As the noise surrounding a massive bout between Ohio State and Michigan State reaches a crescendo, head coaches Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have been quick to dismiss this as a rivalry game...even if it feels that way.
“I'd love to have our players have a very clear understanding of rivalry games, the pageantry of it and when you come back to understand the rivalry,” Meyer said Monday. “We have one rival here.”
Added Dantonio Tuesday: “You know, our rival right here, right now are Michigan and Notre Dame. That's how I see our rivals at Michigan State.”
Rivalry or not, though, Saturday is massive on multiple levels.
|MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS|
7–1, 4–0 BIG TEN
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8 PM – SATURDAY, NOV. 8
EAST LANSING, MI
For the Big Ten, it's a showcase game for an otherwise desolate conference that's looked at as a wasteland of mediocrity outside of the Midwest.
For the Spartans, it's another chance to defend their conference crown and make another push at cracking into college football's upper echelon.
For the Buckeyes, which want to prove they're worthy of belonging on the national stage after losing to a miserable Virginia Tech team earlier this is season, it's more or less revenge.
"They stand in the way of Big Ten championship. They stood in the way last year and we failed," Meyer said.
"And so does that make them a rival? It makes them in the way of something that we all want. And that's Big Ten championship."
Of course, Michigan State beat then-undefeated and No. 2 Ohio State, 34-24, in the league's title game last year and dashed its hopes of a national championship berth.
It's why, six months later at Big Ten Media Days in July, Dantonio sauntered up to the podium as the fearless leader of the preeminent team in the conference.
After years of living in the shadow of Ohio State, his Spartans had finally — officially — gone from hunter to hunted.
"We’ve always been about taking care of ourselves, not looking for entitlement. We’ll get what we earn, every game will be a challenge, it has to be earned," he said. "Respectability can fly out the window and I understand that."
"How do we handle success now? We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve done some special things. That’s a good place to be, but also a precarious place to be as well."
That's perhaps never been more true than this week.
For all the fuss over Michigan State’s defense (and rightfully so for the way it shut down Ohio State last season), the Spartans have been, in fact, better on offense.
It’s why Meyer said this year’s team is better than the one that toppled his Buckeyes in Indianapolis.
“This team’s a better team, they’re more balanced. Offensively, I think they’re dynamic and they’ve developed their players,” he said Wednesday. “I think they had a bunch of seniors leave, but they’ve filled in nicely. I think this year’s team is a little better.”
Behind quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett, Michigan State averages 46 points and 515 total yards a game.
In particular, Cook — who entered last year’s Big Ten title game relatively unheralded — has grown leaps and bounds since a breakout game against the Buckeyes last year.
“I wouldn’t say he was an unknown last year — he started three-fourths of the year — but truly performing in a big-time game after that one he went on to win the Rose Bowl,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. “That can do nothing but help your confidence, and if you have confidence in this game, great things happen.”
It’s why under former Ohio State assistant and current Michigan State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, the Spartans have expanded their playbook with Cook — who’s completing 61 percent of his throws for 1,868 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“I think the confidence, they have much more confidence in Connor,” Fickell said. “With that being said, they allow him to do some things. They’re still the same team; they’re going to be tough, they’re going to be physical, they’re going to do the things that they do. They’re gonna run the football and they’re going to keep you balanced.”
Langford — who was the lone running back to break least 100 yards in a game against the Buckeyes last year — has 841 yards and 10 touchdowns on 160 carries. Not to pick at a scab, but his 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter clinched the Big Ten title.
On defense, Michigan State is giving up 20 points and 279 yards a game. The unit isn't quite as dominant as the one that stifled the Buckeyes last season, but it's still one of the nation's best.
“They have earned my respect because they are so good at what they do defensively because they do the same thing over and over and over again defensively,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said Monday.
“They say: 'This is what we do, we're going to recruit and develop to this system, we're going to play this coverage, and mix in this pressure with this coverage, and that's what we do. And you guys have to do it better than we do it.'”
It's why the Spartans have been able to chug along despite losing a handful of key players. Senior safety Kurtis Drummond leads the team with 39 tackles and senior linebacker Taiwan Jones, who seemed to intentionally poke at injured star quarterback Braxton Miller earlier in the week, has 38.
For Ohio State, Saturday is a cocktail of different motivations and different ambitions.
For as successful as Meyer — who enters this weekend 31-3 — the Buckeyes haven't beaten a ranked opponent since Northwestern last October. In that span, losses to the Spartans and Clemson in the Orange Bowl made them look like paper tigers — a talented team who perhaps feasted on inferior competition.
Losing to a Hokies team that's 2-5 since upsetting Ohio State in September seemed to erode national respect. While a win against Michigan State won't magically cure all ills, it could help the Buckeyes make a push for a spot in the College Football Playoff and serve as a foundation for a team that's secured and stockpiled talent for years to come.
"I think so. I think that will be a conversation I have with our players — I think they know this is a game to get the respect that Ohio State deserves and has had in the past," Meyer said. "You have to go compete and win this game and it's going to be a task. But that's real."
After all, a loss to the Spartans derailed Ohio State's storybook season last year. "The dream was ripped away from us," Meyer said after obliterating Illinois last weekend.
And the Buckeyes have had almost a year to let that feeling brim inside their stomachs. Less than 30 minutes after beating the Fighting Illini, the emotions starting percolating to the surface.
“We know what this week’s about, and it’s on, honestly," redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee said.
"I feel like they stole something from us. That’s how I felt just watching it. I wanted a piece of them last year, honestly.”
Added senior linebacker Curtis Grant: "It was just heartbreaking … I’ll never forget that because I thought last year we were gonna win it all."
Instead, a defective pass defense ultimately doomed Ohio State. So far this season, it's been remedied through eight games.
"Their defensive line is very, very good. Great linebackers, guys that are active, guys that are fast and they got guys that are strong in the secondary as well," Cook, the Michigan State quarterback who carved up the Buckeyes' secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns last year, said.
"So it's a good defense."
But the Spartans might be the best offense Ohio State's seen in 2014.
By the same token, aside from Oregon's Marcus Mariota, J.T. Barrett might be the most efficient quarterback Michigan State's defense has played this season.
"I feel like with this offense that Barrett works better in this offense," Jones, the senior linebacker, said Tuesday. "I feel like he has a better arm, he's a way better quarterback than Braxton, but I feel like it's a big challenge for us and we're actually looking forward to it and working this week in order for us to be successful against this offense."
And if an offensive line that got beat up against Penn State gives Barrett time to set his feet and throw, it should allow Ohio State's emerging crop of perimeter players to make plays in space and kindle an offense that fell flat the last time it played in primetime.
How It'll Play Out
When Meyer met with reporters Wednesday after practice, he was in an unusually good mood. He smiled wide and often. He made jokes and playfully poked fun at select media members. It was clear Meyer — who's facing a game that could perhaps define his tenure at Ohio State so far — is savoring a week in which the spotlight is firmly on Columbus.
“This is why they’re trained, every second of everything we do in the program from offseason to summer conditioning to training camp, we’re training you for moments like this,” Meyer said.
“It’s a two-way street now, the players gotta take care of themselves off the field in hydration and nutrition and the unit leaders, the position coaches have to have their units ready. This is why we train for moments like this — compete for championships in November.”
Meyer, who won two national titles at Florida before taking over the Buckeyes, is wired for games like this. Big-time games mean big-time attention. And they don't happen without big-time teams.
Saturday, of course, is a chance for Ohio State to change the national conversation about itself and take down the team that dashed its 24-game winning streak last season. There is some potential poetic sweetness to that, and Meyer seems to know it. So do his players. This isn't just another game.
Expect Ohio State to come out in East Lansing with a Titanic-sized chip on its shoulder and as a team that says it's battle-tested after surviving a thriller at Penn State two weekends ago.
"That was one of those moments I'll never forget," Meyer said Monday, "a young football team, freshman quarterback jogging out after getting punched right square in the mouth for about a quarter and a half, getting ready to lose a game because everything was pointing — we've all seen that; you're about to lose a game in overtime to Penn State at home — and our guys snatched it up and did well."
Michigan State, though, would appear to be a significant upgrade from a Nittany Lions squad decimated by NCAA scholarship reductions.
Last year, the Spartans used a classically-brutal defense to stonewall Ohio State en route to winning the Big Ten title and, eventually, the Rose Bowl. This year? Dantonio's crew isn't quite as stingy, but his offense is drastically better with Cook, Langford and Lippett as established playmakers.
They will challenge the Buckeyes' improved — but youthful — defense. And for as easy as it is to condense and compare Saturday to the last meeting between these teams, the deciding factor might here might be whether Ohio State can slow down/stop the Michigan State offense.
ELEVEN WARRIORS STAFF PREDICTION: Michigan State 27, Ohio State 25