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MSU head coach Mark Dantonio talks about playing on the road at Michigan, new starting QB John O'Korn, and the rivalry. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

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East Lansing — This isn’t how the Spartans planned it, revisiting underdog status, scrapping to regain respect. But they understand it, and under Mark Dantonio, they certainly know how to use it.

In some ways, the Spartans have ’em right where they want ’em. OK, not exactly, with Michigan (4-0) touting the nation’s top-ranked defense and pegged as a 12-point favorite for Saturday night’s clash.

But since Dantonio took over 11 years ago and flipped the rivalry back to Green, no obstacle has proven too daunting. Michigan State was 3-9 a year ago and lost at home to Michigan, and little was expected to be different this season, as Jim Harbaugh restocked.

Now the Spartans come in 3-1 and have been physical and stout on defense. They have a rising playmaking quarterback in Brian Lewerke. They have dynamic receivers, including Felton Davis III, who caught nine passes in the 17-10 victory over Iowa.

2017 MICHIGAN SCHEDULE

The Wolverines and their menacing defense would intimidate lots of opponents, but the Spartans are well past the point of intimidation with their rivals. Dantonio is 7-3 against Michigan, and most of the victories have been emphatic or dramatic. If the Spartans were to pull this one off, it’d go down as one of the most telling triumphs of his career.

At first glance, the Spartans are too young and mistake-prone to prevail, especially under the lights in Michigan Stadium. But Dantonio is a masterful motivator, and the odds are never as long as they seem. In fact, consider this amazing statistic: Under Dantonio, Michigan State has beaten the point spread in nine of the 10 meetings. The lone exception was the first one in 2007, when the Wolverines were 3.5-point favorites and narrowly prevailed in East Lansing, 28-24, in the infamous Mike Hart “Little Brother” game.

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Since then, the Spartans have performed better than prognosticated in every encounter. Michigan’s two other victories were closer than expected — 12-10 in 2012 (as an 8.5-point favorite) and 32-23 last year (as a staggering 24.5-point favorite).

Rivalry thrives

So people have overestimated the Wolverines or underestimated the Spartans, or logically, both. Either way, the Spartans’ singular focus on their hated rival has served them well, and that mindset isn’t about to change.

“We just know what this game means, seeing how physical it’s played, just seeing the competitive hatred,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, who played briefly in it as a freshman last season. “Personally, I don’t like them, never have. I grew up in Ohio so I learned not to like them from a young age, and nothing’s really changed for me. Blue and yellow don’t look good together, never have.”

2017 MICHIGAN STATE SCHEDULE

Words don’t necessarily win or lose games, although I’d argue Hart’s dismissive taunt has stoked the Spartans for a decade. Harbaugh has adopted a different tact, at least publicly, never taking shots or stirring pots with Michigan State. He was largely unemotional talking about the matchup Monday. And the truth is, he’d be 2-0 against the Spartans if not for the celebrated botched punt in 2015, which Michigan State seized for a 27-23 victory (as a seven-point underdog, by the way).

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Michigan always faces the tricky “biggest rival” question, and from a historical perspective, it’s Ohio State. But the debate is much, much closer than it’s ever been. Michigan State has no such internal debate, and the pure focus shows. So does the emotional fervor.

“I have a great amount of respect for what they have accomplished down there,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “Always have had that. My goal when I came here was to make that a rivalry. I think it’s a rivalry. We’ll leave it at that.”

Set up for upset?

There’s no pretense, nothing pretend about Dantonio’s feelings toward Michigan. His biting retort to Hart 10 years ago — “It’s not over … it’s just starting” — still resonates, and even when the Wolverines didn’t put up much resistance a few years ago, Dantonio dug in. After Michigan State rolled 35-11 in 2014, Dantonio pointedly noted how Michigan players riled the Spartans by driving a small stake into the Spartan Stadium field.

The motivational stuff only works when it’s real, and Michigan wasn’t competitive enough to make it real then. The Spartans’ deep-rooted emotions are real, which is why every clash with Michigan is a controlled fistfight. When Michigan State has been superior, it’s won by a lot — 35-11, 29-6, 28-14, 34-17, 35-21 since 2008.

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Meanwhile, Michigan has won by double-digits only once since 2002. That’s partly because Dantonio built a program with a feisty edge, tough trenches and usually top-notch quarterbacks and skill-position players. But it’s also because the Spartans never go into the game defeated, even when they’re picked to be defeated.

Last season the Wolverines were playoff contenders and built a 30-10 fourth-quarter lead, and had to withstand a mini-rally, sparked by Lewerke before he suffered a broken leg.

“I could tell going into the game, it felt different, you could feel the tension,” Lewerke said. “I think we thrive on being the underdog. Coach D has proven to be a great underdog coach, and we’ve won a lot of big games like this.”

They might not treat the Ohio State rivalry the exact same way, but the Spartans have had more success against the Buckeyes than anyone else, 3-5 under Dantonio. That includes the 17-14 shocker in Columbus in 2015, and a pair of wrenching 17-16 losses.

Yes, this Michigan State team is young, as is Michigan. And if the Spartans make mistakes like they did against Notre Dame, they won’t hang around long. But again, the ingredients are there to make Wolverine folks nervous — a quarterback who can pop a big play, receivers who can bust one and a haymaker mentality that never changes.

“Just because of the record Coach D has, isn’t gonna change the mindset going into this game,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “We’re just gonna keep that same mindset — they can hate, they can doubt us, but we’re the same team. We’re gonna win our one-on-one battles, we’re gonna execute our game plan, and we’re gonna win this game.”

It wasn’t a guarantee, just a statement of authenticity. The Spartans under Dantonio always believe they’re going to win this game, even when few others do. There might not be profound tangible evidence to support it, but in this matchup, that doesn’t necessarily matter.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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