EAST LANSING, MICH.: For years, Mark Dantonio and Ohio State were on fairly cozy terms.
Dantonio was a defensive coordinator there — a protege of coach Jim Tressel — before moving on and eventually taking over at Michigan State. He grew up an hour from the Buckeyes’ home field, and his wife is an Ohio State graduate.
Times change, though. The Tressel era came to an unceremonious end. Urban Meyer is coaching the Buckeyes now, and for Dantonio, Ohio State is now simply a rival.
“It does make it easier,” Dantonio said. “I know Urban, everything. Good guy, all that kind of stuff. It makes it easier when you don’t have a real personal attachment because it’s tough when you play against your good friends.”
The 20th-ranked Spartans host the 14th-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday — a tone-setting Big Ten opener if there ever was one. It will be Meyer’s first conference game since taking over at Ohio State, and although the Buckeyes aren’t eligible for the Big Ten title, there’s a sense they could be the league’s best team.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is still eyeing a Rose Bowl berth that narrowly eluded the Spartans the past two seasons. Dantonio’s team made quite a statement at Ohio State last year, racking up nine sacks in a 10-7 win. Michigan State (3-1) brings back many of the same defensive standouts from that team, but the Buckeyes (4-0) hope they’ve improved.
“We made it through our preseason 4-0,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of work to do to become a better football team in all three phases. We’d better do it fast because we’re facing an excellent team in a tough environment.”
Ohio State’s unbeaten start includes a win over California, and Michigan State knocked off Boise State in its opener. The Spartans also lost to Notre Dame and weren’t sharp in a victory last weekend over Eastern Michigan.
Ohio State’s defense is currently ranked last in the Big Ten, but quarterback Braxton Miller has already thrown for seven touchdowns and run for another seven.
With new quarterback Andrew Maxwell taking over and throwing to an inexperienced corps of receivers, Michigan State has leaned heavily on running back Le’Veon Bell, who already has 610 yards on 117 carries.
“Get him before he gets to you,” Buckeyes safety Orhian Johnson said. “That’s definitely the thing. You definitely want to get to him before he gets started because he’s real top-heavy and you know he’s going to run downfield. He’s got good feet, so you can’t just chop at him, but you have to make sure you get up there, you wrap him up and get your boys there for you.”
It’s hard to say what the outlook is among Michigan State players because they weren’t available to the media this week. It’s not unusual for the Spartans to close ranks before a big game, and this certainly qualifies.
“Has nothing to do with the press as much as it does with how we handle ourselves, our team, what we need to be dealing with and thinking about,” Dantonio said. “I sometimes think that media talk and pressure sort of gets them thinking in different directions. I wanted to close our group and concentrate on us.”
At least this time, Dantonio doesn’t have to answer questions about facing his former boss. Now, Ohio State is just another strong program with an accomplished coach.
“The one who left two years ago won a national championship,” Dantonio said, referring to Tressel. “It’s just another great coach coming into our conference, doing his thing. I don’t know what impact. It’s a great conference. I just see it as another guy you’ve got to compete with recruiting on the field, tied together schematically, doing a great job, good recruiter. There’s a lot of that going on in this league.”