Buck­eyes-Spar­tans as big a game as ever

The Detroit News - - Sports - BY MATT CHARBONEAU The Detroit News

East Lans­ing — In terms of in­ten­sity, no game on Michi­gan State’s sched­ule will likely ever match the an­nual meet­ing with Michi­gan.

Even with­out the drama that took place pregame this sea­son and the war of words that fol­lowed, that fact could never be dis­puted.

But there’s a close sec­ond for the Spar­tans. For Michi­gan State, one team has pro­vided the path to cham­pi­onships over the past decade, and that team is Ohio State. More of­ten, if the Spar­tans have ended win­ning or play­ing for the Big Ten cham­pi­onship, the Buck­eyes have stood in the way.

From beat­ing Ohio State in the 2013 con­fer­ence ti­tle game to the win at Ohio Sta­dium in 2015 that led to a play­off spot, Michi­gan State has faced Ohio State with plenty on the line over the years. It was the same in 2014 when Ohio State won a shootout, spark­ing it to a na­tional cham­pi­onship. And last sea­son, the game served as an East Divi­sion ti­tle game, which Ohio State won on the way

to an­other con­fer­ence ti­tle.

“In the past num­ber of years, we’ve played ba­si­cally for the cham­pi­onship in that game,” Michi­gan State coach Mark Dan­to­nio. “I would say in 2015 we did and cer­tainly in 2013 we did, and it had a ma­jor im­pact in 2014. That team that won was prob­a­bly go­ing to go to the play­offs and that’s what hap­pened, they won the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship.

“The other thing is if you’re go­ing to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best and at this point in time, you know, Ohio State is still the de­fend­ing Big Ten Cham­pion. So, you’ve got to beat the best.”

So, it’s no sur­prise that plenty will be at stake when the teams kick­off at noon Sat­ur­day at Spar­tan Sta­dium. While Michi­gan is in con­trol in the Big Ten East and can head to In­di­anapo­lis by sim­ply win­ning its last three games, Ohio State and Michi­gan State still have a shot.

Granted, No. 18 Michi­gan State’s path is tougher, but if Ohio State loses, the 10th-ranked Buck­eyes will es­sen­tially be knocked out of the divi­sion race re­gard­less of what hap­pens when they face Michi­gan in two weeks. And even if nei­ther team catches the Wolver­ines, a po­ten­tial spot in the Rose Bowl would be a nice con­so­la­tion prize for who­ever wins.

“You’ve got to win this one if you’re go­ing to do that,” Dan­to­nio said.

And that will be the fo­cus — win­ning this one against a team that, aside from last sea­son’s blowout, is ac­cus­tomed to tight games with the Spar­tans. In fact, in two of the last three trips to Spar­tan Sta­dium, they Buck­eyes have one-point vic­to­ries in 2012 and 2016.

“The way we play each other the last few years, it’s al­ways been that tough hard-nosed type of game,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said. “It’s spe­cial be­cause it’s two teams that are al­ways com­pet­ing for a spot in the Big Ten Cham­pi­onship.”

The matchup it­self is in­trigu­ing. Ohio State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) brings one of the top-scor­ing of­fenses in the na­tion to face one of the top de­fenses in the na­tion.

The Buck­eyes are try­ing to prove they can run the ball con­sis­tently and can avoid giv­ing up big plays on de­fense, while the Spar­tans (6-3, 4-2) are seek­ing some mo­men­tum of­fen­sively while prov­ing last sea­son’s blowout loss at Ohio State was a fluke.

But get­ting the vic­tory is what mat­ters most.

“A win is a win,” Ohio State wide re­ceiver K.J. Hill said. “Def­i­nitely, go­ing to Michi­gan State and com­ing out with a win will en­hance our con­fi­dence down the stretch. Go­ing against Michi­gan State is kind of like a ri­valry. We’re look­ing for­ward to this game.”

There’s a large group of Spar­tans look­ing for­ward to it, as well. Of course, that would be the 28 play­ers on the ros­ter from Ohio, in­clud­ing eight starters. Add in the coaches from the state — in­clud­ing Dan­to­nio, who won a na­tional ti­tle as Ohio State’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 2002 — and it’s not that dif­fer­ent from the Michi­gan game.

For ju­nior linebacker Joe Bachie, who hails from Brook Park near Cleve­land, there mean­ing.

“It’s the place that we grew up,” Bachie said. “We’ve got some Colum­bus guys and me and the Dow­ells are Cleve­land boys, so we grew up watch­ing Ohio State on Satur­days. It’s the big team in our state, but we are over here now, and we love ev­ery­thing about the Green and White.”

Bachie’s al­le­giance changed early in high school. He was start­ing to get re­cruited, and Ohio State wasn’t re­cruit­ing him. Michi­gan State was. So he packed up his Ohio State gear with plans to get rid of it all.

“I ac­tu­ally tried to sell my stuff to my friends,” Bachie said, “but my mom wouldn’t do that, so she took it all some­where. She got it all out of my room.”

There are no blur­ring al­le­giances this week. Home­towns mat­ter lit­tle, as do any past con­nec­tions. Each team knows there’s plenty on the line.

That’s how it’s been for a while, and that’s how they like it.

“It’s just a big game and it’s al­ways been,” Dan­to­nio said. “I think the big­gest point of em­pha­sis is that it has meant so much to each pro­gram. There’s been a lot on the line in those games.”

is spe­cial

Gary Cameron/As­so­ci­ated Press

Michi­gan State coach Mark Dan­to­nio, right, said in re­cent meet­ings with Ohio State “we’ve played ba­si­cally for the (Big Ten) cham­pi­onship.”

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