East Lansing — Michigan State expects to compete for the Big Ten championship every season.
In fact, the Spartans’ No. 1 goal every season is to win the conference title, and for that to happen, they understand what that means almost every single season.
You must beat Ohio State.
“At the end of the day, if you want to be Big Ten champions or the East Division champions, that goes through Columbus, Ohio,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We know that. We expect that. And that's been the norm here pretty much for some time now.”
Dantonio is right, it’s been that way for some time now. Since he arrived at Michigan State in 2007, Dantonio has led the Spartans to three Big Ten championships, the last two including upset victories over the Buckeyes. In that same span, Ohio State has officially won six conference titles with one being vacated because of NCAA violations.
Over the last five seasons, Ohio State has won three championships, losing out to Michigan State in 2015 when the Spartans upset the second-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus on the way to the College Football Playoffs; and to Penn State the next season but still earning a playoff spot.
So, yeah, the path to a title almost always includes the Buckeyes.
“I really think that any time you're in a conference, you're trying to become the best at your conference, so you've got to measure up,” Dantonio said. “Ohio State has been a dominant program in this conference. I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag here. That's been in the '90s into the early 2000s. Coach (Jim) Tressel was there as well, and certainly when Coach (Urban) Meyer was there.
“You've got to be able to measure up to if you want to be Big Ten champion. The two times we've won and beat Ohio State, we've become the Big Ten champion. The third time we were able to win down there was in 2011, and I think we were an 11-1 football team, so pretty good.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews his team's matchup with Ohio State this weekend. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
That 2011 team reached the first Big Ten championship game to Wisconsin, but the point remains the same — Ohio State almost always has a say in which team wins the conference.
It certainly appears to be the case this season as No. 4 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has run roughshod over its competition, including last week’s 48-7 blowout on the road against Nebraska.
Behind first-year coach Ryan Day and new quarterback Justin Fields, the former five-star transfer from Georgia, the Buckeyes are lighting up the competition. They are first in the Big Ten in scoring offense (52.4 points a game), total offense (535.6 yards a game) and rushing offense (281.6 yards a game), numbers that all rank in the top 10 in the nation.
Fields has been outstanding, throwing 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns with no interceptions while running for 222 yards and seven touchdowns. On top of that, a defense that had its problems last season is allowing only 8.6 points and 223.8 yards through five games.
It’s all evidence that if another team expects to win the conference, they’ll have to solve the Buckeyes first.
“I mean, it's the reality,” Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said. “The past couple of years they’re the defending Big Ten champs and they’ve done a great job there. They’ve got a great program, great talent, and if you want to be the best, you gotta beat the best. That's kind of my mindset.”
The Michigan State defense is hitting the reset button a bit after allowing 31 points and better than 300 yards in last week’s victory over Indiana. It was the type of performance the Spartans (4-1, 2-0) haven’t had often over the past couple of years.
“Yesterday we all came in together and just knew that wasn't our best performance,” defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk said. “We all have to step up so you know, this week we're coming with an edge I guess you can say, just trying to get better every single and trying to prepare for this game.”
Michigan State LB Joe Bachie, S David Dowell and DT Raequan Williams talked Tuesday about the challenge of containing Ohio State's offense. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
They’ll do so without many outside of East Lansing giving the Spartans a shot. After all, they’re roughly a 20-point underdog, which had Dantonio harkening back to the time Michigan State beat Ohio State in 1998 as heavy underdogs, a game that derailed the Buckeyes’ championship hopes.
Michigan State was the underdog, too, when the teams met in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and it was again in 2015 when it took on Ohio State without Connor Cook at quarterback. The Spartans won both of those games and each time it dashed any hopes the Buckeyes had at a national championship.
So the Spartans are not afraid, an idea made clear even in down seasons like 2016 when the Spartans were a failed two-point conversion from pulling off the upset, or last year when it was a one-score game late even as the offense couldn’t move the ball.
“We know we measure up,” Bachie said. “That's our mindset. We measure up with anyone. It was a close game last year. We take a safety and it’s 9-6, the offense fumbles in the end zone like the next possession and we’re down 16-6. From there, they kind of just control the clock then won the game. And in ’16 we were terrible, 3-9 and it’s 17-16 and we lose on a two-point conversion.
“So you see we're right there all the time and we've got to finish the game. … We’ve got to be great at all phases of the game.”
They’ve been great against the Buckeyes before and they’ll need to be great again. If they are, the season could start taking an entirely new direction.
“The nice thing about football is every single week you've got to prove it on the field and you've got an opportunity,” Dantonio said. “It's 0-0 when you start. So that's where we start. We start 0-0 down there in Columbus, and we need to get ourselves ready to go.”