'We have to bring it': Big House is no big deal for underdog Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is all smiles as he walks off the field after the Spartans' win at Michigan Stadium in 2015.

East Lansing – Homefield advantage has never meant so little.

At least that’s the way it feels these days when Michigan State and Michigan square off on the football field. Entering Saturday’s noon kickoff at Michigan Stadium, the road team has won four in a row, and as Michigan State scrambles to find a signature win in an otherwise disappointing season, it will have solace in the fact it has lost in Ann Arbor only once under coach Mark Dantonio.

“I'm not sure on that,” Dantonio admitted this week. “I just know that sometimes when you gather everybody around you and you go one place, one focus, maybe you get a little bit more tuned in than it would be when you're at home and there's some distractions with family coming into town, or things of that nature.

“We try and get focused on everything that we're doing, home or away, but maybe there's a little extra on that bus ride, I'm not quite sure. But we want to win them all, home or away.”

Since Dantonio took over before the 2007 season, the only loss for the Spartans on the road to their rival came in 2012 when Michigan State didn’t allow a touchdown but couldn’t get the offense going. It led to a 12-10 victory for Michigan, which kicked four field goals, including the winner with five seconds left in the game.

Entering this season’s matchup, Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) finds itself in a familiar position – as the underdog. That’s been the case in each of the last two trips to Michigan Stadium, so the Spartans aren’t necessarily paying much attention to the prognosticators.

“Just from a personal standpoint, I'm always picking my guys,” junior wide receiver Cody White said. “I’m always picking my Spartan dawgs, no matter the situation. We could be going up against the 49ers or the Patriots and I'm going to pick my Spartans.

“So going into every week, we're always confident that we can come out with a win.”

That confidence has existed consistently over the years for Michigan State as it takes the trip some 60 miles away to Michigan’s campus. It was in place in 2015 when the Spartans, ranked No. 7 at the time, entered the game against the No. 12 Wolverines with many believing it was Michigan’s time to shine after Michigan State had won six of the previous seven.

Dantonio held his team on the bus for a few extra seconds that day when they arrived at Michigan Stadium, reminding them the difference 10 seconds could make. Hours later, the Spartans won on Jalen Watts-Jackson’s fumble return on a botched punt, a play that began with 10 seconds left in the game.

And two seasons ago, as Michigan State was experiencing a resurgence after losing nine games in 2016, the Spartans entered the game a heavy underdog. However, the defense dominated in Michigan State’s 14-10 victory, holding off the Wolverines in a second-half downpour.

“For sure, going in there in 2017 being underdog coming out with a win, just that feeling after the game,” White said of his first road game against Michigan. “The excitement, everything. For sure we have to try and replicate that.”

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke escapes the Michigan defense during the Spartans' win in Ann Arbor in 2017.

What they’ll try and replicate won’t be easy, especially considering No. 14 Michigan (7-2, 4-2)  is the team with all the momentum while the Spartans have lost four in a row and are still two victories from becoming bowl eligible.

But the success in the past can’t be ignored, either.

For Ann Arbor native Antjuan Simmons, the goal is simple – block out all the distractions. When a team can do that, it often takes the crowd out of the game, a critical factor when more than 100,000 fans are not on your side.

“When I played there in ’17, that was my freshman year and that's pretty much how I remember it,” the junior linebacker said. “We weren't really affected by the noise and by the atmosphere. That’s pretty much how you have to be in that environment. It’s gonna be hostile, everybody will be rooting against you, so you just gotta come out and fight. Every play is gonna be gritty, gonna be nasty. We just have to have to bring it.”

Bringing it has always been easy for a large chunk of the roster. Fifty-four players on Michigan State’s roster hail from the state of Michigan, so it’s personal for them. However, it doesn’t take long for those not from Michigan to figure it out.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who is from Phoenix, said it was clear to him early in his first game in 2016 as a redshirt freshman. And for Chicago native and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams, the focus of his in-state teammates has rubbed off over the years.

“I feel like more of the players on the team, all the guys from Michigan, there is at least a little bit more of a tap-in and a lock-in and you feel it throughout the locker room,” Williams said. “It’s more player-led than coach-led. It’s more the guys from Michigan and Detroit that emphasize it.

“But I got excited (this week) because it's my last time playing in this game and I know how big this game is to everybody here. I’m just excited.”

That excitement level will be at its highest just before kickoff. For the Spartans, they understand they’re already being counted out and very few in the building will be on their side.

But, after all, they’ve been here before.

“You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” White said, emphasizing the message from his head coach. “Just the whole week it’s talking about keep the lion in the cage, and once the game starts you just let everything loose and let everything just flow. Once you start playing, it's just another game, but you’ve got to play with aggression and play with passion.”

The lion has been in the cage a bit too often this season for Michigan State, but if there was week for that to change, the Spartans know it needs to be this one.

“Oh, it's gonna be unleashed, I'll tell you that,” White said. “It's gonna be unleashed.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Michigan State at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: Fox/760, 950

Records: Michigan State 4-5, 2-4 Big Ten; Michigan 7-2, 4-2

Line: Michigan by 14