By Larry Lage, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR (AP) – It’s been five years since Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio lost as head coach against Michigan.
Back then, Wolverines running back Mike Hart referred to the Spartans as a little brother after beating them in 2007. Dantonio responded sternly, saying “they need to check themselves,” and “pride comes before the fall.”
“Of course, there’s always thing you wish you didn’t say,” Dantonio said this week. “But sometimes, I get emotional and let my feelings and competitive spirit run away with the words I say.”
Still, his team has backed him up.
Michigan State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) has won four straight in the rivalry and if the Spartans can pull off an upset at No. 23 Michigan (4-2, 2-0) on Saturday, they will have a school-record, five-game winning streak in the series.
“We’ve had success in this rivalry, but I also understand it’s all about what have you done lately,” Dantonio said. “Things can change very quickly.”
The Spartans have found that out the hard way, starting the season with high expectations and getting ranked as high as No. 10 before a humbling, flaw-exposing loss to Notre Dame that was the first of three losses in a five-game stretch.
“No excuses,” Dantonio said.
The Wolverines have even more to lose than the dubious distinction of being on the field for a fifth straight loss to a rival that has won just 32 games in the series from 1898 to 2011. Michigan, co-leaders in the Big Ten’s Legends Division, can’t afford to have a setback in a quest to win a conference championship for the first time since 2004.
Coach Brady Hoke acknowledged the division race ratchets up the rivalry, in which the home team has won 14 of the last 20 meetings.
“That helps,” he said.
While Hoke in in just his second year, he has many more memories against Michigan State from his seven seasons as a Wolverines assistant. His most vivid was in 2001.
With a disputed second left on the clock, Jeff Smoker lobbed a 2-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Duckett as time expired in that game. The Wolverines were flagged twice during the game-losing drive, including an infraction for having 12 players on the field that helped the Spartans score.
Hoke still blames himself for the penalty, saying he was in charge of making substitutions then for coach Lloyd Carr, and jokes that he still kept his job.
“Barely,” he said.
After narrowly beating Michigan by two points in what is known locally as “The Clock Game,” in 2001 and winning other games in the series in controversial fashion, the Spartans have won three of the last four matchups decisively by 14-plus points.
To pull off another victory, Michigan State will have to shut down electric quarterback Denard Robinson for the third straight year. Robinson has avoided throwing an interception in his last two games after throwing a career-high four in a loss at Notre Dame.
The Spartans have successfully forced Robinson to pass and have contained him on the ground. He was knocked out of last year’s game after getting roughed up, including having his face mask twisted after he was already tackled. In two starts against Michigan State, Robinson has run for an average of 64 yards, completed less than half of his passes with a total of two TD passes and four interceptions.
“We’ve tackled him well in place, have applied pressure and kept him in the pocket,” Dantonio said. “But he’s dangerous because he can make a bad play a good one for Michigan in a split second.”
Hoke, with the help of an improving defense and a Robinson-led offense, has turned around a proud-again program quickly enough that Michigan is in a position to become college football’s first team with 900 wins.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment,” Robinson said. “But what we’re looking at is getting our fifth win and trying to win the Big Ten.”
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