Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch and Freep beat writer Chris Solari get into the latest with MSU football
Graham Couch and Nathan Atkins, Lansing State Journal
EAST LANSING — Mark Dantonio once was on the other side. He also has been able to do what few have done.
Beat Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title.
“If you want to be Big Ten champions or the East Division champions, that goes through Columbus, Ohio,” Dantonio, in his 13th year as Michigan State football’s coach, said Tuesday. “We know that. We expect that. And that’s been the norm here pretty much for some time now.
“We’ve been able to accomplish some of it at times. At other times, not. It remains to be seen who we are when we get down there.”
Many of his current players got a lesson on how difficult that can be, particularly at Ohio Stadium. They also remember the outcome — a blowout defeat, a lost chance to reach Indianapolis, and a stark reminder of how much the Buckeyes have dominated the Big Ten.
Those players, most of whom were freshmen and sophomores as the visiting team in 2017, cracked under the pressure in a 48-3 loss that season. The Spartans have not scored a touchdown against Ohio State since 2016. They know they are a 20-point underdog going into Saturday’s game against No. 5 OSU (7:30 p.m., ABC).
“We think about it all the time,” receiver Darrell Stewart said. “It wasn’t our best game. That definitely put a fire in the furnace, and it showed us we gotta just connect on all cylinders — from the offensive line all the way to the wide receivers to the quarterbacks and running backs.”
The Spartans, ranked No. 23, also realize there is only one way to stay in the early chase for the division title. In 2017, the game was in November.
“Just stay focused. Have trust in yourself. Have the mindset that we’re going down there to win,” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said Tuesday. “If that’s not your mindset, why are you playing, why are you on this team? Our mindset has gotta be, ‘Hey, we’re going down there to win — how much are we gonna win by?’ ”
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The Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0) remain a juggernaut, but their coach, Ryan Day, is in only his first season, succeeding his mentor, Urban Meyer.
Under Meyer, Ohio State won three Big Ten titles (2014, 2017 and 2018), along with the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship in 2014.
Dantonio led the Spartans to the CFP the following season, where it lost to Alabama in the semifinals. They are the only other Big Ten team to reach the CFP.
MSU is tied with Ohio State and Wisconsin (three each) for the most league titles in the 2010s. Penn State in 2016 is the outlier.
“Since Coach D has been here, (the Buckeyes) have been there a lot,” senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “If we want to get there, this is a team we should be able to hang with.”
Said Dantonio: “You’ve got to be able to measure up, to win your share there if you want to be Big Ten champion. The two times we’ve won and beat Ohio State, we’ve become the Big Ten champion. … So the three times that we’ve won, we were able to get to the championship game. Our goal is to get to that championship game and then play it out. So it goes through Columbus.”
In 2017, Ohio State had six sacks, held MSU to just 195 total yards and forced three turnovers. Day was the offensive coordinator, and the Buckeyes rolled to 524 total yards.
“We had a younger team and maybe weren’t quite ready for that one,” said Lewerke, who was a sophomore. “I think the seniority of this team will be ready for this one. … It’s big. I think obviously Ohio State’s a great team and they always compete for the Big Ten championship every year. So if we want to get where we want to go, this will be one that we should win.”
Last season, the Spartans used the 2017 debacle as a rallying point and kept the Buckeyes to a 7-6 lead late into the fourth quarter. But MSU allowed 19 unanswered points in the final 15:42, losing 26-6.
But the confidence they may have gained a year ago in staying close has not erased the knowledge that the 2017 blowout ended their chance for a Big Ten title, something the seniors want to close out their careers with.
“We were definitely motivated to play that (2018) game,” senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “We definitely were motivated because of that game two years ago. And we still are today.”