Spartans have knack for bucking long odds

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State’s been in this spot before.

A Big Ten championship on the line as the final month of the regular season arrives. Sure, the Spartans have been there plenty under Mark Dantonio. But that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here. What we’re really getting at is that more often over these 11 seasons, when Michigan State is getting set to play in a big game — one that will have a huge say in which team wins the division and has a shot at winning the Big Ten title — the odds usually are stacked against the Spartans.

Or, at least, that’s the way it’s always seemed. Few outside the program pick Michigan State to win the big ones.

“Also inside of here, so you don’t have to say just outside of here,” offensive line coach Mark Staten interjected this week as No. 24 Michigan State got set to host No. 7 Penn State at noon today.

The Spartans are 91/2-point underdogs at home and it’s just the latest in a string of important games where Michigan State isn’t the favorite. But what’s been a calling card of the program under Dantonio has been its propensity for winning such games. Like three weeks ago when the Spartans walked into Ann Arbor and beat the then No. 7 team in the nation.

More: Michigan State vs. Penn State: View from the other side

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Penn State

“I think it's important that we all play or best game when our best game is demanded of us,” Dantonio said earlier this week. “We get ourselves ready for that. I'm constantly asking our players if they're ready to play. Have you done everything that you can possibly throughout the week to get yourself ready to play? Emotionally, physically, mentally as well.

“As long as they're doing that — that's everybody, everybody in our program has to bring value. You can't stand around and watch in practice. You have to bring value. I just think we sort of feed off each other. We've seen the results.”

Those results have come fairly regularly as Michigan State holds an 8-5 mark under Dantonio over teams that are ranked in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll.

Victories came twice in 2013, including the Big Ten championship game when No. 10 Michigan State upset No. 2 Ohio State and became the first conference team to beat Urban Meyer. The Spartans followed that by beating No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

In 2014, Michigan State rallied to beat No. 4 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and in 2015, the Spartans had huge wins at Michigan and Ohio State, beating the then No. 2 Buckeyes on the road thanks to a last-second field goal from Michael Geiger that catapulted the Spartans to another Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

“I think it’s just in our blood,” said senior linebacker Chris Frey, who played in several of those games. “It’s something we have in the back of our minds, something we don’t really talk about but we just know that everybody has doubted us forever. It’s just something that comes with our territory and it’s who we are and that’s something we use as motivation going into games like this.”

The Spartans (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) are hoping to lean on the experience of players like Frey and center Brian Allen, who have been parts of championship teams and played key roles in the 2015 team that reached the playoffs.

They’re also trying to go 3-1 against Penn State (7-1, 4-1).

“Hey, there’s enough guys on this team that have done it before, and there’s some guys that have a chance to do it three times, and knowing what it takes,” Staten said.

“And we’ve been there. And truly, this is the last two Big Ten champions facing off in Spartan Stadium, so that’s pretty awesome.”


It doesn’t always work out, of course.

There have been one-sided losses, including the playoff game against Alabama and last year’s matchup with Penn State. But there have been close calls, too, that Michigan State came up short, highlighted by last year’s one-point loss at home to Ohio State when the Spartans went for two and failed in the fourth quarter.

However the latest high-profile game shakes out, there seems little doubt the Spartans will be up for it.

“I think it’s just a belief. No one knows what goes on beyond these walls except for us,” Staten said. “There’s a confidence and there’s a camaraderie, and it is a family. We’ve done a great job this year from top to bottom when an edge starts to fray, making sure it gets tightened back up. The lessons through loss sometimes serve better than those through a win. I like how we responded the last time we lost this year, and I know the guys are preparing themselves to respond the same way.”

Penn State at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Penn State 7-1, 4-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-2, 4-1

Line: Penn State by 9.5