Spartans downplay being heavy favorites in rivalry
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) The question would have seemed ludicrous seven years ago when Mark Dantonio was in his first season as Michigan State's coach.
But after five victories in the last six years over rival Michigan, it seems fair to ask: Do the Spartans risk losing the chip on their shoulder?
''We have to keep our edge regardless of who we play. If we can't do that, then we've not succeeded,'' Dantonio said Tuesday. ''We keep it the same way we keep it with every team that we're playing against. We find a way.
''We have a method. I don't know, there is a story in every game we play, there is usually a story of some sort.''
For years, the story of Michigan vs. Michigan State rarely changed. The Wolverines would win and move on to more important matters, such as their matchup with Ohio State. Motivation was seldom a problem for the Spartans, but it didn't seem to help much on the field.
Dantonio's arrival didn't change the Spartans' urgent approach to the game, but the results finally began to turn in the Spartans' favor. Now, eighth-ranked Michigan State is favored by more than two touchdowns in Saturday's matchup with the Wolverines.
''We could be 0-5 going into the game, they could be No. 1 in the country and it's going to be a tight game. You have that with rivalry games,'' Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. ''I don't think we overlook them at all, and I don't think they overlook us.''
Michigan State will host Ohio State next month in what could be the biggest game of the Big Ten season, but for Dantonio, the Michigan game is still paramount.
''I think when you compete day in and day out with them - and that's what we do on recruits, day in, day out for fans, for everything, you know - it carries over to basketball, it carries over to volleyball, it carries over to every sport here,'' Dantonio said. ''That still is a game that we have to point to and say, `Hey, this goes beyond our schedule, this goes beyond the future. This is beyond what we're doing right now.'''
The Spartans (6-1, 3-0) are very much in the mix for college football's new four-team playoff, so they have plenty of incentive beyond the usual hunger to beat Michigan (3-4, 1-2). Michigan State appeared to lose focus on occasion over the last month, nearly blowing a big home lead in the fourth quarter against Nebraska and struggling to put away Purdue.
Last weekend, the Spartans trailed at Indiana in the second quarter before finishing with six consecutive touchdowns in a 56-17 rout. This week, Michigan State may not need any mid-game wake-up call.
''It's always about bragging rights in the state of Michigan, being able to walk the streets,'' Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said.
Dantonio lost his first game as Spartans coach against Michigan 28-24 in 2007, and Wolverines running back Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as a little brother. The point was hard to argue - it was Michigan's sixth straight victory in the series. But the then-new coach lashed out, warning the Wolverines that ''pride comes before the fall.''
Sure enough, Michigan has beaten the Spartans only once since, and Dantonio has a more reserved approach. He says he hasn't changed over the years, but did need to set a tone for the rivalry initially, back when the status quo was a source of frustration for the Spartans.
Now, it's treating them pretty well. Perhaps that's why Dantonio and his team want to avoid saying anything too inflammatory this week. But once the game starts Saturday, Dantonio said, those familiar emotions will still be there.
''It gets in your blood a little bit, it's just the way it is,'' he said. ''It just divides the state so it makes it unique in that respect, and you embrace it, you get involved in it, and it's in you.''