Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview the Michigan State-Ohio State and Michigan-Iowa games on this week's "The Detroit News' College Football Show." The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio has asked his team to play perfect before.
To be specific, the Michigan State coach said he challenges his defense to be perfect each week as the offense continues to find its footing, working on building off two straight weeks of moving the ball and putting points on the board.
As No. 25 Michigan State heads to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, that perfection will have to come from every facet of the game, every player on the field.
This isn’t Indiana or Northwestern the Spartans (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) are facing, this is the team to beat in the Big Ten and arguably one of the best teams in the nation.
“You understand what you're up against when you come to this part of the season,” Dantonio said. “So you get yourself ready to go. I think our mindset has got to be as important as anything because we need to understand the challenges in front of us.
“So, we need to play perfect.”
Whether perfect will be enough is a tough question to answer.
Ohio State (5-0, 2-0) has been destroying opposing defenses, scoring no less than 42 points in a game this season while winning the last four by 40 or more points. The Buckeyes are third in the nation in scoring (52.4 points a game), seventh in rushing offense (281.6 yards a game) and eighth in total offense (535.6 yards a game).
They have a quarterback – Justin Fields -- who has thrown for 1,092 yards without an interception while accounting for 23 touchdowns, and a running back – J.K. Dobbins – who is averaging 130.8 yards a game and 7.1 yards a carry while scoring five touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Chase Young leads with eight sacks as Ohio State is allowing just 8.6 points a game, good for fourth in the nation, and 223.8 yards, which is second-best in the country.
Oh, and Michigan State happens to be a 20-point underdog. So, it’s safe to say the Spartans are the underdog and some might wonder, why bother?
Well, just don’t bring that up around Joe Bachie.
“Just have the mindset that we’re going down there to win,” the senior linebacker said. “If that’s not your mindset, why are you playing? Why are you on this team? Our mindset has got to be we’re going down there to win, how much are we going to win by? That’s how I look at it.”
The oddsmakers might not be on the same page as the Michigan State captain, but history says if there’s a team that can walk into the Horseshoe and pull of the upset, it’s the Spartans, who have a track record of derailing what looked like championship seasons for the Buckeyes.
The first came when Dantonio was an assistant at Michigan State in 1998. The Spartans were a .500 team and Ohio State was marching toward a potential national title before the passing combination of Bill Burke to Plaxico Burress and Gari Scott had Ohio State on its heels. When Renaldo Hill intercepted a Joe Germaine pass in the closing minutes, the upset was complete.
“I remember we played extremely well on defense and had a punt return and played pretty well on the offensive side of the ball,” Dantonio said. “We just kept chopping wood basically.”
The next upset came in the 2013 Big Ten championship game, when Denicos Allen stuffed Braxton Miller on fourth down late in the game to send Michigan State to the Rose Bowl.
Two years later, the Spartans headed to Ohio Stadium with the Buckeyes the defending national champions and ranked second in the nation. Behind the play of Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry in for the injured Connor Cook, the Spartans got a field goal from Michael Geiger as time expired to catapult Michigan State to an eventual trip the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes were favored by 5.5 points in 2013 and by 14.5 points in 2015.
“We've had success down there in the past,” Dantonio said. “We'll look forward to trying to replicate that, but, again, it will be a challenge as we go, but that's what this is about. At the end of the day, if you want to be Big Ten champions or the East Division champions, that goes through Columbus, Ohio.”
And don’t think it’s just the Spartans that remember how things have gone down in this series.
Since the start of the 2012 season, Ohio State has lost only five Big Ten games and Michigan State is the only team responsible for two of those losses. Go back another year, and the Spartans have won two of the last three times they’ve played in Columbus.
Add in tight games in 2016 – a one-point Ohio State victory during MSU’s 3-9 season – and last year’s matchup that was a one-score game midway through the second half, and the Buckeyes understand what they’re up against.
“These guys, they're not going to be intimidated by Ohio State. Are you kidding me?” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “They've been in here plenty of times in the stadium and done a great job, and one of the more storied histories in all of college football at Michigan State. Those guys know the recipe, and we'd better come to play, or else we're going to be in it.
“You've just got to be physical. I know those guys are going to do the same thing. They don't turn the ball over, they control the game, and if we come in and do anything other than what we've done in the past, we're going to be in it up to our eyeballs.”
Just three games into conference play it’s clear, there’s plenty at stake, regardless of the point spread.
“This means everything,” Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “All the chips are on the table, so this is going to be a big game and we're excited.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV/radio: ABC/760 AM
Records: No. 25 Michigan State 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; No. 4 Ohio State 5-0, 2-0
Line: Ohio State by 20