By: Will Burchfield
Jim Harbaugh likes to treat every game the same.
Mark Dantonio knows that’s not the case.
Certain games are inherently bigger than others, and Michigan and Michigan State are set to square off in a big one on Saturday.
“I think coaches know which games are important,” said Dantonio. “They understand. They can stand up here and say, ‘Well, it’s just another football game,’ but it’s not. You play in a championship game, it’s not just another football game. You play in a rivalry game, it’s not just another football game.”
Dantonio is well aware of how many times he’s locked horns with Michigan. Saturday, he said, will mark his 17th clash “against those guys down the road” as a member of the Michigan State coaching staff.
“It means more. It means more to your fans, it means more to the players on your team who are from in state. And I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s what makes college football, a lot of ways,” said Dantonio. “I think people anticipate these games. They probably look toward the schedule as they’re getting their season tickets and say, ‘Oh, we have that particular game.’
“I think that’s pretty traditional across this country, and that’s how we’ve approached it here. Doesn’t mean that anybody else has to approach anything in this type of way, but that’s how we’ve approached it.”
Michigan-Michigan State has a way of creating legends. For the Spartans, the likes of Bobby Morse, T.J. Duckett and Jalen Watts-Jackson will forever live on thanks to indelible moments they forged versus the Wolverines.
“I think games like this do that for certain individuals when they’re able to make a play in the game. On the other side of things, too,” said Dantonio. “I think that you’re remembered. I think that’s what these games give you, they give you a little bit of a legacy. Again, that’s why rivalry games are so good for college football.”
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke got a taste of the rivalry last year when he filled in for Tyler O’Connor. It was different, he said, “very different.” The Spartans’ struggles up to that point went out the window when the Wolverines rolled into town.
“Even last year when we were having a season that we didn’t really like, going into the Michigan week I could feel the intensity pick up. That was probably the game that we wanted to win most last year. Obviously it wouldn’t have completely fixed the season, but it would’ve made it a little better,” Lewerke said. “I definitely feel the intensity of it.”
No. 7 Michigan enters Saturday’s contest 4-0. The Spartans, 3-1, are 13-point underdogs. It might seem like extra fuel for Michigan State, extra motivation, but Dantonio doesn’t need any.
“I’ve never really thought of those type of things,” he said. “You play with the cards you’ve been dealt. We’re 3-1 right now, we can’t change that. I wish we were 4-0 and I wish we were walking into the game nationally ranked. But you have to earn that reputation, especially after last year. You have to climb back up that ladder, and that’s our intent.
“It’s a road game, it’s a rivalry game. I don’t think we need to factor in and say, ‘Okay, we’re the underdog,’ or any of that stuff. We have motivation, they have motivation. Should be a great football game.”
Saturday will be Michigan State’s first road game of the season, plus the first dose of the rivalry for the freshmen. Dantonio is eager for his young players to get their feet wet at the Big House.
“I think they’ll get a sense of what’s going on probably after the first or second snap. They’ll figure it out. You can try and educate them about it, but at the end of the day you have to experience some things to really feel them. I think they’ll feel it after a couple plays, and they’ll settle in.”
Some might say the Spartans have it tough, opening the road schedule at Michigan. Dantonio isn’t one of them.
“I’ve always looked at things as being half full, not half empty. It’s a road game, but it’s in the state of Michigan — so really is it a road game? I don’t know. It’s the best road game we can have,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of Spartans there.”