The New Team Up North

By Kyle Rowland on January 8, 2014 at 9:15a
Michigan State players celebrate a win over Ohio State.

Mention the state of Michigan inside Ohio’s borders and you’re sure to get stares, odd glances and the occasional rude comment. The Wolverines are not a welcome subject in the Buckeye State. But what about Michigan State? For years the Spartans were just another Big Ten team. That is changing by the day, though.

Suddenly, Ohio State really doesn’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan.

One month ago, Michigan State spoiled the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes in the Big Ten football championship, the third such time the Spartans have done so dating to 1974. The two teams will now face each other every season in the redesigned Big Ten, which features East and West divisions.

A Rose Bowl victory combined with Ohio State’s defeat in the Orange Bowl could signal a changing of the guard atop the Big Ten. Next season’s November matchup in East Lansing will be the conference’s most anticipated game of 2014. The outcome could result in a shift away from the Buckeyes’ decade-long stranglehold on the Big Ten.

In the final football coaches poll, Michigan State claimed the No. 3 position with Ohio State finishing 10th. In the current basketball coaches poll, it’s the Buckeyes who are No. 3, while the Spartans are one spot back at fourth.

“They’re the other school that’s trying to do the same thing that we’re trying to do – have greatness in both,” Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said of Ohio State. Oklahoma State is the only other program ranked in the top 10 in football and basketball.

Dating to Izzo’s ascension to the top job at Michigan State, the Spartans have won seven Big Ten championships, advanced to six Final Fours and won a national championship. The Buckeyes have won seven conference titles and advanced to three Final Fours during the same 18-season span. A majority of that success is thanks to Thad Matta, who’s said he used the Michigan State model to lift Ohio State’s national status.

“Rivalries are built on two good teams that are playing for something, and us and Ohio State have played for a lot of Big Ten championships,” Izzo said. “This better not become just another game.”

Said Matta: “I would say that they’re up there. The funny thing, what I’ve found in 10 years in the Big Ten is everybody’s a rival.”

The Buckeyes and Spartans have won or shared six of the past nine Big Ten titles and split the series 10-10 during the Matta era. It’s now the biggest game in the best basketball conference. The latest chapter was an overtime classic Tuesday night. 

“There’s been some great games, most of them have gone right down to the wire,” Izzo said. “I think it’s been a good, clean hard-fought rivalry.”

It appears that same competitiveness will spill over to the football field. Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio won a national championship as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator in 2002 and has taken the same Tressel-like approach to football in East Lansing. Michigan State has two 11-win seasons under Dantonio and just finished 13-1 with a Rose Bowl championship.

Prior to the Big Ten title game, Dantonio said the Spartans were still in the process of the climb. Now, it’s reached the apex. The only thing left to accomplish is winning a national title. For the foreseeable future, the biggest roadblock on that trail is the Buckeyes and vice-versa.

“I think a rivalry can start,” Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “I think a rivalry is built on teams giving each other a hard time year in and year out. I know we give them a hard time and they give us a hard time.”

An offshoot of the budding rivalry is Michigan State’s poaching of Ohio’s rich talent. The football team featured 27 Ohioans, seven of which were starters. The most significant was quarterback Connor Cook, the ringleader in the takedown in Indianapolis. The basketball roster contains three Ohioans, including Adreian Payne. Dantonio and Izzo both know the value Ohio carries and recruit the state heavily.  

“Being an Ohio kid and not being accepted by Ohio State, it was kind of tough because that’s where all my family wanted me to go,” said Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen, who stopped Braxton Miller on 4th-and-2 in the Big Ten Championship Game. “My friends, everybody I grew up with wanted me to go to Ohio State. To tell them they didn’t want me kind of hurt them, kind of upset them, so it’s personal to me. It’s always been personal ever since 2010.”

The basketball rivalry is built largely on respect. Matta and Izzo are friendly with one another, never afraid to compliment the other and point out accomplishments. In fact, Matta said one of his favorite activities associated with playing the Spartans is the handshake with Izzo.

“When you go into a game and you’re coaching against a Hall of Fame coach, I enjoy the handshake,” Matta said. “I always get a couple of nuggets of wisdom in terms of this profession and how hard it is.”

The same cheery attitude doesn’t translate to the gridiron. There was video-gate between the two coaching staffs in 2012 after Michigan State accused Ohio State of not including all of its plays in game tapes. Prior to that, Pat Narduzzi accused Meyer of breaking recruiting rules.

But they, as well as both schools’ fan bases, can agree on one thing: they hate the University of Michigan.

View 41 Comments