CHICAGO – Some things never change. Even as college football traditions and rivalries have come under fire in recent years, many of the sport’s grandest rituals have remained the same.
For Ohio State, that means a November date with a school the Buckeyes refer to as “That Team Up North.” This season, north extends another hour. Circled on calendars throughout the state of Ohio is Nov. 8, the date of Ohio State’s primetime showdown at Michigan State.
The Buckeyes are seeking revenge after the Spartans ruined yet another undefeated season last year.
“The whole state of Michigan is starting to really get on our nerves,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said at Big Ten Media Days. “Used to be Michigan State was a fun little rivalry and they were a good team to play. But they’re starting to push their luck.”
The Michigan State game hasn’t superseded the game played three weeks later, but it’s evolved into a national storyline. Mark Dantonio’s engineered a resurgence in East Lansing, and the latest victim happens to be one of the nation’s top coaches – Urban Meyer – and most successful programs – Ohio State.
After 24 consecutive Ohio State wins, the balance of power in the Big Ten has tilted toward Michigan State. The Spartans finished 13-1 and ranked third in the country, champions of the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Both schools have raised the Big Ten’s profile, to the point that it might be the marquee game nationally on the same day – and time – as LSU-Alabama.
In Chicago, Dantonio spoke of a rivalry with three teams – Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. When pressed on the subject, Meyer didn’t hesitate. The Buckeyes have one rivalry game, and the opponent isn’t wearing Green and White.
“That will never change,” Meyer said.
It doesn’t mean that animosity isn’t ratcheted up when the Buckeyes and Spartans play. The wound from the Big Ten Championship Game is still fresh. Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller believe all the pent up anger mirrors the feelings associated with Michigan. Both players have lost twice to Michigan State during their careers.
The freshman season loss to the Spartans remains one of Miller’s worst games. Ohio State had 178 yards of offense, and Miller finished 5-of-10 passing for 56 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception. He had minus-27 rushing yards after being sacked a handful of times.
“Ever since my freshman year, it’s like, ‘Wow, we have two rivalry games,’” Miller said. “But this season is a night game, and night games are my deal. It’s going to be show time, go time.”
Miller isn’t the only quarterback that recognizes the budding rancor between the schools, whether it’s football, basketball or the fanbases. Connor Cook, the hero of the Spartans’ 2013 campaign, is from Ohio. Growing up in the Buckeye State, Cook saw Ohio State dominate the rivalry.
But since he arrived up north, the tables have turned. Michigan State is 2-1, with the lone loss coming by one point. In those three years, there were cries of recruiting impropriety and national championship hopes dashed, stoking the rivalry flame into a full simmer.
For Cook, there’s a personal aspect to it. He was lightly recruited by the Buckeyes and even after defeating Miller and Co. last season, he enters 2014 with little respect. Miller is still the pre-season first-team all-conference quarterback and the guy who’s garnering all the Heisman attention.
But the Walsh Jesuit grad admits he likes the underdog role. After all, it’s a position he’s starred in dating to high school.
“I don’t read articles,” Cook said. “I don’t care what people say. Last year, we got no respect and still continued to win each and every week. We could win the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten championship and a national championship, and we still wouldn’t get the respect we deserve. But it’s out of my control.
“Personally, I like being an underdog. I think we handled that well last year. I like being in that situation, and I think the guys on the team like being in that spot, too.”
Not everyone thinks Michigan State is the underdog. Sure, Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten, according to a media poll conducted by Cleveland.com. But the clear No. 2 is Michigan State. And the Spartans are attracting considerable national attention.
In the Grand Ballroom at the Chicago Hilton, it was Dantonio, not Dr. Richard Kimble, who believed he was in a precarious position. That thought came from visions of being the hunted instead of the hunter. It will be most perilous in Spartan Stadium the second Saturday of November when the Buckeyes come to town.
Cook, while discussing the atmosphere, used the words “electric,” hyped” and “intense.”
Heuerman, a Floridian Buckeye tight end, may be from the south, but he was a junior hockey star in Michigan and his dad played basketball for the Wolverines. So he’s well versed in Spartan hatred.
“Last year they kept us from winning [the Big Ten championship],” Heuerman said. “Anytime you lose a championship game it heightens the rivalry.”
Both teams still believe Michigan is their biggest rival, but as the Wolverines fade into obscurity and mediocrity, the Buckeyes and Spartans are seizing the spotlight together, keeping alive Ohio and Michigan acrimony.
Said Cook, on the Ohio State-Michigan State conflict: “The games have always been so close, but we respect them. I think they respect us and we respect them.”