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East Lansing — A week ago, Michigan State's players and coaches were asked if there was fear of a letdown heading into its matchup against Indiana.

Perhaps that question should have been posed this week — Michigan-Michigan State week.

The Spartans are the dominant team, winners of five of the last six in the series and battling for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines are reeling, hoping to become bowl eligible and wondering if they have the right guy in charge.

It's the complete opposite of what this rivalry used to look like.

Bo Schembechler was 17-4 against Michigan State. Lloyd Carr was 10-3. Throw in a 3-2 mark from Gary Moeller, and that's 30 victories in 39 games.

The Spartans had a few years where they were successful, like winning the Big Ten and Rose Bowl in 1987.

But mostly Michigan State's highlights in that stretch came when it pulled the upset. Like 1990 when the Spartans beat the No. 1 Wolverines on the road or when an unranked Michigan State team beat No. 9 Michigan in 1993.

The days were especially dark in the era of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. Those Michigan State coaches managed one win in the series from 2000-06, in 2001 when a generous clock allowed one more play that turned into a Jeff Smoker to T.J. Duckett touchdown pass.

Instead, blowouts and missed opportunities dominated the series in favor of Michigan. There was the triple-overtime victory for Wolverines in 2004 followed by an overtime win the next year in East Lansing.

And while it would be easy to look at 2007 — Mark Dantonio's first as Michigan State's coach — as simply an extension of that, it proved to be the day the shift began.

"After Mike Hart made that (little brother) comment and kind of upset Coach D and everyone here," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "He said to us that things were going to change."

Sure, the little brother comment is still the fuel, but the importance of the rivalry was instilled in Dantonio far earlier during his days an assistant under Nick Saban and furthered when he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

"I think it's a great rivalry," he said. "We have embraced the rivalry since I've been here back in '95. We will continue to do that."

Since losing that first game after holding a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, things really haven't been close.

Michigan's only victory since was 12-10 in 2012 when it won despite not scoring a touchdown. And in a strange way, it wasn't much of a victory for the Wolverines. Instead of turning the tide back in their favor, it simply gave the Spartans another log to put on the "disrespect" fire.

"That's probably one of my toughest games here," said linebacker Taiwan Jones, who was a true freshman. "They made the field goal at the end and everybody on their sidelines is running around, jumping up and down in your face, the fans are going crazy. … It's just a bad feeling, a feeling you don't want to feel as a football player or athlete in general when you're playing your rival.

"We always take that into account and just know how that felt and don't want to experience that again."

The Spartans answered with one of the more one-sided games in series history, holding the Wolverines to minus-48 yards rushing and sacking quarterback Devin Gardner seven times. It was just the latest in a string of impressive defensive performances for Michigan State. In seven meetings, Dantonio's team has given up fewer points than the previous year every time — 28 in 2007, then 21, 20, 17, 14 and six.

Which begs the question, with Michigan State again among the leaders nationally in defense and Michigan at the bottom of the Big Ten in total offense, will that trend continue today?

"As a defense, you don't want anybody to score a touchdown on you regardless who you're playing," Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said. "We haven't talked about last year because last year does nothing for us this year. So the guys on the team understand that they're going to have to come ready to work and bring their emotion."

Gardner would be happy if a different script played out this time.

"I watched the game and I felt like I played as well as I could possibly play," Gardner said. "I'd make the first guy miss, second guy miss, and the other guys would just come. They play hard. They're a good football team. They play really, really hungry."

The same approach is almost certain today, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

"When you look at them, they play hard," Hoke said. "They know the scheme and execute that very well. They are looking similar to what they have done before."

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi doesn't expect his unit to rest on its laurels. He's been preparing as if the Spartans are facing "the best offense in the country."

"Because of our attitude," Narduzzi said. "We come out with an attitude, we come to play every week. That's what we do every week."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Michigan vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Spartan Stadium

TV/radio: ABC/WWJ, WJR

Line: MSU by 17

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