Dec. 4, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's chief rival has always been, and will always be, Michigan. The Spartans' longest ongoing series started 116 years ago against Notre Dame.
However, which opponent holds down the third spot on the hierarchy of adversaries MSU would most like to beat has come to the fore this week.
What separates Saturday's grudge match against Ohio State from your run-of-the-mill Big Ten title game with national-championship implications is one simple fact:
"It's personal," said Michigan State outside linebacker Dencios Allen.
Much of the credit for the Spartans' resurgence of the past seven seasons under head coach Mark Dantonio goes to the way he has cornered a significant share of the secondary recruiting market in the talent-rich state he once called home. Buckeye coaches have traditionally had the pick of the litter in Ohio, but targeting the prospects they don't want - or don't want them - has been part of a sound program-building strategy for MSU and others for decades.
Of the 26 Spartans from Ohio, Allen is one who would be suiting up in scarlet and gray in Indianapolis had the feelings been mutually wishful back when he was starring for Hamilton High School, a one-hour-and-50-minute drive up Interstate 71 from Ohio Stadium. Quarterback Connor Cook, who didn't even warrant a passing glance from Ohio State recruiters while prepping at Walsh Jesuit just south of Cleveland, is not.
The visceral reaction members of MSU's Ohio contingent have to the Buckeyes is sure to be equally strong either way because of the lack of interest directed at them and/or the relationships they have with family, friends and neighbors who are true-blue for OSU.
Those feelings are bound to spill over throughout the Michigan State locker room, as it did in 2011 when the Spartans defeated the Buckeyes, 10-7, in Columbus.
"When you think of Ohio State, the first thing I think of them is they're physical," said middle linebacker Max Bullough. "Secondly are the emotions. A lot of people don't understand how many people from Ohio we have on our football team.
"When that emotion was the highest was two years ago when we went to Ohio State. That was unbelievable. There was just as much emotion, I can say, as when we play Michigan, just because we have so many guys who are key players and leaders who were affected by that game for whatever reasons."
Bullough may have grown up in Traverse City, a very long way from the Olentangy River, but his father, Shane, a former MSU linebacker, played for Cincinnati Moeller High while his grandfather, Henry, coached with the NFL Bengals. Incidentally, Henry played at Canton (Ohio) Timken before answering the recruiting call from the Spartans in 1951.
Allen, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors while leading MSU with 83 tackles during the regular season, never even got the chance to turn former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel down.
"This is the best challenge I could ever ask for," Allen said. "Growing up it was a big deal. Being an Ohio kid and not being accepted by Ohio State was kind of tough because all my family, my friends, everybody I grew up with wanted me to go (there). To tell them they didn't want me kind of hurt them, kind of upset them, so it's personal to me.
"It's always been personal ever since 2010. I'm just going into this game and for another year show them why Michigan State got a better player."
Allen did everything he could to catch Ohio State's eye, from attending Buckeye summer camps to visiting campus to talking to the assistants on a regular basis.
"I knew that my size (5-foot-11, 218 pounds) would stop me from going certain places," Allen said. "I was a realist, too, so I knew that my chances of going somewhere huge were slim. But as my years went by in high school, I figured those chances were getting higher and Ohio State would kind of be more interested.
"The tight end coach was my recruiter and he told me the process of how they did the recruiting. They would pass your highlight (film) to every coach and would keep passing it on if they wanted the player or would just throw the highlight away if they didn't. He said my highlight made it to Tressel's desk, and that was it. After I heard that, I took my focus off Ohio State."
Two years ago, Allen was immortalized in Spartan lore and the subject of repeated highlight-show replays, even in Columbus, for his flying sack of Ohio State quarterback Joe Bauserman. The leaping tackle was instantly compared to the one Adam Sandler's character "Bobby Boucher" made in the movie "The Waterboy," which Dantonio showed the team the night before.
Allen would like nothing better than to film a sequel.
"I ended up here and don't regret making this decision at all," he said. "I kind of figure God didn't want me at Ohio State. He put me here for a reason, so, here I am..., to make a difference, to be a part of something legendary.
"I feel like if I went to Ohio State, I wouldn't have had the opportunities I've had here. Being here taught me a lot about life, about becoming a man, and more. I really think that was all a part of His plan."
If Ohio State wasn't interested in Cook, a red-shirt sophomore, the feeling was entirely mutual. His father played for Indiana, so there was no connection other than geographic proximity. Ironically, earlier this week Cook was named second-team All-Big Ten quarterback behind OSU's Braxton Miller, who's in the same academic class and started as a true freshman in '11.
"Having all my friends who go to Ohio State and people I went to school with who go to Ohio State..., obviously the game is already big enough but having those ties with people who are connected to the university does make the game a lot bigger," Cook said before speaking on behalf of his fellow Spartan Ohioans. "Growing up in Ohio, everyone has dreams and aspirations of going to that school, and if they don't recruit you, guys have that extra motivation when they play against them.
"You have a lot of guys from Ohio on our football team that maybe if Ohio State did recruit them, did offer them, they would have gone there. Guys like (center) Travis Jackson (New Albany) and Denicos, that when we play the team from our home state, a team we liked growing up and didn't recruit us, we're going to play with an extra edge."
That undercurrent extends beyond the players. Dantonio, who grew up in Zanesville, made an early coaching stop at Ohio State as a graduate assistant from 1983-84. While working under former Buckeye head coach Earle Bruce, Dantonio got to know OSU legend Woody Hayes, who remained close to the program. After coaching Michigan State's defensive secondary from 1995-2000, Dantonio returned to Columbus to work for Tressel, his mentor and close friend, and was the defensive coordinator of Ohio State's 2002 national championship team.
Dantonio has even heard from alumni of the 1998 MSU team that upset No. 1 Ohio State, 28-24, in Ohio Stadium.
"It's been a place we've recruited very heavily because of our ties in Ohio," Dantonio said. "I'm from Ohio, a lot of our coaches are from Ohio or have a background there, and I think that when you play against people that you know, it takes on added significance. When you grow up in that state and all the people in that state that you know, it just sort of stands to reason that you're going to be excited about the opportunity to play.
"That's the way our guys have always been. I get texts from guys who played in the '98 game that have something to say about this football game. We embrace it because it's a little bit more motivation..., a little bit more personal."
Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was OSU's offensive coordinator from '01-11 and linebackers coach Mike Tressel (Jim Tressel's nephew) and offensive line coach Mark Staten are former Buckeye grad assistants. Rob Harley, a Spartan grad assistant, won three varsity letters as an Ohio State defensive back from '03-05.
"He's a little bit more on edge than normal," MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said about Bollman. "It's good to see."