Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Angelique Chengelis and Matt Charboneau break down the Wolverines' and Spartans' prospects, as well as those of the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos, going into Week 12 of the college football season.
East Lansing — When Ohio State coach Urban Meyer met with the media this week, he was hit with all the usual questions the coach of a team in the thick of the playoff chase might hear with two games to play.
For Meyer, it was mostly about his team’s ranking and how the Big Ten East was shaping up with Michigan and Penn State fighting for the top spot. But when he was asked what playing for a championship would mean, he reminded everyone where his focus is this week.
“Just want to beat Michigan State,” Meyer said. “It means a lot.”
Before the season, this week’s meeting was expected to be one that would help determine which team in the East would play for a championship. Instead, Michigan State has struggled and is well out of contention.
That, however, hasn’t changed the fact Meyer and Ohio State would be more than happy to hand Michigan State its seventh Big Ten loss. That’s because no other team has driven the Buckeyes crazy like the Spartans.
Before this season’s loss to Penn State, no other Big Ten team had beaten Ohio State under Meyer, except Michigan State.
And both victories derailed what looked like years the Buckeyes would be playing for a championship.
The first came in 2013 when Michigan State beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. And last season, Michigan State went into Columbus and beat Ohio State on a last-second field goal.
“In both respects, our guys came ready to play,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “They bring a lot to the table, but, you know, if you’re playing well — if you’re going to win this conference, you got to play well against the good teams in this conference, and traditionally they’ve been very, very good.
“That’s not the case this year, but you need to measure up.”
Measuring up might mean Michigan State simply will keep its slim bowl hopes alive while relishing the fact it dashed Ohio State’s championship hopes again.
And it doesn’t hurt to have 28 players on the roster from Ohio, something that has been a theme under Dantonio as many of those players have felt jilted from their home team. Last year, it was quarterback Tyler O’Connor of Lima, Ohio, who led the win in relief. He’s been able to turn most of his friends and family to Michigan State fans — for the most part.
“It’s been tremendous to have even some of my die-hard cousins and best friends cheer for Michigan State when we play the Buckeyes,” O’Connor said. “I know it’s hard for them, but so many of them even wore my jersey when we were on offense last year, and then took it off when we were on defense, or when I wasn’t on the field.”
It might be easier for O’Connor’s supporters to cheer for the home team this year as Michigan State is a decided underdog. But the Spartans have a history of ruining things for the Buckeyes that predates Dantonio’s time in charge.
In 1998, when Dantonio was the secondary coach under Nick Saban, Michigan State traveled to Columbus as a nearly 30-point underdog. But when Renaldo Hill intercepted a Joe Germaine pass near the goal line in the final minute, the 28-24 upset was secured for the Spartans.
It will take the same sort of monumental upset Saturday, not that Dantonio is looking at things that way.
“I don’t ever go into a football game saying that we’re underdog,” Dantonio said. “We’ve always gone into a game planning to win and we need to understand these are the things we need to do to win a football game and we’re going to play.”
The Buckeyes are expecting no less from the team they’ve battled with for the better part of the last five years.
“Even when we beat them by 12 two years ago, that was a physical game, everything was sore,” junior offensive lineman Billy Price said. “You have to respect those guys. They are cut from the same fabric that we are. We’re tough, blue-collar-type guys who just go out there and go to work. That’s why it’s a slugfest.”
And forget the fact Michigan State is struggling. Ohio State is expecting the same thing they’ve always seen.
“They show up to play and they play hard,” Buckeyes senior offensive lineman Pat Elflein said. “It’s always a slugfest up front for us. This will be my fourth game playing against these guys.”
A look at the Michigan State-Ohio State rivalry under Spartans coach Mark Dantonio:
Oct. 20, 2007
Ohio State 24-17
Oct. 18, 2008
Ohio State 45-7
Oct. 1, 2011
Michigan State 10-7
Sept. 29, 2012
Ohio State 17-16
Dec. 7, 2013
Michigan State 34-24
Nov. 8, 2014
Ohio State 49-37
Nov. 21, 2015
Michigan State 17-14
Note: Dantonio is one of only four coaches (Nick Saban, Les Miles, Tommy Tuberville) with multiple wins over an Urban Meyer-coached team.