s what he’s trying to do.
“I can appreciate that aspect, when you come in as a new football coach, wherever you’re at, regardless of what the record was before then. You’re trying to build a foundation in terms of what your goals are, what your ideals are, who you are conceptually, and that takes time.”
However, the Spartans have no plans for that foundation to gain any strength on Saturday.
“We treat everybody the same,” Jones said. “You never know. There are always a lot of upsets in football. You don’t want to be one of those upsets, so we’re gonna continue to come out, practice hard and not overlook anybody.”
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Eastern Michigan 1-2, No. 11 Michigan State 1-1
Line: Michigan State by 45½
Series: Michigan State leads 9-0 (Michigan State 23-7, Sept. 22, 2012)
Did you know? Michigan State has defeated Eastern Michigan by an average of 36-7.