By NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Mark Dantonio is happy to skip the platitudes when it comes to Michigan State’s biggest rivalry.
Other coaches may play it cool before a game of this magnitude, but who are they fooling?
“I think that’s all coach talk, personally. I think coaches know what games are important. They understand,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “They can stand up here and say, ‘Well, this is just another football game,’ but it’s not.”
The Spartans always take their matchup with Michigan seriously, and Saturday night’s game in Ann Arbor will be no different. The seventh-ranked Wolverines are clear favorites, and although Michigan State has won seven of the last nine meetings, the pendulum swung in the other direction last year. Michigan won 32-23, part of a 3-9 season for the Spartans that they’re hoping was an aberration.
Dantonio has been Michigan State’s coach for the past 10 meetings with Michigan, and he was an assistant for the Spartans earlier in his career. Turning this rivalry in Michigan State’s favor was a significant accomplishment, and he’s been more than willing to call the Wolverines out from time to time. A decade ago, Michigan running back Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as a little brother, and that only added to the chip on the Spartans’ shoulders.
“I am who I am and I just react the way I react sometimes,” Dantonio said. “We get ready to play. They have got a good football team. Have a great amount of respect for what they have accomplished down there. Always have had that. My goal when I came here was to make that a rivalry. I think it’s a rivalry. We’ll leave it at that.”
But after dominating the rivalry for a little while, Michigan State is in danger of ceding the upper hand. Last year’s game was 30-10 early in the fourth quarter, and another victory this season will have Michigan fans feeling — if they don’t already — like the Wolverines have taken control of this series again.
Michigan State is coming off a 17-10 win over Iowa in its Big Ten opener. The Spartans have shown they can hold firm on defense, and they outgained Notre Dame in their only loss last month. But quarterback Brian Lewerke will face a significant test trying to move the ball this weekend.
Lewerke played against Michigan last year as a backup, throwing for 100 yards and a touchdown, but he broke his leg that day and missed the rest of the season.
“Being able to play, even for a little bit I did … I think that helps a lot,” Lewerke said. “That was probably where I felt most comfortable in the game, where I felt I was hitting the learning curve.”
Two years ago, Michigan State beat Michigan in Ann Arbor on the game’s final play . The Wolverines were trying to punt with only a few seconds left, but the punter bobbled the snap. The Spartans ended up with the ball and ran it in for a touchdown.
Michigan State went on to win the Big Ten, while Michigan was showing immediate progress under Jim Harbaugh. It looked like this would remain one of the game’s most nationally significant rivalries for seasons to come.
Now Michigan State is unranked and coming off a terrible season — but this game is still big.
“I wish we were sitting there walking in the game nationally ranked and all that type of thing,” Dantonio said. “But you’ve got to earn that reputation, especially after last year. You’ve got to climb back up that ladder, and that’s our intent.”
More AP college football: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .
Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)