Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio talks about preparing for Notre Dame. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — “They all count one.”
That’s a phrase former Michigan State coach George Perles preached often to his teams, and it’s one current coach Mark Dantonio uses just as much.
In other words, no one game is bigger than another.
Sure, that’s true, but when it comes to perception or even a team’s psyche, some are bigger than others. That’s exactly the case for Michigan State as it gets set to host Notre Dame at 8 p.m. Saturday.
After winning its first two games against teams from the Mid-American Conference and then getting a week off, this is Michigan State’s chance to prove it truly is headed on the right path this season. The wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan were good, but getting a win over a program with the history of the Fighting Irish in primetime would be a signal the Spartans are a team to be reckoned with, and that last season’s woes are in the distant past.
At least, that’s how some of the players are looking at this week.
“I think so,” senior center Brian Allen said. “We can’t control who we play and the two teams we played are both good teams but this obviously is a step up in competition and it’s something we’ve been getting more excited for, the chance to play them. It was a team that was ranked two weeks ago, so to play a team of that caliber is good for us.”
While Notre Dame has had similar struggles to Michigan State — the Fighting Irish went 4-8 last season — it still represents something more in the college football landscape.
And despite losing at home two weeks ago to Georgia, the Irish are coming to town with a potent rushing attack and every intention of taking back the Megaphone Trophy which Michigan State captured with its win last season in South Bend.
It all has helped ramp up the intensity.
“It’s a rivalry game and we’re playing for something here — the Megaphone,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We don’t play them for the next few years after this, and we want to keep that. So the intensity has picked up with a big opponent, a good opponent coming in here and we need to bunker down and focus on what we have to do for this game.”
History helps, too, and there’s plenty of that between Michigan State and Notre Dame.
Most fans point to the “Game of the Century” in 1966 when the teams played to a 10-10 tie at Spartan Stadium in a game that pitted No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Michigan State. For those playing now, there is more recent drama, namely the “Little Giants” game in 2010 when the Spartans won on a fake field goal in overtime.
And much of the roster was around last season when Michigan State went into South Bend and won, a rare highlight last season.
The key for Dantonio is getting his young team to avoid getting caught up in the moment and understand that each game truly does count as one while appreciating the big-game atmosphere.
Offensive lineman Brian Allen, and linebackers Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell talk about preparing for Notre Dame. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“This is just another game in that regard. This the next challenge,” Dantonio said. “There are going to be other big challenges that they are going to be able to look forward to throughout their football careers playing here, and that’s the kind of place Michigan State is. That’s the kind of place Notre Dame is. You’re always going to have a big game, the next big game. There’s no finality in that.
“I just think that we just need to embrace the rivalry, embrace what’s going on, and have fun. You know, as much as anything, I want our guys, when they leave that — when they enter that stadium, that they look around and they understand that this is a life moment. Every opportunity to play in Spartan Stadium is a life moment, enjoy it, play as hard as you can and play with great toughness and execute.”
It surely is a big game, but as Dantonio said, many more are still to come.
The Spartans simply hope this is the game where it all starts, where they get on a roll and truly put last season behind them.
“We talked about it in the off-season,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “After the bye week, we go. We’ve got Notre Dame and then a whole bunch of (Big Ten) games after this so we know it’s go time. The whole atmosphere of the Notre Dame game is electric and you can feel it in practice. Everyone is amped up in practice and so is the attitude toward practice and the energy in practice, because of the big game we have coming.”