Spartans aim to continue road dominance in Big Ten play

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – For all that Michigan State has accomplished over the last five seasons, what it has done away from home might be the most impressive.

In four of the last five seasons, the Spartans have won at least 11 games while winning four straight bowl games, capturing a pair of Big Ten titles and finishing in the top five in the nation in each of the last two seasons.

What has stood out, however, is the way Michigan State has played when it’s not in the friendly confines of Spartan Stadium.

Since 2010, the Spartans are 17-3 in Big Ten road games and 24-8 overall under coach Mark Dantonio. They are also currently on a 10-game road winning streak in conference, the longest in school history and the third-longest active conference winning streak in the FBS. In contrast, the Spartans lost all four conference home games in 2012 and have a 16-5 Big Ten mark at Spartan Stadium since 2010.

After four straight home games, No. 4 Michigan State hits the road to face Rutgers at 8 p.m. tonight at High Point Solutions Stadium. It’s also the first time the Spartans have left the state, considering the season-opener was played at Western Michigan.

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But why has Michigan State been so dominant away from home? Dantonio had a hard time putting his finger on a specific reason.

“I just think we try and change things up,” he said. “We try and stay fresh and we try to (stick) together. It's not easy going on the road, there's no question about that. We've had tough games, very difficult games. But our senior class has always led and we bring our emotion with us.

“We don't have a crowd there and that type of thing, so we have to feed off each other, and we've just tried to maintain.”

A win against the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) would add another notch in Dantonio’s conference belt. The Michigan State coach has a victory in every Big Ten stadium except at Rutgers, and that’s because the Scarlet Knights just joined the conference last season and this is the Spartans’ first trip.

He’s been able to instill an attitude in his players that allows them to embrace playing on the road.

“Away games are always fun,” fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook said. “It’s nice to get away a little bit and it is nice having people root against you. Some great players prefer that. …Guys get motivated and that just adds fuel to the fire.”

There will be plenty of motivation, as well, for Michigan State to play a complete game. It has eluded the Spartans for the most part, and there has been plenty of scrutiny over the way they have played.

The result was a drop from second to fourth in the rankings and the players believe getting away from home will help.

“We’re always trying to focus on the fact that the people that matter are the people in the team room day in, day out, that’s grinding with us and out here working with us,” fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris said. “We’re a tight-knit group and we’re a family in there and everyone in that family knows what is going on and are the ones that matter. We get to be together (on the road), just the team, and experience a lot of different things. At the end of the day we just go out and have fun with it.”

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There’s little doubt it will be fun for fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The native of Middletown, N.J., expects to have more than 50 family members on hand in his only chance to play in his home state.

“It’s going to be special,” Calhoun said. “Growing up in New Jersey, (Rutgers) is Alabama to you because that’s all you know. That’s the university that is imbedded in your heart. So it’s special and it will be a good time, not only for me but for my family.”

While the crowd in Piscataway will surely be on the Spartans, they’ll have to deal with a team that will be in a foul mood – for plenty of reasons.

The Scarlet Knights, who are fighting to get past several off-field issues, still have last season’s 45-3 loss at the hands of the Spartans on their minds. And the way the game went hasn’t sat well.

In the second half, with Michigan State leading 35-0, Dantonio called for a fake field goal. At the time, it was brushed aside as no big deal. Apparently it was a big deal after all.

“It was like we don't know how to play football and we don't know how to tackle or anything like that,” wide receiver Janarion Grant told this week. “So that was kind of frustrating. …They basically showed us up and kind of treated us like we were real sorry, like a sorry team. But that happens. We just have to prove them wrong.”