Nov. 2, 2007
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Taking a cue from his mentor Jim Tressel, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio made it clear beating Michigan was the top priority when he was hired.
The Spartans can only hope Dantonio has as much success in his first matchup with the Wolverines as Tressel did in 2001 when Ohio State began a dominant run against college football's winningest program.
In Michigan State's football facility, Dantonio had clocks installed that counted down the time left before Saturday's game at Spartan Stadium.
"When I came in here, the first thing I talked about was Michigan was going to be a measuring stick," said Dantonio, who was hired nearly a year ago. "We can pretend it's not, but it's a big game."
Like a big brother chuckling at his little brother, the 15th-ranked Wolverines are amused by the motivational ploy.
"At least they'll be on time for the game," offensive tackle Jake Long said.
When coach Lloyd Carr heard about Dantonio's tactic, he joked that he remembered checking his watch to make sure he knew what time it was.
"The only clock I'm concerned with is mine," Carr added.
Michigan and Michigan State will play for the 100th time and as usual, the Wolverines have a lot at stake and the Spartans are hoping to be spoilers. Michigan leads the series 66-28-5, including winning the last five games and 12 of 16.
Since getting stunned by Appalachian State and routed against Oregon, Michigan (7-2, 5-0 Big Ten) has won seven straight and slowly gained respect after its embarrassing start.
"Every game is a Big Ten championship game, and we're looking at it that way," Long said. "The ring is still out there for us."
A title is not within reach for Michigan State, which is in 10th place in the Big Ten, but a bowl game is possible.
After starting 4-0 and raising expectations, Michigan State (5-4, 1-4) has lost four of five including a collapse last week after halftime at Iowa that led to same-old-Spartans talk.
Since Michigan State's last two-game winning streak in the Big Ten back in 2004, it has lost 20 of 25 conference games.
"We're learning some tough lessons," Dantonio said. "Life throws you curveballs and you have to respond, and you have to get up when you've been knocked down."
The Spartans can make Dantonio's first season a relative success if they upset their rival for the first time since the "Clock Game" in 2001. That memorable game ended with T.J. Duckett catching a touchdown pass after a disputed second on the clock made the play possible.
"We look at it as another opportunity for us to beat a rival that we haven't been that successful playing against in the past," safety Travis Key said. "On top of that, it's an opportunity to be bowl-eligible.
"We can definitely knock out a bunch of birds with this one stone."
Injuries have knocked out a pair of Michigan stars, but running back Mike Hart and Chad Henne both have said they would play against the Spartans.
Hart has been out 2 1/2 games after appearing to hurt his right ankle. Henne was held out of last week's tuneup against Minnesota following a gutsy performance at Illinois, where he was on and off the field with a shoulder injury.
Both likely are looking forward to playing Michigan State because they've enjoyed success as a team and individuals.
Hart and Henne have helped Michigan reach its best streak in the series since 1979-83 with sensational performances.
As a freshman and sophomore, Hart became the first player in school history to run for more than 200 yards twice against a team. He had 122 yards in last year's 31-13 win.
Henne has thrown 10 touchdown passes against Michigan State, more than he has against any team, and tied a school record with four TD passes in a triple-overtime win in 2004.
Michigan State will counter with a running game it hopes will keep Hart, Henne and receiver Mario Manningham on the sideline.
If the Wolverines commit too many players to stop the run, receiver Devin Thomas is talented enough to make them regret it.
Nearly 70 percent of his 51 catches have given Michigan State a score or first down, and he is close to joining Charles Rogers, Plaxico Burress and Courtney Hawkins in Spartan lore as 1,000-yard receivers.
Dantonio has struck a balance when Michigan State has the ball after the man he replaced as head coach, John L. Smith, chose to pass early and often.
"If you look at their offense, there's a dramatic change," Carr said.
Dantonio also has altered the mind-set of the program as it prepares for the biggest game on the schedule, a fact Smith didn't quite seem to grasp.
"I think he's done a great job making people realize what this game means to the whole state," said linebacker Kaleb Thornhill, whose father and brother played for the Spartans.
Now, Dantonio is looking forward to his players backing him up.
"I can promise you that we will be ready," he said.
Long, though, doesn't expect any team to shake Michigan's surging confidence.
"We've had great, intense practices," he said. "After the first two weeks, we really came together and worked hard. We started winning and got the confidence back that we started camp off with. We know we can play with anybody."
By LARRY LAGE, The Associated Press