Buckeyes-Spartans as big a game as ever
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.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, right, said in recent meetings with Ohio State “we’ve played basically for the (Big Ten) championship.”