Dantonio, Spartans must now deal with resurgent Michigan
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) From the moment Jim Harbaugh took over as Michigan's coach in December, this scenario was coming: At some point, the Wolverines would become a major threat to Michigan State's recent dominance of their in-state rivalry.
It just wasn't supposed to happen this quickly.
''I think every football team that goes out there, I don't care where they're at, they expect to win,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''The expectations are high at Michigan State, the expectations are high down the road.''
With Michigan beginning to meet expectations again, the pressure is actually on Dantonio and the Spartans. This was supposed to be Michigan State's year - a chance for this perpetually overlooked program to make a run at a national title while Harbaugh began the difficult challenge of restoring Michigan to its place among Big Ten title contenders.
Except the Wolverines have accelerated that process to the tune of three consecutive shutouts, and 12th-ranked Michigan is actually favored by about a touchdown at home against the seventh-ranked Spartans on Saturday.
So the national title talk in East Lansing can wait. This week is about something far more visceral - trying to hold off a resurgent Michigan team that already looks like a potential powerhouse after only half a season under Harbaugh.
''It's kind of crazy in this state,'' Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said. ''You literally identify yourself as part of the blue and maize or the green and white. That's your identity, that's your everything.''
It's hard to overstate how much it's meant to the Spartans to have finally taken control of a rivalry that Michigan used to dominate. Michigan State has gleefully won six of the last seven meetings, and Dantonio has built the Spartans into one of the top teams in the country. The Wolverines? They were floundering under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.
As expected, Harbaugh's arrival has boosted Michigan, and the obvious question now is whether these two teams will continue trading periods of dominance or if they can both field consistently excellent teams at the same time.
''What are you asking? Can we coexist?'' Dantonio said when this topic came up Tuesday. ''I think both teams can have good football teams, if that's what you're asking. It's been done before, and both teams have gone to big bowls in the past, at the same time, and things of that nature.''
Both programs have reasons to be optimistic about the future, but it would be difficult for the Spartans (6-0) to accept losing to Michigan this year, given everything that's at stake and how overmatched the Wolverines were just a season ago. Michigan State beat Michigan 35-11 last year, and in 2013, the Spartans won while holding the Wolverines to minus-48 yards rushing.
Now it's Michigan (5-1) that has been so impressive of late that its season-opening loss to Utah is easy to forget. The Wolverines have held their last three opponents - Northwestern, Maryland and BYU- scoreless.
''For them to pitch three straight shutouts, that's hard to do in college football, doesn't matter who you are, doesn't matter who you are playing,'' Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. ''We're looking forward to going into there and playing against a defense like that, because you want to play against the best.''
Motivation is never a problem for Michigan State in this game. Whether it was a dismissive comment by Michigan running back Mike Hart in 2007 or the Wolverines planting a tent stake in the field before last year's matchup, the Spartans are always quick to seize on any perceived slight from their longtime rivals.
''Really doesn't take much to have a chip on our shoulder,'' Cook said. ''Doesn't matter if we're the favorite, if we're the underdog, if we're favored by three touchdowns or we're underestimated by three touchdowns.''
Now the Spartans actually are listed as the underdogs, during a season in which they were expected to keep the Wolverines at arm's length. Michigan State has been beset by injuries on both sides of the ball, and the Spartans have struggled to beat Big Ten afterthoughts like Purdue and Rutgers.
Another win over Michigan would make a lot of those concerns go away. Dantonio needs one victory to reach 100 in his head coaching career at Cincinnati and Michigan State, but right now that milestone is one of the last things on his mind.
''Getting one means something this week,'' he said. ''That's all.''
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