East Lansing — Crazy events from Michigan State’s and Ohio State’s football history probably include that gap between 1912 and 1951 in which two schools linked by geography and league membership never played.
Blame the Big Ten Conference, which didn’t admit Michigan State until 1949. But the Spartans and Buckeyes have done a deft job of making up for lost time. Fantastic finishes, epic upsets, stadium-shaking moments — it’s a rich time line that could craft more drama Saturday when the No. 9 Spartans and No. 2 Buckeyes tussle at Ohio Stadium.
Football connoisseurs see the Ohio State-Michigan State series as a trendy delicacy. Saturday’s menu is spiced by Ohio State’s unbeaten record and shot at one of four playoff spots that could perhaps hand the Buckeyes a second consecutive national title.
Of course, that’s precisely the brand of Buckeyes team the Spartans occasionally have knocked off, a possibility seemingly in reach for this year’s team, which is 9-1 and not terribly bothered being a 14-point underdog
It’s all part of contemporary Ohio State-Michigan State culture. The teams met in 2013 at the Big Ten championship and Michigan State rallied to win and earn a Rose Bowl ticket. Last year, the Bruise Brothers, each with one loss in November, collided in East Lansing. Ohio State won and then mopped up in the Big Ten title game ahead of beating Oregon in the national championship game.
But take your pick of seasons and games since Michigan State scored twice in the final six minutes to beat Ohio State in 1951 en route to splitting a national championship with Illinois, Tennessee, and Maryland. The Spartans and Buckeyes have been steadily spinning a silken series of history and memories.
Chris Spielman, the former Buckeyes and Lions linebacker now an analyst on ESPN’s college football games, says the rivalry was rooted when he played in Columbus from 1984-87. Now, Spielman says, it’s a regular date between giants.
“It’s because Michigan State always had great players,” Spielman said, recalling specifically the 1987 Spartans who beat Spielman and the Buckeyes, 13-7, in Columbus and all but wrapped up Michigan State’s first Rose Bowl trip in 22 years.
“It was just a matter of them getting some kind of consistency, and they found that consistency when Mark (Dantonio, Spartans coach) came. Now, he goes into the living rooms and recruits the same players as Ohio State and the other big teams, and he wins some of those battles, which might not always have been the case before.
“But they’re consistent. Michigan State has a consistent program. There’s not a lot of hangover, either way, and they’re winning.”
The Spartans and Buckeyes have done a marvelous job through the decades of playing an occasional classic.
There was the ’51 Michigan State comeback. There was the near-upset by Ohio State of No. 1 Michigan State in ’66. Eight years later, Levi Jackson ran 88 yards to topple No. 1 Ohio State, 16-13, on a delirious day in East Lansing.
There was the ’87 slugfest, and a pair of dandies in the ’90s, all before Dantonio, who had been Buckeyes defensive coordinator from 2001-03, arrived in East Lansing to help make the rivalry especially zesty, with help from fourth-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
Meyer has acknowledged any Ohio State championship plans during his watch have generally involved defeating Michigan State. It’s no different Saturday, even if stakes could be at least as high in a Nov. 25 regular-season finale against Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Ohio State has a 30-game Big Ten winning streak. Michigan State is 23-7 in its last 30 Big Ten games under Dantonio. Ohio State has revived its old national-title ways in the four years since Meyer arrived. Michigan State is having its best football era since Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty had heydays from the 1940s-’60s.
“They’re competing for Big Ten championships,” Spielman said, speaking of Michigan State, “because they do a great job of identifying talent, recruiting talent and getting that talent to play.
“Mark Dantonio knows what he wants. He knows how to evaluate and project players. They identify the guys who fit best for the team, and when that fit works, as it has for them, you get maximum production.”
That Dantonio is, like Meyer, from Ohio, and that each man has coached at Ohio State doesn’t hurt the story line. Dantonio played college football at South Carolina but understands how these backyard games can make one’s blood bubble.
“We’ve got a lot of guys from Ohio on our football team, so that makes it a bit personal,” Dantonio said. “They want to measure up to their family and friends, because that’s where they’re from.
“Maybe, also,” he said, speaking of his own DNA, “it’s that I’m from there. Maybe it’s the fact we have a lot of coaches from there, that we’ve coached there, or I’ve coached there. So, there are some different dynamics.”
In agreement is Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, who grew up in Hinckley Township, Ohio, and who, despite a shoulder bashed in last week’s victory over Maryland, is expected to play at close to full capacity Saturday.
“I have a lot of friends that I went to high school with that attended (Ohio State),” Cook said, speaking of how returning to his homeland would be personally channeled. “Growing up there, going through the process, knowing guys from Ohio, playing with guys in all-star games — it’s like how Michigan people describe the (Michigan-Michigan State) game.
“This is kind of like that game for me. It’s going to be that much more fun and provide that much more motivation to go out there and leave it all on the line.”
There is a century-old rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan that’s regarded as one of America’s best series between two schools. But a one-time Buckeye says Ohio State-Michigan is by no means exclusive in terms of history, emotions, and significance.
“It’s OK to have more than one rivalry,” Spielman said. “It’s OK to be different.”